I find myself drawn, a little reluctantly, to consider the disputed issue of the extent of the atonement. I say ‘a little reluctantly’, because while, on the one hand, I agree that thinking Christians should pursue truth as far as Scripture leads, on the other hand I am not persuaded that the question can be fully resolved in this life, and I fear lest we seek to be wise beyond what is written.
The issue, for me, does not involve Arminian or Hyper-Calvinistic tenets (both of which are, to my mind, clearly lopsided). No: the debate I have in mind involves those who designate themselves as Calvinists, and who disagree on the question of whether Christ can truly be said to have died for the sins of the whole world, or whether he died for the sins of the elect only.
I am impressed by the way in which John Newton (yes, that John Newton – ex-slave trader and writer of ‘Amazing Grace’) discusses this in a sermon on John 1:29 – ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!’
Newton has three points:-
I. The title here given to MESSIAH, The Lamb of God.
II. The efficacy of His sacrifice, He takes away sin.
III. The extent of it, The sin of the world
In introducing his third point, Newton says:-
Many of my hearers need not be told, what fierce and voluminous disputes have been maintained, concerning the extent of the death of Christ. I am afraid the advantages of such controversies, have not been answerable to the zeal of the disputants. For myself, I wish to be known, by no name, but that of a Christian; and implicitly to adopt no system but the Bible. I usually endeavour to preach to the heart and the conscience, and to wave [avoid], as much as I can, all controversial points.
Well said. Nevertheless, says Newton,
as the subject now lies directly before me, I shall embrace the occasion, and simply, and honestly, open to you the sentiments of my heart concerning it.
He begins by saying that the text cannot be referring to universal salvation, because this would be contradictory both to Scripture and to observed fact. Nor can the expression, ‘the sin of the world’ simply mean, ‘the world, and not just Israel’. Nor can it mean ‘the world, that is, the elect’:-
That there is an election of grace, we are plainly taught; yet, it is not said, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save the Elect, but that He came to save sinners, to seek and to save them that are lost (I Timothy 1:15; Luke 19:10) . Upon this ground, I conceive that ministers have a warrant to preach the Gospel to every creature, and to address the conscience of every man in the sight of God: and that every person who hears this Gospel, has thereby a warrant, an encouragement, yea, a command, to apply to Jesus Christ for salvation.
And any who refuse the offer of salvation, do so because of their own unbelief, not because they are not among God’s elect.
Are there not difficulties attached to this subject? Yes!-
I know something of the cavils and curious reasonings which obtain upon this subject, and I know I may be pressed with difficulties, which I cannot resolve to the full satisfaction of enquiring and speculative spirits. I am not disheartened, by meeting with some things, beyond the grasp of my scanty powers, in a book, which I believe to be inspired by Him, whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours, as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isaiah 55:8, 9). But, I believe, that vain reasonings, self-will, an attachment to names and parties, and a disposition to draw our sentiments from human systems, rather than to form them by a close and humble study of the Bible, with prayer for divine teaching, are the chief sources of our perplexities and disputes.
Some go beyond what is written by suggesting that Christ suffered to precisely the extent required to expiate the sins of the elect. Then he cried, “It is finished!” But this ‘nicety of computation’ is inconsistent with what we know of the generosity of God, who makes his rain to fall both on barren as well as cultivable spots. We do not know that Christ would not have suffered to the same extent and in the same way, if there was only one sinner who was to be saved.
As the sun has a sufficiency of light for the eyes, (if there were so many capable of beholding it) equal in number to the leaves on the trees, and the blades of grass that grow upon the earth; so in Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness, there is plenteous Redemption, He is rich in mercy to all that call upon Him (Psalm 130:7 ; Romans 10:12) ; and He invites sinners, without exception, to whom the Word of His salvation is sent, even to the ends of the earth, to look unto Him, that they may be saved (Isaiah 45:22)
Under the Gospel dispensation, and by it, God commands all men, everywhere, to repent (Acts 17:30) . All men, therefore, everywhere, are encouraged to hope for forgiveness, according to the constitution prescribed by the Gospel; otherwise repentance would be both impracticable and unavailing. And therefore, the command to repent, implies a warrant to believe in the name of Jesus, as taking away the sin of the world.