What the Bible teaches about the penal, substitutionary, and atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ is no small matter. In fact, nothing that the Bible teaches is ever a small matter. However, this is one of the greatest issues of the Bible, since it is this event that is one of the essential events on which we must depend to receive God’s forgiveness and eternal life.
Therefore, it is an issue to get the teaching of the Bible on this matter wrong, and that is exactly what has happened in the past, and is able to happen in the future. So, I believe it is my duty to attempt to point people to the Bible’s teaching on the matter, and that is what I hope to do for you.
I said that the issue at hand is the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, I have a more specific aspect of this issue in mind in this article: what is the nature of His atonement, and to whom does it apply?
More specifically, I am responding to a message that was delivered by a man by the name of Tim Barnett, entitled “For Whom Did Christ Die? A Defense of Unlimited Atonement.” You can watch it on YouTube for free. Just type the title of the message in the search bar, and hit enter.
In this message, Barnett argues for the view that the Lord Jesus Christ died for the sins of every person who has ever lived, and will ever live. He cites a number of Bible passages in his attempt to support this view. It is some of these passages that I would like to examine, to see what they actually teach.
First, however, let me share with you one of the most important passages in the Bible on this issue, which Barnett doesn’t even address in his message:
“And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses; HAVING BLOTTED OUT THE BOND written in ordinances that was AGAINST US, which was CONTRARY to us: and he HATH TAKEN IT OUT OF THE WAY, NAILING IT TO THE CROSS . . .” – Colossians 2:13-14
First notice that Paul is speaking here to believers, as he tells them that they have had their trespasses forgiven. And why were they forgiven? In the NASB, the words, “blotted out the bond,” are translated as “cancelled out the certificate of debt”. So, he says, the Colossians’ sins were forgiven because God has cancelled the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against them, and has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. So how did God cancel that certificate of debt which was in the way of Him forgiving the Colossians? By taking it out of the way, by nailing it to the cross.
What exactly does this mean? Well, the certificate of debt, according to Christian apologist and theologian, Matt Slick, refers to a certificate of legal indebtedness. That is, it is the evidence against us that we’ve sinned against God, and we owe a debt to Him of eternal suffering in hell for our sins.
Thus, when Paul says that this certificate of debt has been cancelled by being nailed to the cross, he is saying that all of the Colossians’ indebtedness to God for their sins against Him has been completely and utterly cancelled. And when was this debt cancelled? Paul clearly says that it was cancelled by being nailed to the cross. That is, it was cancelled when Jesus was nailed to the cross. Thus, all of those whose debt was cancelled have no more sin debt to pay to God. As a result, they cannot be punished for sins that have been payed for.
Hence, Christ’s death must have only applied to those who eventually have their sins forgiven, since there are those who are not forgiven in the end, and end up paying the debt they owe God. Clearly, Christ did not pay their debt, so this penal and substitionary work on the cross cannot apply to these people who end up in hell. Therefore, limited atonement must be the proper view of the atonement.
Now, on to some of the passages that Barnett cites in his message as support for unlimited atonement.
First, he uses John 1:29 and 3:16 as support for the view that the word, “world,” in those passages refers to every individual who had and would ever live. Let us begin with John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
The first question I have is, what is “for” there for? Let’s find out:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so MUST THE SON OF MAN BE LIFTED UP; THAT whosoever believeth may in him HAVE ETERNAL LIFE. FOR God so loved the world, that HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON, THAT whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but HAVE ETERNAL LIFE.” – John 3:14-16
So, why did the Son of Man have to be lifted up, so whoever believed in Him would have eternal life? Because God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son (the Son of Man), that whoever would believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. In other words, the necessity of Jesus being lifted up on the cross is paralleled with God giving His only begotten Son, and the result of both of those things is the salvation of those who believe in Jesus, and only those who believe in Jesus.
Where in this passage is there any suggestion that “the world” refers to anyone other than those who believe in Jesus, and have eternal life? Clearly, the world is referring to those who will ultimately believe in Jesus, and have eternal life.
Now, let’s look at John 1:29:
“On the morrow he seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!”
Barnett uses this passage to say that the Lamb of God took away the sin of every person of all times. However, if every person of all times has their sin taken away, then why are there people in hell at this moment, suffering for the sin that has already been taken away?
Next, Barnett cites 1 Timothy 2:3-6:
“This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all; the testimony to be borne in its own times . . .”
The question I would ask about this passage is, what is that which “is good and acceptable in the sight of God”? Well, if we look at the preceding context, we can find out:
“I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for ALL men; for KINGS and ALL that are in HIGH PLACE; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity. THIS is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; WHO would have ALL men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. FOR there is one God, one mediator also between God and MEN, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for ALL; the testimony to be borne in its own times . . .”
So, of course Barnett uses this passage in support of the view that Christ died for every person of all times. However, we must understand what Paul is saying based on the context in which he uses his words.
Obviously, the most important matter in understanding this passage correctly is Paul’s use of the word, “all”. So, what does he mean by it?
First, he commands the church under Timothy’s leadership to pray for all men. Who are these men? Well, Paul tells us: “for kings and all that are in high place”. And why are we to pray for them? That we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity. And it is this praying that is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior. Why is it good? Because God would have ALL men to be saved. So, what does Paul mean by “all men” here? Basically, the same thing he meant in the beginning of the passage: all types of people, like kings, and people in high places.
Why does salvation involve coming to the knowledge of the truth? “There is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for ALL . . .” Why would we think that Paul has stopped using the same meaning of “all” here?
The next passage that Barnett cites is 1 Timothy 4:10:
“For to this end we labor and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe.”
Again, what’s the “for” there for? Let’s look at the context:
“If thou put the brethren in mind of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished in the words of the faith, and of the good doctrine which thou hast followed until now: but refuse profane and old wives’ fables. And exercise thyself unto godliness: for bodily exercise is profitable for a little; but godliness is profitable for all things, HAVING PROMISE OF THE LIFE THAT NOW IS, and of that WHICH IS TO COME. Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation. For to this end WE LABOR AND STRIVE, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe.” – 1 Timothy 4:1-10
In addressing this passage, I would first note that nowhere does it say that Christ died for every person of all times. In fact, Paul doesn’t mention Christ in the verse that Barnett cites in his message.
Putting that aside, I’m not certain of what Paul means by saying that God is the Savior of all, but he does give some clues. First, the reason he says that God is the Savior of all men is to demonstrate that it is good to set his hope on the living God. Thus, it seems that he is at least partly saying that he is included in the category of “all men.” Second, he says that him setting his hope on the Savior of all men results in him laboring and striving. Notice how opposed that is to simply believing. Third, notice that Paul tells Timothy to discipline himself to be godly, and the reason why is it has promise in this life, and in the next life. This next life seems to be the “end” to which Paul labors and strives.
Considering all of these clues, Paul may be saying in verse 10 that God is the Savior of all people who discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness, and labor and strive for this purpose, and especially those who simply believe in Him by setting their hope on Him. However, this is not even necessary, as Paul may simply be saying that God is the Savior of “all”, or all types, of men, and especially those types of men who believe. The first saving relationship of God to men may refer to regeneration, and the second relationship may refer to sanctification. Yet another interpretation may be that God temporarily saves all men from the punishment they deserve for their sins against Him, and especially saves those who believe in Him. This is on par with the interpretation of Dr. John MacArthur, as expressed in The MacArthur Study Bible.
Next, Barnett cites 1 John 2:1-2, which says this:
“My little children, these things write I unto you that ye may not sin. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
Barnett asserts that this passage teaches that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of every person of all times. That would mean that Jesus suffered God’s wrath for the sins of every person of all times, so God would be unwilling to pour out His wrath upon them, since He would have already poured it out upon Jesus for their sins. Propitiation literally means “satisfaction,” so are we to believe that God is only partly satisfied with the death of Christ for those who end up in hell, and that He must be partly satisfied by their suffering in hell as well?
We have already seen one possible use of the word, “world,” in John 3:16. But what does John mean by “the whole world” here? Well, he clearly doesn’t mean every individual, for the reason I’ve explained. Therefore, he must mean the elect in the world, or those who will ultimately be saved, since the Lord Jesus Christ is the propitiation for their sins, not a possible propitiation for their sins.
Barnett also cites 2 Peter 2:1, which says this:
“But there arose FALSE prophets also AMONG the people, as AMONG YOU also there shall be FALSE teachers, who shall PRIVILY [secretly] bring in destructive heresies, denying even the MASTER that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
Barnett uses this passage in support of his belief that Jesus bought those who will certainly be damned in the end, such as these false teachers. He asserts that Jesus bought them by dying for them. However, let us think about what that would mean.
If Jesus bought these false teachers, that would mean that He is their Master, as the verse says. That also would mean that they would be His property. In the New Testament, this relationship assumes that the slave willingly obeys his Master, as Romans 6 shows. However, this verse clearly shows that the false teachers deny, or rebel against, the Master. By the way, notice that Peter didn’t say, “their Master,” but “the Master,” clearly implying that He was not truly their Master, and they weren’t really His slaves.
In addition, this idea of Jesus buying people involves Him redeeming them from their former slavery to sin and Satan. However, these false teachers are clearly still slaves of sin and Satan, showing that Jesus has not actually bought them out of that slavery.
So, what does Peter mean by “the Master that bought them”? It’s pretty straightforward: he’s simply speaking of them as they pretended to be — slaves of the Master who were bought by them. However, he also clearly implies that they actually weren’t His slaves, and consequently, weren’t bought by Him.
Next, Barnett cites Ephesians 2:1 and 3b-5. It’s interesting that he didn’t cite the middle of that passage, so let’s look at all of it:
“And you did he make alive, when ye were DEAD through your trespasses and sins, wherein ye once WALKED according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience; among whom we also all once LIVED in the lusts of our flesh, DOING the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were BY NATURE children of wrath, even as the rest:— but God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved) . . .”
Barnett uses this passage to support his assertion that those who will eventually be saved are under the wrath of God while they are unbelievers. But does this passage teach that?
When Paul says that the Ephesians were dead through their trespasses and sins, he is saying that they were spiritually dead, not under the wrath of God. Also, the fact that the Ephesians were children of wrath by nature, like everyone else, does not necessarily mean that they were under the wrath of God. Rather, it refers to their relationship to God’s wrath in the sense of deserving an inheritance of it because of their nature. Among other Bible commentators, the Baptist preacher, John Gill, does not see this term as referring to the Ephesians being under the wrath of God before conversion, but to their deserving it because of their nature.
Another point militates against the view that “children of wrath” refers to the state of being under God’s wrath: Paul contrasts the Ephesians’ former spiritual state, lifestyle, and nature with God making them alive with Christ, not ceasing to be angry with them. In other words, this passage has to do with a change in nature, not with a change in God’s attitude toward the Ephesians.
Next, Barnett cites John 2:14-15, which says this:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.”
He uses this passage to say that, just as Moses lifted the serpent up in the wilderness, that whoever looked at it would be healed of the illness they received from God’s judgment, so whoever looks at Christ in faith will be healed of the spiritual illness of sin. However, in this passage, Jesus makes no comparison between the looking of the people of Israel and the looking of the believer to Christ for healing. The comparison is strictly between Moses lifting up the serpent, and the necessity of Jesus being lifted up. To say that Jesus is including a comparison between the Israelites’ healing, and the believer’s healing, as a result of looking at an object of faith, is to add to the text what is not there, nor implied.
Next, Barnett cites 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, which says this:
“Now I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for OUR sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures . . .”
Barnett uses this passage to say that Paul’s message to the unbelieving Corinthians, when he preached the gospel to them, was that Christ had died for their sins. I find it significant that Paul did not say that he told the Corinthians that “Christ died for your sins,” but rather that He died for our sins. If Paul had wanted to say that Christ had died for all of the Corinthians’ sins, even though he didn’t know if they were elect at the time, then why didn’t he just say that? If you take the view that Christ died only for the sins of the elect, it would make sense for him to tell the unbelieving Corinthians that He died for our sins, since this simply refers to Christ dying for the sins that all people have commonly committed, not the sins of every single individual who would ever live.
Finally, Barnett cites Isaiah 53:6, which says this:
“All WE like sheep have gone astray; WE have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of US all.”
Barnett uses this verse to say that the “all” refers to every individual of all times, but is that really the group to whom this verse is referring? Let’s look at the context to find out:
“Who hath believed our message? and to whom hath the arm of Jehovah been revealed? For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when WE see him, there is no beauty that WE should desire him. He was despised, and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and WE esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne OUR griefs, and carried OUR sorrows; yet WE did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for OUR transgressions, he was bruised for OUR iniquities; the chastisement of OUR peace was upon him; and with his stripes WE are healed. All WE like sheep have gone astray; WE have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of US all.
He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who among them considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of MY PEOPLE to whom the stroke was due? And they made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” – Isaiah 53:1-9
So, who is the “we” and the “us” referring to in the verse Barnett quoted?
- those who saw Jesus (v. 2)
- those who esteemed Jesus not (v. 3)
- those who esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted (v. 4)
- Isaiah’s people (the Jews) (v. 8)
Clearly, the “all” whose iniquity was laid upon Christ cannot refer to every individual of all times.
The issue for you, if you are unsure about your salvation, is not to find out whether you are one of the elect or not. It is to change the way you think about your Creator, about the God-man, Jesus Christ, about His crucifixion, about His resurrection, and about your sins, and to depend solely on the Lord Jesus Christ, His death because of your sins, and His bodily resurrection from the dead, as the only Way of having God forgive your sins and give you eternal life, and believing that you have those mercies because of the Lord and His work. That is what God commands you to do right now. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.