A Sacrifice that Truly and Totally Saves

(Originally written and turned in December 4, 2014 in partial fulfillment of my BA in Biblical Studies at Southwest Baptist University. It has been slightly edited from its original form.)

John 3:16 is probably one of the most beloved verses in the Bible; it reads in the New American Standard Bible, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”[1] However, it is important to note what comes immediately before this verse. How did God give His only begotten Son? John 3:14-15 explains, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”

Christ must be lifted up in order to be believed in for eternal life. Christ was lifted up when He went to the cross, in what is doctrinally referred to as the atonement. Atonement comes from the Greek word ίλασμος (hilasmos). This word and its derivatives occur 23 times in the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 16 which describes the Day of Atonement. In the New Testament, the word ίλασμος (hilasmos) and its derivatives are almost always translated as “propitiation.”

Based on the definition of the word “propitiation,” it is clear that Christ only made atonement for those who would actually be saved, or to say it in other words: Jesus did not die on the cross for every single person who ever existed, but only for those who believe. This belief has been commonly referred to in Reformed circles as “Limited Atonement.”

I fully believe that this is the only consistent belief concerning the doctrine of the atonement. However, i titled the original essay “Particular Redemption,” so allow me to explain that title.

“[T]he word limited gives many people problems with the Reformed position on the atonement. . . . It makes it appear that we don’t think highly of the atonement of Christ, when really we do. This rhetorical weakness accounts for the desire of many to rename the doctrine more positively, such as ‘particular redemption.’”[2] Christ atoned completely for a specific people (the church) and redeemed them through this atonement. There was nothing limited in what He did for them on the cross.

At this point it is necessary to define “propitiation.” In the ancient Greek world, ίλασμος (hilasmos) referred to “the propitiation of gods, demons, or the departed, from whom demonstrations of favor are sought, or whose wrath has been provoked.”[3] Therefore, to propitiate would involve the turning away of divine wrath. God is wrathful against sin (Nahum 1:2-6; Romans 1:18-32) and that wrath must be diverted from sinners for anyone to be saved. Romans 3:25 says that God displayed Christ “as a propitiation.” God knew we couldn’t save ourselves due to our status in Adam because of original sin (Romans 5:12-21) so He sent Christ to propitiate for us and to remove God’s wrath from us.[4]

Because of the meaning of “propitiation,” I would go so far as to say that there are only three options when it comes to views on the extent of the atonement. First, Christ atoned for every human being, and all are saved (universalism); second, Christ atoned for every human being, but only some are saved (Arminianism); third, Christ atoned specifically for those who would believe (Reformed). It is very clear that the first option is heretical (it flies in the face of Scripture, cf. Matthew 25:46; Revelation 20:12, 15).

This leaves us with the Arminian view, that Christ died for every human, but only saves some; or the Reformed view, that Christ died for only those who would actually be saved. Since propitiation is the turning away of divine wrath, and Jesus is said to be “the propitiation” in numerous passages, I argue that the Arminian view could be seen as an insult to God. It may sound harsh, but if “God displayed (Christ) publicly as a propitiation in His blood . . . to demonstrate His righteousness” (Romans 3:25), it would be extremely unrighteous of God to still punish people for whom Christ had propitiated. The only other option would be to say that Christ failed to truly atone for those people, which would make Him less than omnipotent.

The Reformed position makes it very clear that those for whom Christ died are fully saved as a result of His atonement, and that God is righteous to accept Christ as that propitiation. Matthew 1:21 states, “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” James White writes, “He is called Jesus because 1) He has a people, His people, and 2) He will save them from their sins. He does not try to save them, seek long and hard to save them, but He saves them. He saves them by making propitiation for their sins.”[5]

To again return to Leviticus, the priests made atonement. The phrase, “the priest shall make atonement” occurs eighteen times in the book of Leviticus (outside of chapter 16). Priests make atonement, and the book of Hebrews is clear that Jesus is our great High Priest who offered one offering for all time and sat down at God’s right hand (Hebrews 10:11-14). If He sat down, then His work is done. He isn’t pacing back and forth while worrying about whether or not people will be saved by His atonement; He is seated next to God; He has saved His people (Titus 2:14). “Jesus faced the cross with joy because of the salvation He thus secured.”[6] The high priest in Israel was to intercede for the people: between them and God (Hebrews 7:25); Jesus is said to do this for Christians (Romans 8:26, 27, 34; all of Hebrews). “The high priest did not mediate for the pagans of the world; he only did it for Israel.”[7]

In John 17, we get a glimpse into what the intercession of Christ looks like. Commentators typically refer to this chapter as “the High Priestly Prayer.” In John 17:9, Christ prays, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.” Jesus Himself states that He doesn’t intercede for every person in the whole world. “[S]acrifice, mediation, and intercession all go hand-in-hand. The high priest of Israel did not make a sacrifice, mediate, and intercede on behalf of the pagans. . . . The earthly high priest in the Old Testament was a type of the eternal high priest to be revealed in the New Testament.”[8] Thus, when the sins were atoned for on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, it was only the sins of the Israelite community that were atoned for. The Gentile world was excluded. In the New Testament, when it says that Christ is the atonement for the world, it clearly means (since written by a Jew) that the atonement sacrifice of Christ is also for the Gentiles.

I began this discussion with John 3:16 which is famously quoted as going against particular redemption. People argue that the words, “whoever believes” clearly show that there is no definite group of people who will believe, and therefore Christ died for the world. However, it is important to note that the word “whoever” is not in the Greek. The Greek text literally says, “πας ό πιστευων”[9] (pas hŏ pisteuōn), which translates to “all who are believing.” The result of Christ’s sacrifice is that those who believe (and continue to believe) are saved.

While this view of the atonement is intimately connected with the Reformed doctrine of election, it can be Biblically proven without referring to election, though election does make it clearer. If God elected certain individuals in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), then logically, Christ need only atone for those individuals. Charles Hodge pointed out that “it was never denied that Christ died specifically for the elect until the doctrine of election itself was rejected.”[10]

While i’ve been arguing almost solely from the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, the logic stated earlier holds for all the views of the atonement. I will reproduce the statement here: “there are only three options when it comes to views on the extent of the atonement. First, Christ atoned for every human being, and all are saved (universalism); second, Christ atoned for every human being, but only some are saved (Arminianism); third, Christ atoned specifically for those who would believe (Reformed).” Once again, universalism can be thrown out as heretical.

A second (popular among layity[11]) view of the atonement is the ransom theory. There is Biblical support to the idea that we are ransomed from the power of sin, but specifically to whom that ransom was paid is unclear. The early church Fathers, including Origen, assumed that it was Satan to whom the ransom was paid. [12] Even if this is the case—despite it being blatantly unscriptural—if the Arminian view of the extent of Christ’s atonement is true, then Christ’s death paid a ransom that didn’t actually free anyone. The Reformed view argues that Christ’s death actually redeems those for whom it was intended. If paid to Satan, it is only paid to him for those who he actually releases.

A completely pointless view of the atonement—the moral influence theory—teaches that Christ died to influence us to live moral lives and thus be forgiven; this view was proposed by Peter Abelard around 1100 A.D.[13] If the Christian life is a life of putting away sin and putting on God (Ephesians 4:22-24) and of laying down our lives for other Christians (1 John 3:16), then it follows that there is some moral influence imposed by Christ’s death. However, if the Arminian scheme is accurate, then anyone is able to live a holy life, but most still decide not to live in such a way for some unknown reason. If the Reformed scheme is accurate, then only those for whom Christ died can live upright, godly lives in this age (Titus 2:12) and bear good fruit, because the root has been made good (Matthew 7:16-20).

In conclusion, it is important to realize that all that is meant by the term “limited atonement,” or better, “particular redemption,” is that Christ actually saves His people by His atonement. He did not just make salvation possible. Preachers must preach the cross, the Gospel of John 3:16, knowing that those who were elected to be saved will be saved, because we don’t know who Christ atoned for. All we know is that people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation were redeemed by the blood of His atonement (Revelation 5:9), so our offer of salvation should be to the whole world, and we should pray for everyone we know, that God would bring them to faith, because we do not know who will be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-7). The cross has salvation power!

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus


[1] All Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), © 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.
[2] Richard D. Phillips, What’s so Great about the Doctrines of Grace? (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 55. Emphasis in original.
[3] Johannes Herrmann and Friedrick Büchsel, “ίλεως, ίλασκομαι, ίλασμος, ίλαστηριον” TDNT, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 310-311.
[4] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 580.
[5] James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler’s Chosen but Free (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publ., 2000), 246. Emphasis in original. Christmas is coming so I thought this would be a good point to bring up considering the context of Matthew 1:21.
[6] Richard D. Phillips, What’s so Great about the Doctrines of Grace?, 57. Commenting on Hebrews 12:2.
[7] Brian J. Orr, The Fallenness of Man and the Graciousness of God: a biblical defense of the five points of Calvinism, (NP: Brian J. Orr, 2014), 69.
[8] Ibid., 70.
[9] Kurt Aland, ed., The Greek New Testament, 4th ed. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1983), 322.
[10] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: Anthropology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 547.
[11] For example: C. S. Lewis argued/promoted this view in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.
[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 581.
[13] Ibid., 581.

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