This is Holy Week; the most important week of the year. This week marks the climax of the story of Jesus. This week brings all the pieces of the redemption story together in a glorious demonstration of God’s love, grace and mercy. Our salvation hangs on the truth of this week.
Throughout the centuries people have debated the actual outcome of Jesus death, burial and resurrection. The debate can be boiled down to a simple question. Did Jesus die for the sins of all or just for the sins of the elect?
On one side of the argument are those who contend that Christ died only for the elect. This is called “limited atonement.” They argue that God has predestined only some to be saved and only the elect are included in Christ’s atoning work. They base their view on passage like Ephesians 1:3-5.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will--
On the other side of the argument are those who contend that Christ died for all. This is called “unlimited atonement.” They argue that the gospel message is extended freely to everyone who will receive it. It is up to the individual to accept or reject God’s free gift. They base their view on passages like 1 John 2:2.
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
I want to enter the fray by sharing some of my own personal observations on the atonement.
The Scriptures teach both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. God is God and He has the right to do whatever He desires. At the same time, God has made it clear that we will be held accountable for our actions and our choices. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. Matthew 12:36 (NIV)
Just because God, who is outside of time, knows in advance who will believe in Christ does not by necessity mean that he dictates this. Foreknowledge is not automatically pre-determination. If we accept the idea that God has pre-determined our choices then we run the risk of falling into the camp of fatalism. This is clearly not taught in the Bible.
I believe that God may interact with humanity in different ways and that he is not bound to always act in a prescribed manner. We know that God chose Israel to be his people yet not all in Israel chose to follow him. We know that God chose certain individuals specifically for his purposes such as Paul, Abraham, and Moses. We also know that God continues to extend a call for repentance and the promise of salvation to all people. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." Romans 10:13
Salvation may be like the Government amnesty program of several years ago. It was offered to all, it was effective for all, but it applied only to those who responded. The atoning work of Christ is not limited in any way. It is effective for all the sin of the world. Anything less diminishes the glory of God. Yet it takes affect only when it is received. There is no “universal salvation.”
I believe that God wants us to live in the dynamic tension between His sovereignty and our responsibility. It is at that place that we are most dependent upon God.