The Intent of the Atonement: My View

What did God the Father intend to accomplish through the atoning work of his Son?  I affirm at least two divine intentions in the atonement, which I state as follows:

(1) God intended to secure infallibly the complete salvation of all of his elect, who were chosen from eternity unconditionally to be saved through Jesus Christ.

(2) God intended to secure the benefits of common grace (divine favor that is given to believers and unbelievers alike) for all people, one of the benefits of which is a bona fide conditional promise and proclamation to any and all who hear that, if they believe in Christ, they will certainly be saved.

In other words, God intended to save his chosen ones, and he intended to send the gospel to all people indiscriminately.  Both achievements depend on the completion of Christ’s atoning work.  In the first sense, Christ died for his elect, his sheep, his bride.  In the second sense, Christ died for all.

Some who affirm, like I do, multiple intentions in the atonement will say that Christ suffered as a substitute for all people, elect and non-elect alike.  I do not agree with that statement.  I think that particular way of stating the purpose of Christ’s atonement changes the meaning of substitution.  If Christ suffered as a substitute for someone’s sins, then I believe his sufferings have effectually secured the forgiveness of that person’s sins, and thus the benefits of the application of the atonement will certainly come to that person in time.  But the non-elect never experience the benefits of the application of the atonement.  This being the case, I conclude that Christ did not suffer specifically as a substitutionary sacrifice for their sins.  Did he die for them?  Yes, in one sense.  The gospel must be proclaimed to them, it is their duty to believe it, and if they believe they certainly will be saved.  But did Christ bear the wrath of God in their place, thereby forever removing it from them, as he did for the elect?  No.  Were that the case, there would be no Christian doctrine of hell, for the wrath of God would have been forever removed from humanity in toto.

In the next couple of posts I will discuss the biblical teaching upon which my view is based and address some objections.

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4 Responses to The Intent of the Atonement: My View

  1. MC Hendrick says:

    Aaron,

    I don’t know anyone who would argue the idea that Christ’s death gave all the opportunity for God’s grace. Certainly, not everyone will sieze the opportunity.

  2. Ali says:

    MC Hendrick. I know people like that.

    Aaron. I want to comment, but waiting for the reasoning behind your position.

  3. rajjilicious says:

    Your posts are really good. I am going through them one by one.

    I do however have a really really silly question. A really odd thought.

    The impression I get from Romans is the all of Creation fell when Adam sinned. Hence it is subject to futility. What this means is that even animals are in some respects fallen. How so? I am not sure. John Feinberg discusses this briefly in his book, No One Like Him…

    So here is the thought. We are saying that common grace involves non-salvific (or non-sin canceling) benefits to the righteous and unrighteous (Psalm 145). So when we consider common grace, we consider a sense in which Christ died for all – elect and non-elect.

    So Christ’s atonement makes possible common grace. So this may sound strange. We can even go so far as to say that Christ died in some sense for animals. Is that right? That sounds really strange but…

    Additionally, we can say that Christ also died for all of the creation in the sense that it is His death that is going to free a Creation that is fallen, i.e. subject to bondage and futility and decay.

    Thanks.
    ~ Raj Rao

  4. Raj Rao,

    Thanks for the kind words. I don’t think your question is silly at all. In fact, it is a very stimulating idea, one that I had not considered until now, and yet it fits perfectly with what the Bible teaches.

    One of the reasons Christ died was to restore creation. In this sense, he died for creation itself. I have two thoughts about how this might be unpacked theologically:

    (1) In Romans 8 it is specifically the eschatological revelation of the sons of God that results in the restoration of creation (vv. 18-21). In other words, where Adam’s fall plunged creation itself into chaos, the restoration of humanity in Christ will result in the restoration of creation itself, because humanity has been given dominion over creation. Once the “sons of God” (God’s redeemed humanity under Christ) are revealed, creation will have its righteous Ruler(s) in place again. Thus, the cross and resurrection is for the purpose of redeeming creation itself.

    (2) I don’t know if there are any New Testament hints in this direction, but in the Old Testament atonement can be made for non-human objects. The best example is on the Day of Atonement, when the priest was commanded to slaughter a goat and bring its blood inside the veil in order to make atonement for the Holy Place. The Holy Place, which had been defiled by the sins of Israel, had to be cleansed by a blood sacrifice every year (Leviticus 16:16).

    There is good evidence that the Holy Place in the tabernacle and later the temple is a microcosm of creation itself. It represents creation as God’s domain. Thus, there is a sense in which all of creation is itself a holy place. That is why there is one image in Revelation of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a city shaped like a perfect cube, identical to the shape of the Holy Place (Revelation 21:16). Perhaps the atonement that is made for the Holy Place in the Old Testament is a type of the atonement that Christ makes for creation itself by removing the sins of the sons of God so that they may take their rightful place as kings of a renewed creation. Animals, rocks, trees, and rivers are all renewed in Christ’s atoning work.

    Good thoughts.

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