A Primer on the Atonement (pt. 5)

from Apr 09, 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 Four)

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I: It is Christ’s dying for people that brings them faith, and not their own faith that applies His death to them. Is that not so?

C: It is.

I: Then if all for whom Christ died are unbelievers, why would it not be true that He died for all of us?

C: It would not logically follow that because Jesus died for unbelievers, to make them believers, He therefore died also for all unbelievers.

I: I admit that would be a logical non sequitur. And, of course, it would follow that if the atonement benefited only certain unbelievers, it was meant for no others. The whole doctrine of election, which we have seen to be a biblical teaching, means that Christ died only for particular unbelievers. He died for Peter and not for Judas.

C: Yes, but He died for Peter not because Peter was a believer, but in order to make him a believer.

I: I will not ask the question that comes surging to the surface every time we get on this subject, namely, why did He not die to make Judas a believer? I know the answer to my own question. He is sovereign in His grace. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” He said.

C: And the mercy to which He refers there is the gift of Jesus Christ specifically for His chosen people.

I: Is there a name for that doctrine?

C: Yes. There is a popular and misleading name, and there is a proper name.

I: What is the misleading name?

C: It is often called “limited atonement.”

I: Obviously it is limited to the elect, so how is that misleading?

C: As you say, it is limited in its design to save the elect. But many people read into that word “limited” associations which do not belong to it.

I: Such as?

C: Some make it mean that it is limited in its sufficiency, which it is not.

I: And others?

C: Others think it is limited in its offer, which it is not.

I: That is puzzling. I thought we decided that the offer of the gospel of Christ’s death and redemption was to the elect only.

C: Yes, in a sense we have shown that to be the case. But you realize it is unlimited in another sense. The offer of the gospel goes forth to everyone’s ears and hearing. As a Christian minister, for example, I do not hesitate to offer it in the hearing of every soul. As a person hears it, however, he recognizes that it is for sinners only. If the hearer considers himself righteous, then that invitation is not to him. He feels no need for it.

I: So there is a sense in which the offer of the gospel is unlimited?

C: Yes.

I: And yet limited. What you have just said raises another question.

C: What is that?

I: You just explained that when Christ made atonement by His life and death, He did it for the elect. I understand you on that, and you are quite persuasive that the Bible teaches divine election. But my question is this: Are Christians not supposed to extend the invitation of Christ’s sacrifice to everyone, and not only to those who are elect? And, if to everyone, how does a Christian know whether a person is elect and supposed to receive the message?

C: The Christian is supposed to declare to everyone with whom he has an opportunity that Christ calls everyone to repentance and faith and salvation.

I: Then the call is universal?

C: Quite right.

I: But the intention of the call is particular and only for the elect?

C: Correct again.

I: I am confused. How can I make a universal call to only specific individuals? How can the call be universal to everyone, and actually only for that segment of mankind called the elect?

C: It is possible.

I: A universal call that is exclusively for particular individuals? If that is possible, the possibility certainly escapes me.

C: Listen very carefully to the call and see if you do not see my point. I will give you a sample call that is simultaneously universal and individualistic.

I: I cannot for the life of me see how you can do it. But I am listening.

C: Here it is: “Jesus Christ calls everyone, everywhere to confess his sin and trust in Jesus for his salvation and deliverance.”

I: That is definitely a universal call. But I do not see how it is a particular and exclusive call. You do sincerely invite everyone, everywhere to come to Jesus Christ to be saved.

C: Yes, I do.

I: Do you not see that such a universal call is not restricted at all?

C: Are you sure?

I: You are asking me the questions now, are you?

C: Yes, I am asking. Is that call you have just heard not restricted?

I: I do not see what you are driving at. The call is to everyone, everywhere, and presumably at all times.

C: It is indeed.

I: I know I am supposed to see something that I am not. But frankly I do not see any exclusiveness in it whatsoever. You are saying that anyone, anywhere at any time who will confess his sins and come to Jesus Christ will most certainly be saved.

C: That is exactly what I am saying. But do you not see that it is very particular?

I: Very particular? I have talked to you often enough to know that what sometimes baffles me at the beginning of a dialogue becomes embarrassingly obvious before we are finished. And I suspect that it will be that way again. But for the moment, I cannot see it. What am I missing?

C: Listen again very closely. I call everyone, everywhere to come who will acknowledge his sin and bring his guilt and need to Jesus Christ, and I assure him, without any qualification, that in doing that he will most certainly be saved eternally by the blood of Jesus Christ. Now do you see what is very particular here?


I: You are saying that anyone who will acknowledge his sin and bring his guilt to Jesus will be saved. Now that is a precise description, I see. You are universally inviting anybody who fits the description?

C: You are certainly closing in on it. Can you finish?

I: Let me see. The call is universally extended to that group of people who acknowledge their sin, bring it to Jesus, and are thus assured of everlasting salvation. The particularity there is that these people acknowledge their sin and bring it to Jesus. I see that. But are not all men everywhere sinful and guilty, and therefore invited to come to Jesus Christ, so that the call, even with that precision, is at the same time absolutely universal?

C: You are right that everyone, everywhere is guilty and in need of salvation through Jesus Christ. But I want to ask you a question: Is everybody, everywhere aware of his guiltiness and need?

I: Now I see what you mean. The answer is very easy. No. Men do not universally acknowledge the guilt they universally have.

C: That is my point, and yours as well, is it not?

I: Yes. I grant that though people universally have guilt and need Jesus Christ for their salvation, they do not universally feel or acknowledge that guilt. In fact, I have friends who would be insulted if you told them that they were guilty sinners in need of salvation by the blood of Jesus Christ. And I know that there are vast multitudes in the world who meet that description.

C: The vast majority of mankind does not acknowledge their guilt, but categorically denies it. They even resent anybody who suggests they have it and ultimately resent Jesus Christ for inviting them, which implies that they need the salvation.

I: I guess that is true. And I certainly see the point now. The call to come to Jesus Christ is universal to everyone within its hearing who is guilty and will come to Christ for forgiveness. And the people who meet that description are a minority, so that this universal call, when looked at closely, is a call only to those who acknowledge their need of the Christ to whom they are invited.

C: Very well said. You have made it clearer than I have ever made it myself—that the universal call is at the same time personal, being addressed to a minority of mankind.

I: What I thought to be a contradiction in terms just five minutes ago is now obvious to me. Unfortunately that is not my last question.

C: Do not say “unfortunately.” I think it is fortunate that you do think so deeply and honestly about these questions. Christ has not called for any crucifixion of the intellect. He does not rule out legitimate questions. On the contrary, He is the truth, and He wants people to understand what He is saying, so that when they decide for or against Him, they know who He is and what He is offering. The all-wise God does not rejoice in the worship of fools. So go ahead with whatever questions you feel are germane to this basic matter of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

To be continued…

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Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.