For Whom Did Christ Die?

(An Excerpt from “To My Friends, Strait Talk About Eternity” by Randy Wages)

     I would be remiss if I did not devote some of this book to a discussion of a widespread error that strikes at the heart of the Gospel – at the redeeming work of Christ.  I have found that mere agreement with God’s truth on this wondrous and vital doctrine does not give proof of one’s state; however, the converse is true.  I hope to show you that it is impossible for one to cling to the popular view of the death of Christ as held by most of my friends, while at the same time truly trust in Christ’s righteousness alone for salvation.

     By “redemption” I am referring to that which Christ accom­plished by His obedience unto death on behalf of sinners so as to remove God’s wrath and gain His favor.  Christ paid the debt due unto sins before the justice of God so as to reconcile sinners unto God.[1]  Most of my friends believe as I once did about Christ’s death.  They believe that God loves every individual that ever has or ever will live, without exception, and consistent with that love, Christ died on the cross for all of the sins of every individual that ever lived.  In belief of a universal atonement, they believe that Christ died for all, although they do not believe in universal salvation – that all shall be saved and go to heaven. As we proceed, I hope that you too will come to identify with my discovery of how tragi­cally wrong I was in my regard for the work of Christ.  If you are like I was, you may be resistant even to entertain the possibility that Christ did not die for all without exception.  Like most of my friends, I was taught specific Bible verses with an interpreta­tion that certainly seemed to indicate that Christ died for all.  Nevertheless, I once again urge you to set aside your preconceived views and consider objectively what I have to say.  More importantly, consider whether or not it is consistent with an accurate accounting of what God has to say in His Word.

The John Owen Question

     Over a period of years, I had been discussing the Gospel with one of my dearest friends.  A few years back, he was attending a large Protestant church, pastored by a well-known preacher who would later become the president of his denomi­nation’s national organization.  Knowing that I opposed what I consider to be the false gospel propagated by this minister and his denomination, my friend presented me with an interesting opportunity.  His pastor had set aside some time in one of their worship services to respond to questions that were to be submit­ted in advance by the congregation.  My friend, though still unconvinced of my doctrinal views, had been unable to refute them and offered to submit any questions I might offer up, assuming his pastor to be better equipped to address the issues.  

     Having heard this minister speak on television before, I knew that he was one who spoke often of the blood of Christ, of His sacrificial death, and one who proclaimed many important facts about Christ’s death.  I knew, once confronted, he could not in good conscience or without contradiction continue to view Christ’s death as a literal payment for sins, a true redemption, and still maintain that Christ died for all.  With this background, I submitted the following two-part question with the accompany­ing commentary and follow-up questions:

A.  For whom did Christ die? 

B.  What did His death accomplish?

     I wrote further:  “I gather you believe Christ paid for all the sins of all men without exception.  If so, then why aren’t all saved, their debt for sin having been fully paid by Christ?  The most common answer is, ‘Because of their unbelief.’  If unbelief is a sin deserving eternal punishment, then did Christ undergo the punishment for it (the sin of unbelief) or not?  If unbelief is not sin, so as to be included among all the sins that Christ paid for on the cross, then why should any be punished for it?  If as some say, Christ’s death simply made salvation possible and faith makes it effectual to the individual, does that not make faith, rather than Christ, the Savior since, according to that view, our faith makes the ultimate, final difference in our eternal state, not the obedience and death of Christ?  Please reconcile your views on these thoughts.”

     This question was my modern day paraphrase of a question set forth in a book titled The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by a 17th century theologian, John Owen.  As you might imagine, my friend’s well educated, seminary trained minister would not fully answer the question to his satisfaction.  He quoted a verse out of context that is frequently misinterpreted in support of his universal view of Christ’s redemptive work, yet he would not answer the questions directly, initially citing time constraints as the prohibiting factor.  At the close of the service, my friend spoke with his pastor, asking if he would consider a written response as time permitted.  The pastor seemed glad to oblige my friend, agreeing to his request at the time; however, as time wore on without a reply, it became apparent that he had decided otherwise.  Subsequently, in a final attempt to solicit a response, my friend again approached his pastor and was brushed off with a response that indicated that he saw no usefulness in entering into a debate such as that.  My dear friend recognized the “cop-out” for what it was and reluctantly admitted that it would appear his minister was unable to answer the question.  I applauded my friend’s discernment at the time.  And I am thrilled to say that since then, God has graciously revealed Christ to him in belief of the glorious Gospel of God’s grace.

     For my many friends who, like myself for years, believe that Christ died for all, I challenge you as well to answer the questions above.  I was not surprised that this minister would not answer the questions because I knew that he could not do so while continuing to cling to a universal view of Christ’s death.  There is no reasonable answer, consistent with God’s Word, other than the truth – Christ could not have died for all the sins of all men without exception.  If He did, then His death accom­plished nothing in the way of a real payment for sin.  If Christ died for even one person who ultimately perishes, then His work on the cross cannot be characterized as a work of redemption or as having actually paid the penalty due unto those sins.

     Without a doubt, the Scriptures teach that Christ did live and die for all of the sins (past, present, and future) of some of the people.[2]  Who were these for whom Christ died?  The Bible teaches that Christ died for all of His “sheep,” those whom God had elected or chosen before the world began and for whom God the Father had appointed His Son, Jesus Christ, to become incar­nate so as to satisfy all of the conditions for their salvation as their Substitute and Representative.[3]  In obedience to God the Father, Christ came in the “fullness of time” and was made under the law of God so that he might fulfill that law on behalf of all those whom He represented.[4]  This satisfaction to both the law’s precept and penalty, culminating in the sacrificial death of Christ, accomplished God’s purpose of glorifying Himself based upon the righteousness established by His Son.[5]

DEFINITE Redemption

     Despite the popularity of the universal view of Christ’s death, I’ve yet to find anyone who would continue to cling to such a view after an objective consid­eration and examination of scriptures taken in context and perti­nent to the subject.   Among my friends who have discovered the truth of a definite or particular redemption, most previously believed that Christ died for all without exception, changing their minds upon an honest assessment of relevant scripture.  In my own experience, I have yet to see this process in reverse.  I have yet to see anyone who, after having once held this truth of a definite or particular redemption, subsequently adopt a universal view of Christ’s death.  Many, including myself, began an examination of this issue with a healthy skepticism, reinforced by their familiarity with Bible verses that seem to support the universal doctrine.  In Chapter 16, “Addressing Common Objections,” I deal with some of these in detail.  

     I have found that any who are willing to study the issue will soon discover that either (a) the Bible contradicts itself or (b) the passages that seemed to support such universal notions have been misinterpreted and/or taken out of context.  Since this book is written under the assumption that you, the reader, believe the Bible to be God’s Word and standard for truth (and therefore not contradictory) then, upon an objective study of the doctrine, I maintain that you too will find that the Bible clearly sets forth that Christ died for a particular people, referred to in the Scriptures as His “elect.”

     Unfortunately, many are not willing to set aside their preconceived notions, not willing for their doctrine to be tested.  Common responses include:  “I already know that Christ died for everyone so I have no need to look into scriptures that you say indicate otherwise,” or “I know that’s not true so there’s no need to examine it further,” or “I’ve been taught that by men much wiser than you,” and so on. This ostrich-like “head in the sand” mindset will not serve you well, and it is contrary to the scrip­tural command to test your doctrine.  I’ve often wondered what would make us so afraid to test that which we claim to be so sure about, so sure that we are willing to place our eternal destiny upon its accuracy.  I beg those friends who remain unwilling to test the validity of their universal view of the death of Christ to reconsider given the vital importance of this issue.

Why is It  Such a Big Deal?

     I suppose this all-too-common “I’ll search no further” posture may stem from the fact that we don’t recognize the seri­ous implications that accompany such a view of Christ’s work.  It may help to recall the flow chart from the preceding chapter.  As depicted, there exists some determining factor that makes the difference in one’s eternal destiny, ultimately resulting in two groups of people, (1) those who go to heaven and (2) those who perish.  As I’ve stated, whatever you think that ultimate deter­mining factor is equates to your “savior.”  Now with this in mind, and in consideration of the biblical teaching that ultimately we all spend an eternity in one of two places – heaven or hell, just what difference did Christ’s Person and work make for these two groups?

     Those who believe that Christ died for all without exception believe that He did the same thing (in dying for all) for those who go to hell as He did for those who go to heaven.  So what­ever you think makes the difference, it cannot be the “christ” you trust in since He did no more for those who end up in heaven than He did for those who end up in hell.  Something else belongs in your “determining factor” block, not Christ.  What­ever that something is – that’s your “savior” – not the Christ of the Bible.  

     At best, this view would reduce Christ’s work to something that merely made men savable but actually paid for no sins at all, redeeming no one. The Scriptures say otherwise.  In God’s Word we learn that Christ’s offering of Himself for sin is not merely a prerequisite of sorts that makes salvation possible but rather it got the job done.  We’re told that where the pay­ment of His “one offering” has been made, there is “no more offering for sin.”[6]  My former pastor often characterized this popular misconception as a “blanket amnesty” of sorts that does away with God’s strict standard of righteousness such that salvation’s ultimate determination still rests in the hands of the self-righteous sinner.  

     The author of the famous old hymn “Rock of Ages,” Augustus Toplady, wrote about the demeaning value such reli­gious notions place on the work of Christ. In reference to those who believe that Christ died for all without exception or believe in salvation conditioned on the sinner, he wrote:  

“I tremble at the shocking consequences of a system which, (as one well observes) considers the whole mediation of Christ as no more than ‘a pedestal, on which human worth may stand exalted:’….” 

     I hope this demonstrates to you why your view of Christ’s death is such a big deal, exposing the deadly fallacy of continuing in this error that is so rampant today.

     Among my friends there exists, to varying degrees, some familiarity with these two opposing views of Christ’s redemptive work.  Among students of religion these views constitute a significant part of the distinguishing characteristics of those who are labeled either as “Arminians,” so named after the late 15th / early 16th century theologian Jacobus Arminius, or who consider them­selves “Calvinists,” so named after the 16th century theologian John Calvin.  The vast majority of my friends would be labeled as Arminians, although many have never heard the term unless they have studied or been confronted with the opposing Calvin­istic viewpoint.  Over the years, these labels have meant different things to different people; however, the most common and sig­nificant distinction lies in their opposing views of the redemptive work of Christ with “Arminians” believing that Christ died for all without exception and “Calvinists” holding to the view that Christ died only for the elect. Perhaps because most so-called “Calvinists” hold a minority viewpoint, practically all of my friends in this category are familiar with these labels.  

     For those interested, there are many books on the subject that recount the historic meeting in 1618 of the Synod of Dort in response to the doctrines set forth by Arminians.  This lead to the development of what is called the five points of Calvinism, often denoted by the mnemonic, T-U-L-I-P:  Total Depravity, Uncon­ditional election, Limited atonement (or redemption), Irresistible grace (or call­ing), and Preservation (or Perseverance according to some) of the saints.  You can see that there are more doctrinal differences between the “Arminian” and “Calvinistic” views than simply the issue of the redemptive work of Christ; however, it is not the purpose of this book to go into all of those details as important as these differences are.    

     Although these labels (Arminianism and Calvinism) offer convenience for quick identification of one’s doctrinal position on the the death of Christ, I have found that they fall miserably short of identifying whether or not one truly believes God’s Gospel.  For example, many who adhere to the Calvinistic point of view regarding a particular redemption still give evidence of not having sub­mitted to God’s only way of salvation in Christ, based solely upon the imputation of the righteousness He estab­lished.  In the opening of this chapter I pointed out that mere agreement with God’s truth on this won­drous and vital doctrine does not give proof of one’s state; however, I noted that the converse was true.  

     It should be obvious by now that one cannot reasonably adhere to a universal (Arminian) view of Christ’s work and at the same time truly be trusting in salvation by grace, resting solely in the righteousness established by Christ.  Clearly, such a person would have to be trusting in something else if they con­sider that Christ’s work alone was insufficient to save anyone.  This is evidenced by the fact that they believe that even one person could perish for whom He died. 

     Though they are certainly fewer in number, I do have friends who claim to adhere to the biblical truth of particular redemption (or “definite atonement” or “limited atonement” as commonly called).  As I’ve said, many of these still fail to rest in God’s way of salvation based solely upon the righteousness of Christ imputed.  This next chapter is written with these “Calvinist” friends in mind.  Consistent with the earlier section on “Gospel Basics,” we will examine those whose views seem consistent with the biblical doctrines of grace, including the definite, particular payment for sins made by Christ.  Now, what about you, my Calvinist friend?

[1] Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:21-22

[2] 1 Jn 1:7

[3] Matt 20:28; Jn 6:37-39, 44, 65; 10:11, 14-15, 26-28; 17:6, 9-10;

  Acts 13:48; 20:28; Rom 8:29-34; 9:11-24; Eph 1:3-7, 11;

  1 Thess 5:9-10; 2 Thess 2:13-14; Titus 1:1-2; 1 Pet 1:1-2; 2:9-10

[4] Gal 4:4-5

[5] Jn 17:4

[6] Heb 10:14, 17-18

Topics: Gospel Distinctives
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