For whom did Christ die?
The most common answer is: For all men.
One frequently hears it said over the radio, from the pulpit, and in the mission field that Christ died for all men individually, so that salvation is “full and free” for every one who makes a commitment to Christ. It depends only on man’s willingness to accept the proffered salvation merited for him on the cross. Even the general, well-meant offer of salvation as officially adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 implies that somehow the salvation merited on the cross is now offered to all men for their acceptance. It need not surprise anyone that Prof. Dekker and those in agreement with him appeal to the Three Points of 1924 to maintain that mission preaching is a proclamation to every man, women and child, “God loves you, Christ died for you.”
The assertion is often made that it is impossible to preach the gospel to the unconverted unless we can proclaim to them the glad tidings that Christ died for them. In fact, this must be proclaimed even though we are compelled to make certain mental reservations. Even Prof. Dekker feels compelled to make this statement with tongue in cheek, it seems, since he wants to make the reservation that the atonement of the cross is not efficacious for all. He maintains that the death of Christ is sufficient to save all men. He also teaches that the atonement of Christ’s death is available to all men. He even declares that God desires to save all men through the death of His Son. But he makes one reservation. The cross is not efficient for all, that is, it does not actually save all men. No, it does not actually save. (See the Reformed Journal, December, 1962).
Let us ask what Scripture teaches concerning the atonement of the cross. One often is compelled to bemoan the great dearth of Scriptural references in the current discussions on this subject. And yet the Scriptures must be our criterion, and Scripture alone. The question is, does Scripture teach a particular or a universal atonement? Did Christ die for all men, or did He die for the elect, and for the elect only?
In answer to that question, I wish to point out, first, that Christ died vicariously.
The word “vicarious” means “substitutionary.” Man needs a substitute to save him from his sin. And God has prepared the perfect substitute in Christ. For God gave His only begotten Son.
This is already evident from the sacrifices that were brought in the old dispensation. Immediately after the fall, God gave to Adam and Eve the skins of animals to replace their miserably devised fig-leaves as a covering for their nakedness. God showed them that blood had to be shed, that atonement had to be made, that a substitute had to be provided, and that God would provide the substitute to cover their sins. Therefore the believers of the old dispensation always approached God through the sacrifice that burned upon the altar. In faith they looked for the promised Christ. This altar with its bloody sacrifice became the very center of Israel’s shadow worship. The temple was later built around this altar. God had opened the way to a living fellowship with Him through the blood of atonement. Therefore the repentant sinner brought his sacrifice to the temple, laid his hand upon the head of the victim to show that the guilt of his sins had to be borne away. The scapegoat was sent out to perish in the wilderness as a token of the bearing away of the iniquity of God’s people. The blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled before the Lord in the Most Holy Place. Always the eye of faith was directed to that one and only sacrifice that must be brought by God Himself. And therefore when John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament prophets reached the climax of his ministry, he pointed out the Christ by saying to the people, “Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.”
This same idea is expressed repeatedly in the New Testament. Christ died in the place of His people. He died instead of them. He suffered on Calvary in behalf of those given to Him by the Father. He died for sin, that sin might be condemned in the flesh. The wrath of God against our sin was reckoned to Him. For God eternally appoints Christ as The Anointed One, the great High Priest, Whose task it is to bring the sacrifice for sin. It is for that very purpose that the Son of man came into the world, to give His life as a ransom for many. He became flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, like unto the brethren, in order to atone for their sins. He deliberately set His face toward Jerusalem, went to the cross, and suffered torments of hell under the righteous judgment of God as the sacrifice for sinners slain.
We are taught in II Cor. 5:21, “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Christ became the very embodiment of sin. He bore our sins and stood under the consuming wrath of God until the flames had completely burned out. And that for the purpose, which is also realized in us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
This same idea is presented in Galatians 1:4, “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father.” Here we are told that Christ gave Himself for the very purpose that He might deliver us from this present evil world. Did He fail in attaining that purpose as far as some men are concerned? Or is that purpose always attained? It must be that this purpose is also attained in all for whom it is intended, because the text adds that this deliverance is according to the will of God our Father. God’s counsel stands and He does all His good pleasure. For whose sins did Christ give Himself? For the elect’s.
Paul teaches the same truth in Galatians 3:13, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” This refers to the cross where Christ became a curse. And He became a curse for us, in our stead, and in our behalf. He has redeemed us. That is simply an accomplished fact that was realized almost two thousand years ago!
Therefore Hebrews 7:26, 27 shows us, “For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices . . . for this he did once, when he offered up himself.”
Here Christ is described as the High Priest ordained of God to bring the sacrifice for sin. He is the representative Head of those for whom He must atone. But is He the representative Head of the whole world as it perished in Adam? Or is He the representative Head of His people? Obviously the latter. (See Eph. 1:22, 23; Col. 1:18.) As representative Head of His people He brought the sacrifice for sin once. And it is our eternal comfort and assurance that He did that once for all.
Vicarious atonement means that Christ is the substitute for His people. It means that atonement is always particular.
But I wish to point out that this is the implication ofatonement. The very idea of atonement makes it particular.
Sin requires satisfaction. For sin is transgression against the Most High Majesty of God. The righteous, holy God cannot condone sin, not allow it to be unpunished. In His righteous judgment He declares that the soul that sins must die. Therefore the only way of escape from everlasting condemnation is restitution. Satisfaction must be made. God’s justice must be satisfied. Perfect obedience, must atone for our disobedience. The burden of God’s wrath must be borne in complete submission of love. And this we can never do. Nor can any other creature, angel or sacrificial lamb make such satisfaction for us. Only Christ, God’s perfect substitute can redeem and deliver us from our sins.
This also is taught us throughout Scripture. We turn first to Hebrews 2:17: “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.”
We should notice, that Christ was made “like unto His brethren.” He took upon Himself the likeness of sinful flesh, and became like us in all things, only sin excluded. And yet Hebrews wants to emphasize that He became like unto His brethren. He became like unto those who are given to Him by the Father from eternity, for whom He lays down His life on the cross. The reason why this is emphasized is because also here Christ is referred to as the High Priest, Who brings the sacrifice for sin. He is the High Priest, not for all men, but for the brethren. Scripture is very clear on that point. He brings the sacrifice as a divine Substitute for those whom He represents before the Father. He is the Head of the Body, and that Body is the Church, the elect.
And therefore this passage also points out that Christ came to “make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” He became the covering for their sins. He stood under the consuming wrath of God’s judgment in our stead to bear the full wrath of God until it had been completely borne away. Therefore He is also our ‘covering’ as He intercedes for us in the sanctuary. God sees us in Christ, redeemed, saved, worthy of. eternal salvation, clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Therefore Christ also prays for us in heaven, “Father I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am.” (John 17:24). And He is also heard. God bestows on Christ the blessings of salvation eternally appointed for us, in order that we may be drawn to Christ, and that we may be with Him forever in His glory.
For whom did Christ die? The text tells us: For His people.
For whom does Christ now intercede in heaven? For that same people.
“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Particular love, particular atonement, and therefore we also have particular assurance of that accomplished work for the elect.
Important in this connection is also that beautiful section of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the fifth chapter, of which I will quote only verses 10 and 11. “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled; we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (reconciliation).
Three times the apostle refers to our reconciliation. Reconciliation means that the former relationship of friendship is restored after estrangement. The idea is that God has established an eternal relationship of friendship with His people in Christ. Of this paradise was a picture. That relationship of friendship as disrupted by our willful disobedience and fall. But God restores that bond of friendship by the atoning death of His Son on the cross.
Paul speaks of this as an accomplished fact. When we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son. Not: God desires to reconcile by the death of His Son; nor: God made reconciliation available by the death of His Son; nor merely: the death of the cross was sufficient to reconcile. But God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing our sins to us, but to Christ. II Cor. 5:19, 20. We are reconciled. The relationship of friendship is restored. Therefore God also comes by His Spirit into our hearts to restore us into that relationship of friendship, as if- it had never been disrupted. In Christ He brings us into eternal, heavenly fellowship with Himself.
The atoning death of Christ is always efficacious for the elect.
By why right can anyone speak of an atonement that is not efficacious? The debt is paid. It can never be imputed again. God’s people are completely and fully saved.
Let it be preached to the ends of the earth: Jesus actually, fully saves.