Why does it matter where you come down on the question of the intent of Christ’s atonement? Let me offer three reasons:
1. Only the doctrine of Particular Redemption preserves a robust doctrine of penal substitution. If that terminology is confusing for some readers, allow me to explain. “Penal substitution” is the name given to the teaching that Christ died as a substitute who bore the penalty of the wrath of God in the place of sinners. It is not the only thing one can say about the atonement, but it is the central biblical idea. If Christ bore the penalty for the sins of everyone, and yet not everyone will be saved, then God will be demanding a double payment for sins from at least some people. In that case, how would Christ really be an effective substitute for them? If Christ actually died in the place of sinners, then it would seem that all of those in whose place he died could not face the wrath that he took for them. But if they can face it, then what you are actually proposing is a modified form of penal substitution. I rejoice that many who believe in General Atonement also believe in penal substitution, but the two ideas don’t quite fit together. One has to adjust to the other.
2. Only the doctrine of Particular Redemption can account for Christ’s work as a completed work. If we say that Christ died with the purpose of saving all, and yet not all are saved, then we must conclude that it is not the death of Christ alone that saves. It must be the death of Christ plus something else. Christ’s atonement in itself is insufficient to save anyone. Only those who receive an additional gift from God (in four-point Calvinism) or who exercise faith by free will (in Arminianism) will be saved by the atoning work of Christ.
I can hear the objections already: “But the Bible is clear that no one is saved until they exercise faith.” And with that statement I agree completely. So I am not arguing for a doctrine that says the death of Christ automatically saves the elect, apart from their faith. What I am arguing is that the death of Christ certainly saves the elect by setting in motion the events that will lead to their faith, perseverance, and final glorification. Yes, no one is saved apart from faith. But faith itself is one of the benefits of the atonement purchased for the elect. And in this way, our salvation is completely accomplished by the atonement of Christ.
3. Within a Calvinistic theology, only the doctrine of Particular Redemption maintains unity within the Trinity. On the four-point Calvinist view, we must assume all of the following:
– God the Father chose from eternity those whom he would save.
– God the Father sent Christ the Son to die for the purpose of saving all.
– The Holy Spirit applies the benefits of the atonement only to those whom the Father has chosen from eternity.
We have the Father and the Spirit at cross-purposes with the Son here. According to this view, the Trinity is not acting in one accord for the salvation of sinners. The atoning work of Christ does not line up with the eternal purpose of the Father or the application of the atoning work in history through the Spirit. I have already mentioned in a previous post how the intercessory work of the Son is limited to the elect, and the doctrine of General Atonement puts his sacrifice at odds with his intercessory work. Here we have the same problem, only with respect to disharmony among the members of the Trinity.
When I read the words, “It is finished,” I take deep delight in them. Christ’s death has not, as Doug Wilson recently put it, purchased a raffle ticket for everybody. His death must not be seen as having accomplished the potential salvation of anyone but the certain salvation of no one. No, Christ our Savior has fully accomplished our redemption through his death and resurrection. That is why this doctrine matters.