The atoning work of Christ on the cross was a miraculous display of love, grace, and wrath, all in one eternal and divine act. The Son of God condescended to become a man, living a life of perfect obedience to the whole law of God, His own law, suffered and died on a cross, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day. He now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty on high. God atoned for sin to show the immeasurable riches of His mercy.
Do we really understand what happened in the atonement? Do we get the practical implications of what this means? Does it matter what we think about this? There are several passages in the Bible that relay to us the purpose, meaning, and intent of the atonement of Jesus Christ, and especially why it is important to understand this. The two passages I would like to narrow in on are John 6:37-40 and 1 Timothy 2:4.
First of all, John 6:37-40 is in the context of Jesus’ sermon on the bread of life; thus saith the Lord:
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 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. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
The people following Jesus ask, “when did you come here? (v. 25),” and “what must we do, to be doing the works of God? (v. 28).” They do not really have a desire to follow Christ with their hearts (v. 26), or to understand what He is teaching them, but they are wanting Him to prove Himself by performing a miracle (v. 30). However, Christ graciously and quite blatantly tells them exactly what to do to be fully obedient to God: “believe in Him whom [God] has sent (v. 29),” because, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst (v. 35).” Jesus is the source of salvation for “whoever” comes to Him. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”
Later on in verse 37 He says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” Meaning that everyone God has predestined from before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 8:30) will come to Him in faith because the Father drew them (v. 44). Also, Jesus says that, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out,” (v. 37b). According to the context in which Jesus said this, He will secure the salvation of all who come to Him, even to the end (v. 39). He will never cast them out, and they will always and forever be His. This is our hope: that what Christ did on the cross actually and effectually saved sinners, perfectly accomplishing the work of saving the elect.
Before moving on to 1 Timothy 2:4, I want to clarify a few key terms in regard to the atonement that typically get tossed around without clarity of meaning. As Reformed Baptists, we believe that the atoning work of Christ on the cross actually and effectively saved the church (past, present, and future church of God).
By “actually,” I mean that we, the universal church of God, “were reconciled to God by the death of His Son (Rom. 5:10; see also 2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph. 2:15-16; Col. 1:21-22).” Scripture also tells us that in the atonement of Christ, He secured the righteousness we need in order to be pardoned for sin. Through Christ’s redemptive work, we are certainly and definitely justified (Rom. 3:24-25; 5:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 3:13; Col. 1:13-14; Heb. 9:12; 1 Pt. 2:24).
What do I mean by “effectually”?
What I mean is that Christ worked in time for what is timeless. If we have a classical and Biblical view of God, that He is Creator of all, that time, space, and matter (the entire universe) is creature, that God is a se (completely of Himself), infinite, and absolute in every way, then we know and believe that God works outside of time, space, matter (creation), and in ways that are incomprehensible. Therefore, when the Triune God works and acts, He does so completely independent of anything creature, purely of Himself, in wisdom, truth, and justice in the fullest sense. He is actus purus (pure act).
Thus, Jesus Christ, being fully God and fully man, suffered and died for sinners as a man (1 Pt. 3:18), yet also justified and redeemed His people unto Himself eternally and sufficiently as God (Rom. 5:12, 17-19). So by “effectually,” I mean that when Christ paid the price for sin and cried out “It is finished (John 19:30)!” the work was done, and it actually worked. The atonement accomplished exactly what it was decreed to accomplish in eternity past. It effectually saved sinners. It was done on earth in time but effectually redeemed the souls of the church which are in Christ, who is eternal life itself.
The work was done by an eternal and infinite God to save finite, human sinners; thus, the effects of Christ’s work echoed throughout time. All who were, are, and will be under the covenant of grace (2 Tim. 1:9), under the headship of Christ (Rom. 5), receive the justification offered by the pouring out of the blood of Christ as a propitiation, thus paying the ultimate price for their sin, resulting in eternal life (Rom. 3:24-25; 5:8-9). Yet this reception or application of the atonement to the elect occurs in time. The blood of Christ poured out was sufficient for all sin since He was God and not a mere mortal man.
We clearly see in Scripture, in the work of the atonement, that our sin is actually imputed to Christ and His righteousness is effectually imputed to the sinner (1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 5:21). Stephen Charnock explains,
“We are not righteous before God by an inherent, but by an imputed righteousness, nor was Christ made sin by inherent, but imputed, guilt. The same way that his righteousness is communicated to us, our sin was communicated to him. Righteousness was inherent in him, but imputed to us; sin was inherent in us, but imputed to him,” (Works, 3:519).
Therefore, we openly deny that the work of Christ merely made salvation available, thus making it necessarily potential in nature. The atoning work of Christ in the Bible is never described as something needing to be activated by man or God, but was accomplished once for all time to “save His people from their sins,” (Matt. 1:21).
Now let’s look at 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” I believe that there could be two proper and consistent interpretations or points of 1 Timothy 2:4:
1st: Paul wants to convey to Timothy that God generally takes no delight in the death of wicked people (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:1).
2nd: God desires all peoples of the world, all types, to be saved. Salvation is not revealed to the Jews alone anymore, but now God has brought His new covenant for all people. The invitation is extended to all people, no matter where they are from. He is the “Savior of all people, especially of those who believe,” (4:10).
On this text, John Calvin tells us, “there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence [Paul] justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons.”
Both interpretations could probably be true because both are true of Scripture elsewhere. This verse cannot mean that God sovereignly wills and decrees all people to be effectually saved, because Paul made it clear in Romans 9:18-24 about God’s desire in election and reprobation, and it is obvious that not every person is universally saved. God is just and holy yet merciful. In His justice, He sheds wrath on all who deserve eternal damnation, yet mercifully decreed for His church, His bride, to be saved from their sin and His own wrath.
Anselm of Canterbury concludes that God is most good because He is just and merciful, saying,
“he who is good to both good and wicked is better than he who is good only to the good. And he who is good to the wicked by both punishing and sparing them is better than he who is good to the wicked only by punishing them. You are merciful, then, because You are all-good and supremely good,” (Proslogion).
Therefore, practically, the question we need to ask is not “for whom did Christ die?” But “Why did Christ atone for the sins of the church, and was it effective and sufficient in its intent?” If that is the question we need to ask, then the answer is clearly found in Scripture, as we have already found. Yes! He paid the price on the cross out of a deep love for the church, His bride (Eph. 5:25-27), and yes, it was very much effective in securing the salvation of the church of God (Rom. 8:33-39).
“To all those for whom Christ hath obtained eternal redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same, making intercession for them; uniting them to Himself by His Spirit, revealing unto them, in and by His Word, the mystery of salvation, persuading them to believe and obey, governing their hearts by His Word and Spirit, and overcoming all their enemies by His almighty power and wisdom, in such manner and ways as are most consonant to His wonderful and unsearchable dispensation; and all of free and absolute grace, without any condition foreseen in them to procure it,” (1689 LBCF 8.8).
O Church, read these words and be encouraged by the love that the Father has on us. That He effectively and actually died for you, to save you unto Himself, and that this work’s power and effect is eternal. The truth we read in Scripture of the gospel’s power to save and to keep saving us daily in faith from our sin should drive us to loving God, His Word, and His image bearers all the more in spirit and truth. Amen amen.