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For whom did Christ die?

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Most evangelicals believe in the doctrine of penal substitution, that Jesus took the place of the sinner when He died on the cross, theologians David Nelson and Sam Waldron told the nearly 550 attendees of a conference on Calvinism and the Southern Baptist Convention. However, the question of the extent of the atonement drew two very different responses from the presenters.

Nelson and Waldron addressed “The Atonement: Its Design, Nature and Extent” on the second day of the Nov. 26-28 “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference co-sponsored by Founders Ministries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. Founders Ministries formed in 1982 to advance Reformed theology in SBC churches.

Nelson, senior vice president for academic administration and professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., defended the non-Calvinist view of atonement, which argues Christ died for every person without exception, but that salvation is given only to those who believe.

Waldron, academic dean and professor of theology at the Midwest Center for Theological Studies in Owensboro, Ky., defended the Calvinistic view of limited or “particular” atonement, which asserts that Christ died only for the elect and not the whole world.

Both Nelson and Waldron agreed that the Bible clearly insists that Christ died as a substitute for sinners, bearing the wrath of God for their sins.

Nelson briefly examined the diversity of views on the atonement, which Christians have held across the sweep of church history before presenting a biblical apologetic for a non-Calvinistic view of atonement.

Texts such as John 3:16-18, 1 Timothy 2:1-6 and 2 Peter 3:9, which speak of God desiring to save “all” or the “world,” are not sufficiently explained by those who hold to limited atonement and, thus, give credence to atonement for all who believe, Nelson said.

Nelson proposed several exegetical considerations to support interpretation of cosmos or world as “all” without exception:

— In John 1:29 and 12:46 cosmos means the earth and all inhabitants of the earth in the sense Jesus came to save all who believe in Him. Attempts to make cosmos mean other than “all people” are strained and unnecessary; the necessity of faith is clear.

— In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul is speaking about the Gospel in telling the church to pray for “all” people, for kings and all who are in high positions in order to promote an environment of peace. This is good to God who Himself is shalom and who brings shalom. God desires all people to be saved, to come to knowledge of the truth that Christ Jesus is the one mediator who gave Himself as a ransom for all.

— Hebrews 2:9 says Jesus tasted death for everyone and verse 17 reads that He makes propitiation for the sins of the people, drawing an analogy between Christ’s mediatorial role as High Priest and the high priestly ministry of the tabernacle. If “everyone” and “the people” are not read in general terms, understanding that only those who believe are saved, it presents a dilemma for Calvinists. Arguing the Calvinist’s position that “everyone” and “the people” pertain only to the particularly redeemed allows analogies of universalism that are not intended.

— Paul’s statement in 2 Peter 3:9 that God desires none should perish is similar to Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:4, and with the truth revealed in Ezekiel 18 that God genuinely desires the wicked to repent and live, though none would do so without the grace of God.

“These texts and others like them lead me to a general atonement,” Nelson said. “I find no compelling reason that leads me to see the use of `all’ and ‘world’ as meaning anything other than Christ dying for all men without exception.”

Nelson argued that the atonement of Christ must be considered within the broader context of the “mission of God” to redeem the world, noting that the atonement includes divine intentions that reach beyond the reconciliation of individuals. Those intentions also include the redemption of the church as a corporate body and the restoration of the created order, he said.

Nelson warned Calvinists in the SBC against embracing limited atonement simply on the ground of human logic.

“Do Calvinists hold to limited atonement primarily for logical or exegetical reasons?” Nelson asked. “Calvinists must answer this and other questions for the sake of clarity and for the sake of building bridges in the SBC.”

Nelson concluded by posing two lingering questions to those in the SBC who affirm limited atonement: “Does God love all people such that He shows common grace to all men?” and “How is limited atonement consistent with the free and universal proclamation of the Gospel?”

Waldron said those who believe the doctrine of particular redemption simply place profound importance on penal substitution.

“When we ask, ‘For whom did Christ die?’ I think Southern Baptists see in the preposition ‘for’ the idea of substitution when they speak of Christ dying for men,” Waldron said. “Most evangelicals hold to limited atonement of some form because they hold to a penal substitutionary atonement.”

Waldron set forth four proofs in favor of limited atonement:

— The substitutionary nature of the atonement demands that it be limited. If the wrath of God was satisfied by Christ as a substitute for every individual without exception, then God would be punishing unbelievers in hell even though their sins have been atoned for, Waldron argued. “Was God propitiated toward me or not?” Waldron said. “Real penal substitution results in a real purchase of men.”

— The New Testament demonstrates that the benefits of Christ’s atoning death are restricted to a certain group of people. This restriction is seen in texts such as John 6:37-40, 15:13-14, 17:9 and Ephesians 5:25, Waldron said.

— The saving effects of the atonement are guaranteed in texts such as Romans 8:32-39. “There is a guaranteed salvation for those for whom Christ died,” Waldron said.

— The covenant context of the atonement shows that Christ’s death was effectual only for His covenant people. “That the non-elect are not included in the new covenant is explicit in the Bible,” Waldron said.

Waldron concluded by addressing opposing arguments, two of which were articulated by Nelson: how universal terms such as “all” and “world” in Scripture are to be understood and how those who assert limited atonement are able to freely offer the Gospel to all people.

The universal terms in Scripture are often restricted by their context, Waldron said, and orthodox Reformed Christians have always held to a free offer of the Gospel as evidenced by the Canons of Dort, which established the Five Points of Calvinism in 1619.

The issue of the atonement should not divide Southern Baptists, Nelson said. Scripture demands that all believers love one another and seek to find common ground in working together for the sake of the Gospel, he said.
Jeff Robinson, director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was among the writers covering the “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. Audio podcast downloads of all the conference presenters are available at www.lifeway.com/insidelifeway.

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  • Jeff Robinson
    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.Read All by Jeff Robinson ›