Introduction and Limited Atonement


John 3:1-21

Upon my return from vacation I am planning to begin a new series of evening sermons on the Book of Leviticus. I was prompted to do this not only because it is one of the few books of the Bible that we have not made our way through, paragraph by paragraph, but as well by a remark that Prof. Allen Ross of Beeson Divinity School made when lecturing and preaching here last year under the auspices of the Alliance of Christian Musicians. If you remember, Dr. Ross said that the three books of the Scripture that would have been most familiar to an Israelite were the Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. I doubt anyone would think to say that of Christians today and, perhaps, understandably so with the New Testament before us, but, so far from being best known, I suppose that Leviticus would be near the very bottom of the biblical books best understood in the ordinary American evangelical’s mind. But there are riches here that Christians miss because we find the book so alien and so far removed from the circumstances of our daily life. But that is a mistake as I think it will be easy enough to demonstrate to you. What is more, there are many resources available for the study of the book that were not available twenty years ago and I am anxious to be able to deliver the fruit of that scholarship to you. I have preached from Leviticus before but never made my way through the book. I’m greatly looking forward to it.

But, I didn’t want to begin a new series only to have it interrupted for a month or more, so I have decided to devote the next three Lord’s Day evenings to John 3:16. I’ll tell you why in a moment.

This is such an important and interesting text that I could make very lengthy comment on it. But I will limit myself to a few remarks on vv. 16-21. Still, we should have the context of the statement in v. 16 before us.

v.16     There can be no absolute certainty, first century Greek had no quotation marks, but it appears that the Lord’s own words end with v. 15 and v. 16 begins John’s comment on what has just been said. The writer of the Gospel, having recorded some of the Lord’s own words concerning the new birth and the Lord’s death for our salvation, is led to offer some summary reflections of his own on the same subjects. The “for” with which v. 16 begins, connects John’s summary with what the Lord has just said.

v.17     This kind of statement, about the mission of the Son of God in the world, is common in the Synoptic Gospels. E.g. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The world was already condemned; it was doomed   before Jesus got here. He came into the world to save it, not to condemn it. He could have condemned it without ever appearing in it!

v.21     Do you see the interesting difference in the contrast between vv. 20 and 21? The man who does evil does not come into the light for fear of exposure. The man who does good comes into the light, not that he will get credit for his deeds, but so that it will be seen that God has been at work in him. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good deeds and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

There is, as we will see, an entire Christian theology packed into these few words. No wonder Martin Luther should have called John 3:16 “the Bible in miniature” or others have called it “the gospel in a nutshell.” I don’t suppose there would be much debate if I were to suggest that John 3:16 is the best-known and best-loved verse in the Bible. Even multitudes of unbelievers know John 3:16. Even those who couldn’t quote the verse, recognize the reference. They see it on placards at sporting events. Tim Tebow, the Heisman winning quarterback for the University of Florida, sometime NFL quarterback, and out-spoken Christian printed it on his eye-black. They see it on billboards and painted on the side of barns. The In-n-Out Burger Chain prints the reference on their paper cups. The clothing store Forever 21 prints it on the bottom of their shopping bags. And they see it in churches. The church in which I was raised had the words of John 3:16 in gold script on the front wall of the sanctuary behind the pulpit. Every Sunday we saw those words, “For God so loved the world” and so on.

Christians love the verse for its beautiful statement that the salvation of men flows from the loving heart of God, for its unambiguous assertion that Jesus Christ is the savior of sinners, and for its perfectly clear, straightforward articulation of the summons of the gospel: believe in Jesus and you will live forever. But, left there, we are in danger of reading John 3:16 and even believing its great statement without a full appreciation of all that it contains. For the fact is this great verse is brimming with theology and with theological controversy, with thunder and lightning. There may be wonderful sweetness in it, surely there is, but there is power in it also. And all of this is demonstrated beyond question in the five verses that follow and explain and develop the thought of John 3:16. If you follow the thought from v. 16 to v. 21 you will see it is all connected. The fact of God “sending his Son” is repeated in v. 17. The necessity of men and women “believing in him” is taken up in v. 18. And so on. More on that next time.

What provoked me to devote three Sunday evenings to this text was that I read several reviews of a book recently published by Crossway. It is From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. It is a collection of essays by various authors, many of whom we in the evangelical Reformed community know and respect: Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary; Alec Motyer, the British scholar; Donald Macleod, the Scottish theologian; Robert Letham, an Aberdeen classmate of mine who now teaches in Wales; Henri Blocher from France; and so on. It’s a big book — 704 pages — with a big price. Its list price is $50 and even Amazon can do no better than $37.40! I haven’t yet got the book, but I suppose I’ll have to at some point. But without even having seen the book, I can tell you that John 3:16 will show up in the index a number of times!

You are no doubt aware that we Presbyterians, being Calvinists, believe in a doctrine variously called “Limited Atonement,” “Definite Atonement,” or “Particular Redemption.” “Limited Atonement,” is the “L” in the famous acrostic TULIP that is used to teach what are called “the five points of Calvinism.” The five points are a summary of Calvinist soteriology, or the Calvinist understanding of salvation and limited or definite atonement is one of the five points.

Our doctrine is that when Christ died on the cross, it was his intention to save his people, God’s elect from their sins. It was not his intention to save every person in the world, head for head. I suppose there is no doctrine in the Calvinistic system that is more widely disliked or spoken against than this one. There is also no doctrine more misunderstood. Indeed, there have long been and are today a good number of people who would call themselves Calvinists who agree with only four of the five points. We even refer to them in that way; as four-point Calvinists. There is a more precise term, “Amyraldian,” but everyone knows what “four-point Calvinist” means and hardly anyone knows what an Amyraldian is! (It is actually a term indicating that the view we know as four-point Calvinism received its first thorough expression in the work of a 17th century French Reformed theologian, Moїse Amyraut. Hence a person who embraces that theological outlook is an Amyraldian.) The point that Amyraut rejected and that four-pointers reject today is, of course, this one: limited or definite atonement. To multitudes of Christians it simply seems impossible that the Savior would die except in hopes of saving everyone. To say that he intended to save only some seems to them to diminish the love of God and the achievement of Jesus on the cross. The Wesleys set themselves against this doctrine with a vengeance. We understand that; they were Arminians and rejected the entire Reformed doctrine of sovereign grace. But some Presbyterians have as well.

You may be familiar with the name Thomas F. Torrance. Torrance was a major figure in Reformed theology in the second half of the 20th century. A minister of the Church of Scotland, he taught systematic theology at the University of Edinburgh. He edited the English translation of Karl Barth’s monumental Church Dogmatics and was instrumental in introducing Barth’s theology to the English speaking world. He also wrote extensively about the intersection between Christian theology and modern science. For that writing he won the Templeton Prize. Anyway, Torrance was born in China to missionary parents who were committed to Reformed theology in every respect except particular redemption. The story is told that when his father sent his son Tom off to college in Scotland he told him that he wanted him to remain faithful to his Reformed roots but didn’t want him to have anything to do with the idea of a limited atonement. Such is the visceral reaction of even some Reformed people to this doctrine. An interesting addendum to that story is that a friend of mine was once speaking about particular redemption to one of the Torrance family, not Thomas himself. Spurgeon happened to be mentioned by my friend as a defender of limited atonement. No, Torrance said, he could not believe Spurgeon would have taught any such thing. He couldn’t bring himself to admit that Spurgeon, whom he greatly admired, would have lent his support to the doctrine of definite atonement. Spurgeon, of course, great evangelist that he was, made no bones about being a defender of all five of the five points but that was hard for a Torrance to swallow.

And we shouldn’t have too much difficulty understanding that. The reaction is rooted in the idea that is front and center in John 3:16: “for God so loved the world that he sent his only son…” That doesn’t sound like a limited atonement, does it? That doesn’t sound like God intended that his son should save only some of the people of the world. That doesn’t sound like God loved only a portion of humanity. And so it is that John 3:16 has through the centuries become something of a casus belli, a flash point in the controversy over the atonement. Tonight I want to address this controversy in the way of clearing the decks so that on the following two Lord’s Day evenings we can concentrate on what the verse is saying and not be distracted by an argument over what it is not saying. For the fact is, alas, and I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this, there are some Reformed people who go to this most beloved verse of the Bible more often to argue than to confess or to rejoice; to defend their doctrine against an apparent difficulty rather than to revel in this “Bible in miniature.” Unseemly as it is, too many Calvinists look at John 3:16 with a somewhat jaundiced eye, eager to prove that the word “world” here does not mean every human being head for head. But, as we’ll see, that seems hardly to be John’s point!

Now, let me first make a few points about our doctrine, for it is necessary to clear away misunderstanding. This is a doctrine often more misunderstood than understood by its detractors and its supporters alike.

  1. First a very brief historical overview. The notion that Christ died at least in some respect not for everyone but for God’s chosen people goes way back. Augustine seems to have taught this and his disciple Prosper of Aquitaine certainly did. And already in the middle ages Peter Lombard introduced the distinction that was to become popular among some later defenders of the doctrine, viz. that Christ’s death was sufficient for all, efficient only for the elect. That Christ did not die for all men in the same way, all men head for head, was the teaching of Martin Luther as well as John Calvin. [cf. R. Godfrey, Tensions within International Calvinism: The Debate on the Atonement at the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619, 72-80; G.W. Bromiley, Historical Theology, 244] The statement of the doctrine in its modern form resulted from the controversy provoked by the rise of Arminianism in Holland in the early years of the 17th century and the answers given to Arminian objections to the Reformed doctrine of sovereign grace by the Synod of Dort, an international gathering of Reformed divines that was called together explicitly for that purpose. It was there that the so-called “five points” originated, with each statement being a reply to an Arminian objection. One of those five affirmations was that the atonement was definite or particular, offered for some but not for all. What the divines at Dort said was that while the death of Christ “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,” nevertheless it was the “will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross…should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father…” [II, iii, viii; Schaff, III, 586-587] They said much, much more about the cross than that, but they did say that! Since then the doctrine of particular redemption or definite atonement has been a feature of Reformed soteriology, or of its doctrine of salvation.
  2. Second, definite atonement, in the generation immediately after Dort, but as well in the centuries to follow, has never been a major emphasis of Reformed theology. It is more a detail of our doctrine of salvation than a major head. In the famous Leiden Synopsis of 1625, the manual of theology that most European Reformed pastors would have had on their study shelf in the generation after Dort, the Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology of the day, the doctrine of definite atonement is mentioned in one brief paragraph of that volume of nearly 700 pages, even though three of the four authors of the work were delegates to the Synod of Dort. [Godfrey, 267]
  3. Third, Reformed men were well aware of the controversial nature of the assertion that Christ did not die to save everyone, they knew very well that godly folk would struggle to understand why this was, and they took pains to make plain what they were saying and what they were not. They were careful to say certain things in particular. 1. First that what was being asserted was only the intention of the Father and of the Son in Christ’s atoning death, not the nature of the atonement itself. Had the Lord died to save ten million more, a hundred million more, or a million less, his suffering and death would not have been different in any way. The death of Christ was perfectly sufficient not only to save all men, but, as some like Samuel Rutherford would say, would have been sufficient to save ten thousand more worlds full of sinful human beings. Christ’s death is the death of the Son of God. As such it is and must be the salvation of the world. Second, that God has love for all men is the express teaching of Holy Scripture. He has not chosen to save every human being, to be sure, but that he wishes all men to be saved is expressly taught in the Bible and cannot be denied. This doctrine of definite atonement cannot be construed to deny that fact. 3. Third, when discussing the divine intention, when we are considering how it is that God can wish the salvation of all men and accomplish the salvation of only some, we are peering into the inner workings of the divine mind and heart and so we must be careful to maintain an appropriate reserve. No one knows the mind of the Lord and certainly no mere human being can peer into the intentions of the heart of God. We must be content with what the Bible actually says and go no further. This is not a matter about which we should speculate.
  4. Fourth, the doctrine, like most doctrines, was not stated in precisely the same way by every Reformed theologian. There are what, I suppose, we could call stricter forms of the doctrine and more moderate forms of the doctrine of definite or particular redemption. Some Reformed theologians spoke of the ways in which the atonement could be said to be for all men and of the ways in which it was only for the elect. Others preferred to say that Christ died for the elect alone.
  5. Fifth, it was from the beginning a doctrine formulated with the express intention of being true to the actual statements of Holy Scripture. The doctrine of definite atonement was not a doctrine constructed by logical deduction but by exegesis. Clearly it is related to the doctrine of election. But it rests on actual statements, a large number of them in fact, that seem plainly to teach that Christ offered atonement for the elect of God, not the human race in general. A sampling will have to suffice this evening.
  • When the angel announced to Joseph that Mary was bearing the Messiah and told him to name him Jesus, he explained, “for he shall save his people from their sins.”
  • In his discourse on the “Good Shepherd,” the Lord made a point of saying “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And later in that discourse he turned to the Pharisees and said, “You do not believe because you are not my sheep.” [10:11, 15]
  • In his discourse on the “Bread of Life” Jesus said, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
  • Paul in Ephesians 5 writes that Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her.” And in writing to the Christians in Rome he remarked, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things.” [8:32] As in many places, so here, the cross brings with it full salvation. Those for whom Christ died, in other words, cannot be lost. So you see the Bible frequently qualifies those for whom Christ died.
  • Add to those NT texts, the fact that the atonement provided by the sacrifices of the OT was only for Israelites. You had to be an Israelite before you could receive the blessing and the benefit of the sacrifices of the temple. They were not for everyone in the world. Those sacrifices that anticipated and typified the cross of Jesus Christ were explicitly for God’s people only. Remember, Christ died in the middle of history. To what point would he have died to save those already in hell?
  • Christ’s intercession is clearly said in the Word of God to be another dimension of his atoning or saving work as our high priest, but he himself said to his Father, “I am not praying for the world, but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” [John 17:9]
  • Our men also argued that the Bible itself repeatedly teaches that the atoning work of Christ accomplished what God intended. Chief among such texts is the immortal servant song of Isaiah 53: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his stripes we are healed.” But there are many other such statements in the Bible. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…” [Rom. 5:10] This is the way the Bible characteristically speaks of the death of Christ. It didn’t make salvation a possibility for sinners; it saved them! It was for this reason that the doctrine of definite atonement has been described as a “sentinel posted by the cross.” It is a defense of the cross as the salvation of sinners. If as virtually all Bible-believing Christians do, we admit that not all men are saved, and if we then hold that Christ died with the intention of saving everyone, we must accept that Christ’s death is not the ultimate cause of our salvation. It must be the cross plus something else. If Christ died for everyone and everyone is not saved, then Christ’s death does not make the final difference between salvation and damnation. Defenders of the doctrine of definite atonement argue that such a conclusion is unbiblical. It also diminishes the power of the cross in a way the Bible never does to suggest that our salvation depends on something besides the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus did not die a hypothetical death. His death was the punishment for my sins. If he died for everyone, perfect satisfaction has been made for the sins of everyone and no one has any sins for which he or she must answer.
  • This is why Arminian theologians do not usually hold to penal substitutionary atonement. The Arminian pew-sitter may well believe that on the cross Jesus was dying to pay the penalty for his or her sins — that is what he sings in his hymns and that seems to be what she reads in her Bible — but the Arminian theologian almost invariably believes that Jesus was doing something else on the cross that paying a judicial penalty in our place. And the reason is that if that is what Jesus was doing and he did it for everyone then everyone must be saved. We Reformed hold not that we must add our faith to the Lord’s cross, but that we believe because he died for us. Saving faith is the gift of the cross. He secured our entire salvation on the cross, including the faith by which every Christian eventually believes in him. The same one who said that he would lay down his life for the sheep also said “I give life to them,” and he who said at the same time to the Pharisees that they were not his sheep, also said, “My sheep will hear my voice and follow me.”
  • In any case, you get the point. Everyone who admits that some men are not saved must believe in an atonement that is limited or qualified in some way. Many Christians limit the cross’ power. It was for everyone, but in the final analysis it saved no one. It contributes to salvation but it cannot and does not secure it. We, on the other hand, limit the extent of the atonement. We argue that it wasn’t for everyone but that it saves to the uttermost those for whom Jesus died. We say, in the famous words of Charles Spurgeon,

“We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it; we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer ‘No.’ They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, ‘No. Christ has died that any man may be saved if’ — and then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, ‘No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.’ We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.”

  • There is much, much more to say in defense of the doctrine of definite atonement, but that is enough for now. It is, of course, a corollary of other doctrines — the doctrine of election, the doctrine of the new birth (which also appears here in John 3), and so on — but first and foremost it is what the Bible seems clearly to teach in a host of texts.

But, as you might expect me to say, there is another emphasis in the Bible that seems difficult to harmonize with the texts that I’ve read to you that qualify the objects of Christ’s atoning work or with our doctrine of a definite atonement or a particular redemption and that brings us back to John 3:16. John 3:16 is not one of the texts that reformed people cite to prove the doctrine of limited atonement. It’s one of the texts they must explain precisely because it does not seem to comport well with our doctrine. This famous verse is often thrown up as an objection to definite atonement. After all, doesn’t John say that God loves the world and that he gave his son so that whoever believes in him should not perish? John 3:16 is hardly the only such text. Earlier in John we heard John the Baptist cry out, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And in 1 John 2:2 John says once again that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” In 2 Cor. 5:19 we read that “God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”

And so an argument has developed. Which is it? Did Jesus die for everyone or did he die only for the elect, those the Father had given him? As you have heard me say often enough through the years, our task is to pay careful attention to everything the Bible says,to believe it all, and tothink accordingly, even ifthis poses certain difficulties. It is not always easy to reconcile what seem to be competing biblical emphases. Clearly the Bible teaches particularism — I can’t be an Arminian because of what the Bible teaches: that God has chosen to save some and not all and that he accomplishes the salvation of those and those only — but there is also very definitely a universalism in the Bible’s outlook regarding salvation.

And in John 3:16 it is the universalism that is front and center, not the particularism, a fact made all the more interesting because it follows a passage about the new birth that is so highly particular, “the wind blows where it wills. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This verse, John 3:16, is about the salvation that is available and offered to all; it is about God’s wish that all be saved. According to our principles, biblicists that we are to be, Calvinists like you and I should love the universal emphasis in the Bible as surely as we love the particular emphasis. Both exalt God! Both are obviously true because they are found in the Word of God and both are reasons to admire and to love God and to admire his salvation! So here in John 3:16 we’re going to revel in the universalism, not the particularism. Surely no one can think that the use of the word “world” here is meant to diminish the scope or extent of God’s love. When again in chapter 4 John describes Jesus as “the Savior of the world,” he is telling us how great a savior Jesus is that he should be the Savior not just of Galilee or Judea, not just of the Jews but the Savior of the entire world. And here we read that he “so loved the world…” that he sent his son into the world “in order that the world might be saved through him.” The statements are surely meant to exalt the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ. The language may be very familiar to you but that God “so loved the world” would have been a new thought for the typical Jew of that day and even of the devout Jews of that day. That God loved Israel he would not have doubted. But it was not thought that God loved the whole world. No one has been able to find a statement in Jewish materials from the period that speaks of God loving the whole world.

And, of course, there are many such statements in the Bible that teach us to believe that God loves the world, the whole world. Peter tells us that God does not wish that any should perish but that all should reach repentance. We read in the OT as well that God does not desire the death of the wicked but that they should come to repentance. Paul speaks of “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [1 Tim. 2:4]

There are many ways to think about this and we haven’t time to discuss them all, but surely it is clear in the Bible that:

  1. The number of the saved will at last be very large, like the sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky. That is because God has so great a love for the world.
  2. God’s people are being saved from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. In this way also God loves the world.
  3. The world itself will someday be reborn and renewed as the final act and achievement of Christ’s salvation. God loves this world that he has made and the people in the world so much so that he is going to make it again so that it will be perfect forever. God loves the world in this way as well.
  4. God has a heart of love for all men, and so he extends himself and the offer of his salvation to all men. It is called the free offer of the Gospel and you find it on virtually page of the New Testament. “Whosoever will may come!” “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” When the question is asked, “What must I do to be saved?” the Bible never answers, “Be elect;” the Bible answers “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” “The one who comes to me,” Jesus said, “I will never drive away,” and he said that right there in the midst of a passage in John 6 in which statements are made that unambiguously teach the doctrines of election and the definite atonement. True enough, no one can come to Christ unless the Father in heaven draws him and those who do accept Jesus, as John has already said in chapter 1, do so not because of the will of man but because they have been born of the will and power of God (much as the Lord says again in John 3 when he speaks of the new birth). But it was love that impelled the Father to offer salvation to all. God is love!

I know there are many things that I wish I could do that I choose not to do for good and sufficient reasons. You do as well. There are many things you would like to do that you choose not to do because there are reasons why you should not do them. I can readily believe that this must be true of God on a far grander scale, certainly a far grander scale than I can grasp or understand. One cannot always do as he pleases. That this must be true of God on a far, far grander scale I can readily believe. And so it is that he does not accomplish the salvation of everyone even though in some respects he would have liked to.

I don’t understand that; you don’t either. There are deep mysteries here. We cannot begin to fathom the heart of God. But if we believe in definite atonement it is because we find it taught in the Bible, indeed we find it taught explicitly and emphatically in the same Gospel in which we find John 3:16. But John 3:16 is also in this Gospel and in the Bible and what John 3:16 is surely teaching us is that the divine heart is impossibly large and tender toward the world of men. Whatever he may have intended finally to come to pass, he provided his son for the salvation of the world, the whole world, so that anyone who believes in Jesus would be saved. We must not let theological controversy or a desire to penetrate deep mysteries or to smooth down the rough edges of our system stand in the way of our appreciating the infinitely large heart of love that prompted God to send his Son for the salvation of the world.

The God who shows himself to us in Holy Scripture is the God who loves the world and wishes all men to repent and be saved. We Calvinists must never, never forget that! It is what gives us leave to say to others, to anyone, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!”