As you may have noticed, the five points of Calvinism, while not in any logical order, are usually expressed in somewhat of a chronological order with respect to the believer. The first point begins at man’s starting point, expressing his helplessness to rescue himself from his own sinfulness and be saved. Next, we do go back to eternity past to see God’s starting point, choosing His people before the world began. The third point, which I will be focusing on today, is the Particular Redemption of Christ in His work on the cross to secure the salvation of those same elect people. Next, we move forward again to when that work of Christ is applied to those people during their lifetimes, actually making them alive in Christ. The final point affirms the continual work of the Holy Spirit in preserving the elect in faith for eternity, securing their place in God’s kingdom.
Particular Redemption, briefly, is the doctrine that says that Christ, in His life of obedience and His sacrificial death on the cross, successfully atoned for the sins of His people, securing their salvation from God’s Judgment. To say that He atoned for their sin means that He took upon Himself their sins, experiencing the wrath of God that was stored up for His elect people, guaranteeing for them His own righteousness. In His office as High Priest, He then intercedes, or pleads, for all of those for whom He died, based on His own sacrifice. That intercession is always successful, because it always leads to the salvation of those for whom it was intended.
When most people talk about this issue, the conversation is limited to whether Jesus died for every individual–past, present, and future, or whether He died for His elect people. Many refer to the Reformed view as “Limited Atonement”, but I think that this is a misleading name. In truth, both Calvinists and Arminians limit the atonement of Christ. For Arminians, the atonement is unlimited in its scope, but limited in its effectiveness. In other words, it is intended to make salvation possible for everyone, but is only successful in saving the believers. For Calvinists, the atonement is limited in scope, or not intended to save everyone, but unlimited in effectiveness. It actually accomplishes the salvation of everyone for whom it was made. So, in truth, both sides limit the atonement. The question is, of course, whether the Bible limits it the way Calvinists say or Arminians say.
As I said, the conversation on this issue is usually limited to the scope of the atonement. This really doesn’t properly address it, since it doesn’t say anything about the nature of the atonement. Just what did Jesus accomplish on the cross? How we answer this question will have a great impact on how we answer the question of scope.
Just an aside, there are some who consider themselves Reformed who deny Particular Redemption. They affirm the other four points of Calvinism, but basically believe the Arminian view on atonement. I think that this is somewhat inconsistent, but we’ll get into that later. Suffice it to say that I think that I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum from these folks, because I not only believe in Particular Redemption, but I think that it is a good starting place to talk about the rest of Reformed Theology. If the atonement really is perfect and effective, then we must limit its scope or become universalists, believing in the salvation of everyone.
What Particular Redemption is Not
1. Calvinists do not see the cross as having small or finite value. Some argue that if Calvinists think that Jesus death is not intended to save everyone, then it is somehow not enough to save everyone, or that it is not as great or powerful as the Arminian view. This is a caricature. As seen above and as we will see in the ensuing Scriptures, the Calvinist view of the atonement is that it is powerful enough to actually save everyone for whom it was made. It is of infinite value because it involves the perfect Savior.
2. While the atonement secures, makes perfect, and redeems everyone for whom it is made, without reference to foreseen faith, it does not make faith unnecessary. Look at it this way. For the non-Calvinist generally, the atonement is made for every person potentially and is then made actual for any given person by that person’s faith. For the Calvinist generally, the atonement is made for the elect and secures their salvation. It is already actual, but it is applied to the sinner at the moment of salvation, which comes through faith. In other words, there are no conditions that must be met by the person in order to secure the benefit of the atonement. Faith only makes the death and resurrection of Christ enter into the life of the person for whom it was made and guaranteed.
There are several lines of evidence that point to the truth of Particular Redemption. Two of these are from Scripture: The description of the nature of the atonement and some passages that explicitly limit the scope of the atonement. The other lines of evidence are philosophical, just asking some questions that reveal what a person actually thinks about the work of Jesus on the cross.
First, to get our thought processes going, let’s look at the philosophical issues. There are several views on the atonement still floating around Christian circles, but the most common among Protestants today is still the penal substitution view. This is the view that when Jesus died on the cross, His suffering was as a substitute for ours. In other words, what we deserve for our sin, Jesus endured, in order to place upon us the reward for His perfectly obedient life.
Historically, the early church was not at all of one accord on what the nature of the atonement was. Some believed that it’s purpose was to point forward to the resurrection, showing Jesus’ victory over death. Some even believed that it was a ransom paid to Satan, who rightfully owned us because of our sin. What was held in common, however, was the belief that the atonement had a purpose of bringing us back to God. But the question of how it did so did not have a universally accepted answer.
The Penal Satisfaction view of Anselm later led to what was accepted as the Roman view. Just what it is is a matter of debate, however. In my opinion, the official teaching about Anselm from Rome looks like something that is meant primarily to distance itself from the Protestant view. They do not believe that Jesus’ death was intended to take upon Himself our punishment, indeed it was not punishment at all. Their view is that it was simply so undeserved that God asked Jesus what gift He would like for having undergone such an ordeal. Jesus asked for the salvation of all who would believe, and God granted this request.
Whether this really was Anselm’s view I don’t know, but the view, common among Protestants and evangelical Christians today is derived from the view of the Reformers. This is the substitutionary view, that Jesus died to take our sin and give us His righteousness.
So, one question is, if Jesus really took upon Himself the sins of every person in the world, then what sins are the condemned being punished for? We often hear, “Jesus died for your sins,” or “Jesus died for the sins of all humanity.” What does this actually mean? If it means that He took those sins upon Himself on the cross, taking them away from humanity, then what sins are left to man that anyone should be condemned? The common answer to this is that a person has to accept that sacrifice for it to be applied to him. What this looks like is that Jesus is punished for a person’s sin, but then that person needs to accept or reject Jesus. If he accepts, then Jesus’ death takes away his sin. If he rejects, then the person is still punished for his own sin.
If he rejects the offer of salvation, then this leads to one of two problems, depending on what one believes about the nature of the atonement. The question is, does Jesus actually take away the person’s sin, or just potentially take it away. If it is actual, and the person rejects it, then we have God the Father punishing Jesus for that man’s sin, and then punishing that man for the same sin. Two people are punished for one person’s sin. This doesn’t sound like justice, does it? The main reason, in my view, for the cross is that it demonstrates God’s justice and mercy at the same time. It allows God to be merciful to us without compromising His justice. If He punishes two for one person’s crime, then where is the justice?
Some have argued that Jesus atoned for all sin except unbelief. We’ll look closer at this as we examine the Scriptures, but I would simply ask where the passage that teaches this is found. Also, doesn’t this limit the atonement, too?
What if the atonement is just potential? Jesus didn’t actually take away any sin, but potentially took away the sin of all who would believe. This is actually the most common view today that I’ve run across with non-Calvinists. It is often said that Jesus’ death “made a way” or “opened the door”, or “made it possible” for men to be saved if they would just believe. Notice again that this limits the atonement. It makes it merely potential instead of actual. While this is a consistent view with the concept of unlimited scope for the atonement, it has no basis in Scripture. I would simply ask, where do the Scriptures teach a merely potential atonement? Where does the Bible talk specifically about Jesus’ work on the cross or as High Priest as though it were contingent on our belief? I’m not asking about salvation, which is a much larger issue. I’m talking about the atonement. Where does Jesus or anyone else use language like that quoted above to talk about the cross?
One other issue should be at least addressed briefly about four-point Calvinism, which rejects this doctrine while accepting the other Doctrines of Grace. Aside from the Scriptural evidence and the issues outlined above, the only question I would have is, wouldn’t this introduce a lack of unity in the Trinity? If the Father elects to save some, why would the Son try to seek and save people that the Father never intended to save? How could Jesus die to save the non-elect when the Father has elected only His own?
This brings us to the Scriptural evidence. For the Calvinist, the scope of the atonement flows from what he believes about the nature of the atonement. What it actually does determines who it’s intended for. I’ve found that, for many non-Reformed, beliefs about who the atonement is intended for are what determine beliefs about its nature. The real question should be what informs the starting point? Is it Scripture? Is it all of Scripture or just a few verses taken alone? Or, worst case, is it a commitment to some other tradition or belief about God that doesn’t even come from Scripture? These questions should be on our minds as we address this issue.
The book of Hebrews is one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible. It was no different in the early church. I believe that if careful study of this book were more prevalent then, we wouldn’t have had so much confusion on the issue of the atonement. One of Hebrews’ major themes is the contrast of the old, Moseic covenant with the new covenant built on the work of Christ. The author’s goal is to show that the new covenant is a better covenant, with a better High Priest, built on better promises, with a better sacrifice. So, many words are spent in explaining the nature of that sacrifice and how it compares to the old sacrifices. I think that there are some important facts about the old sacrifices as well that shed light on this issue, and we’ll get into that, too.
On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. Hebrews 7:18-19
The author has been talking about Melchizedek and how he is superior to the Levitical priesthood, and now begins to speak of Christ is even better. The two things I want to point out in these verses are the words “perfect” and “better”. The author will make much of the fact that the old sacrifices and intercessions make nothing perfect. This will be set in contrast with the work of Christ. Just how does Jesus introduce a “better hope”?
“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’” This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. Hebrews 7:22
Again we see “better”. And what makes Jesus better? He is a priest forever. The very next verses make this explicit.
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 7:23-25
Here, we also begin to see the connection between sacrifice and intercession. The High Priest would always offer the sacrifice and then intercede for Israel. He would be prevented by death from continuing, and so Jesus is a better High Priest because He always lives to make intercession on the basis of His sacrifice.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. Hebrews 9:11-12
Here we see the sacrifice and intercession connected securely, and they secure eternal redemption.
Indeed, I would go verse by verse in this whole section of the book, because it has so much to say. I think, though, that the most emphatic passage is found in chapter 10.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Hebrews 10:11-14
This is the nature of sacrifice and atonement. It completes the work it sets out to do. Earlier, (vv. 2-4) it is pointed out that, because of the inability of the old sacrifices to take away sin, they must be repeated over and over. This is contrasted with the once-for-all-time nature of Jesus’ sacrifice. Why was it sufficient? It has “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Here, in one sentence, is the twofold doctrine of Particular Redemption expressed. It “perfects”, which is not a term of mere potentiality. It doesn’t “make a way” to be saved. It “makes perfect”.
Also, it only perfects those who are being sanctified. Who are they? This phrase is often translated “those who are being made holy”. Holiness often means to us some sort of moral purity. While this is often the result, holiness literally means “being set apart”. The sabbath is to be “holy” or “set apart”. Those who are being “sanctified” are the ones who “are being set apart”. Holiness doesn’t, in every context, refer to the elect. God does tell us to “be holy as I am holy”, and this means to set our own lives apart for Him. However, in this passage, every verb is an action performed by God. It is He who perfects by the work of Christ and it is He who sets apart the ones who will be perfected by that work.
When we understand the nature of the atonement, seeing that no passage teaches that it is merely potential, and that many passages teach that it is effective in removing sin without any reference to foreseen faith as a requisite, it becomes apparent that it must have a particular intention of saving the elect.
This can be seen in several other passages, that I’ll just run through pretty quickly.
…It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Romans 8:33b-34
How does Paul answer the question, “Who is to condemn?” He appeals to the death, resurrection and intercession of Jesus as evidence enough to remove condemnation. If His work were to be for everyone, wouldn’t everyone be free of condemnation?
But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. John 10:2-3,11,14-15
The sheep are “his own” and they know the shepherd and are known by Him just as the Father and Son know each other. They are obviously not every person. And the good shepherd lays down His life for “the sheep”.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. Ephesians 5:25
Aside from the statement that Christ gave Himself up for the Church, notice also that husbands are commanded to love their wives in the same way that Christ loved those He gave Himself up for. If it was for everyone, then Paul is commanding husbands to love their wives just the same as everyone else, and that’s obviously not what he meant.
Therefore, he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance… Hebrews 9:15a
“So that” tells us the purpose of Jesus mediation, namely that the “called” may receive their inheritance. Indeed, is everyone promised this inheritance? Of course not. God’s promises are kept, and the condemned do not receive this inheritance.
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Luke 19:10
Notice that Jesus’ intention is not just to make salvation possible, but to actually save the lost. Should we really read this to say that He came to “try” to seek and save, and that He will be unsuccessful most of the time?
…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2
If Jesus’ sacrifice is unsuccessful most of the time, since most people are not saved, then what is the “joy” that is spoken of here? If He intended to save everyone, then His endurance usually fails in its work. If He only intended to save the elect, however, then His joy is complete. He is always successful in saving those for whom He gave His life.
One more issue should be raised briefly. Hebrews contrasts the inability of the old sacrifices to atone for sin, while Christ’s sacrifice is successful and takes away sin. If you read about those sacrifices in Leviticus, however, you don’t see them described as types or shadows. They are said to be effective. So, how is this reconciled? If the old sacrifices were effective, then why is Christ’s sacrifice necessary?
The answer, I believe, is that they are both effective, but to different ends, and this casts light on the nature of Christ’s atonement. God’s dealings with the nation of Israel are almost always played out visually and physically in the world. By contrast, the new covenant almost always relates to the old by expressing a spiritual reality that the visual signs (or types, or shadows) of the old covenant pointed to. For example, the old, physical temple was a representation of the spiritual temple of the Holy Spirit that is the church. These sacrifices–especially the sin offering–represented in a visual way the ultimate offering of Christ. This offering also really took away the wrath of God, but in a physical, visual way. It couldn’t take away sin ultimately, but it could turn aside God’s physical wrath against Israel. Notice that the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28 are all earthly. One of the best examples of old covenant offering in action is in Numbers.
And when the congregation had assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting. And behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared. And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces. And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun.” So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. Numbers 16:42-48
Notice that the sins of the people bring about the wrath of God, but it is expressed then and there. The atonement that Aaron makes stops the plague, and “makes atonement” for the people. Does it take away their sin? No. It doesn’t make them perfect, as Hebrews speaks of, but it turns away God’s earthly wrath, the plague. Notice also that no reference to faith or repentance is made. The atonement made by the fire on the censer stops the plague without reference to faith. Indeed, in Leviticus, the sacrifices do the same thing. If a sacrifice is made for sin, it makes atonement. It is not potential, it is always actual. The only difference between the old and new sacrifices is that the old sacrifices only take away temporal wrath, while Jesus’ sacrifice takes away our sin and perfects us, so that there is no longer wrath at all.
So, the nature of the Christ’s atonement is that it “perfects” all for whom it is made. The intention of the atonement is to secure a “promised inheritance” for “the sheep”. The atonement is the work that Christ points to in His intercession for those sheep. It is in these areas that the doctrine of Particular Redemption speaks. When this doctrine is characterized only in the realm of who it’s for, these deeper issues are ignored and a lot of pointless and bad arguments are made. Once the nature of the atonement is understood, the other questions are easily answered.
There really is not space here to answer all of the objections to this doctrine, as there are many. I think the best ones to address are those that come from Scripture. Often Jesus’ death is described as being for “all” or “the world” in Scripture. So, how is this reconciled with what we’ve seen so far? Remember, we can’t just retreat to the potentiality position, since Scripture, in Old and New Testaments, presents the sacrifice as effective in its purpose of turning aside God’s wrath.
I should point out at this point that many objections raised against this doctrine are actually objections against Unconditional Election. I’m not going to go into those, as I think I’ve addressed them adequately in that article. I will try to focus on those objections that deal specifically with the work of Christ.
“All” and “the world” cannot be automatically taken to mean every individual who ever lived. Just think if this were to be done in the following verses.
…and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. Matthew 10:22
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him… Matthew 2:3
“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” John 4:29
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. Luke 2:1
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. Romans 1:8
It is important to note that each time the terms in question are used above, the immediate context of the statement itself does not place limits on “all” or “world”. Romans 1:8 above actually contains “all” twice. The first time, a limiter is right there in the sentence. The second time, however, it is obvious that Paul is not saying that every individual in the whole world has actually heard the Gospel. He is merely saying that it has spread widely. Each time above, there is a hyperbole in use. A hyperbole is an expression that exaggerates the actual intended statement for more dramatic effect.
Christians will not be hated by every single individual. We will be hated by many. Not every person in Jerusalem was troubled, but enough were to make it feel that way. Jesus didn’t tell the woman at the well every individual thing she ever did. He just told her some things He couldn’t have known just from meeting her, and so she understood that he could have told her everything. Now, if these passages don’t mean every single individual thing/person, then we need to apply some common sense to the passages that seem to apply the atonement to every single person, especially since we must not introduce an unscriptural potentiality to the atonement. It is perfect and accomplishes its goal.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:29
Who is the world? If it is everyone, then no one can be condemned, for we have the clear statement that He takes away their sin. No sin, no punishment. Often, John uses “world” to point out that the Gospel is not for Jews only but for Jews and Gentiles. The “whole world” means quite often something like “the people, whether Jew or Gentile, in other words, without reference to where you come from”.
Paul puts it this way.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galations 3:28
It is likely that John is making reference to “the world” in order to say, “without reference to human distinctions.”
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2
I believe that this statement, like so many others, can be understood better by understanding the nature of the atonement. What is “propitiation”? The word means the sacrifice that turns away wrath. It is not the sacrifice that “potentially” turns away wrath. So, again, if “whole world” means every single individual, than God’s wrath is turned away from everyone. This we know is not the case. So, what does “world” mean if not every individual?
The context of the passage is the nature of the believer and how we know that we have or haven’t come to know Christ. The one who says he knows Jesus but does not follow him is a liar. (v. 4) The statement above comes between an affirmation that we have an advocate in Jesus and the statement that if we’ve come to know Him, we will keep His commandments. I believe, then that, since Jesus’ advocacy is tied to His sacrifice as we’ve seen, and that the passage is about coming to know Christ, that John is saying that Jesus is not just the propitiation for us (current believers), but also for all those who are going to come to know Christ, but haven’t yet. He is their advocate also.
There are, of course, many more objections I could address, but this article is already too long. As can already be seen, the Doctrines of Grace are deeply interconnected. The Father’s election is in perfect harmony with the Son’s redemptive work. And as we will see next time, the perfect work of Christ, securing salvation for the elect, is applied by the Holy Spirit to the person, making him alive in Christ, to be kept by the same Spirit until the day of judgment.