Good Friday Was Not Cosmic Child Abuse

Good Friday Was Not Cosmic Child Abuse

On Good Friday each year, Christians remember the most glorious sacrifice and the most horrific murder that ever occurred in human history. Why do we refer to the Friday after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday” and the Friday before Easter “Good Friday”? Should they be reversed? It’s the day set aside on the calendar to remember the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of his people and the heinous murder of God’s Son. Why would we celebrate that day as a good day? Many people flow through Good Friday as if it’s a normal day and they give little to no recognization for the significance of what happened on the day Jesus died. Others celebrate it from a heart of worship. Still others mock the day—calling it cosmic child abuse.  Famed atheist Richard Dawkins writes the following:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. [1]

Is God guilty of abusing his Son on the cross? According to Isaiah 53, “It pleased the LORD (YHWH) to crush him (Jesus)” (Is. 53:10). Some have stated that the Father was “well pleased” with his Son at the baptism (Matt. 3:17), and then he was vengeful with his Son on the cross. How should we reconcile such statements? Why was Good Friday a good day? How can the death of Jesus be considered a good thing? Is it cosmic child abuse worthy of laughter or substitutionary sacrifice worthy of worship?

Good Friday Was Good Because God Is Good

The entire scene of the cross is filled with brutality, blood, insult, shame, and death. That does not exactly sound like a good day, but it was. When we look at Good Friday and all of the events that transpired on that day through the lens of human self-preservation and humane concepts—it’s a horrible day. When we view the events of Good Friday through the lens of God’s justice—things are put into perspective. Just the statement, “God is good” is often thrown around so casually that people fail to get the point. By the goodness of God, we don’t mean God gives us good things like a cosmic grandfather figure. God is good and because God is good—he must punish sinners for their guilt. This is demanded by the justice of God.

Far too often, God is misrepresented by the Christian community as a cosmic bellhop or a loving grandfather in the sky who showers all people with salvation regardless of their sin. Still others misrepresent God as a vengeful and hate-filled cosmic being who is always looking to zap people with judgment. God is neither of those caricatures. When we see God issuing love and grace to guilty sinners—it’s based on God’s ability to love which is not disconnected from his necessity to judge. Grace is offered on the basis of his satisfaction. The only way God can offer grace is by the fulfillment of his justice. However, if God judges sinners—he is good. If God saves sinners and spares them from wrath—God is good.

God would not be good if he merely bypassed the demands of justice and allowed guilty sinners to sneak in the backdoor of heaven. Such underhanded deals are common in this world of sin, but the moment that God offered such a corrupt deal to a guilty sinner is the moment that he would cease to be good. The holy justice of God is pure and righteous and it requires that all sinners will be justly judged for their sins. Therefore, as God is punishing his Son on the cross, we must remember that he was not punishing him for his sin. Instead, Jesus became a substitute and was being punished for the sins of God’s people (every person who would be the recipient of grace through Jesus Christ—every one of God’s elect past, present, and future).

According to 1 Peter 2:24, Jesus took on himself the sins of his people (Matt. 1:21) in order that they would receive the righteousness of God. There was a great exchange that took place. The sins of his people were placed upon him and he suffered immensely for them while his righteousness was imputed to the account of the sinners—freely received by faith.  According to Stephen Nichols, ‘The word imputation comes directly from the Latin. It is an accounting term; it means “to apply to one’s account.’ Expenses are debited and income is credited. The old King James word is ‘reckon.'” [2] The apostle Paul provides the plain truth of this doctrine in his letter to the church at Corinth as he states, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Good Friday Was Good Because God Was Satisfied

All through the Genesis account of creation, we see the phrase repeated, “it was good.” God was satisfied with his creation—but when sin entered the world (Rom. 5:12)—it was not good. God was angry with his creation. The demands of God’s holy law demonstrated the need for God to be satisfied. On the eve of the final plague, God promised to judge every home and take the life of their firstborn if the blood of the lamb was not on the doorposts. The death angel would visit each home—including the home of Pharaoh. God demanded that each year on the Day of Atonement that the blood of the lamb would be offered and the blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat. All of this blood was necessary and it likewise was a foreshadowing of the perfect Lamb of God who would one day come and take away the sins of his people throughout the world (John 1:29).

When Isaiah prophesied of the birth of the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6), he was not merely thinking of peace between animals so that the lion would lie down with the lamb. He was looking beyond to a greater peace—one that would reconcile sinful man with holy God. As Charles Wesley would write so eloquently in his hymn, “Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” From birth, all of us are under the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). We have all sinned against God and we are all born into sin as we’re connected to Adam (Ps. 51:5). As a result of our sin, we’re considered the enemies of God. It’s by the death of Jesus on the cross as our substitute that we are no longer the enemies of God—but now we’re reconciled to him. Paul articulated this truth in his letter to the church at Rome as he wrote, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10).

When Jesus died on the cross, Charles Spurgeon said, “It became midnight at midday.” It was a dark day as God died in human flesh. The death of the second Person of the Trinity was a horrible act of rebellion and human depravity. It resembled the act of Satan seeking to dethrone God from the beginning. It had all of the marks of evil and twisted human depravity—yet at the same time what man intended for evil—God intended for good. It was on that very day when the heads of the homes in Jerusalem were slaughtering their lamb for Passover that Jesus was dying on the cross to be the propitiation for the sins of his people (1 John 2:1-2). The reason that Good Friday was good is because God was satisfied with the death of his Son in the place of guilty sinners.

Nothing that you do can impress or please God. The very best that you can offer God is human effort stained by sin. You need something greater. The only way that sinners can be reconciled to God and find peace with God is through the substitutionary death of Jesus and the righteousness of God that is received by faith. Will you come to God today by faith trusting that the death of Jesus on the cross was a good thing? Mark Dever explains:

God’s answer for your guilt is not to explain it away by circumstances that have victimized you, but to call you to own your sins fully and to entrust them all to Jesus Christ by faith. Jesus Christ is our substitute. He has taken our penalty. [3]

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006), 51
  2. Stephen Nichols, “The Doctrine of Imputation: The Ligonier Statement on Christology” [accessed 3-28-18]
  3. Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence, It Is Well, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 57.
Propitiation for the Sins of the Whole World

Propitiation for the Sins of the Whole World

Yesterday morning, I preached from 1 John 2:1-6 in our series titled, “Know” which is a verse-by-verse exposition of John’s letter to the Christians throughout Asia minor.  The first half of my sermon was focused on the ministry of Jesus and the second half was centered on pursuing assurance of true saving grace.

In the first half of the sermon, one of the points of consideration was the atoning work of Jesus on behalf of sinners.  John calls Jesus the propitiation offered up to God the Father to save sinners.  The reality of salvation through Christ is a joyful truth to consider.  We are not left to find God or please God on our own.  However, the extent of the atonement is a bit more complicated and certainly controversial in evangelical circles.  I attempted to explain what John intended by the phrase in 1 John 2:2 and by doing so, I had to labor over several points to demonstrate what John was not intending to communicate.

The Word World Is Used Differently throughout the New Testament

Before taking time to consider the way the word world is used throughout the New Testament, many evangelicals run for the hills when people start discussing the extent of the atonement because of faulty methods, poor teaching on this subject, or both.  How does Jesus use the word world?

John 17:9 – I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.

In this passage, world is in reference to unbelievers among the total human population.  Jesus makes a distinction between his people and the people of the world.

John 17:16-19 – They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. [17] Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. [18] As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. [19] And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.

In this passage, world is used to reference the pagan worldly system.  Jesus is said to consecrate himself for the people of God—not for the whole world.

The Extent of the Atonement in Various Other Passages

In various different places, we see the death of Jesus being offered up on behalf of a specific group of people as opposed to the entire world without distinction.  John uses the word, “ἱλασμός” which is translated propitiation in our text.  The word means, “appeasement necessitated by sin, expiation [1]

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. [11] 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. [12] 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.

Certainly the prophet could have used the Hebrew word for world, but he did not do so. Instead, he pointed out on a couple of occasions in the suffering servant passage (Is. 53) that Jesus’ death was offered up for many.  This is a clear distinction that limits the atonement.

Mark 10:45 – 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 14:24 – And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

In Mark’s Gospel, we find two passages that seem to make it obvious that Jesus’ death was offered up for the sins of many people in the world, but not the whole world without exception.

Matthew 1:21 – She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

When Jesus’ birth was prophesied by the angel to Joseph, the angel touched on the extent of Jesus’ atoning death.  According to the angel, Jesus came to save his people from their sins.  Do you see the clear distinction?

John 10:11 – I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10:15 – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  There is always a clear distinction between the sheep and goats in the New Testament (see Matt. 25:32-33).

Ephesians 5:25 – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, [26] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, [27] so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Jesus is pictured in Ephesians as giving his life for the church—not the entire world without exception.  Therefore, it must be said that Jesus’ death was not a generic death, for a generic population in hopes that a generic people would come to Him by the power of their faith.  Jesus’ death was substitutionary and had a specific design that would bring about definite results.

Was the atonement accomplished by the death of Jesus limited in any way?  Yes, but that should do two very specific things in the hearts of all Christians.  First it should humble every Christian knowing that God had no obligation to save anyone and he chose to send his Son to die in the place of sinners.  Secondly, nobody knows who Jesus died for as we glance over our town, our city, the local high school, and our place of employment.  We must go and share the good news of Jesus Christ indiscriminately and trust the sovereign grace of God for the results.  One day, around the throne of God above, there will be a people from the whole world who were saved by the atoning death of Jesus—praising him and worshipping him (Rev. 5).

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;

  1. William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 474.
Does Limited Atonement Limit Missions?

Does Limited Atonement Limit Missions?

Today is the final post in the series on the subject of Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP.  The acronym serves as an overview of the teachings of Calvinism.  The subject of the atonement often becomes the catalyst for passionate debate in the evangelical community.  As a Baptist, I have witnessed divisive rhetoric in blogs, state Baptist newspapers, and in private meetings over this issue.  Some people have gone as far as labeling Calvinism as heresy.

It is not my desire to stoke old fires or create new hot debates over this issue, but I do believe it’s important to shine light on the fact that much of the negative rhetoric stems from the popular myths about Calvinism – in particular – limited atonement.

The series at a glance:

Myth #4 – A limited atonement contradicts 2 Peter 3:9 and hinders evangelism and world missions

As we have already demonstrated in this series, the teachings of limited atonement claims that when Jesus died on the cross, His death was specifically designed to atone for the sins of every person who would call upon the name of the Lord for salvation throughout time (past, present, and future).  In short, Jesus’ death was designed to pay for the sins of all of God’s elect – those chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1).  According to limited atonement, the death of Jesus provided an actual atonement rather than a potential atonement.  Jesus’ death was not generic in nature.  It was designed to save His people, so when He said, “It is finished” as He died, He was making a statement about the full payment of the atonement.  Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as follows, “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569). 

2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Many people who reject limited atonement do so based upon 2 Peter 3:9.  They claim that this verse in 2 Peter teaches that God doesn’t want anyone to perish and desires all people to repent.  That is what the text says.  Most Calvinists would agree with that on a surface level.  But, as all good students of the Bible know, we must always read the Bible and interpret it within its proper context.

There are several important facts to consider when reading 2 Peter 3:9.  First, no person should ever pick one random verse in the middle of a book of the Bible without considering the surrounding context and purpose of the specific passage.  As we consider 2 Peter 3:9, we must look back at the first part of the letter.  2 Peter 1:1 reads, “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  It is clear from the first verse of this epistle, Peter is addressing his letter to fellow Christians.

Secondly, in 2 Peter 3:9, the phrase, “but is patient to you” should not be overlooked or ignored.  This phrase connects the verse back to the first verse of the epistle – “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:9 speaks of the Lord’s delay in the second coming as a merciful act (see Romans 11:25) that fulfills God’s intended plan of saving His people.  While some false teachers were suggesting that the second coming of Christ was not going to happen, Peter illustrates that the seeming delay is God’s design in order to bring in the full number of Gentile converts and all of God’s sheep.  We must be cautious not to position 2 Peter 3:9 against John 10:16, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Regarding the idea that a limited atonement hinders evangelism and world missions, that’s simply not true.  The father of modern missions was William Carey.  He was a 5-point Calvinist. During a meeting of ministers, a Mr. Ryland called upon the young ministers to propose a subject for them to talk about.  William Carey stood up and offered the suggested topic: “The duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations.”  Mr. Ryland exclaimed with a loud voice, “Sit down, young man!  When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.”  This would not extinguish this Calvinistic missionary’s zeal.  His heart was set a blaze by God for the nations!

William Carey left for India in 1793.  Carey once said, “I am going down into the pit; you hold the ropes.” It would be a long two years later until he received his second pack of letters from England. As he opened the letters with much anticipation, one of them criticized him for “engaging in affairs of trade.” Carey was forced to work in order to earn a living for his family as well as continue the mission work.  Nevertheless, Carey remained steadfast.  It would take seven years before he would see the first convert in his gospel mission.  Although the landscape was difficult, the task dangerous, and the encouragement was low, this man with merely a grammar school education would be used of God to shake the world with the gospel.  On Carey’s grave in India would be recorded these words – “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall.”  2 Peter 3:9 was imprinted upon the soul of William Carey.  He was a 5-point Calvinist.  I think it would be wise to say that limited atonement did not slow down or cool off this faithful preacher of the gospel.

With men like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Charles Spurgeon, the idea that limited atonement hinders world missions and local evangelism is simply not true.  It’s a popular myth.  It’s a scape goat tactic employed by those who are looking for excuses in the decline among their circles of churches.  Whatever the cause of the decline, rest assured – limited atonement is not to blame.  Perhaps it’s limited interest in real evangelism and world missions?  Until Jesus does return, and we are assured that He will, let those of us who have received an equal standing by the grace of God in Christ Jesus work together to take the good news to our neighborhoods and the nations.

William Carey once said, “Expect great things from God: attempt great things for God.

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Helpful Resources:

Ligonier – Various Resources

Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP

John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference

John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism

Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology

Does Limited Atonement Limit Missions?

John 3:16 and Limited Atonement

This week I am writing on the subject of Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP.  As you may already know, the acronym is a basic overview of the teachings of Calvinism.  The subject of limited atonement is quite controversial and is often debated with a great deal of passion and emotional mudslinging from both sides of the sovereign grace fence.  It is not my desire to create another place for such a debate, but it is my desire to look at this subject from the popular myths that exist today regarding limited atonement.

The flow of this series this week is as follows:

Myth #3 – The claim that Jesus’ death was not for the entire world denies John 3:16

Perhaps the most famous verse in all of the Bible is John 3:16.  William Hendrickson calls John 3:16 – “The golden text.”  As we look at the text, it’s quite clear as to why it is the most well known verse in the history of the world.  In John 3:16, we see the profound love of God in contrast to the promised judgment of God all packaged up in one verse.  It’s a powerful verse indeed.  Often when Bible translators start a work of translation, they will begin with John 3:16 as a starting point in their mission work.  Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the gospel in miniature.”  John 3:16 is also a very popular verse that people cling to in their opposition to limited atonement.

For instance, the longtime Southern Baptist leader Adrian Rogers once said, “There are some people who will tell you that Jesus only died for the elect. But that’s not what the Gospel of John says. It says that the only reason men are not saved is not because Jesus did not die for them, but because they didn’t believe in Him” (Faith: What it is and how to have it: Romans 10:17-21).  In the Arminian circles of the evangelical world, it’s a common thing to see people holding on to “whoever” or as the King James translates it, “whosoever” in John 3:16 as their proof that Jesus died for the whole wide world.  What exactly did John intend us to know as he wrote John 3:16?

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. (ESV)

First, we must note that this text is taken from a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Jesus was instructing a gifted teacher who had come to him after nightfall to ask Jesus about His teachings.  It was at that moment that Jesus spoke those very famous words, “You must be born again.”  Jesus went on to talk about the wind blowing where it wishes and He then relates it to the Spirit of God’s involvement in salvation.  It becomes clear at that point that Jesus is speaking of the sovereignty of God in the workings of grace.

As Jesus continued to teach and explain, He made the statement that we know as John 3:16.  As we read it, we should be encouraged to see that God has loved the world.  We should be humbled to see that God loved the world by giving His Son.  The manner in which He gave His Son is quite humbling indeed.  We should be fearful as we read about unbelievers perishing.  The wrath of God is a terrifying reality.  As the verse ends, it leaves us with this faithful promise of eternal life for those who believe.  In short, John 3:16 is one of the most power packed verses in the Bible.  But, for the purpose of this discussion, does it teach “unlimited” or a “limited” atonement?

Look at the breakdown of the verse:

  • Love:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
  • Purpose:  that whoever believes in him should not perish…
  • End Result:  but have eternal life.

Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as follows, “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569).  It seems clear that those who believe (whoever) had been covered by Jesus’ blood.  Those who perish are those who do not believe.  The fact that they perish denotes the reality that they have not been covered by the atonement of Jesus’ death.  If they had, they would not have perished.  Likewise, if they had been covered by the atoning death of Jesus, they would have believed the gospel and been numbered among the “whoever” believes mentioned in John 3:16.

The use of the word “world” in this text does not force the improper meaning that Jesus actually gave His atoning death so that the whole of humanity would have their sins atoned for.  This is not only incorrect, it’s impossible!  When you stop and consider the reality that not one single person in hell today has had their sins atoned for, it should bring you to the realization that John 3:16 must have a different meaning than a universal atonement.  The atonement is limited to believers only.

God did love the world.  Just as the context implies, as in the days when a plague of serpents had been sent to the complaining rebellious Israelites, Moses prayed and then raised up a brazen serpent on a pole.  Everyone who looked upon that serpent would live.  Jesus said, in like manner must the Son of Man be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  Not so that everyone may have eternal life.  Everyone who believes is the key.  Eternal life is limited to believers only.  Jesus’ atonement is limited to believes only.

Do you recall the day when you first looked upon Jesus as your Savior – slain on a cruel cross for your sin?  The great Charles Spurgeon was saved at 16 after wandering into a small Methodist chapel where approximately 15 people sat to hear an untrained layperson preach the gospel from Isaiah 45:22 one snowy Sunday morning.  Spurgeon recalls:

I saw at once the way of salvation . . . Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, Look! what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun.

God is love and He has demonstrated His love to the entire world by sending His Son to die on Calvary’s cross.  There is no mistaking His love.  However, we must be careful not to apply Jesus’ atonement to the entire world in a universal sense.  We must avoid universalism.  We must teach a biblical gospel that saves sinners – all sinners who repent and believe.  Who are the elect of God who will believe in my city?  I have no idea!  However, I know that Jesus has died for them and I must go and lift up Christ and call all people to repent and believe the good news.  You must do the same thing in your town.  We must labor together and trust that as we plant and water, it will be God who gives the increase.  Whosoever will – let him come to Christ!  As he comes in faith, Jesus’ blood will be sufficient to save.

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Helpful Resources:

Ligonier – Various Resources

Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP

John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference

John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism

Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology

Does Limited Atonement Limit Missions?

Is Limited Atonement Biblical?

This week, I’m writing on the subject of the “L” in the acronym of TULIP – Limited Atonement.  In the first myth, I provided some personal reflections about how I came to embrace this doctrine as it’s revealed in the Word of God.  Today, I want to point out the doctrine of limited atonement (or particular redemption; definite atonement) in the Bible.  I hear people make statements in passing at conferences or even in my circle of friends regarding limited atonement.  They often say, “I’m still having trouble with this doctrine.”  I want to say to those people – join the club!  I think we will often have difficulties with hard doctrinal truths, especially if we were raised to believe the exact opposite from the time we were children.

The flow of this series this week is as follows:

Myth #2 – To claim Jesus’ death was not for the whole world is philosophic reasoning and not truly biblical

As I begin, I want to remind the readers of this blog that I have no agenda to add more dust to the dust cloud of controversy that has been blowing in the wind for years in Baptist circles over this doctrine.  Likewise, I don’t think we should veil truths that are contained in the Bible.  Some men veil truths related to God’s sovereignty in salvation because they claim their church wouldn’t understand.  That same man will stand boldly and preach the Old Testament texts where God commanded Israel to wipe out entire cities including women and children and animals without any problem at all.  I find it troubling when preachers muzzle the Word of God.  Will people have a difficult time understanding the deep sovereignty of God?  Yes!  As a pastor I am to allow the text of God to speak and work with the people in much patience and love until they understand.

The term “limited atonement” answers the question, “For whom did Christ die?” It seems obvious from several texts in the Bible that Jesus’ death was to secure the salvation by paying the atonement price for a specific people.  Listen to Jesus speak in John 10:14-16 – “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. [16] And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Jesus said explicitly, “I lay down my life for the sheep.”  He didn’t say that He would die for the sheep and the goats.  He specifically referenced the sheep.  He went on to point beyond the Jews to another fold – specifically Gentiles.  We know how sheep and goats are referenced in the Scriptures.  Sheep are the children of God and the goats are rebels who receive the judgement of God (Matthew 25:31-46).  Jesus’ death was specifically designed to pay for the sin debt of His sheep.

As we consider the atonement, Wayne Grudem has offered the following definition: “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569).  If Jesus earned the salvation of sheep and goats (all men) by dying a death that assured a full atonement from sin for every person, no person would ever go to hell.  The atonement was designed to cover the sin debt of every person who would ever call upon the Lord for salvation.  Who are those people?  They are the elect of God.  They are the ones chosen by God, out of sheer grace and mercy, before the foundation of the world.  God’s choice was not based on any foreseen merit or goodness in them.  It was by mere mercy that God saved wretched sinners.

Additionally, we could go to one of the most famous chapters in all of the Bible regarding Jesus’ death.  What does Isaiah 53 teach us about Jesus’ death?  For one, it says that it pleased the Father to crush His Son on the cross.  Jesus took the wrath that we deserved upon Himself as He died.  If we are not careful, we will become so overwhelmed with God’s love for us that we will overlook the way the chapter ends.  Some people cling to Isaiah 53:6 as their proof text that Jesus died for “all.”  However, they often stop with verse six and miss the truth in the last six verses of this chapter.

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. [11] 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. [12] 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.

A couple of times, the prophet Isaiah specifically says that Jesus will bear the iniquities of a specific group of people.  There is no doubt that Isaiah is referencing a certain group by his choice of language.  He clearly says, “he shall bear their iniquities.”  We know that Isaiah could have used the word “all” to reference the entire world, but instead he speaks of “many” and “their” as opposed to “all” in reference to Jesus’ death.

The claim that limited atonement (that Jesus died for a specific people) cannot be supported by the Bible is simply a myth.  As we consider the death of Jesus, it should not lead us to a fight over Calvinism or Arminianism or Molinism or whatever feather of doctrine you embrace.  The death of Jesus should humble us.  Who is man that God is mindful of him?  Why me?  As I consider that God has saved me by crushing His Son on the cross, it brings me low to the ground.  I have nothing in my hands to offer God.  He alone has come to me.  He alone has saved me.  He deserves to be praised.  To Him be all honor and glory forever and ever!

Why are you a Calvinist?  Is it because it’s cool in certain circles?  Why are you an Arminian?  It is because it’s acceptable by the majority in your circles?  Why are you a Molinist?  Is it because you feel tension related to God’s divine sovereignty and you want to evade that tension?  Wouldn’t it be better to just hear God thunder His truths from the pages of the Bible?  Whatever God’s Word says, that’s what I want to believe.  Don’t embrace a system or build your position based on what the “trends” are around you.  Turn to God’s Word.

Nothing in my hand I bring (not my will, not my work, not my baptism, not my faith, not my religious acts, not my good deeds), simply to the cross I cling!

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Helpful Resources:

Ligonier – Various Resources

Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP

John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference

John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism

Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology

Does Limited Atonement Limit Missions?

Myths About Limited Atonement

While growing up in Georgia, I was taught from a little boy that Jesus loves everybody and that He died for the whole world.  At many levels, I believed that for the better part of my entire life.  While I still believe that Jesus loves the whole world in one sense, I also recognize a different type of redeeming love that He has for His people.  I recall arriving on campus at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and arguing with a group of new friends until the late night hours at Ernesto’s Mexican restaurant until they stopped serving us drinks and chips.  We then left there and returned to an apartment where I continued to wax eloquent on the subject – refusing to embrace this view called Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP.  My natural flesh rejected the “C” word (Calvinism) and its teachings.

God placed a group of men around me who continued to listen to my philosophic general atonement views.  In our conversations, they would place their finger on chapter and verse in the Bible each time I would kick against the pricks.  After leaving the hot bed of the seminary campus, I went on to serve a church in Tennessee.  Although I was not a Calvinist at that point, I eventually squared off with one man who insisted that I was because I emphatically insisted that God is sovereign in my preaching through Jonah.  Through our heated debates, I was forced to study these issues on a deeper level than I did during my systematic theology class in seminary.  A few years later, after being called to return home to the church where I had grown up as a child, I picked up the study once again.  I still recall reading John 3:16 and seeing the doctrine of limited atonement in a clear way as I read the text while sitting in my office.  It was there that I finally decided to stop running from the truth.  It became peaceful to submit to God’s Word as opposed to running from the truth.

Perhaps I would have submitted to the truth earlier if it had not been for some unhelpful myths and false caricatures related to this doctrine that are often published on the Internet through articles and sermons.  This week I will attempt to provide a quick glance at some of these myths along with a brief explanation.  In order to avoid an overly lengthy article, I will focus on one myth each day through the end of this week.  The myths that will be covered in this series are as follows:

Myth #1 – If Jesus did not die for the whole world, He is an unfair Savior.

As I begin this series, I want to be transparent.  The subject of the atonement is one of great controversy in Baptist circles and beyond today.  It is not my desire to be a source of contention among friends and readers of this blog.  I am convinced that the things God has revealed to us in Scripture should be a source of joy rather than contention and division.  May God’s truth ignite a blaze of joy in your soul rather than clinched teeth upon the study of the atonement.  The study of the atonement is humbling.  It leads us to worship.  It brings us low in silence before the throne of God.

When addressing these issues, we must always make sure that we are using the same dictionary in order to avoid undue critique and controversy.  In short, it simply helps the discussion to become more efficient.  In order to make sure that everyone who reads this article understands what is being implied by the doctrine of limited atonement I would like to propose the following definitions:

Atonement:  The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569).

Arminian Position: The death of Jesus was designed to make salvation possible for everyone, but it did not actually secure or guarantee the salvation of anyone. Sinful man determines whether or not Christ’s work will be effective by choosing to exercise his faith in Jesus.

Calvinist Position: The death of Jesus was designed to actually secure the salvation of the elect of God.  God the Father chose people to salvation before the foundation of the world, and Christ’s death secured and actually accomplished their salvation.  God has determined that all for whom He elected before time, Christ shed His blood for them on the cross.

Is that fair to suggest that God chose people before the foundation of the world and that Jesus’ mission was to save His people from their sins?  The fairness issue is a common complaint raised against the doctrine of limited atonement.  In fact, I can recall being highly offended by the term “limited atonement” when I was wrestling through these issues.  I found that “particular redemption” had a better ring, even though I continued to oppose the teachings of that position.  The idea that Jesus’ blood was limited to a select group of people was offensive to me.  It seemed prideful, arrogant, and even unfair to suggest that Jesus would only have the best interest of a select group of people in mind as He died on the cross.

I think that it’s helpful to begin with the idea of fairness in relation to our own personal salvation.  Is it fair that God has saved us?  Did I deserve to be saved?  Was God obligated to save me?  Was God obligated to offer salvation to me in a general sense and leave it up to my “free will”  in order to choose Him?  The answers to those questions start to peel back the top layer of this issue and that’s precisely where we start to get to the juicy aspects of what we are really talking about when we say – limited atonement.

In Romans 9, Paul does something very important to teach us the lesson of limited atonement.  Paul takes two historical accounts from redemptive history (wink – we see the gospel all through the Bible), and raises them up to illustrate God’s prerogative in divine mercy.

Romans 9:10-18 – And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, [11] though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—[12] she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” [13] As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” [14] What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! [15] For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” [16] So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. [17] For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” [18] So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

There are two important points to consider in this section of Romans 9.

  1. Notice that God chose to love Jacob and to hate Esau before they had done anything good or evil – before they came from their mother’s womb.  This is an important threshold to cross in this study.  You can choose to redefine or soften the blow of “hate” by suggesting it means to “love less,” but that doesn’t get you beyond the real issue.  It was God who was at work in loving Jacob before he was born.
  2. Notice that Paul asks the question in verse 14, “What shall we say then?  Is there injustice on God’s part?”  In other words, is God somehow unfair to Esau?  Paul answers his own question by saying, “By no means!”  He then turns to the Exodus to support his position by showing that God has the prerogative to love Jacob and hate Esau in the same way that He possessed the prerogative to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Most people who deny limited atonement have no problem with the damnation of Pharaoh, because he was such a wicked man who had done so many harmful things to Israel.  However, Esau wasn’t even born and God had already determined to reject him.

While limited atonement or “divine love” may not square with our Americanized freedom mindset, it cannot be escaped in the Scriptures.  If you read in Exodus 28, you will discover that the high priest was to wear a certain attire that contained stones on his shoulders that had the names of the nation of Israel etched upon it.  As he ministered sacrificial offerings, he bore the nation of Israel rather than the whole world upon him.  Was that unfair to the heathen nations who perished in their sin as the Israelites went onward to possess the land of promise?

The issue of fairness cannot be satisfied through a sympathetic emotionalism being laid upon the Word of God.  It can only be satisfied in utter humility.  Where would we be today if God treated us fairly?  Where would the entire world be today if God responded in mere fairness?  The sovereign God who created the entire universe has condescended to the dust of earth in the person of Jesus Christ and sufficiently laid down a sacrifice to save His people (Matthew 1:21) from their sins.  If we all received what was fair – God would have never sent the Christ to come as our Savior.  He would have remained our eternal Judge and we would have all been cast into the lake of fire and brimstone as we received the second death as the just penalty for our transgressions.

It’s a myth to believe that God owes us something.  God is God.  Jesus is a member of the Godhead and when Pharaoh’s heart was being hardened – Jesus was there.  When Jacob was being chosen before planet earth existed and mercy was being planned for His soul, Jesus was there.  Praise God that salvation is not fair.  Praise God that He is merciful and mighty to save guilty sinners.  In fact, all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.  There will never be too many repentant sinners for Jesus’ blood to reconcile to God.

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Helpful Resources:

Ligonier – Various Resources

Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP

John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference

John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism

Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology