In our current sermon series on the Historical Faith we have looked so far at man’s radical corruption and God’s sovereign election. Today we continue with the 3rd truth the Church Historical has held close to the heart, the doctrine of Definite Atonement.
But first, let me set the stage with an illustration. Before Holly and I got married I was a poor college graduate who had just begun seminary and that meant that I had zero income. Holly, on the other hand, had graduated and already gotten a job, which meant her bank account was full. After an 8 month engagement the day finally came, and Holly and I arrived at a beautiful church in downtown McDonough, GA to be married in the presence of God, family, and friends. My eyes filled with tears as she walked down the aisle, my heart pounded with excitement, and a marvelous thing took place that day. Not only did I gain a godly and gorgeous wife that I didn’t deserve, a full bank account. I said ‘I do’ and my bank account went from empty to full. From no work of my own simply because our lives were now united as one everything that belonged to her became mine.
You see the greater lesson in this don’t you? When we become Christians, when we come to Christ, we’re united to Him, and from now work of our own everything that belongs to Him becomes ours. How did this happen? It happened by the atoning work on the cross.
This brings up a question that is as old as the Bible, ‘For whom did Christ die?’ What’s in view in this question is the extent and the intent of the atonement. John Murray in his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied asks the same question like this: ‘On whose behalf did Christ offer Himself a sacrifice? On whose behalf did He propitiate the wrath of God? Whom did He reconcile to God in the body of His flesh through death? Whom did He redeem from the curse of the law, from the guilt and power of sin, from the power and bondage of Satan? In whose stead and on whose behalf was He obedient unto death, even the death of the cross?’ To answer Murray’s questions fast forward to the New Heavens and the New Earth. Picture yourself there, praising the Lamb who stands victorious though slain, picture the Father on His throne pleased with the work of His Son and His Church, and picture the Spirit filling us all with an eternal delight and joy as we surround the throne of God in robes of white. Now picture yourself looking around you at all the other people there the people from every tribe, language, tongue, and nation; who are these people? The answer from the Bible, is they are the elect, the ones for whom Christ died.
You see, in Jesus’ atonement He didn’t merely open the door of redemption for whosoever desires it, no, He redeemed and purchased a particular people. Rather than just making salvation possible, and hoping people would be saved, God really did accomplish the conversion of a definite group of people.
I am aware that saying this sounds restrictive, but remember God is under no obligation to save anyone, so when (out of sheer grace) He decided to save man, He did it in His way. But as always don’t take my word for it, let’s go to the Bible.
The Centrality of Atonement
The atonement of Christ on the cross is central to the message of Christianity. To atone for something is to make amends or to make satisfaction for a wrong. This is exactly what we see on the cross – it is through the blood of Christ that the holy God and sinful man are brought together peaceably. By nature we’re at odds with God because of sin, and at the center of our message we find blood. The blood of Christ, which is able to bring sinners like us who were once far away from God, near to Him. This is why Christianity is seen as a religion with a central message of redemption and reconciliation. By the blood of Christ we are redeemed from sin and reconciled to God. So we see at a very basic level that any representation of Christianity that diminishes the centrality of the atonement is a false form of Christianity.
Even from the earliest chapters and books of the Bible we see atonement as central to those who would do life with God. In Eden, after the fall of man, for the first time in history God made atonement for His people by shedding the blood of an animal and using it’s skin to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel offer sacrifices in Genesis 4, Noah offered sacrifices to God in Genesis 8, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all do the same thing each time God meets them or blesses them. We see many other offerings in Genesis, but when Israel gets into slavery in Egypt and when God calls Moses to go to Pharaoh and say ‘Let My people go’ in behalf of God it is here where we see the doctrine of atonement coming into view clearly.
After 9 plagues completely devastate the Egyptians, God brings a dreadful decree to close out His assault on Egypt. He tells Moses of His plans and Moses tells Pharaoh in Exodus 11:4-6, ‘Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die…there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.’ Moses leaves Pharaoh’s presence and God gives Him further directions in chapter 12, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months…On the 10th day of this month every man shall take a lamb for his household and on the 14th day of the month you shall kill the lamb at twilight. Then take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house…the blood shall be a sign for you…and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.’
It was the blood that saved Israel from death, it was the blood that secured their redemption from Egypt. Paul picks up this theme in 1 Cor. 5 where he calls Christ our Passover Lamb. The parallel is clear is it not? Just as the blood of the lamb secured Israel’s redemption from Pharaoh and Egypt and sent them on their way to the promise land, so too, it is now the blood of Christ, our Passover Lamb, that secures our redemption from Satan, sin, and death and sends us on our way to the greater Canaan. It was the blood of the lamb that atoned for Israel, it is the blood of the Lamb of God that atones for us.
From this point on, we see God instituting His Law, which has many prescriptions in it for various offerings and sacrifices intended to atone for the sin of the people. This Law is then what all of the Old Testament prophets courageously and consistently called God’s people back to. Therefore, atonement has always been central to the people of God, and when we come over into the New Testament we find that all the sacrificial atoning work of God culminating in one act of atonement, the cross of our Lord Jesus.
What I’ll labor to show you now is that just as the Old Testament atoning sacrifices were only applied to God’s people in the Old Testament, so too the greatest atoning sacrifice of all, the sacrifice of God’s Son, was for and only applied to God’s people in the New Testament. 6 points:
The Atonement is a Secured Redemption – Hebrews 9:11-12, ‘But when Christ appeared as a High Priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.’ This puts on display what we’ve seen already – in the Old Testament the high priest once a year would enter into the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people by the means of the blood of goats and calves, but Jesus, our true High Priest, entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people once for all time, not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood. What was the result? The result was not that redemption was now possible, no, the result was that by doing this Jesus secured an eternal redemption. In 9:15-22 the author of Hebrews goes onto say that the only people who benefit from this atoning work are ‘those who are called.’
The Atonement was Accomplished – Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.’ In this passage Paul speaks of Christ’s work with such confidence that he uses the past tense for all of his main verbs, speaking that even glorification is already accomplished for God’s people through the work of God’s Son. This is why Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ in John 19:30.
The Atonement is for the Church/Sheep – Ephesians 5:25-27, ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, 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.’ In these verses who is it that Christ loved? Who is it that Christ gave Himself up for? Who is it that Jesus cleansed by the water of the Word? Who is it that He’ll one day present to Himself in splendor by His atoning work? His Church. He loved the Church and gave Himself up for the Church, only the Church. John 10:11 also, ‘I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays His life down (for who??) the sheep.’ After saying this to the crowds Jesus a bit further on in 10:26 tells many who are listening to Him that they ‘are not among His sheep.’ Acts 20:28, ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (who?) the Church of God, which He obtained (how?) with His own blood.’
The Atonement Redeemed a People for Christ’s own Possession – Titus 2:14 speaks of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ‘who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good works.’ Christ gave Himself to redeem a people, a particular people, for His own possession. John 11:51-52 speaks of this by saying the cross gathered into one people the children of God who were scattered abroad. Matthew 1:21 too, ‘Mary will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.’ Here we see Jesus’ name is connected with His mission. Why did He come? To save His people, from their sins.
The Atonement is Not for All but ‘Many’ – Matthew 20:26-28, ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’ Isaiah 53:11, ‘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.’
The Atonement Purchased a Global People – Rev. 5:9-10, ‘And they sang a new song, saying ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed (purchased – NIV) people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a Kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’ See here again, the cross didn’t make salvation possible for people, a specific, a definite people were purchased on the cross.
Perhaps some of you are thinking of other verses that seem to contradict what we’ve looked into today, like ‘God desiring all to repent’ in 2 Pet. 3:9, or ‘God so loved the world’ in John 3:16, or even ‘God drawing all men to Himself’ in John 12:32. These passages do not provide a problem for the doctrine of Definite Atonement, rather they uphold it. To hear the explanation of these things I’d refer you to our first SonRise Seminar on our podcast called ‘What Does it Mean to be Reformed?’ where I give you all the verses people use to object to this. And I’d also point you to our Evening Worship service, where in a few weeks we’ll be going through these very questions in depth.
In summary, let me end with 2 thoughts:
a) Jesus did not die to make salvation possible for everyone. He did not die to merely open the door of salvation and sit back hoping that people will accept His gospel. If that were true His death on the cross didn’t accomplish anything, it only made salvation attainable, and we cannot attain it on our own! This is a false view of the atoning work of Christ. Rather, the Biblical view is this: Jesus died and shed His blood to purchase His sheep, to secure the salvation of His Church, and to redeem the elect of God from every corner of the globe. In this manner we can say the atoning work of Christ on the cross is sufficient for all, but only efficient for the elect. Charles Spurgeon said it well, ‘Some men cannot endure to hear the doctrine of election. I suppose they like to choose their own wives, but they are not willing that Christ should choose His own Bride, the Church.’ J.I. Packer said it too, ‘Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for His own chosen people.’ Here we see it: Jesus chooses His Bride, and Jesus dies for His bride, securing everything needed for the salvation of His own.
b) Hear the words of Elder D.J. Ward:
‘I contend this morning that the death of Christ was not an attempt, it was an accomplishment. Brothers and sisters, when one accomplishes something it means somewhere they had to have an assignment. Well, what was the assignment? ‘His name shall be called Jesus, for He shall save (not attempt to save, not try to save, not hope to save, not want to save) He shall save, His people from their sins.’ Is that right? Now I hear this in too many churches: that God has done all He can do, the rest is up to you. If the rest is up to you than He didn’t accomplish it, if anything is up to you, He didn’t accomplish it. I’ve even heard this: you’ve got to help God save you, He can’t do it by Himself. If God cannot do it by Himself, than He didn’t accomplish it and He then would be a false God, a liar, and you best not trust Him. If he didn’t do it then we ought to stop singing ‘Jesus Paid it All.’ Sing, ‘He paid some of it!’ Now brothers and sisters, if He did not accomplish it we are here in vain. You can have all the religion you want, if this was not accomplished we’re going to hell. Is just that simple…but if He did do it He doesn’t need your best, and your works need not speak for you. If He did do it, you can leave here rejoicing that your sins are now under the blood, and He now stands as your substitute, your mediator, before God this morning, pleading the blood, pleading His blood of His perfect sacrifice, you can rest, that all of your sins are under that blood. Did He accomplish it? Did He fail? Do we need anything more than what He has done for us? I declare this morning, HE PAID IT ALL! Every sin I have committed, every sin I thought about committing, He nailed it to His cross and I bear it no more! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, it is well with my soul!’
Church, not one drop of our Lord’s blood was spilt in vain, none of it was wasted, rather, it accomplishes all we need to be reconciled to God and to be welcomed in His presence as family. AMEN!