It is for the elect, too, that the Lord prays in His sacerdotal intercession. Very clear this is from the Lord’s high priestly prayer as it is preserved for us in John 17. Expressly He declares there: “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.” It is true, that in the narrowest sense and in the first instance these words have reference to the disciples. But this does not alter the fact that, according to Jesus’ own words “the world” is excluded from His prayer. This is evident, not only from verse 9, but also from the whole chapter. In the entire chapter the term “world” stands in sharp antithesis to those whom the Father has given to the Savior, and must, therefore, be interpreted as referring to the reprobate ungodly. To His own Christ gave His word, and the world hated them, because they are not of the world, even as He is not of the world, vs. 14. Besides, He does not limit His prayer to those that were with Him in the world at that, moment, but extends it to all that will believe on Him through their word, vs. 20. Yet, even so, all that will ever believe are those whom the Father gave Him, the elect, and for them He prays: “Father, I will, that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am that they may behold my glory which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” vs. 24. For the elect then, the Savior prays, and that, too, for them in distinction from the world for whom He does not pray. But since this sacerdotal intercessory prayer is based on His redemptive work on, the cross, on His perfect sacrifice of atonement, it follows that the latter is as limited as the former, and that He shed His lifeblood for the elect alone.
Besides, the doctrine of limited atonement is in harmony with the whole Word of God. It is those whom He hath foreknown, and predestined to be conformed according to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren, whom He hath also called, and justified, and glorified. Rom. 8:29, 30. But surely, this implies that it was also for them that Christ offered Himself on the cross, for their calling and justification and glorification rests in the atonement. Accordingly, He hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, and these blessings all have their ground in the perfect sacrifice and obedience of Christ, according as He hath chosen us before the foundation of the world. Eph. 1:3, 4. If the elect alone receive the spiritual blessings, it is because they alone are in Christ from before the foundation of the world, they alone were in Him on the cross, and for them alone Christ atoned. He predestinated the elect unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, whereby He has made us acceptable in the beloved, and, therefore, these elect have the redemption in His blood, the forgiveness of sins. Eph. 1:5-7. The blessing of forgiveness, though appropriated by faith, does not rest on faith, but solely on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. And while this spiritual blessing flows from the eternal good pleasure of God to the elect, it follows that also the atonement was accomplished for them alone. Hence, these also have become an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things according to the counsel of His own will, Eph. 1:11. Many more passages of Scripture might be added to these to prove that the Word of God does, indeed, clearly teach the truth of limited atonement, the doctrine that Christ died, as far as His intention and the purpose of the Father are concerned, not for all men, but for the elect only.
And even though this truth is bitterly opposed by many, and, especially in our day, the preaching runs generally along boldly Arminian lines, the opponents cannot successfully appeal to Scripture for their view that Christ died for all men.
This does not mean, that they do not make the attempt to support their theory of universal atonement by passages from Holy Writ. On the contrary, they point to many texts that, considered apart from them context, and without application to them of the regula Scripturae, seem to teach that Jesus died for all.
They reveal special preference for passages that contain the term “world”, or the word “all”, in connection with God’s purpose of salvation. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them. And He is a propitiation, not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. John 3:16; II Cor. 5:19; I John 2:2. And the contention is that the world denotes all men and every man. And so, they point out, Scripture frequently speaks of all men, or simply of all. As by the offence of one judgment came to all men to condemnation, so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men to justification of life. Romans 5:18. Sound exegesis, they claim, demands that, seeing that the term all men occurs twice in this passage, they must be interpreted as having the same implication. And seeing that there can be no doubt about the fact that the first all men refers to every member of the human race, the same term must have the same comprehensive meaning in the second part of this passage. And there are many similar passages. God will that all men shall be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth, I Tim. 2:4. The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Tit. 2:4. And he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. II Pet. 3:9. On the basis of these and similar passages they attempt to gainsay the doctrine of limited atonement, and to maintain that Christ died for every man.
It would require too much space, were we to examine all these passages in detail. Nor is this necessary. Rather do we point the reader to some fundamental errors in exegesis that must be, and are actually committed by those who elicit from them the doctrine of universal atonement.
The first, and most important, of these is the violation of the rule that words may not be lifted out of their context, but must be interpreted as defined by the context in which they occur.
Thus with respect to the term “world”, it should be plain from a comparison of a few passages of Holy Writ: (1) That it does not denote the same concept wherever it occurs in Scripture, and (2) That it never means the same as all men. Compare, for instance, John 3:16 with John 17:9, and with I John 2:15-17, and you will see this at once. God so loved the world, to be sure; but Jesus prays not for the world; and in I John 2:15-17 we are told that we must not love the world, neither the things that are in the world; that all that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life; that this is not of the Father, but of the world; and that the world passeth away, and the lust thereof. Who does not see that in these passages the same term refers to two entirely different concepts, and that, therefore, you cannot explain the word world at random as simply meaning all men? Who, moreover, cannot for himself draw the conclusion, that, since both these “worlds” are in our present world as we see it, so that each is but a part of it, neither can possibly refer to all men, but in one instance it refers to the world of the ungodly, in the other instance to the world of the godly according to God’s election? John 3:16 refers to God’s world, to the world as it is the object of His everlasting love; and the world for the which Christ refuses to pray is excluded from this world of God’s love. For the latter God sent His Son, and for the latter He died.
The same is true of the term all men, or all, or even every. These terms dare not be interpreted as referring to all men that ever lived, and shall live, or even to all men that lived in the whole world at a certain period of time. Their content and scope must be determined from the context in which they occur. A few examples ought to make this plain. In I Tim. 4:4 the apostle writes: “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving.” The context, as well as the text, plainly shows (that the meaning is: “every creature of God is good to eat.” But who would be so foolish as to insist that the apostle here teaches that every existing thing, stone and wood, iron and steel, rats and mice, etc., is good for man’s consumption? No one has any objection to limit the term “every creature” to every eatable creature. In I Tim. 5:20 we read: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” Is there anyone that has any objection to limit the word all in this text to a very limited group? Does anyone insist that the apostle means all men head for head? Or would anyone understand the words of the apostle as meaning that the Church ought to call a meeting of the whole town and all the citizens on the public marketplace, in order there to rebuke the offending church member? Of course not! We understand without difficulty that at most the whole church is meant, or, perhaps, all that are involved in the offense committed. Or consider the text in II Tim. 1:15: “This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me.” Does the apostle refer to all the inhabitants of Asia? Or has he in mind, perhaps, all the saints in Asia? No one understands the words in that sense. He refers to a very limited group of men, of coworkers, perhaps. But why, then, should we insist that when the matter of salvation is the subject all, or every, or all men, must needs refer to every individual in the world? Is it not very evident: that this cannot possibly be the meaning in Tit. 2:11: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men?” Mark you well, that the apostle here asserts that saving grace had at that time, at the time he wrote his epistle to Titus, already appeared to all men, which certainly implies that the gospel of salvation had already been preached to all. But could the apostle possibly mean that in his own day there was not a single living man that had not heard the gospel? We know better. Thousands upon thousands had never been reached by the preaching as yet. And we have no difficulty to understand the words of the apostle, considered in the light of the context, as meaning that the grace of God that bringeth salvation had appeared to all classes of men, to aged men and women, as well as to young men and young women, to servants as well as to masters. And thus the context must determine the meaning of all, or all men, wherever if occurs.
But insistence upon finding proof for the doctrine of universal atonement in such passages that contain the word world, or the terms all men, or all, implies another exegetical error, the error, namely, that justice is not and cannot be done to the rest of the texts in which such words occur.
Take, for example, the text in II Cor. 5:19: “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” Suppose that we understand the term “world” in this passage as meaning “all men” in the strict sense of that word. Then what does the text teach? Evidently this, that all men are saved. If all men are reconciled to God, so that God does not impute their trespasses unto them, it follows that all men are saved. Their sins were atoned for nineteen hundred years ago. and they are blotted out for ever. But the Arminian understands very well that this would prove too much, for as a matter of fact all men are not saved. And so he is compelled to weaken the meaning of reconciliation, and to explain the text as teaching that in the cross of Christ there is a way, a chance, an opportunity of reconciliation, which is to be realized through man’s consent to be reconciled. That this is a corruption of the text is evident. For in the crass of Christ, God actually did blot out the sin of “the world,” He actually did reconcile “the world” unto Himself, and He nevermore imputes the sins unto that world. It should be evident, then, that by “world” in this text is meant the same as by that term in John 3:16: God’s elect world.
The same applies to Rom. 5:18: “Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came to all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men to justification of life.” As we already mentioned, those who find the doctrine of universal atonement in this passage insist that the term all men must be given the same content and scope in both members of the text. Suppose we give that meaning to this term in both instances, and see what is the result. The second part of the passage would, in that case, signify that the gift of grace unto justification is actually bestowed upon every man that ever lived and will live, which means that all men are actually saved. Now again, this would prove too much even for the Arminian, seeing that all men are not saved. Hence, the attempt is made to explain the text as meaning that, as far as God’s intention is concerned, the gift of grace came upon all men, but that the actual reception of this gift of grace depends upon the free will of men. Even if this interpretation were possible, the concept “all men” would still have to be limited, unless it may be supposed that there will be an opportunity to accept this gift after death, for, in the first place, the knowledge of this gift in the old dispensation was limited to very few, and, in the second place, even in the new dispensation millions die without ever coming into contact with the gospel. But apart from this consideration, the text does not allow such an interpretation. We must not overlook that there is a comparison here: “as by the offence of one judgment came unto all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men to justification of life.” The question, therefore, must be asked: how, in what way, did by the offence of one judgment unto condemnation come to all men? With their consent? By their own free will? Not at all, but only by God’s imputation of the sin of Adam to all. No choice of their free will can undo this fact. But then must the same truth be applied to the second member of the passage: the fact that the free gift unto justification of life comes upon men does not depend upon their own choice, but is an objective fact: those for whom the gift is intended are surely saved, and that, too, by an act of God alone. If this is true, however, the term all men in both members of the text can only mean: all men in Adam . . . . all men in Christ. And the passage cannot be quoted in support of the doctrine of unlimited atonement.
We will examine one more passage that is frequently quoted by those who teach that Christ died for all men, and that God intends all men to be saved. It is the well-known text from II Pet. 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but he is longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The general meaning of the text is plain. God’s people had to endure much suffering for Christ’s sake. And in their suffering they looked forward to the realization of the promise, i.e. to the speedy return of Christ their Lord in glory. However, it appeared to them that he delayed His coming, that God was slack in the fulfillment of His promise. He is longsuffering over His people in tribulation, that is, He longs to deliver them, and, no doubt, will deliver them as soon as possible, but, speaking from a human viewpoint, He waits until the time is ripe. And when is the time ripe for the final coming of the Savior from heaven and the perfect redemption? This is indicated in the last part of the text: God will not that any should perish, but that all come to repentance. The meaning of the text is, therefore, that God’s longsuffering must and will endure until this condition is fulfilled, until no one shall have perished, and all shall have come to repentance. For this the realization of the promise and the coming of Christ must wait. But if this is understood, is there any possibility left of interpreting the all in the text as referring to every individual man? There is not, for that would mean that the final salvation would never be revealed, that the promise would never be fulfilled, that Christ would never return. Always there are many that perish. All men never come to repentance. That, therefore, cannot be the will of God, nor the meaning of the text. But the text is perfectly plain if to all is given the meaning of all the elect, the whole Church, the fullness of the body of Christ. Then the meaning is: God is longsuffering to usward, i.e. to His chosen Church in the world, for He is not willing that any of us, that is, of His elect Church, shall perish; the coming of Christ, and the realization of the promise must wait until the last one of the elect shall have come to repentance.
These examples may suffice to teach us that we must be on our guard when the Arminian quotes texts at random in support of his contention that Christ died for all men, according to His and God’s intention. Superficially considered such passages may leave the impression that they can serve as a basis for the doctrine of universal atonement. However, when they are studied somewhat more closely, and in the light of their context, it soon becomes evident that this superficial impression is erroneous. Scripture teaches plainly that our Savior brought the sacrifice of atonement for the elect alone, and there are no passages in Holy Writ that contradict this truth.