The doctrines of grace are a set of doctrines which describe the three persons of the Trinity as working in concert to secure our salvation. Those whom the Father chose, the Son purchased with His own blood. Those whom the Son purchased with His own blood, the Spirit effectually calls when He converts. At every turn, we are talking about the same group of people. The Father decided, before all worlds, the Son sacrificed before your world, and the Spirit regenerates, ushering you into a new world.
The Son does not try to save different people than the Father has chosen. The Spirit does not try to quicken different people than were bought by the Lord’s blood. The doctrines of grace are doctrines of triune harmony. All three have an identical cross-purpose, which means they are not working at cross-purposes.
“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15).
Summary of the Text
The Scriptures teach us that Jesus died for individuals. He did not die for a cluster or a mass of people. He died for His sheep. He died to secure the salvation of particular persons. He is the good shepherd, and a good shepherd counts his sheep (Prov. 27:23). His sheep know Him, and He knows His sheep. “And am known of mine” (v. 14). His sheep know Him, the Father knows Him, and in the same way He knows the Father. This is how and why He lays down His life for the sheep. Note this—“even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (v. 15). The sacrifice of Christ for His own sheep is a sacrifice that emerged from His knowledge of the Father.
What Shall We Call It?
We will simplify all this if we begin by rejecting a term that is commonly applied to this doctrine. The rejected phrase is that of limited atonement. It should be rejected for two reasons. One is that it is misleading with regard to the teaching of the Bible, and the other is that it misrepresents the nature of the debate. One of the most obvious features of the atonement in Scripture is its universality. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the propitiation for our sins and not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the world. God so loved the world.” Consequently, a phrase which seems to deny that universality on the surface is really not all that useful.
Secondly, every Christian who holds to the reality of eternal judgment believes (in some sense) in a limited atonement. The debate is over which aspect is limited—is it the efficacy or extent of it? But more on that shortly.
If you tell someone that you believe in limited atonement, and he disagrees with you, what will he say he believes in? Why, in unlimited atonement—which certainly sounds more biblical. But if you say that you believe in definite atonement, what does he have to say? He has to disagree by saying he believes in indefinite atonement—Jesus died for no one in particular.
So present the question to yourself in this way. It is not a choice between limited and unlimited atonement. It is a choice between definite and indefinite atonement. Did Jesus die in order to secure the salvation of particular individuals? The biblical answer is yes.
The universality of the atonement in Scripture is not the only obvious thing about it. Another truth, equally precious, and equally clear, is that the atonement is substitutionary.
This means that if Christ died for someone, the for means instead of. It is not a “potential substitution, if only . . .” It is an actual substitution, and therefore efficacious. In our text, Christ lays down His life for the sheep—not the goats. For more on this, consider:
“Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:25–27).
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).
It all comes down to this. Christ did not die trying to save anybody. Christ died to secure the salvation of His sheep. The debate centers on the meaning of the word for in the phrase, “Jesus died for sinners.” What does that for mean? One position is that Jesus died to give a chance to sinners, if they only believe, which they probably won’t. The biblical position is that Jesus died instead of particular named sinners, in order to secure and guarantee their salvation.
Christ Died For . . .
Following the great John Owen, we should understand we have only four basic options. Christ died for:
- All Sins of men;
- All if sins of some men;
- Some sins of all men;
- Some sins of some men
If we opt for #3 or #4, then we have to say that no one is saved, because all have some sins still to account for. If we say that #1 is the case, then the question becomes why some men are lost. If the answer is “because they do not believe,” is this unbelief a sin, or not? If not, why are they condemned for it? If so, then did Jesus die for it? If so, then why are they not saved? If not, then Jesus did not die for all sins—leaving us with the glories contained within #2.
So some believers limit the efficacy of the atonement, while we do limit its extent. But for us, this limitation is not a tiny limitation. It has borders, but it is an expansive reality. Compare a great wide bridge going across a chasm, which all human beings can fit on, but which does not reach the other side. Contrast this with a narrower bridge, but which crosses the chasm. That does not require the narrow bridge to be a rope walk, or a zip line.
But What about Those Universal Passages?
Doesn’t the Bible say that God so loved the world? Yes, it does, and yes, He does. But let’s take a look at how the Bible uses the term world (Grk. kosmos).
- Kosmos describes the universe as a whole (Acts 17:24);
- Kosmos describes the earth (John 13:1; Eph. 1:4);
- Kosmos describes the world-system (John 12:31);
- Kosmos describes the entire human race (Rom. 3:19);
- Kosmos describes the entire human race minus believers (John 15:18);
- Kosmos describes Gentiles as opposed to Jews (Rom. 11:12);
- Kosmos describes a redeemed humanity (John 1:29; 3:16-17; 6:33; 12:47; 2 Cor. 5:19).
In the backdrop of this discussion, remember what you have been taught about the greatness of the Great Commission. The earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The Bible does teach that the world is the object of God’s redemptive and salvific intention. This does not mean that every last person is saved, but it does mean that Christ has secured the salvation of an innumerable host, too big to be counted, and He did it name-by-name.
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).
And every last member of this saved world has been given a white stone, and a new name along with it, a name known only to God and the one receiving it (Rev. 2:17). And that name is only possible because it is followed by the apposition “purchased by the blood.”