(From the Euangelion blog. August 16,2009)
According to Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary):
Christ died for the sins of the world, and to ransom that world. 1 Tim. 2.4-5 puts the matter succinctly. God our savior “wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” One could compare this to John 3.17, “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world”, or the repeated refrain in Hebrews that Christ died once for all time, for all persons, and so on. (See the discussion of these matters in my forthcoming volumes on NT Theology and Ethics entitled The Indelible Image).
But this is not just a matter of finding sufficient proof texts (of which there are many more), it is a matter of one’s theology of the divine character. God is love, holy love, to be sure, but nonetheless love, and as 1 Tim. 2.4 says, the desire of God’s heart is that all persons be saved. It is not just the elect whom God loves, but as John 3.16 says, the world, for whom Christ was sent to die. It follows from this that Christ’s atoning death is sufficient for the salvation of all persons, but only efficient for those who respond in faith to God’s gracious provision of redemption.
Even more foundational is the understanding of the meaning of saying that God is love. Among other things, this means God is committed to relating to those created in his image in love. Now real love must be freely given, and freely received. It cannot be predetermined, manipulated, coerced or else it becomes contrary to what the Bible says love is (see 1 Cor. 13). In the debate between whether the primary trait of God is God’s sovereignty or God’s love, it seems clear that God exercises his power in love, and for loving ends. Even his acts of judgment, short of final judgment, are not meant to be punitive but rather corrective and restorative. God in short, is unlike vindictive human beings, very unlike them. Thus Hosea relates that God says “All my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger … For I am God and not a human being.” God, the divine parent, is not less loving than the best of human parents, God is more loving. If Christ is the perfect incarnation of the character of God, then the answer to the question, for whom did Christ die, becomes theologically self-evident— for the world which God created and still loves.