For Whom Did Jesus Die?

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Now that is an interesting question. Roger Olson asked, “If Christ’s death satisfied God’s justice for all, why aren’t all saved? Arminius answers: ‘For the sins of those for whom Christ died were in such manner condemned in the flesh of Christ, that they by that fact are not delivered from condemnation, unless they actually believe on Christ.’

“In other words, God decided that the sins of all people would be expiated by Christ’s death in such a way that only if people believe on Christ would their sins actually be forgiven. But Christ’s death actually did reconcile God to sinful humanity [2 Cor. 5.19]; however the communication of the benefits of that reconciliation ~ reconciliation of persons to God, pardon and justification, regeneration ~ depend on human belief:

“‘These two functions and operations of Christ ~ to wit, the recovering, through the blood of Christ, of the salvation lost by sin; and the actual communication or application, by the Holy Spirit, of the salvation obtained by that blood ~ are distinct from each other. The former is antecedent to faith; the latter requires faith preceding, according to the decree of God.'”1

Is this, then, merely a hypothetical atonement? Does this atonement actually save anyone? The atonement saves those who believe. How could God guarantee that this atonement would actually save anyone? That question was posed to me a few semesters ago when a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary preached a sermon on Revelation 5.9-10 at a chapel service.

I responded: This, coming from someone who believes in the absolute omniscience of God? Even in the Arminian system, God could foreknow who would believe in Christ, thus guaranteeing redeemed persons from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5.9). God does not have to decree a person’s salvation (in the Calvinistic sense) in order for Him to guarantee the truth of Revelation 5.9.

But, is not the Calvinist missing the bigger picture? The atonement speaks volumes about the nature and character of God, does it not? Was God not motivated by His love for the world to offer an atonement to the believing ones (John 3.16)? And was not the consequence for unbelief eternal separation from and eternal experience of the wrath of God (John 3.36)?

Why turn the atonement on its head and caricature it (in my opinion) as a cold orthodox statement, limiting not only the atonement, but also God’s truth and right to love His creation? Friends, the atonement is not about a decree as much as it is about God’s love. God had every right to condemn us due to our sins. But instead He chose love, mercy, and grace. He even chose His only Son to die in the place of guilty sinners: the Just for the unjust (1 Pet. 3.18).

Of course the atonement is limited in its application only to believers. But its extent and intention was enough to cover every living person ever to come into existence, if he or she would but believe on Christ (a statement which very few Calvinists would deny). Is this not strictly implied by the condition of faith in Christ (i.e. a person’s sins will be atoned for if he or she believes on Christ: John 1.7; 3.18; Acts 16.31; Rom. 3.22; 10.10; 1 Cor. 1.21; 1 Tim. 4.10)?

Does this mean, then, that God has done what it took to secure an atonement for everyone and then left the rest (of salvation) up to the individual? Well, that is one caricature of Arminianism. Again, Olson adds, “Arminius confronted the charge that his teaching on the atonement implied that humans are their own saviors because they have to believe on Christ in order for Christ’s obedient sacrifice to be applied to them for reconciliation with God. He appealed to God’s sovereign will to place conditions on the application of the blessing of the atonement to people and to the fact that anyone who meets those conditions does so only by grace:

“‘Who has merited that the blessing [of the atonement] should be offered to himself? Who has merited that any grace whatsoever should be conferred on himself to embrace that? Do not all those things proceed from gratuitous Divine favour? And if they do, is not God to be celebrated on account thereof with perpetual praises by those who, being made partakers of that grace, have received the blessing of God?’

“To those critics who point to Romans 9.16, which says that salvation is not of him that wills or runs but only of God who shows mercy, Arminius responded that this passage rules out salvation by works but not salvation by God’s mercy [Titus 3.5] to those who believe with the help of God’s grace.”2

To answer the question posed in the title, Yes, God is satisfied with the obedient sacrifice offered by His only and unique Son, Jesus Christ. And now, as John wrote, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (John 3.36 TNIV). Price for sin has been paid, even though God’s wrath against sin remains. And the only way to come from underneath that wrath is by faith in God’s one and only Son, Jesus.

1 Roger Olson, Arminian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 227.

2 Ibid., 227-228.