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The Atonement and Intercession of Christ: An Argument for Limited Atonement

January 30, 2009

Introduction:

I recently posted this argument in the comments section of another blog. I thought it was something I should post here so as to have it handy and accessible. This is an argument that comes up again and again.

I have deleted the references to personal names. And I will convert it to third person mode as best as I can.

The background argument is a proof for limited atonement by way of the exclusive effectual intercession by Christ as high priest. The argument is usually expressed like this: For all whom Christ prays for as high priest, he effectually prays for, thereby effectually saving. This intercession of Christ is as extensive and as limited as is the scope of the expiation. For all whom Christ dies, he necessarily and effectually prays for, and thereby saves. If a given man is not finally saved, then it has to follow that Christ did not effectually pray for that man. If Christ did not pray for that man, then he did not die for him either, as Christ necessarily and effectually prays for all for whom he died. I requested Biblical support for this argument, and three verses were kindly supplied.

I should also say the discussion, albeit brief, was very friendly and with good Christian demeanor on all sides. And thanks to the blog owner for allowing me to post my thoughts in his comments section.

Argument:

“All the saved are “atoned for” and “interceded for.”

For the sake of ease I began to simplify this to:

1) All those for whom Christ died, are effectually prayed for by Christ.

And then I further reduced that to its core:

2) All the died for are prayed for.

In this response, I will assume “prayed for” equals “effectually prayed for as high priest.”

The proof-texts:

1) NAU Hebrews 7:24 but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. 25 Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.

2) NAU John 17:9 “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.

3) NAU John 10:15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16 “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

The Rebuttal:

For my rebuttal, I will respond to the three verses. Each verse will be examined under the following sub-sections: 1], 2] and 3].

1] Hebrews 7:24, 25 “24 But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. 25 Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”

David: The premise is, all the died for, are prayed for. However, here the verse simply says, all the coming ones are prayed for.

One would agree that all the died for are “all the coming ones” are not the same. For example, some “died for ones” are still non-existent, some “died for ones” are still in living in unbelief.

Let us, therefore, put the premises back to back:

The conclusion:

1) All the died for are prayed for

The first premise:

2) All coming ones are prayed for.

We can see that 2) in no way implies 1). It is not possible to get to 1) by way 2). Of course, some may say if 2) were supplemented then perhaps we could find support for 1).

2] John 17:8-10: “For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. 9 “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. 10 “And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them.”

David: There are some interesting things assumed here.

The question is: “Who are the “given ones”?

If we attend directly to the text, the given ones are the 11 Apostles. The context:

John 17:6 “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 “Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; 8 for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. 9 “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; 10 and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 “I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. 12 “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

David: I don’t think anyone would claim that Jesus does not have the 11 apostles in mind here, to the exclusion of Judas. And so, while Judas perished, the 11 given to Christ were delivered. The prayer comes to Christ asking for their continued preservation etc.

Now, even if we say that the 11 apostles here represent all the elect, all the elect as they too are given to Christ, does anything change? I don’t think so.  And besides, I do not think that the given ones here refers to all the elect, because Jesus goes on to pray for later believers. The natural progression of the prayers in Jn 17 work against this route in my opinion.

Even if we accept that the “given ones” here represent all the elect, or just the 11 apostles, the only premise which can be obtained from this passage is this: “Christ prays for the elect as they are ‘given ones.'”

The other question which few ask: “Does the world here, actually denote the “non-elect”? I actually agree with Hardy (contra Calvin and others) that the world here stands for mankind in unbelief. Hardy:

The former of these acceptions [exceptions] is by no means here to be allowed. Christ is not, will not, be an advocate for them that continue in their sins. He saith himself expressly, ‘I pray not for the world,’ to wit, lying in wickedness, the world of unbelievers. Impenitent sinners have no interest in Christ’s intercession, and indeed it is very observable to this purpose how our apostle phraseth this clause, so as that willful sinners might have no hold of it.

Nathanael Hardy, The First General Epistle of St John the Apostle, Unfolded and Applied (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1865), 123. 

For myself, I do not see any reason to disagree with Hardy on this. 

And we also have the problem of identifying the world in the following verses of John 17:

17:20 “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

David: This looks like a prayer for the world as well. Is this world suddenly the world of the elect? I do not think that would be a credible option to take. Then is this a sort of imprecatory prayer? I see no reason to imagine that when Jesus prays that the world may believe and know, he means it in some imprecatory sense of receiving condemnation. I think, therefore, that something else is going on here.

So the “argument” comes thus far:

3) “All the given ones are prayed for.”

And so the premise comparison comes to this:

Conclusion:

1) All the died for are prayed for

Premise:

3) All the given ones are prayed for

Premise 3) does not entail 1).

Now let us return to the idea of supplementing the premise 2) with premise 3) to see of the conclusion follows.

Even if we put 2 and 3 together, is 1 entailed?

1) All the died for are prayed for

2) All the coming ones are prayed for.

3) All the given ones are prayed for

The two critical verses which allege that for all whom Christ prays for, are all the died for, do not prove or entail that conclusion, either by way of a necessary deductive inference, or an inductive inference.

3] John 10:15, 16 “15 “As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16 “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”

It is suggested that if we connect the logical assertion explicit in this verse, with premises 2) and 3), the conclusion, “all the died for are, are prayed for,” follows.

However, first, the argument hinges on reading this verse as entailing a universal negation. Against that false assumption, I draw the reader’s attention to Dabney:

In proof of the general correctness of this theory of the extent of the Atonement, we should attach but partial force to some of the arguments advanced by Symington and others, or even by Turrettin, e.g., That Christ says, He died “for His sheep,” for “His Church,” for “His friends,” is not of itself conclusive. The proof of a proposition does not disprove its converse. All the force which we could properly attach to this class of passages is the probability arising from the frequent and emphatic repetition of this affirmative statement as to a definite object.

Dabney, Lectures, p., 521.

David: What Dabney says here is powerful. The rule is, one cannot infer a universal negative (or negation) from a simple positive. For example, no one would imagine that when the Apostle Paul said, ‘Christ died for me’ that Christ only died for Paul. Rather, we think emphasis, specificity, but not to the point of exclusivity. John says to his second son, “Danny, I love you.” But it would be wrong for first son, third sister, wife, to infer that Dad loves Danny to the exclusion of these others. It is called the negative inference fallacy.

Rather, what John 10 does is deny the claim that Christ died for no one with no special emphasis or intentionality. But it does not prove that Christ died for others with some other intentionality or manner. Adding the verse where Jesus says “you do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:26) does not prove that Jesus did not die in any sense for the non-sheep in any sense. Nor do I believe this proves that they are not sheep exactly because of a decretal selection, but more a statement about their being of such a nature (ie., they are goats by nature), that they will not believe Jesus, where as his true sheep, those faithful, do believe, do follow him.

Minimally, then, John 10:15 shows us, “all he sheep are died for.” On the other hand, at most, all that could be obtained from it is: “only the sheep are emphatically died for.” It is their character which is being condemned here.

Thus all we can obtain from this verse is this:

4) The Sheep are (emphatically) died for.

So if we put all the premisess together with the conclusion:

Conclusion:

1) All the died for ones are prayed for.

Premise:

2) All the coming ones are prayed for.

Premise:

3) All the given ones are prayed for.

Premise:

4) The Sheep are (emphatically) died for.

We know that the sheep are prayed for, especially as they “come to Christ” as per Heb 7. We can even grant that the “given ones” of John 17:9 are all the sheep of John 10. But does that add anything? No. 

I know one might try and add more supplemental premises, but from my experience, I still do not believe the conclusion will be sustained.

Conclusion.

If we come back to the Trinity, as an exemplar of a doctrine sustained by an accumulation of verses, we note that for the Trinity, each step in the logical chain is established by way of what’s called a necessary inference. The inference “has” to follow. It has to follow that a bachelor is an unmarried marriageable male. It has to follow that a triangle has three sides. It has to follow that if there is but 1 God, and all three persons of the Trinity claim to be this God, and that Scripture cannot be broken, that the Trinity is true.

Further, each inference, in the chain of reasoning to the Trinity, is valid and sound. Valid as in it violates no rule of logical inference, and sound in its being true. And so all our doctrines must be valid, i.e., true logically, and sound, that is, true to Scripture, in all its parts.

The Westminster Confession says this well:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. 1:6.

Thus, from the passage in Hebrews 7, we see that all the coming ones are prayed for. From Jn 17:9, all the given ones are prayed for. From John 10, all the sheep are died for and,  by extension, they are prayed for. But these separately or put together do not prove that all the died for prayed for.

We see no evidence, so far at least, for the conclusion: all died for ones are prayed for. Thus we see no evidence for limited expiation in the alleged argument.

David

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