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Atonement Exegesis

November 1, 2007

I have decided that my contribution to Theology Online from now on is going to be involved with exegeting the different atonement verses in the Bible. I know that there is a lot of exceptional theologians who have gone before me, but I also know that discussion usually happens when there is personal involvement. So, what I will do is a quick exegesis of some key texts, then also link quotes and commentaries from some popular theologians and we can discuss. What this will do for this blog is add hopefully some involvement of the text themselves without ignoring the intelligence of those who have gone before us.

The first that I would like to discuss is probably the most popular: John 3:16

The most popular “high” position on this is that God so loved the world, that is, the elect of the world, that He sent His Son. There are a lot of uses of the term world when we look at the Bible. The term is “kosmos” and is used in the New Testament many times to mean “the evil world system” (1 John 2:15-17); the actual earth (Matthew 13:35); all of humanity (Mark 16:15), etc. So, we have to come to this Scripture and try and find what this means here in this context. The “high” position is that this term means “elect” but I just find that wanting, and here is why.

When we read the verse it starts by lumping all people together: God loved the world. Then John starts to put people in different classes by saying “those believing will not perish.” The opposite would then come to mean that there are some who won’t believe and will perish. So we have two classes of people who make up the world; those believing and those not believing. Those who will perish and those who will have eternal life. If the term “kosmos” means “elect” then we have a real problem. This would mean that some of the elect will not believe and will perish. It would read like this:

God so loved the elect, that He gave His only Son that those (referring to the noun “world”) who believe will not be like those of the elect (referring back again to the noun, “world”) who don’t believe and perish, but will have eternal life.

As you read the rest of the text down to verse 21 John continues to differeniate between those in the world that God so loved. He uses terms like: He who believes, and doesn’t believe (verse 18); those practicing evil and those practicing truth (verse 20,21). Notice where the Light came: the world. The light came into the “kosmos” because God loves the “kosmos” to save the “kosmos.”

But, to get a complete better understanding of all of this we have to go to the verse that explains this in simple terms: John 3:14,15

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
John 3:14-15

If we read John 3:16 in this context it makes a lot of sense. God provided a provision for all people to “look and be saved.” If you need to be reminded go back to Numbers 21 to get the full understanding. Moses puts this serpent up for all to see. Those believing, that look, will be saved. Those who are stiff necked and refused, died. Most will say that if Jesus died for all and all aren’t saved, then Christ failed. Did God fail if some didn’t look at the serpent? No. The person failed to recognize their provision and died in their sin of idolatry. This is the definition of the reprobate: those that don’t believe and die in their sin. Also know that if the serpent was only a provision for those who would have looked, then Moses was a liar. He told the people in Numbers: Everyone who is bitten and looks upon the serpent shall be healed. If the serpent was only for those who would believe then Moses cannot make this remark to the people, it is an empty promise.

We also have the question of, “Was Christ a provision for each and every sin that I commit, or is Christ a payment for our sins in general?” Meaning: Did Christ have to die for each and every one of my lies, or did He die for the sin of lying and then apply His death to every one of our lies? The serpent clears this up. Was the serpent a provision for each and every person’s idolatry, or was the serpent a provision for the people’s collective sin of idolatry? The serpent was a provision for the nation’s sin of idolatry and then was applied to those who would look upon the provision. (penal payment)

If we read John 3:16 to mean that God so loved the elect, then we must say the same here in Numbers. God loved those elect of the nation of Israel and provided the serpent for those who would believe only, not for all. Numbers 21:8 could not be more clear for us:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”
Numbers 21:8

Notice God uses the term “everyone” to connotate that the serpent was for all people, not just some. Who was the death effective for? Those who believed and looked.

So, if you think that Jesus only died for the elect, then you have to read into Numbers 21 and also say that the serpent was somehow only for those who would look and was not a provision for all, even though God Himself says that it was for “everyone who was bitten.” The same can be said of us today: Jesus died for all who have been bitten (sinned) and all who believe in Him will have eternal life.

If you would like to take a look at some other theologian’s stances on John 3:16 here are a few:

Calvin: Here

JC Ryle: Here

R.L. Dabney: Here

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2007 12:04 pm

    Seth,

    I assume you want comments over here (Theology Online).

    Let me be honest in saying I’m still trying to figure out exactly what your position is. I’m a little uncomfortable with you calling the traditional 5 point Calvinist view “high Calvinism”. That makes it seem that 5 pointers are extreme. I’m also having trouble seeing how your view is really denying what 5 point Calvinism says. It seems to complement it and add clarification. If that is the case, 5 point shouldn’t be seen as high.

    Anyways, getting down to the text, I basically agree with your point. I never have resorted to a redefinition of world. I hone in on “so”. It is not the English superlative “so” is today. Rather it is “thus” in Greek. God in this way loved the world, giving Christ to die with the result that all who believe are saved. My pastor, John Piper, says that Christ died to procure a legitimate appeal to all people to believe, but he also died specifically for the elect to procure their actual salvation. We can legitimately offer the Gospel to all, since if they believe they will not perish and will not be cast out–they will be saved. We spread this Gospel on the basis of texts like John 3:16. But that passage doesn’t get into the specifics of how/why some believe and others don’t. God must supersede the fallen, bent wills of the elect to enable them to truly believe. This understanding seems similar to the last paragraph in the Dabney link.

    Now on John 3:15, what about the fact that the serpent was only lifted up for the covenant people? Not all the world? Perhaps John 3:16 expands this with “world”. Not sure there. But to say Christ died for all but with different intentions or in a different sense, doesn’t seem all that different from traditional 5 point Particular Redemption/Definite Atonement. I’m probably deficient in my understanding somewhere though.

    Also on the John 10 post, what do you do with Acts 20:28 or Eph. 5:25ff.? Christ purchased the church, if so, how could he also equally purchase the non-church? Christ died for his bride in order to cleanse her and present her to himself, how could that passage make sense if we are to also understand that Christ equally died for the non-bride and wants to cleanse her too? I understand the logic of an assertion not equalling a negation but I just don’t understand how else to make sense of those passages.

    Thanks, and by the way, I’ve been appreciating your interaction in the comments over at my blog.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Bob Hayton

  2. November 7, 2007 12:06 pm

    One other question: is this position of yours equal to Bruce Ware’s new position?

  3. November 7, 2007 12:46 pm

    bob.
    good to see you over here and interacting…I always appreciate your insight because you seem to focus on the word of God and not opinion…and yes, from what I have read and listened to Ware, I would agree with him on his view of the atonement.

    Let me answer the best I can, but I will also leave you with a quote from Shedd which is really good on this issue. It will hopefully clear up my view…

    Notice how Piper puts it (by the way…I am a big fan of Piper, so I love his insight on Scriptures)

    My pastor, John Piper, says that Christ died to procure a legitimate appeal to all people to believe, but he also died specifically for the elect to procure their actual salvation

    Christ died for a more specific reason than to just “procure a legitimate appeal.” He died to pay the debt of sin. Now, the legitimate appeal is a fruit of this death, but not the reason. John 3:16 tells us that it was because God so loved the world that He sent His Son. So, the debt payment was out of love and out of that came the appeal to turn and repent.

    Most Calvinists today say that Christ did not die for all men. That Christ did not pay the debt payment. They use the Owen argument of Double Jeopardy which makes absolutely no sense when you work out the details of that argument. Tony from Theological Meditations has nailed this pretty well. Check out these links if you get a chance. (Double Jeopardy?

    Penal Substitution)

    As far as your question on John 10 and the thought of the serpent only lifted up for the covenant community, you have to remember the reason for the serpent. It was for all that were bitten by the snakes, which can be seen as a metaphor when referring to John 3:16 as sin. So, who were bitten by the snakes because of idolatry? It happened to be the covenant community. Were all saved within that community? No. But the serpent was for EVERYONE bitten and would heal all who looked. This is a picture of what my quote here in the end will entail, but it is a picture of atonement for all, redemption for the elect.

    Before the quote, know that we are not making this all to be an equal payment, there is an efficiency with the elect (redemption) in the payment for their sin. But, the payment of sin is not neglecting the reprobate, but is inclusive. It all comes to the thought of application or redemption of the death of Christ for the elect.

    Shedd explains this very well…take time to read:

    Atonement must be distinguished from redemption. The latter term includes the application of the atonement. It is the term redemption, not atonement, that is found in those statements that speak of the work of Christ as limited by the decree of election. In Westminster Confession 8.8 it is said that “to all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, he does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same.” In 8.5 it is stated that “the Lord Jesus has purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given unto him.” Since redemption includes reconciliation with God and inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, it implies something subjective in the soul: an appropriation by faith of the benefits of Christ’s objective work of atonement. Reconciliation and inheritance of heaven are elements and parts of redemption and are limited to those who have believed; and those who have believed are those who have been called and chosen: “Faith is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:9); “you believed, even as the Lord gave to every man” (1 Cor. 3:5); “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 3:48). Accordingly the Scriptures limit redemption, as contradistinguished from atonement, to the church. Christ “makes reconciliation for the sins of his people” (Heb. 2:17). His work is called “the redemption of the purchased possession” (Eph. 1:14). He is “the mediator of the New Testament, that by means of his death they which are called might receive an eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15). He “has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). David, addressing Jehovah, says, “Remember your congregation which you have purchased of old, the rod of your inheritance which you have redeemed” (Ps. 74:2). The elders of Ephesus are commanded to “feed the church of God which he has purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). “He sent redemption unto his people” (Ps. 3:9). “O Israel, fear not; for I have redeemed you” (Isa. 43:1). “He shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Christ is “the Savior of his body the church” (Eph. 5:23). “He said, surely they are my people: so he was their Savior” (Isa. 63:8). “I will save my people from the east country and from the west country” (Zech. 8:7). See the Old Testament passages in which Jehovah is called the Savior of Israel and the New Testament passages in which God is called “our Savior,” that is, of the church.
    Since redemption implies the application of Christ’s atonement, universal or unlimited redemption cannot logically be affirmed by any who hold that faith is wholly the gift of God and that saving grace is bestowed solely by election. The use of the term redemption, consequently, is attended with less ambiguity than that of “atonement,” and it is the term most commonly employed in controversial theology.?137? Atonement is unlimited, and redemption is limited. This statement includes all the scriptural texts: those which assert that Christ died for all men, and those which assert that he died for his people. He who asserts unlimited atonement and limited redemption cannot well be misconceived. He is understood to hold that the sacrifice of Christ is unlimited in its value, sufficiency, and publication, but limited in its effectual application. But he who asserts unlimited atonement and denies limited redemption might be understood to hold either of three views: (1) The doctrine of the universalist that Christ’s atonement, per se, saves all mankind; (2) the doctrine of the Arminian that personal faith in Christ’s atonement is necessary to salvation, but that faith depends partly upon the operation of the Holy Spirit and partly upon the decision of the sinful will; or (3) the doctrine of the school of Saumur (hypothetic universalism) that personal faith in Christ’s atonement in the first arrangement of God depended in part upon the decision of the sinful will, but since this failed, by a second arrangement it now depends wholly upon the work of the Spirit, according to the purpose of election.

    Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. (2003). Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed.) (742). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub.

  4. November 7, 2007 2:11 pm

    Thanks Seth. I’m still sorting through all this. I read the Shedd quote. This is still unclear to me though. Shedd says, “He who asserts unlimited atonement and limited redemption cannot well be misconceived. He is understood to hold that the sacrifice of Christ is unlimited in its value, sufficiency, and publication, but limited in its effectual application.” But I don’t see how my view differs from that. Limited atonement guys say the atonement is unlimited in value, sufficiency, etc. Sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.

    Shedd seemed to be merely proving the limited redemption part but didn’t prove the unlimited atonement part. Plus I haven’t seen how atonement and redemption are specifically separated in Scripture? Would propitiation be referring to atonement? It would seem the idea means more than mere expiation, but actual removal of wrath and hence referring more to redemption (using Shedd’s definitions of redemption and atonement).

    I still don’t see how John 3:16 says anything more than that God loved the world such that, he offers Jesus in death to provide a sacrifice efficient for all who would only believe. Perhaps you could say it is a potentially universal atonement, but limited by God’s intent to actually only purchase his church through it.

    I do plan to think through this more, but it doesn’t seem to different from my understanding of the “L” at least now. Of course maybe I’m understanding “L” differently than I should be.

    Looking forward to your future posts & comments on this,

    Bob

  5. November 7, 2007 3:19 pm

    Bob.

    First…thanks for the conversation, I always love interacting with you on different subjects. With that…let’s get to it…

    You say:

    Plus I haven’t seen how atonement and redemption are specifically separated in Scripture?

    Here is the big difference. It all comes down to imputation. Take a look at my post on Imputation: When does it Occur?

    Atonement has happened for the entire world. It is done. Redemption though happens at the time of imputation of Christ’s righteousness being applied to the elect. It is the from the Five Solas…Sola Gratia through Sola Fide because of Solus Christus.

    So, when we say that “we have redemption because of his blood.” This speaks of when the imputation happens and we redeemed. If imputation or redemption happens literally at the cross with no conditions then we have to reexplain Eph 2:3 because Paul tells us that we are “Children of wrath, even as the rest.”

    Again, if you follow this logic of imputation and redemption happening at the cross, you come to they hypers view of the elect not having to have saving faith, they are never under the wrath of God and all passages in the Bible about God hating sinners is then redefined as God hating the reprobate.

    It is a slippery slope.

    I will quote Flynn for 1 John 2:2 cause he has done some great study on that subject and I cannot state it any better:

    A few things, the hilasmos in the Greek for propitiation or expiation is a noun here in 1 Jn 2:2. One should not define nouns verbally. Hilasmos is atoning sacrifice. That can easily be propitiatory sacrifice or expiatory sacrifice. It is not just propitiation per se, or expiation per se, not just atonement per se. It is not signifying the accomplished result, but the means to accomplish a result, that means is the sacrifice.

    A car is a means of transport which takes a passenger from A to B. You cant define car as a noun by its actually getting me to work at 8am.

    Hilasmos cant be defined as actually accomplishing reconciliation (it the removal of displeasure) for the whole world, or the believers even. That is to define it verbally, so to speak. Hilasmos, as a noun, is the *means by which* reconciliation is accomplished, not only for us believers, but also for the whole world. John is saying, Christ is the means by which every one, anyone, can obtain reconciliation (removal of divine displeasure).

    John is NOT saying, Hey Christ accomplished reconciliation not only for us but also for the whole world. John is not saying, hey Christ propitiated not only for us but for the whole world too.

    Apart from being just plain wrong, the terms have been changed. The subject of the hilasmos is sins, not sinners. Hilasmos respects the sacrifice for sin, not the accomplished reconciliation of sinners. Reconciliation results from the hilasmos being accepted by God. It is what God does in response to accepting the sacrifice(the hilasmos).

    So it is not that John is saying, Christ has reconciled us, and not only us but the whole world.

  6. saved by grace permalink
    November 18, 2007 5:20 pm

    I used to be on the inefficient grace side as a young Christian and argued vehently against effectual grace.
    After keeping open to Biblical truth that it is God who blinds eyes and who gives spiritual sight I became convinced Biblically that God’s gift of Christ was to the elect(JOHN 10). The only way to avoid that meaning is to eisogete the context of entire chapters and to add things not in the text. As for noteworthy Biblical Scholars, there is one who would spend years exhausting the Scriptures in defending the faith against heretics such as Rome. His name is John Owen. Mr. Owen, wrote a book that Mr. Packer rightly states in the foreward, has yet to be refuted.
    Dealing specifically with the subject at hand the title of the book is: “The Death of Death In the Death of Christ”. This is one of the long standing Christian classics that needs to be read by all Christians. Another of course was a polemic against the papacy: “The Bondage of the Will”, Martin Luther.

    JOB 42:2

  7. November 18, 2007 11:49 pm

    Owen’s book is easily refuted:

    He uses the idea of Pecuniary debt payment being made by Christ which would literally wipe away God’s wrath for His elect and they would have no reason to believe, nor would Ephesians 2:3 make any sense…

    that is…the elect still being under the wrath of God.

    If you came on here to converse, that would be great. If you came on here to just state an opinion, I would encourage you to do more reading before you do next time.

    Take a look at this post: Penal Substitution

    Owen’s work falls apart when taken into account of Penal debt payment and Ephesians 2:3

    Hope this helps.

  8. Flynn permalink
    November 19, 2007 6:29 pm

    Hey Saved,

    We have tried to engage Turretinfan to table his strongest argument for limited expiation. So far he has tabled Jn 3:16. So, if you like, you are welcome to table here the strongest argument from Owen’s Death of Death, and we are willing to have a conversation about it.

    You also might be interested in checking out this archive: for-whom-did-christ-die

    Search for Bullinger, Zwingli and others.

    Thanks for posting.
    David

  9. Robert permalink
    February 20, 2009 10:20 am

    John 3:16 is not now, has never been, nor shall ever be a conditional text. It is a declarative text. According to this same Jesus in John 5:24, he that believeth (currently believes) hath (currently possesses) everlasting life. Current belief manifests the fact that you currently have everlasting life in your possession, and therefore cannot be the root cause of receiving the everlasting life. Furthermore, Jesus says in John 10:26, “ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep.” If belief is the cause of salvation then this statement would be worded oppositely, but it is not. Those not chosen and called will not believe, therefore the “whosoever believeth” in 3:16 are the elect.

    The love of God is everlasting (Jeremiah 31:3) and there is nothing that can seperate one from it (Romans 8:38, 39), therefore all those God loves today will be loved throughout eternity and will be with him in heaven. So then it is simply not possible to view world in 3:16 as all humanity and make that level out with other texts. Again I will state that there is no language in 3:16 that is conditionary.

  10. Flynn permalink*
    March 20, 2009 10:56 am

    hey Robert,

    Robert says: John 3:16 is not now, has never been, nor shall ever be a conditional text. It is a declarative text. According to this same Jesus in John 5:24, he that believeth (currently believes) hath (currently possesses) everlasting life. Current belief manifests the fact that you currently have everlasting life in your possession, and therefore cannot be the root cause of receiving the everlasting life.

    David: I am not what you are arguing against. Let’s agree that God loves the world in some senses unconditionally. That is, our demerit does not preclude this love (else God could never love any sinful being), nor is this love based on our merit, as it is a love to the world: ie sinful apostate humanity. Having said that, the appropriation of salvation is conditioned by faith.

    Robert says”
    Furthermore, Jesus says in John 10:26, “ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep.” If belief is the cause of salvation then this statement would be worded oppositely, but it is not. Those not chosen and called will not believe, therefore the “whosoever believeth” in 3:16 are the elect.

    David: I fail to see the logic here. Let’s concede that the believers are the elect. However, that is not the same as saying God only loves the elect.

    Robert: The love of God is everlasting (Jeremiah 31:3) and there is nothing that can seperate one from it (Romans 8:38, 39),

    David: Not all divine love is electing love. For example, Hos 9:15: NAU Hosea 9:15 All their evil is at Gilgal; Indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; All their princes are rebels.

    David: The verse says “I will love them no more…” That can only mean that they were loved, but now God stops loving them.

    NAU 2 Samuel 7:15 but My lovingkindness [hesed] shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you.

    The lovingkindness of God was taken away from Saul.

    Robert: therefore all those God loves today will be loved throughout eternity

    Saul and the House of Israel have another opinion. :-)

    Robert: and will be with him in heaven. So then it is simply not possible to view world in 3:16 as all humanity and make that level out with other texts. Again I will state that there is no language in 3:16 that is conditionary.

    David: Again, Saul and the House of Israel of Hos 9:15 speak otherwise.

    Your argument seems to work like this, in summary:
    All divine love is effectual.
    All those loved are effectually loved.
    Therefore no man can be non-effectually loved.

    If the world of 3:16 is all humanity, this would entail an ineffectual love: which is impossible.
    Therefore, the wordl of 3:16 cannot refer to all humanity.

    The argument is flawed, as I have shown above. Scripture does have a category of a non-effectual divine love. Therefore you logical argument against my reading of 3:16 fails.

    Hope that helps,
    David

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