If we believe in a substitutionary atonement (which we must to be within the bounds of orthodoxy) then it stands to reason that we must ask the question “in whose place did Christ die”? In order to answer this primary question we then must ask two clarifying questions: 1) what was the Father’s purpose in sending His son to this earth and 2) what did Christ’s death accomplish. Acts 2:23-24 tells us that it was the definite plan and foreknowledge of God for Jesus to be delivered up to be crucified. John 12:27 shows us that Jesus very purpose was to die a sacrificial death and there had been countless times before this where he spoke of his impending death and resurrection to his disciples. Matthew 20:28 tells us that Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for the many. Scripture largely points to Christ’s death as being the very purpose he was on this earth. I believe John 10 is perhaps the most explicit scripture that points to this defining purpose. It also answers the question that many people have regarding who Jesus was referring to in Matthew 20:28 when he tells his disciples that his purpose is to give his life for many. Titus 2:14 says that Christ gave himself up for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works and Acts 20:28 tells us that God purchased the church with His own blood. John 10:14-18 says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” The charge and authority given here by the father to the son is to lay down his life as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners and to take his life back up again on his own accord. In John 10:15 and Titus 2:14, Jesus tells us explicitly who he is laying his life down for and it is us (his elect sheep and possession). Matthew 25:32-33 distinguishes between the sheep who will be saved and the goats who will be eternally condemned and Jesus nowhere tells us that his death was for the goats as well as the sheep. In fact, John 6:37 says that the only ones who are saved are the ones whom the Father gives to the Son. Fast forward to Jesus’ high priestly prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion and we can plainly see in scripture that Christ’s purpose was to lay his life down for those whom His father would give him. John 17:9 says, “”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.” Here we find the answer to the first “clarifying” question (what was the father’s purpose in sending His son to this earth?) being to save sinners and not just all sinners indiscriminately but rather the elect sheep whom the Father would give to the son.
Many critics of this view (and I have debated this with many of them) will point to John 3:16 and insist that Jesus died to make salvation available to everyone without exception. They will also normally point to 1 John 2:2 which states that “he is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The proponents of this “unlimited” view of the atonement, state that Christ’s death opened the door for reconciliation with God, but that reconciliation is not secured until the person accepts it through faith. I believe this is categorically wrong and the results of such thinking are twofold: either 1) God and Christ failed to accomplish what God’s word intended Christ’s death to accomplish or 2) all men will be saved and reconciled to God. I will argue that if the answer to our primary question (in whose place did Christ die) is that Christ died to make salvation available to all men, but this atonement is only applied to those who accept it, then the substitution is a consequence rather than a purpose. It is also not truly substitutionary because Jesus is not really dying for anyone in particular but instead to make salvation a possibility. This view of the atonement then defies the scripture given to support Jesus own words in telling us that he laid down his life for his possession which is his sheep, not the goats. It is my belief that Jesus did not die solely to make salvation a possibility for all men, but rather an absolute certainty for his elect. If one followed the unlimited view of atonement through, it would inevitably lead to the faulty conclusion that salvation was made possible for everyone but it was secured definitely for no one. This completely contradicts the intent of the Father sending the son (to lay down his life for his sheep and redeem and purify a people to himself as a possession). In response to the argument I have heard referring to 1 John, I will say that although this verse appears to prove their point, it goes beyond their point to prove universalism. Romans 8 tells us that those who are in Christ are no longer under the condemnation of God. Why is this? It is because our sins have been removed and Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us. If, as the unlimited proponents argue, Christ is the propitiation for all men including the unsaved, then their sins are covered and they are no longer condemned but rather would be saved. The implications here for the unlimited view are not good. If the sins of the unsaved are propitiated, then God would be unjust in judging them by sending them to hell. One could also make the argument that the usage of the word “world” in this instance does not refer to all men in the world indiscriminately but rather the global church who were scattered across the whole world that would be gathered into one kingdom (see John 11:52 and Revelations 5:9-10). This leaves us with only two options: either all men’s sins are conditionally covered contingent upon faith or only the sins of the elect are covered completely. The argument here must stop because no man’s sin can ever be conditionally covered. They are either covered or they are not. They are either a slave to sin which leads to death, or they are a slave to God which leads to life, but no man can serve two masters. The answer then to the second “clarifying” question (what did Christ’s death accomplish?) is that Christ’s death was the propitiation only for the elect, otherwise all men’s sin would be covered, no one would be under the wrath of God, and all men would be saved.
In conclusion, the atonement is no small thing. It is incredibly powerful and beautiful and it should cause the regenerate to rejoice at the sovereign grace of God. Make no mistake, limited atonement does not limit the effect of the atonement nor the purpose or its sufficiency but rather magnifies the purpose and effect. The limited atonement view rightly believes that the atonement is sufficient for all men but efficacious only to the elect. I believe that the unlimited view of atonement is demeaning to the worth, value, and purpose of the atonement. At the beginning it was pointed out that the crucifixion of Jesus was the pre-determined plan of God before the foundation of the world. To deny that God had a definite purpose in what He was doing in the atonement or to deny that it was accomplishing anything in particular is, in my opinion, dreadful! Yet this is what the unlimited view of atonement does. It says that the atonement is not efficacious until man applies his faith. It says that Christ has opened the door for reconciliation to be a possibility to all who believe, but that reconciliation is indefinite. To answer our primary question of “in whose place did Christ die”, the limited or as I prefer to call it definite atonement view, states that Christ accomplished his Father’s will by laying down his life sacrificially and by so doing definitely secured the salvation of the elect sheep given to him by the father. In this view the atonement is complete and not indefinite. I believe the unlimited view takes glory from God and gives it to man because it is man’s faith that applies the atonement to himself while the definite atonement view gives ultimate glory to God because all salvation is of Him and by Him alone. The unlimited view says the atonement is available but only efficacious when the will of man is joined with it and the definite view says the atonement has been accepted by God and applied to the elect. The unlimited view stresses the importance of man in applying the atonement through his faith and the definite view stresses the foreordained sovereignty of God in all things. In one sense there remains work yet to be done and on the other hand the work has already been done! I firmly argue that Christ did not die a pointless death. He did not die to merely bring men into a savable state, but rather he died to actually save them. There was intent and purpose in the atonement and this intent and purpose was fully and definitely accomplished.
“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.” -John 17:9-10
Link to a lengthier paper I wrote on this subject –> https://www.academia.edu/26731840/The_Atonement_Examination_of_the_Doctrine_and_Assesment_of_the_Limited_and_Unlimited_Views