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The Death Christ Died -A Case for Unlimited Atonement
Introduction

© by Robert P. Lightner, Th. D

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Table of Contents
Foreword
Preface to the Third Printing
Introduction
I. The Savior in Life and Death
II. The Divine Purpose of the Atonement
III. The Biblical Extent of the Atonement
IV. Problems with and Unlimited View of the Atonement
V. Problems with a Limited View of the Atonement
Conclusion
Scripture Index


Introduction
Note: page numbers in the book are indicated in brackets [ ]

Whether Christ died for all men or for only those who will believe has been an issue much debated since the days of the Reformation. Prior to that time much was written about the atonement but very little about its extent. Some older writers insist, however, that the church from its earliest ages was of the opinion that Christ died for all. Even Augustine, strict predestinarian though he was, maintained that Christ gave Himself a ransom for all by providing for their salvation, thus removing an impediment which would otherwise have proved fatal.1

There are scattered indications in the writings of some of the early fathers which certainly imply their belief in an unlimited atonement. Of course, it must be remembered that their first concern was not with the extent of the atonement but with the person of Christ and with the nature of His work on the cross.

Irenaeus, who lived about A.D. 130-202, wrote a treatise entitled Against Heresies in which he challenged some of the heretical groups springing up in the church. Speaking of Christ and His work on the cross, he said that He ". . . gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity [italics mine] ."2

Another such strong hint by an early writer of the universal scope of Christ's provision at Calvary comes from Athanasius, staunch defender of the faith, who lived and labored from A.D. 298 to 373. In his work, The Incarnation of the Word of God, he makes the following observation concerning Christ's humanity and death. "Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father [italics mine]."3 Again, the same writer said: "Death there [12] had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid [italics mine] ."4

As far as the great ecumenical councils of the ancient church are concerned, there is nothing in their pronouncements which would militate against an unlimited atonement. In fact there are statements in the creeds, which followed the councils, which strongly imply belief in the unlimited view. For example, the six council in Constantinople (680-681) declared, "Wherefore we confess two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly in him for the salvation of the human race."5 Statements similar to this can be found in most of the councils' pronouncements.

Statements such as these and similar ones in the writings of the early church have led some to believe that from the beginning of the Christian era Christ's death was viewed as a true and perfect sacrifice for the sins of the elect and the nonelect. This sacrifice, they maintained, was provisionary in nature and became effectual only to those who trusted Christ as Savior.

"But even all this does not suppose that the death of Christ, considered simply as a sacrifice for sin, had anything in it peculiar to the elect, or that in and of itself it did anything for them which it did not do for the rest of mankind. The intention of God, as to its application, or the use he designed to make of it, is a thing perfectly distinct from the sacrifice itself, and so considered, as we believe by the church antecedent to the Reformation. In no other way can we see how their language is either intelligible or consistent."6

The reformers, and certainly the children of the reformers, were not united on this matter. It is, of course, no secret to the student of the Reformation that the Lutheran branch almost without exception embraced the unlimited view. "But that Luther, Melanchthon, Osiander, Brentius, Oecoiampadius, Zwinglius and Bucer held the doctrine of a general atonement there is no reason to doubt.... Thus also, it was with their immediate successors, as the language of the Psalgrave Confession [13] testifies.... 'Of the power and death of Christ, believe we,' say these German Christians, that the death of Christ (whilst he being not a bare man, but the Son of God, died,) is a full, all sufficient payment, not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. . . 7

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) of the German Reformed Church in answer to the thirty-seventh question, "What dost thou understand by the word Suffered?" has this answer: "That all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, he bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the of the whole human race...."8

The Church of England's official statement of faith is equally clear in its embrace of unlimited atonement. Article thirty one of The Thirty-Nine Articles reads: "The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone."9

Those who believe in limited atonement usually assume that John Calvin's writings set forth clearly the limited view. This assumption may be open to some question, however, since on at least some occasions he presents his views in such a way as to make one think he is carefully avoiding the issue. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which were written early in his life, one gets the impression that he does not commit himself on the matter. His language there is in keeping with the language generally adopted by the church of his day, which was not very specific regarding the extent of the atonement but favored an unlimited concept.

During the later years of his life Calvin wrote his commentaries, which reveal some development of thought, and in which he avoided some of the extremes found in the Institutes. This every honest student of Calvin will readily admit. Some believe without any hesitation that in his commentaries Calvin taught an unlimited atonement. "But whatever might have been [14] his opinions in early life, his commentaries, which were the labors of his riper years, demonstrate in the most unequivocal manner that he received and taught the doctrine of a general or universal atonement.''10

Whether that be true or not, it is true that Calvin's comments on some of the most controverted passages make one hesitant to assign him the role of a limited redemptionist. For example, on John 3:16, he said: ". . . The Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.''11 Concerning the term whosoever in the same verse, he said: "And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the impact of the term world, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favour of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.''12 Such an understanding of this verse and the words employed in it is certainly not in keeping with many who claim to be Calvinists, as the following pages will reveal.

Another illustration of Calvin's view is to be found in his explanation of Matthew 26:28. ". . .This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins [italics mine]." He says: "Under the name of many he designates not a part of the world only, but the whole human race"13

The citations from early church fathers, the creeds and confessions, and John Calvin have not been given as arguments in favor of unlimited atonement. They have been cited, though, to demonstrate that the unlimited view is not new; nor did it originate with Arminianisn. The fact is the limited view was not popularly held until the Synod of Dort (1619) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).

Throughout this work I have used the words "atonement" [15] and "redemption" interchangeably. Some may object to this on the basis that redemption, it is contended, relates only to the believer and ought never be used in any sense of the nonbeliever. However, there are instances in Scripture where the word "redeem" or its cognates are used of Christ-rejectors. The best example of such a usage is found in 2 Peter 2:1 (cf. Gal. 4:4 5). Therefore, since the word "atonement" has come to refer to the totality of the completed work of Christ, and since redemption used of both saved and unsaved, we have used them both when speaking of Christ's work on the cross. It is readily admitted, of course, that no one benefits from that purchased redemption until he believes in Christ as his Redeemer.

This subject is of paramount importance to the ambassador for Christ. Unless Christ died for all men, the message of God's love and Christ's death must be given with tongue in cheek and with some reservation, because some may hear who are really not to be numbered among those whom God loved and for who Christ died. Consistency and honesty would demand that the one who believes in limited atonement refrain from proclaiming God's universal offer of the good news of God's love and grace in Christ to all men indiscriminately, since in that view God did not extend grace to all nor did Christ die for all. Therefore, to tell all men that these things are true and that salvation is available for them is to speak that which is not true if the limited view be accepted.

It is hoped that this study will enhance the cause of Christ, stimulate a deeper interest in personal Bible study, and give every confidence and assurance to the proclaimer of the gospel that without reservation or hesitation he can tell all men that Christ died for them according to the Scriptures.

I am indebted to many for making contributions to this work. A special word of appreciation is due to my wife, Pearl, for her faithfulness in typing the manuscript; to an esteemed colleague, Mr. John Benson, for his critical reading of the manuscript; and to a diligent student, Mr. Robert Dyer, Jr., for preparing the Scripture index.



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