A Primer on the Atonement (pt. 2)

from Mar 30, 2010 Category: Articles

In this ongoing series from John Gerstner’s Primitive Theology, Dr. Gerstner uses a fictional dialog between Christian and Inquirer to provide a primer on the Christian doctrine of the atonement.

(Continued from Part One)


C: You just stated what the early church needed several centuries to realize, after many controversies.

I: I was going to ask earlier how Christ’s human death could have value to save a vast multitude of human beings, as the atonement is supposed to do. Now I know the answer to my own question. That death, though one of a finite individual, was nevertheless of infinite value because that human individual was indissolubly united with the divine nature, and therefore had infinite value.

C: Yes, you may recall that when we discussed Christology proper, we commented on this “community of attributes.”

I: Now that you have reminded me, I do remember.

C: So you see now what I mean by saying that the Lamb of God, who shed His blood for the remission of sin, was and was not God. There is a sense in which His death was a divine death, and there is a sense in which it was not.

I: I see that very clearly now, though I was baffled before.

C: And you see, then, that the atonement is the divine sacrifice in the sense we have explained. This is the nature of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by offering up Himself as a bloody sacrifice. In an earlier connection we mentioned that teaching from the apostle Paul in Acts 20:28. There he refers to the blood of God—the blood of a man who is God, the blood of the Lamb who is God. The sacrifice of the Son of God in His human nature is the propitiation for our sins. Because it is such a costly vicarious sacrifice, it is accepted as a proper punishment for our sins. Thus, it produces in those for whom it was made, and who appropriate it for themselves, the “at-one-ment.”

I: Did you say “those for whom it was made”?

C: Yes.

I: You said earlier that this atonement or sacrifice was made for the sins of the world.

C: I did say that.

I: Are you now drawing back from that universal statement to a particular one?

C: No. I am explaining that the world for whom Christ died is not everyone in the world, but everyone whom He has chosen out of the world.

I: That is a funny use of the word “world,” is it not?

C: I do not think so. You talk about the world of science, the world of fashion, the world of literature. You often refer to a whole community of individuals described in a particular way. Here, when we are talking about the world of the redeemed, we are talking about all who are redeemed, which is not identical with all who live in this world of ours, any more than those other qualifying expressions are.

I: I can see the legitimacy of such use, but I still have a problem. I seem to remember a passage somewhere in the New Testament that says that Christ was the propitiation not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. I do not remember the text exactly, but that was the impression I got when I read it. The writer seemed to say that Christ’s death was not just for that particular Christian group, but for everybody.

C: Undoubtedly you are thinking of 1 John 2:2, which reads, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”

I: That is the one. Does it not plainly say that Christ’s propitiation was not for the sins of Christians only, but for everyone?

C: It does not say that in so many words, does it?

I: No, not exactly. But we both agree that the Bible can say things without saying them “in so many words.”

C: Yes. I admit that is a theoretical possibility. John could be saying Christ died not only for the sins of Christians, but for every human being. But for now, all I am driving at is that he does not expressly say that.

I: Granted.

C: I will also grant that John may be implying what he does not expressly say. But is he? Is John implying that Christ’s sacrifice was made not only for Christians, who accept Him, but for everybody? Do you not see a problem if John were actually construed as saying that Christ made a propitiatory sacrifice for every last person?

I: I do see a problem there. That would spell universal salvation.

C: Yes. And why is that a problem?

I: Even I know that the Bible does not teach universal salvation. Since you have convinced me also that the Bible does not contradict itself, I realize that such an unbiblical inference would be ruled out as a possibility.

C: That is good thinking on your part. I have granted it theoretical possibility, in that it is a thinkable idea in itself. But when compared with the teaching of the Bible as a whole, it is no longer thinkable.

I: So what are we to think in this case?

C: It forces us back to what we talked about earlier—not the world in general, but the world of believers. In the light of that, can you see what 1 John 2:2 would mean?

I: I suppose John’s point is that the propitiation is not only for the local Christians to whom he was writing, but to Christians everywhere.

C: Exactly. The atonement is not for any one group of believers, but for all believers everywhere in the world. But on the other hand, it is restricted to those for whom the sacrifice was made and who would believe in it.

I: That answers my question.

C: Bear in mind that we have looked at only a few biblical expressions of the atonement, such as the Day of Atonement and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the blood of God. The Bible is full of such passages. And Jesus Christ Himself says so.

I: He does?

C: Yes. Before His death, as recorded in John 16:12, He said He had many things to tell His disciples, but they could not bear them. After His death, however, on the way to Emmaus, as we read in Luke 24, He told two of the disciples how the whole Old Testament predicted that He would die as a sacrifice for the sins of His people.

I: I remember that. What did He mean, though? Why could the disciples not bear, before His death, what He later told them after His resurrection?

C: Remember that they just did not believe the Messiah was going to die, but they had the erroneous notion that His ultimate reign would be achieved at His first advent. He gently corrected them and quietly prepared them for His death, but they still were incredulous the very night before the crucifixion.


Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.

Read Part One.

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