It is often said that the nature of the atonement defines its extent. The atonement is simply coextensive, as far as its saving effects are concerned, with the number of true believers. This should have been the last word, and indeed would have been, were it not for men who, being driven less by religious convictions than by speculative tendencies, deemed it necessary to extend the atonement to all men alike. Today we shall look at the four basic universalist theories:
A. The thorough-going theory of universal salvation; that is, the belief that in virtue of Christ’s work, all men will ultimately be saved. The only good thing that can be said about this theory is that it carries its presuppositions through to their logical consequences. It affirms that the actual restoration attained by Christ is coextensive with the actual ruin of the race. It overlooks justice simply falls back on a fuzzy idea of Divine benevolence. Though it is completely and utterly unscriptural, it is at least self-consistent.
B. Arminianism is the second universalist theory. It is far less consistent than the above theory. Its trademark is the notion of universal grace. This affirms that the atonement made by Christ was coextensive with the whole of humanity, whether they believe it or not. By looking only at one side of the equation, they completely undermine the atonement as a valid fact. By holding that on God’s side the remedy is as universal as the disease they lose in at the center what they gain in breadth. The atonement does not actually secure anything; it merely makes possible the salvation of man who, of his own free-will, chooses to believe. At bottom, it is tantamount to saying that the atonement made it possible for man to save himself.
C. The Amyraldist view of universal grace, while differing in some respects from the Arminian scheme, has the same fatal flaw at its center. This theory asserts that because of God’s love to fallen men He appointed Christ as a mediator for every single individual human being – and that by this means all barriers on the side of Divine justice have been removed. Salvation is thus said to have been made possible, but it adds the condition which switches the application of it to God’s sovereign will: it is for all if they believe. It should be obvious that this theory alters the nature of the atonement. It holds that Christ, by His own intention and the Father’s purpose, died for everyone, that a salvation was purchased for everyone though not applied to everyone. Moreover, the atonement, though not actually securing redemption or faith – by causal connection, made it possible for God to bestow salvation on anyone He pleased and to form a new covenant of grace with humanity in general. Thus the atonement is not a transaction in its own nature, involving a covenant or substitution and securing its own application. Again, note that, like Arminianism, this theory falsely assumes that a limitation to the extent of the atonement is somehow a limitation to the power of God and the love of God.
D. Finally, there is a form of the universalist theory that is not the result of any philosophical speculation at all. It is little more that an uninformed and roundabout way of representing the universal call of the Gospel. Preachers of this theory (which is not even really a theory, as such) are content to say that Christ died for all men without ever working out the ramifications of such a statement. They never think through the logical consequences and all they really mean is that the invitation, when it is given by the preacher, is given to all alike. Many good men, under a confused impression, express themselves in this way without ever considering or investigating that their universal call must have a universal provision underlying it. They never ponder that, regarding the completeness of the atonement, it is necessary that the three involved parties (the Father, the Surety, and the man needing salvation) concur. There must be a consent of all the concerned parties. The sinner’s exercise of faith must be seen as his approval of this method of salvation and his consent to it. This was signified in the Old Testament when the worshiper laid his hand on the head of the sacrifice demonstrating his consent to this form of expiation and confessing his sins onto the animal victim.
Proponents of this last form of universal atonement, generally assume that to believe in Christ is equivalent to believing that Christ died for us. These two are not the same thing. The first mental act is an apprehension of a sufficient Savior; the second is an inference from this. First of all, no one is called to believe that Christ died for him any more than he is required to believe that his sins are pardoned before he believes. Conversely, regarding the responsibility for rejecting the Gospel, the condemnation or punishment is due to the sinner’s refusal to accept a sufficient Redeemer and accept this way of salvation. He rejects the idea and method of it, whereas faith is the acceptance and approval of it. The sinner concurs and signifies his concurrence by faith, demonstrating that he approves of this way of salvation and desires to be saved in no other way. Then all concerned parties are concurred.
Those who promote an indefinite atonement make the whole transaction complete without man’s consent. I fail to see what conceivable advantage is gained by making the atonement wider that the number of those who approve of it and are willing to be saved by it.
These theories fall apart when we allow Christ to define the nature of the atonement, because the real question is its nature not its extent. Once the nature is defined, the question of the extent answers itself.
So, when some body asks you, “Did Jesus die for those in hell?” I bet you already have an answer.
HT: Andy Underhile at Contra Mundum.