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The Extent of the Atonement

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 20, 2023 12:01 am

The Extent of the Atonement

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 20, 2023 12:01 am

One of the most controversial issues in any discussion of Christ's work as our Savior is the extent of His atonement. Today, R.C. Sproul addresses the crucial question, "For whom did Christ die?"

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The whole question of the scope of the atonement has to do with its design. And to talk about the design of the atonement means that we have to first identify the designer. And when the Bible speaks about the plan of salvation, it talks about God's plan. God is the Planner. God is the Designer. It's God who sends Christ into the world. We serve a God who is sovereign over all things, even to the smallest degree. What He decrees comes to pass. What He determines to do is done, and He's also the God who saves, who actually saves sinners. Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thank you for joining us for this Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind.

As R.C. Sproul concludes his study of the work of Christ, today he looks at a hard question. For whom did Christ die? If you have never really asked that question before and simply assumed that the answer was everybody, or if you've rejected the idea that Christ died only for some, then I encourage you to keep listening as R.C. Sproul gives a clear and biblically compelling case for the extent of the atonement.

Here's Dr. Sproul. In our final section today on the atonement of Christ, we're going to discuss briefly one of the most controversial issues that surrounds the whole discussion of the atonement of Jesus, and that's the question, for whom did Christ die? I was recently speaking in Boston, and a person came up to me and introduced himself as a Christmas Calvinist, and I gave a puzzled look to him because I'd never heard that expression before. I said, what do you mean a Christmas Calvinist? And he said, Noelle.

And as soon as he said that, I knew what he meant. He was obviously making reference to the historic acrostic that seeks to summarize the disputed points of Reformed theology after a controversy broke out in Holland between some Dutch Calvinists and some of their group that were protesting certain doctrines in which the distinctives of Reformed theology were summarized with the acrostic tulip. And of course, the L in tulip represents the concept of so-called limited atonement. So my friend in Boston was saying that he believed in everything else about the Reformed faith, but he wasn't going to embrace this doctrine of limited atonement, and that's why he called himself a Christmas Calvinist, Noelle. He also went on and said he called himself a four-point Calvinist. You hear this language all the time of people who call themselves four-pointers, and what they mean by that is that they affirm the T, the U, the I, and the P. But again, when you hear somebody say they're a four-point Calvinist, what they usually mean by that is that they object to this position that we're going to be giving a sketch of today. Sometimes you hear people also say that they are Calminians.

Have you heard that? Where they have a little bit of Calvinism and a little bit of Arminianism, and they borrow from both, and people say to me, I'm a Calminian, and I say, well, you know what we call Calminians, and they say, no, what's that? I say, Arminians. We also call four-point Calvinists, no-point Calvinists in the final analysis, but that's in the, shall we say, friendly banter that goes on among the different theological positions. When we come to this question of the extent of the atonement, first of all, let me say that there's a lot of confusion about what is meant by the concept of limited atonement, and sometimes this acrosi gets in the way of our understanding because words are squeezed to fit into the five letters that represent them, and historically, Reformed theology doesn't really like the term limited atonement. They prefer words like definite atonement as distinguished from indefinite atonement, and let me explain what is in view here. The question is not about the value of the atonement of Christ. Certainly, Reformed theology agrees that the value of the sacrifice that Christ offered the Father was perfect, that He couldn't have done any more than He did in fact do to affect the redemption of mankind, and it's not as though He only supplied fifty percent of what was necessary to satisfy the justice of God and then leaves us to supply the rest or anything of that sort.

No, the sacrifice that Christ made was once and for all. Now many times I hear students, even Reformed students, characterize the doctrine of definite atonement in these terms. They'll use this particular phrase that maybe you have heard before, that the atonement in Christ is sufficient for all, efficient for some. Maybe you've heard that, that it is sufficient for all, efficient for some, meaning that the atonement is limited in its efficiency only to a certain group of people, but it is at the same time sufficient to cover all of the sins of the whole world and so that you can rest assured that if any person puts their trust in Christ, they indeed will receive the full benefits and the full efficacy of the atonement because it is sufficient for everyone. Now again, even on the floor of presbytery where we have examinations for men who are preparing for ministry and for their ordination trials, you ask a question in a Reformed church about the meaning of limited atonement, I'll hear candidates stand up and say, well limited atonement means that the atonement is sufficient for all and efficient for some.

No, that's not what we're talking about here because this is basically a point that is in full agreement between Reformed people and non-Reformed people. All that this says is that the atonement is not applied efficiently to all people. So all that this does is define the difference between particularism and universalism. And universalism is the theory that Jesus not only died sufficiently for all of the sins of all people, but the effect of the atonement was in fact to redeem everybody so that everyone in the universe is saved. So universalism teaches that all people are saved, and they are saved because of the universal application or efficacy of the atonement of Christ. Now again, universalism is, at least in evangelical circles, an extremely minute viewpoint. I mean in fact I would say that a person is universalist, that by itself would disqualify them from even being an evangelical, but you may find tendencies remote within evangelical theology towards universalism.

Now there's a lot of that in more liberal theology of course, but for those who believe that there is a hell and that there are people there, if there is one person in hell, then we can't be universalists, because universalism teaches that God saves everybody. But particularism says, no, only some are saved, not all. Now though there is strong agreement here within evangelicalism about particularism, namely that the efficacy or the efficiency or the efficiency, the effect of the cross is only applied to some and not all, and that though there's agreement on particularism and though everybody agrees that it's sufficient for everybody, the question really comes down to why are only some saved, and how does that particular salvation relate to the work of Christ on the cross?

Now there are different ways of approaching this. Some people look at the cross in this manner. They say that Jesus comes and secures potential salvation for everybody, that the design of God, the intent of God, the purpose of God in sending Christ into the world was to make it possible for every human being to be saved. But in a sense, we have hypothetical universalism whereby it's possible theoretically, not likely but theoretically, that all of us theoretically that all human beings would be saved because all human beings have the opportunity to be saved because Christ was sent to save everybody. To be clear, Christ came to die for everybody's sins to make it possible for every human being to be saved, and whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life so that salvation is designed from all eternity in potential and conditional terms. That is, it's theoretically possible for all people to be saved because all people have the benefit of the cross in front of them, the potential is there for all, but it's conditional. The thing that determines whether the atonement works for you or doesn't work for you, the thing that determines whether the atonement is efficient for you or not efficient for you is your response, your response in faith.

The cross is only effective for those who believe in it because unless you believe in Christ, all of His work, all of His dying, all of His living will be to no avail to you. So that the atonement itself is not an absolute atonement, it's a conditional atonement. Jesus is saying, Father, here is My sacrifice, apply it to those who meet the conditions, because in and of Himself the actual atonement that Christ makes does not satisfy the justice of God for everybody's sins.

Now why not? If the atonement in fact in and of itself satisfied all the requirements of God's justice, then if God sent somebody to hell, He would be in a sense judging them twice. Because if His justice has already been satisfied and His righteousness has already been fulfilled and the people's sins are already paid for, how can God punish a person whose sins have already been paid for? Do you see the problem there?

That's where the struggle is. If Christ satisfied the demands of God's law for me, and I don't believe in Him, how can God punish me? Well, you say, well, because I didn't meet the condition. Yes, and my failure to meet the condition is a sin, isn't it? And if it's a sin on my part not to have met that condition, then that sin must not have been covered in the cross, so that then we say that Christ's work of satisfaction is incomplete. Now if it is covered in the cross, then of course I'm going to be saved if I believe or don't believe.

So you see how complicated this gets. Well, I think we can find relief from the difficulties here if we go back to the issue as it was first discussed and what really it's about. It's not about, again, the efficiency of the cross or the sufficiency of the cross. The whole question of the scope of the atonement has to do with its design.

Design. And to talk about the design of the atonement means that we have to first identify the designer. Who designs the atonement in the first place? When we looked at covenant, we looked back to the covenant of eternity, didn't we?

We looked back at the covenant of redemption, and we said that from all eternity that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were in perfect agreement about creation and about redemption. And when the Bible speaks about the plan of salvation, it talks about God's plan. God is the Planner. God is the Designer. It's God who sends Christ into the world. Now again, the question is, why did He do that?

Did He do it? Again, being a God who doesn't know the end from the beginning, a God who, as the modern theologians are saying, is totally open, who's not omniscient, He has no idea what people are going to do because His knowledge is always limited by contingent choices of human beings. God says, I'm going to send a Savior, and then I'm going to pace up and down in heaven for the next seven billion years hoping that somebody will take advantage of it. But I don't know whether anybody's really going to be affected by the sacrifice of my only begotten Son. And I know that the Son in the upper room in His prayer made mention of all of those to whom the Father had given Him, and that none was lost, even save Judas, who was a devil, what?

From the beginning. And Jesus said, all whom the Father gives to Me, come to Me. And so Christ is acutely conscious that as He's preparing now to make this sacrifice, to do this work of redemption, that He is doing it for the ones whom God has given Him.

And He knows going in that it is not going to be an exercise in futility. See, the problem is with the hypothetical redemption concept is that Christ could die theoretically for everybody and theoretically for nobody. That it would be theoretically possible that the cross would have been an exercise in futility, and that's where it forces us to think about the cross in terms of our understanding of the character of God. If God designs the atonement, if this is God's plan of redemption, then what would you expect to take place? What I would expect to take place is exactly what God designed. I believe that the efficacy of the cross is fulfilled to the exact degree that God originally intended it. I heard a well-known Christian leader recently after we were involved in some theological discussions, and he said in great gusto at the end of the meeting, he says, the decisions that we made here today, he said, I'm so glad we came out on this side of this, he said, because millions of people would have been lost had we not come to this conclusion.

And I looked at him and I said, I am glad we came to this conclusion, and I'm sure that in the providence of God this is going to be pleasing to God. However, had we made a mistake today, there's not one person who would have been lost because of it. Because don't think for a minute that the ultimate design and plan of redemption that we are engaged in as earnestly as we may be and as prayerfully as we know how depends on us for its efficiency. It depends on God.

This is what the issue is. Is salvation finally in the final analysis of man, or is salvation of the Lord? Now Jesus said, I lay down my life for my sheep. Now again, He could still say anybody that wants to take advantage of the cross is certainly offered to them, but even that is somewhat questionable because we talk about the universal offer of the gospel. In one sense, beloved, the gospel offer is not universal. The effects of the atonement are not just offered to anybody. They are only offered to the impenitent. They are only offered to those who respond in faith.

It's not just saying, I'm going to give it to everybody indiscriminately. Yes, there are those conditions there, and where that relates to the doctrine of election is the question of how the conditions are met. Reform theology would say historically that yes, you must believe to receive the benefits of the cross, but even your faith is a gift of God. And so all that Christ fulfills Christ fulfills the eternal design and plan and decree of salvation that's rooted and grounded in history, and every person for whom Christ dies is saved.

Let me say it again. Every person for whom Christ dies is saved because what the Reformed faith is saying, here it also said, without horns, Jesus only died for the elect. He didn't die for everybody. And that's where people get really upset.

They say, what do you mean? The Bible says He died for the world. He not only died for us, but for the sins of the whole world. Yes, He sins for the people from all parts of the world. That's the way the Scripture speaks to the world in the cosmic and universal sense, and that the point is He didn't just die for Jews. He died for Parthians and Carthaginians, and He died for Gentiles of every kind, and He died for people from every tribe and tongue and nation. He dies for the whole, whole council of the elect. Well, does that mean He didn't die for the non-elect? Yes, that's what it means. It means He didn't die for Satan.

Oh, well, that's okay. He's not a human being. He did not die for those who in God's eternal decree are not the special objects of His favor of election. And this is why I say, in one sense, the TULIP is the litmus test of the L, and TULIP is the litmus test of the rest. I mean, it always bothers my mind when I hear people say they believe in total depravity, but they don't believe in limited atonement. What's even more astonishing is when they say they believe in unconditional election, meaning that God from all eternity, without conditions, without strings, has determined not with a view to what you will choose in the future, and we'll look at that in later lectures, but that God has sovereignly chosen from all eternity those whom He will save. People say, I believe that, and then say they don't believe in limited atonement.

You can't believe this and not believe that. It's just that simple, because if you believe that election is unconditional and that it's rooted and grounded in God's sovereign mercy and grace from all eternity and see that it's part of the design and plan of God, then you have to see that the purpose of the cross, not the value of the cross. Again, we are quick to say that the value of the cross extends universally, but the original design and plan and purpose is that God said, I am going to save some of this mass of fallen humanity, and here's how I'm going to do it. I'm going to send my Son into the world. He's going to satisfy the demands of my justice, and He's going to apply all of that work to the benefit of those whom I have chosen from the foundation of the world. And so the cross is part of the eternal plan of God's redemption, and insofar as it is a part, its design is intended for the elect, and all whom God intended and designed to save through the cross of Christ are saved. That's why it's a very comforting thing to know that Christ did not die in vain and that everything that He set out to accomplish will be accomplished by His ministry. That is encouraging and a great comfort.

You've been listening to R.C. Sproul on this Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind. Today's message is part of Dr. Sproul's overview of theology series titled Foundations. It's 60 messages to help us understand what we believe, why we believe it, how to live it, and how to share it, and we're making it available to you today for your donation of any amount. When you give your gift at, we will send you this eight DVD set. We'll give you digital access to all 60 messages that will be easily available for you in the free Ligonier app, as well as the digital study guide. This series is helpful for personal study and devotion, but many families are using it as part of their homeschool curriculum, and it can be yours today for your donation of any amount when you give your gift at Having concluded this section on the person and work of Christ, next Saturday, Dr. Sproul continues his foundation series by beginning a study on the Holy Spirit. So join us then here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-20 05:01:25 / 2023-05-20 05:09:43 / 8

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