(A message given to the congregation of Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church, Bacolod City during their 23rd Anniversary on 27 July 2014)
Text: Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-12
I find it quite a challenge to preach on today’s topic, as it is a very controversial doctrine. The doctrine of particular redemption states that Christ died only for God’s elect. The majority of Christians believe otherwise. They believe that Christ died for all, and they consider the doctrine of particular redemption heretical, more or less, because (1) it seems to limit God’s love, (2) it seems to contradict plain statements of Scripture, and (3) it seems to make evangelism problematic.
On the contrary, I will show that it is the view that Christ died for all that is problematic:
(1) If Christ died for all, how do you avoid universal salvation? If Christ actually paid for all the sins of all people, does it not logically follow that everyone will ultimately be saved?
(2) Related to this is the issue of double jeopardy. If Christ already paid for the sins of all people, would it not be double payment to allow some of these people to again pay the penalty for their sins by suffering in hell? Does it harmonize with God’s justice to demand payment twice for the same offense?
(3) Also, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, did he also pay for the sins of those who were already in hell at that time? If he did, what was the point?
(4) Finally, if Christ died for all, did he pay for all the sins of all people? Why then are not all saved? If the answer is, “Because some do not believe,” the next question is, “Is unbelief a sin or not?” If it is, did Christ also die for this sin? If he did, why should this sin prevent anyone from being saved?
Many Christians are surprised by these problematic implications of the view that Christ died for all. That is because they never carefully thought about what it means to say that Christ died for someone. To say that Jesus Christ died for someone means that Christ actually paid the penalty for the sins of that someone, in which case anyone for whom Christ died will ultimately be saved.
Let us now go to an exposition of certain scriptural passages in support of the view that Christ died only for his people. As we study these passages let us ask what was God’s intention in sending his son to die?
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
“I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that of everything which he hath given to me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up in the last day.” (John 6:38, 39)
We infer from this passage that God intends the death of his son to succeed in accomplishing his will, i.e., to secure the salvation of all those whom he has given to him. It is therefore for them, and for them alone, that he died.
“[Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14)
Are we to think that Jesus Christ failed to accomplish this purpose? Or did he succeed in redeeming all those for whom he gave himself?
“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)
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)
Then in Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-12, we see that Christ’s atonement will succeed in its purpose: he will see his offspring (v. 10). He will be satisfied by his accomplishment. As a result, many will be justified, and this because he bore their iniquities. It follows that he died only for his offspring, the many who will eventually be justified. See also verse 12: He bore the sin of many.
Finally, Romans 8:32 – “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how shall he not with him freely give us all things?”
This is the argument from the greater to the lesser. If God has given us that which is greater, it follows all the lesser things will be given as well. Does it make sense for God to give up his Son for us and then fail to give us the faith by which we can avail of the benefits of his Son’s death? For him to give up his Son for us and not give us the faith by which we can avail of the benefits of his Son’s death is to give up his Son for us in vain. In effect, it is as if he had not given up his Son for us at all.
We do not believe however that God gave up his Son for us in vain. This verse is confident in its tone that since God gave up his Son for us, everything else necessary for us to enjoy the benefits of his Son’s death will be freely given to us as well. And first and foremost among these things that will be freely given to us on the heels of Christ’s death is faith, because it is by faith that we enjoy the benefits of Christ’s death. Therefore, we say that by his death Jesus Christ purchased faith for those for whom he died. Everyone for whom Christ died will eventually believe. But not everyone has faith; therefore, Christ did not die for everyone.
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
It must be said regarding this verse that it is not always the case that the word “world” means “every individual in the world”. In John 17: 9 we read, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” So the people of God are excluded from the coverage of the “world”. Also in 1 John 2:15 it seems the “world” there does not refer to all individuals in the world but to the system of wickedness reigning in the world, of which the components are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. In other words, the “world” in this verse is being used not in a quantitative and numerical sense but in a qualitative or moral sense.
In any event, the Reformed theologian John Murray believes that the “world” in 1 John 2:2 does not refer to all people numerically but to all people ethnically. In other words, the verse is not saying that the blood of Christ paid for the sins of everyone without exception, it is saying that the blood of Jesus Christ paid for the sins of all kinds of people, whether they are Filipinos, Americans, Chinese, or whatever.
I believe that this interpretation is consistent with Revelation 5: 9, which states –
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Note that the blood of Christ effectively ransomed people. In other words, it was an actual payment for the penalty of their sins. Only those who are effectively ransomed for God are the ones for whom Christ died. But they come from all nations of the world. Therefore, it can be said that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
Finally, we must ask, how will all this affect our preaching and our evangelizing? How then shall we evangelize, and how then shall we preach?
To answer this we now go to the most popular verse in the Bible, which many consider as the most problematic for those who hold to particular redemption: John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Some have said that the “world” in John 3:16 refers to the world of the elect. I do not agree however with that interpretation. Here is how I understand this verse.
While it may be true that Christ died only for the elect, in the sense that he paid for their sins alone, in accordance with God’s special love for his own, nevertheless, God has a general love for all people, which includes a genuine desire for their salvation. He is not willing that anyone should perish but that all should come to repentance. He therefore sincerely offers salvation to all because he genuinely desires the salvation of all, which is the same as saying that he loves the world.
But how does this square with his design that the death of Christ effectually secure the salvation only of the elect? This is where Deuteronomy 29:29 comes in: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.”
It may be true that Christ died only for the elect. But we do not know who the elect are. That is God’s secret and therefore none of our business. Our business is to preach the gospel to every creature and to invite all and sundry to believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, because this is what has been revealed to us as our duty to do. And if they believe they will be saved, whoever they may be. Of course, if they believe, paradoxically it turns out that they do so because they are elect before the foundation of the world and they are among those for whom Christ died. But again, their elect status is not something revealed to us and is therefore none of our business. We come to know of their elect status only after they believe. In any event, our responsibility is to preach to all and to invite all to come to Christ.
But when we preach, shall we tell them that God loves them? I answer, “Yes”. D.A. Carson has written a book entitled The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, where he explains that although God has a special love for his elect, which effectively secures their salvation, he nevertheless has a genuine love for the non-elect which sincerely desires their salvation, even if it falls short of effectively accomplishing the same. This might sound contradictory. But these “two wills” of God can be found in the Bible side by side: his secret will and his revealed will. John Piper in fact has written an article entitled “Are There Two Wills in God?” exploring this very issue. It is not my task to explicate this in detail, not at this time. I only wish to point out that you can find this in the Bible. For example, God’s will as revealed through the lips of Moses was for Pharaoh to let Israel go. His secret will was for Pharaoh not to let them go. In the event, he hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
But shall we tell those we seek to evangelize that Christ died for them? This time I answer, “No.” For although we have biblical warrant for telling them that God genuinely loves them, sincerely desires their salvation, and will save them if they believe, we simply do not know, before they believe, whether they are among those for whom Christ died. The best we can do is to say that Christ died for sinners, that he came not for the righteous but for sinners, to lead them to repentance. Moreover, he is a mighty Savior, able to save to the uttermost all those who come to him in faith and repentance for salvation. And since they are sinners, they are precisely the kind of people Christ promises to save if they will but come to him and put their faith in him. And if they repent and believe, they will discover that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses them from all unrighteousness.
In other words, the sure realization that Christ specifically died for you arises only after the event of faith. Prior to the event of faith, it is sufficient for you know that Christ is an almighty Savior who is able and willing to save every sinner who comes to him, whoever he or she may be. At this point, it is not necessary for you to know that you are one of the elect or among those for whom Christ died in particular. All you need to know is that Christ died for sinners and is willing and able to save sinners. And since you are a sinner you are precisely the kind of person Christ is willing and able to save if you will but come to him. In fact, I can even say that since you are here right now listening to this message, he is inviting you in particular to come to him and be saved.
I shall end this message by citing Hebrews 13:20-21:
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.”
This passage teaches us that if ever we have faith, which pleases God and justifies us from all our sins, this faith comes to us as a gift from the blood of the eternal covenant. Christ by his death purchased the very faith that we need in order to avail of all the saving benefits of his death. In other words, the very faith by which we are saved is itself the result of Christ dying for us. That is why we say that the death of Jesus Christ secures the salvation of all those for whom he died. And that is why all the glory of our salvation belongs to him alone.
The death of Jesus Christ therefore does not merely make salvation possible. It actually saves. His death was not a partial failure. It was a complete success. It actually paid for the sins of all his people and effectively accomplished their salvation. You shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins! To quote Isaiah once again, “When his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring, the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand … he shall see and be satisfied.”
Brothers and sisters, the death of Jesus Christ was a success!