“Did Jesus die for everyone?” Tonight’s question is one that has been hotly debated in the history of the church. One reason for this is the one given by the person who sent the question. Her concern is whether in evangelism she should tell people, “Jesus died for you.”
There is a sense in which no one denies that Jesus died for everyone, namely with regard to the value and suitability of his death for the salvation of every sinner. Jesus’ blood has sufficient worth to ransom from their sin everyone who ever lived. Therefore, every person can be told that Jesus died to give them a free offer of forgiveness and acceptance with God.
The matter comes to its head when we ask if Jesus actually made an atoning sacrifice for everyone. The Bible makes it clear that not everyone is or is going to be saved. A great host of unbelievers will be condemned by God for their sin. Is this in spite of the atoning sacrifice that Jesus made for them, or is it that, since they do not believe, Jesus did not make atonement for them?
According to the first view, known as general redemption, or unlimited atonement, Jesus died to make atonement for everyone, but his death was not effectual apart from their believing on him. Here, what saves people is not ultimately Jesus’ death but their faith; because some people do not believe they are lost, even though Jesus offered his blood for them. The second explanation is that while Jesus died to offer salvation to the world, he made atonement only for those who believe on him. In this case, unbelievers perish not only for want of faith but also for want of an atonement.
The first answer is attractive because it seems to pin all the blame on human obstinacy and unbelief. People who hold it point out the New Testament statements that speak of Christ as the Savior of the world. 1 John 2:2, for instance, says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” This shows, they argue, that Jesus made atonement for everyone. The problem simply is that with obstinate hearts they refuse the blood that was shed for them.
There are problems with this view, however, starting with the interpretation of the statement that Jesus is the Savior of the world. There is good reason to believe that John does not mean the Savior of everybody but rather the Savior of Gentiles as well as Jews. The first time the expression is used is in John 4:42, after Jesus has taken the gospel outside the bounds of Judaism and to the Samaritans. John’s emphasis is not in a general redemption that includes unbelievers, but in the explosion of salvation through every tribe, tongue and nation. The world’s only Savior is Jesus of Nazareth, God’s precious Son.1
There are several other persuasive reasons to reject the idea of a general atonement and conclude that Jesus only made atonement for those given to him by God. The first is the express statements of Scripture, beginning with John 17:9. There, we find Jesus praying to the Father on the night of his arrest, “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” Similarly, he said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). That is, many, not all. Again, in instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:28).
A second reason to believe Jesus made atonement only for his own comes from the doctrine of election. The Bible overwhelmingly teaches that God chose some sinners for salvation, apart from any merit of their own, passing by other sinners. The main reason most people deny that Jesus died only for his own is that they deny the biblical doctrine of election. But in Romans 8:30, for instance, the Bible tightly links election and the benefits of Christ’s atoning death. Paul writes, “For those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
Third, and perhaps most important, is the view the Bible gives us of the efficacy of Christ’s atoning death. Did Jesus die only to make it possible for sinners to be saved if they believe on him? If that were the case then it would be conceivable for God's Son to die in vain, with no one believing and no one being saved. Indeed, were our salvation to depend on our initiative of faith, then that is precisely what would happen since, as Paul says, “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:11). Titus 2:14 says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Those are active verbs that show what Jesus’ death actually achieved. It is an effectual atonement that actually saves all who benefit from it. The Bible does not allow us to isolate the cross from the complete salvation it provides. Thus Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25-27, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Christ’s death is part of his whole ministry that provides a stainless bride for himself.
Fourth, if Jesus made atonement for those who do not believe and are condemned, then God has unjustly punished sin twice, once on the cross and again in the damnation of sinners who do not believe.
For all these reasons, we should reject the doctrine of general redemption for the Bible’s doctrine of particular redemption, also known as limited atonement. Christ’s atoning work is not limited in its power or value—indeed it saves us to the uttermost—but it is limited in scope to those who belong to Christ and who therefore trust in him. Jesus’ death is sufficient for all the world, but efficient only for the elect.
Getting back to the original question, how does this teaching effect our evangelism? I believe it does not hamper our evangelism, although it does discipline it—and most of us could use some discipline in our witness. It says that people are saved only by believing on Jesus Christ. Therefore we should be eager to tell people that Jesus died to save sinners, adding that if they want to know that he died for their own sins they must repent and believe. Apart from faith they have no part in Christ’s saving death; indeed, they are crucifying Christ all over again in unbelief and cannot expect to have benefit from his saving work.
Meanwhile, this teaching gives the greatest comfort to the fearful believer. It says to every Christian that Jesus died not merely to give you a chance to save yourself if your faith is good enough, but to actually and effectually save you. It has us sing, with Augustus Toplady, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” To the weakest saint, it pleads, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Though believing, we rest not on our faith but on his finished work, and there we find comfort for our souls.
1 For a more extended discussion, see B. B. Warfield, The Savior of the World, chapter 3. Warfield notes that at the end of history, when all things are restored, Christ will have saved the whole world. The regenerated cosmos is redeemed by his death. And yet unbelieving sinners are not included in that redemption, just as they are not included in that world that Christ saves in the end.
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