Yesterday, I preached from Mark 10:35-45 as we continued our series through Mark’s Gospel. The entire focus of this paragraph was on humility. The sons of Zebedee – James and John, lacked humility. They came to Jesus and made an outrageous request. After Jesus addressed their request, they insisted that they made another conceited response. In short, they were looking for a seat of honor in the future glory of Christ. They were going behind the backs of their fellow disciples and trying to climb the ladder of success. When the ten discovered what was going on, they became indignant.
In order to correct the problem among the disciples, Jesus called them to Him and taught them a lesson on humility. Jesus said, ““You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44). Jesus pointed out that in the Kingdom of God, the way to the top is humility rather than self-promotion and ladder climbing through arrogant ambition. The Lord expects His children to exemplify humility and service to others.
In order to teach them, He also spoke of how He models this in His own ministry. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This was a lesson they were constantly learning as they spent time with Jesus. He was a servant of the Father and a servant of sinners.
Jesus’ statement ended with a unique point. According to Jesus, He came to give His life as a ransom for many. This is a doctrine that necessitates humility. In the study of theology, this is called the doctrine of limited atonement. In the T.U.L.I.P. acrostic of Calvinism, it’s the “L” and often the most hotly contested among the five points. The doctrine of limited atonement is sometimes referred to as particular redemption or definite atonement. In short, the main issue that must be faced in Jesus’ statement from Mark 10:45 is – for whom did Jesus die when He gave His life for sinners? Was it for the entire world without exception? Was it for a limited group that is somewhat less than the full number of human history? Jesus said He came to give His life a ransom for many. What does this mean?
First of all, let’s explore what it doesn’t mean. Limited atonement doesn’t mean that the blood of Jesus was somehow ineffective or weak. It also doesn’t mean that Jesus’ sacrifice is limited in power. The blood sacrifice of God’s Son as the Lamb of God (John 1:29) is capable of saving the entire world. But, the question must be faced, to whom was the blood applied?
The doctrine of limited atonement teaches that Jesus died for a specific people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. In short, rather than dying a generic death for a generic people while holding out hope that people would respond in their own free will to be saved by Jesus. Jesus died, according to limited atonement, to secure the actual salvation and eternal security of a specific group of people. In other words, Jesus’ death was not generic and no blood was wasted.
The issue must be raised, either Jesus died a death that was generic and hopeful or He died a death that was efficacious and purposeful. When Jesus died on the cross and cried out to the Father, “It is finished” – that had specific meaning. Did it mean that He had died the generic death for all of humanity? Was Jesus saying to the Father that He had satisfied the wrath of God and paid for the atonement of His people? Was Jesus’ death a substitutionary death – where Jesus was dying on the cross in the actual place of guilty sinners or was He merely a generic representation for all of humanity?
Is the Trinity divided in any way or is our triune God unified? Did the Father chose a people for salvation before the world was created? That is precisely what Ephesians 1 teaches. When Jesus died on the cross, is Jesus dying for the same group of people chosen by the Father or is He dying for people who were already in hell? When the Holy Spirit comes to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment, is He drawing the same people chosen by the Father and covered by the blood of the Son?
The doctrine of limited atonement teaches that Jesus came to die for guilty sinners, and as He died on the cross, His death was poured out for the people chosen by the Father. When the Spirit of God comes to apply the work of Christ to guilty sinners, He pursues the same group of people. Jesus didn’t die to merely make salvation possible for a generic group of sinners. His death had a specific design from the beginning, and it was to secure the actual salvation of specific people. Consider the following verses in the Bible that seem to align with this same word used by Jesus in Mark 10:45.
Matthew 1:21 – She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
John 10:11 – I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Ephesians 5:25 – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
Isaiah 53:10-12 – Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Although my journey in grace has been lengthy, I have come to embrace the doctrine of limited atonement and believe it to be the clear teaching of Scripture and consistent with the sovereign grace and plan of redemption that spans back before time. I once spent long hours while in seminary trying to convince friends of a universal atonement, but God has been gracious to spare me of this error. About five years ago, I finally came to embrace the doctrine of limited atonement after studying John 3:16. It became clear that God loves this world filled with sinners and sent His Son to die for sinners. For whom did the Son die? It’s clear in John 3:16, He died for the whoever believes, because they are the ones who do not perish.
Jesus is pictured as dying for His people, the sheep (not the goats), the church (not the world), and is prophesied as the suffering servant who would bear the sins of many (Is. 53:12). I find it difficult to turn Jesus’ many into the entire world without exception. Words matter and theology matters.
In closing, consider the words of Charles Spurgeon from his sermon that he preached in defense of Calvinism. He stated the following:
To think that my Savior died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the Substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine justice. That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards some of those very men should be punished for the sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous inequity… God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise and good!