"For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." - I Timothy 4:10
I've written on this topic before, but it has been on my mind again today.
There are several verses in Scripture which declare that the Gospel is universal, i.e., worldwide, without restriction of time or ethnicity, "no respecter of persons" (e.g., Acts 10:34). The verse above is one. John 3:16 is well-known. I John 2:2 is another. These verses are often thrown up in the face of Calvinists, as if our critics think that we have never seen them before.
The doctrine at controversy is the extent of the atonement. Most Christians hold to a universal atonement, that is, that Christ on the cross died in an equal sense for every person without discrimination. Calvinists, such as myself, hold to a particular, or definite, atonement, i.e., for a specific class of named individuals, known only to God. We would say that the doctrine of universal atonement suffers from two fatal flaws: first, that it is thereby a hypothetical atonement only, not a certain one, or second, that there are and will be people in Hell for whom Christ died. I am appalled by either option and sickened that so many Christians are agreeable to such blasphemies.
Let me list a couple of places in Scripture that I understand to teach a particular atonement.
"At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around Him and said to Him, 'How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.' Jesus answered them, 'I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name bear witness about Me, but you do not believe because you are not part of My flock. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.'" -John 10: 22-30
"When Jesus had spoken these words, He lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, 'Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You, since You have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom You have given Him. I have manifested Your name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world. Yours they were, and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they know that everything that You have given Me is from You. For I have given them the words that You gave Me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given me, for they are Yours. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory that You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know You, I know You, and these know that You have sent Me. I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.'" -John 17:1-2, 6-9, 24-26
Is there a conflict here? I would certainly deny so. It seems rather clear to me. Jesus received a known (to Him) class of named individuals to redeem on the cross. That part is clear from the passages from John just above. But it is equally and gloriously true that He is the Savior of the world! How so? Because the latter is taken in general, while the former is taken individually. Jesus is the Savior of every believing man, woman, and child anywhere in the world, of any ethnic background, from Adam to the end of the world. Every person who is saved is saved in Him (such as Romans 10:9-13). Furthermore, no one who is saved is or can be saved by any person or means other than Him (such as Acts 4:12 and II Thessalonians 2:12).
The Gospel is universal because it is the message of salvation to every time, place, and people (Mark 16:15). And because the atonement is definite and particular, every individual can know that His atonement is sufficient to satisfy the justice of God, and restore a right relationship between the Father and the repentant sinner. The universal Gospel is the warrant for every hearer to believe. The atonement is what satisfies both God and sinner that all his sins are forgiven (Isaiah 53:6).
No one can know in an a priori sense that he is one of the elect, for whom Christ died. This is only an a posteriori knowledge, arising from having believed. In fact, we are forbidden to meddle in the secret decrees of God (Deuteronomy 29:29). But no knowledge of election is required to take hold of that universal Gospel, and thus to be saved in Christ Jesus!
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