Did Christ die for the elect only, or for all men?" The answer has been much prejudiced by ambiguous terms, such as "particular atonement," "limited atonement," or "general atonement," "unlimited atonement," "indefinite atonement." What do they mean by atonement? The word (at-one-ment) is used but once in the New Testament (Rom. 5:11), and there it means expressly and exactly reconciliation.
This is proved thus: the same Greek word in the next verse, carrying the very same meaning, is translated reconciliation. Now, people continually mix two ideas when they say atonement: One is, that of the expiation for guilt provided in Christ's sacrifice. The other is, the individual reconciliation of a believer with his God, grounded on that sacrifice made by Christ once for all, but actually effectuated only when the sinner believes and by faith.
The last is the true meaning of atonement, and in that sense every, atonement (at-one-ment), reconciliation, must be individual, particular, and limited to this sinner who now believes. There have already been just as many atonements as there are true believers in heaven and earth, each one individual.
But sacrifice, expiation, is one— the single, glorious, indivisible act of the divine Redeemer, infinite and inexhaustible in merit. Had there been but one sinner, Seth, elected of God, this whole divine sacrifice would have been needed to expiate his guilt. Had every sinner of Adam's race been elected, the same one sacrifice would be sufficient for all.
We must absolutely get rid of the mistake that expiation is an aggregate of gifts to be divided and distributed out, one piece to each receiver, like pieces of money out of a bag to a multitude of paupers. Were the crowd of paupers greater, the bottom of the bag would be reached before every pauper got his alms, and more money would have to be provided.
I repeat, this notion is utterly false as applied to Christ's expiation, because it is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth. This is the blessed sense in which the Apostle John says (1 Jn. 2:2): "Christ is the propitiation (the same word as expiation) for the sins of the whole world."
But the question will be pressed, "Is Christ's sacrifice limited by the purpose and design of the Trinity"? The best answer for Presbyterians to make is this: In the purpose and design of the Godhead, Christ's sacrifice was intended to effect just the results, and all the results, which would be found flowing from it in the history of redemption. I say this is exactly the answer for us Presbyterians to make, because we believe in God's universal predestination as certain and efficacious so that the whole final outcome of his plan must be the exact interpretation of what his plan was at first. And this statement the Arminian also is bound to adopt, unless he means to charge God with ignorance, weakness, or fickleness. Search and see.
Well, then, the realized results of Christ's sacrifice are not one, but many and various:
1. It makes a display of God's general benevolence and pity toward all lost sinners, to the glory of his infinite grace. For, blessed be his name, he says, "I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth" (Ezek. 18:32).
2. Christ's sacrifice has certainly purchased for the whole human race a merciful postponement of the doom incurred by our sins, including all the temporal blessings of our earthly life, all the gospel restraints upon human depravity, and the sincere offer of heaven to all. For, but for Christ, man's doom would have followed instantly after his sin, as that of the fallen angels did.
3. Christ's sacrifice, wilfully rejected by men, sets the stubbornness, wickedness, and guilt of their nature in a much stronger light, to the glory of God's final justice.
4. Christ's sacrifice has purchased and provided for the effectual calling of the elect, with all the graces which insure their faith, repentance, justification, perseverance, and glorification. Now, since the sacrifice actually results in all these different consequences, they are all included in Gods design. This view satisfies all those texts quoted against us.
But we cannot admit that Christ died as fully and in the same sense for Judas as he did for Saul of Tarsus. Here we are bound to assert that, while the expiation is infinite, redemption is particular. The irrefragable grounds on which we prove that the redemption is particular are these: From the doctrines of unconditional election, and the covenant of grace. (The argument is one, for the covenant of grace is but one aspect of election.)
The Scriptures tell us that those who are to be saved in Christ are a number definitely elected and given to him from eternity to be redeemed by his mediation. How can anything be plainer from this than that there was a purpose in God's expiation, as to them, other than that it was as to the rest of mankind? (See the Scriptures regarding the immutability of God's purposes—Isa. 46:10; 2 Tim. 2:19.)
If God ever intended to save any soul in Christ (and he has a definite intention to save or not to save toward souls), that soul will certainly be saved (Jn. 10:27-28; 6:37-40). Hence, all whom God ever intended to save in Christ will be saved. But some souls will never be saved; therefore some souls God never intended to be saved by Christ's atonement.
The strength of this argument can scarcely be overrated. Here it is seen that a limit as to the intention of the expiation must be asserted to rescue God's power, purpose, and wisdom. The same fact is proved by this, that Christ's intercession is limited (see Jn. 17:9, 20). We know that Christ's intercession is always prevalent (Rom. 8:34; Jn. 11:42).
If he interceded for all, all would be saved. But all will not be saved. Hence, there are some for whom be does not plead the merit of his expiation. But he is the "same yesterday and to-day and forever" (Heb. 13:8). Hence, there were some for whom, when be made expiation, he did not intend to plead it.
Some sinners (i. e., elect) receive from God gifts of conviction, regeneration, faith, persuading and enabling them to embrace Christ, and thus make his expiation effectual to themselves, while other sinners do not, But these graces are a part of the purchased redemption, and bestowed through Christ. Hence his redemption was intended to effect some as it did not others (see above.)
Experience proves the same. A large part of the human race were already in hell before the expiation was made. Another large part never hear of it. But "faith cometh by hearing" (Rom. 10:17), and faith is the condition of its application. Since their condition is determined intentionally by God's providence, it could not be his intention that the expiation should avail for them equally with those who hear and believe. This view is destructive, particularly of the Arminian scheme.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13). But the greater includes the less, whence it follows, that if God the Father and Christ cherished for a given soul the definite electing love which was strong enough to pay the sacrifice of Calvary, it is not credible that this love would then refuse the less costly gifts of effectual calling and sustaining grace. This is the very argument of Romans 5:10 and 8:31-39. This inference would not be conclusive. if drawn merely from the benevolence of God's nature, sometimes called in Scripture "his love," but in every case of his definite, electing love it is demonstrative.
Hence, it is absolutely impossible for us to retain the dogma that Christ in design died equally for all. We are compelled to hold that he died for Peter and Paul in some sense in which he did not for Judas. No consistent mind can hold the Calvinistic creed as to man's total depravity toward God, his inability of will, God's decree, God's immutable attributes of sovereignty and omnipotence over free agents, omniscience and wisdom, and stops short of this conclusion.
So much every intelligent opponent admits, and in disputing particular redemption, to this extent at least, he always attacks these connected truths as falling along with the other.
In a word, Christ's work for the elect does not merely put them in a salvable state, but purchases for them a complete and assured salvation. To him who knows the depravity and bondage of his own heart, any less redemption than this would bring no comfort.