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Heidelberg Catechism LD 7: Limited Atonement, Definite Redemption (Genesis 15:6 and John 3:16-18)

Lord’s Day 7, Q. 20

20.) Tanong: Kung gayon, ang lahat ba ng tao ay naligtas sa pamamagitan ni Cristo katulad din ng kanilang pagkapahamak sa pamamagitan ni Adan?

Sagot: 

Hindi. 

Ang maliligtas ay yun lamang na,

sa pamamagitan ng tunay na pananampalataya,

     ay ikinabit na parang sanga (grafted) kay Cristo 

     at tumanggap ng lahat ng Kanyang mga benepisyo.

And here’s the problem: “Isn’t Christ the perfect mediator between God and man?” “Isn’t Christ’s sacrifice of infinite value to satisfy God’s justice?” “If salvation is only limited to some, that would make Christ an insufficient and inefficient Savior.” “If salvation is limited, doesn’t that make God not powerful at all?”

These are the problematic implications that we need to answer this afternoon. And let us look into the Scripture and identify who are the recipients of Christ’s atoning work? Who will be saved?

A. SALVATION IS ONLY TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN CHRIST

Universalism:

  1. Those who believe that all will be saved regardless of our beliefs and practices
  2. “Professing Christians” who believe that Christ died for absolutely everyone

One of the favorite verses universalists use to support their claim is 1 John 2:2.

“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

“Propitiation” – Something that appeases the wrath of God, satisfying God’s justice by atoning for our sins.

“Whole world” – The whole or entire world.

But is John referring to specifically every single person in the entire world and human history? If we look at other writings of John that seem to address the same issue, we can get an idea of what he means here in 1 John 2:2.

  • John 11:51-52 – [John’s commentary on the words of the High Priest Caiaphas] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation (Israel), and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad (i.e., around the world).”

    It doesn’t say everyone around the world, but those who are the children of God.
  • Revelation 5:9 – [The song John heard in the heavenly vision] “Worthy are you (i.e., Lamb) to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood (i.e., death) you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…

So with these we understand that when John refers to “the whole world,” he doesn’t mean that every living person in the whole world are saved by the atoning work of Christ. Rather, what he means is that salvation is not limited only to a particular race or nation or language. In the end, those who are saved, those who are the people of God, will be coming from everywhere in the world. There will be Christians from Israel, from China, from America, etc.

And how can we be sure that universalism is false?

Because when we consider the larger context of Scriptures, there are those who will not be saved and, instead of entering heaven, they will suffer in hell.

  • 2 Thessalonians 8-9 – Christ returns to punish the unbelievers and wicked for eternity
  • There are over 162 references to hell in the New Testament alone, and 70 of them are uttered by Jesus Christ himself.

And if everyone will be saved and go to heaven, why would God make hell? Why would God warn people about hell? Why would God tell in Revelation that there will be those who enter heaven and those who are thrown in hell?

And if Christ intentionally died for the sake of all (as universalists claim), but not all of them will be actually saved in the end, then that means that Christ’s sacrifice is inefficient (lacking power) and vain.

Hence, we reject universalism, and hold on to the Scriptural truth that only some—not all—will be saved by the blood of Christ. This is what we refer as “limited atonement.” The saving benefits that Christ obtained by his atoning sacrifice is applicable only to some.

But as we move forward in this discussion, this confronts us with another challenging question here: “So if not everyone will be saved, doesn’t it make Christ an insufficient and imperfect Mediator?” (Kasi para sa iilan lang naman pala)

The simple answer is “no.” As Canons of Dort Second Point, articles 3-4 explains, Christ’s death is “the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” If we’re talking about the worth of Christ’s sacrifice, yes, he can pay for each and every sin of all human being throughout history.

Why? Because as we discussed in the previous Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day, Christ is not only a true and perfectly righteous man (perfect representative of mankind), but he is also the eternal and infinitely powerful Son of God (he has the power to overcome the Father’s wrath and make full satisfaction for his justice). 

For this reason also, God commands that the gospel should be preached to everyone and everywhere—without differentiation or discrimination. (Matthew 28:18-19 – “Go and make disciples of all nations”). 

If the gospel and the call to repent and believe in Christ is preached only to a certain people, then we can make a suspicion that it be biased or it is insufficient. (If you offer your product only to a few people [i.e., poor people], it could be because you know that it will not pass the standard of others. There’s something limited in product itself).

But the gospel is preached to everyone because it is true to its promise. And what is that promise? John 3:16:

“… whoever believes in [Christ] will not perish but have everlasting life.”

And the gospel is certain to fulfill its promise because the object of faith (Jesus Christ) is complete and all-sufficient.

So here’s the case: The reason why not everyone will be saved is not because Christ and his sacrifice on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because men are at fault. Those who will suffer in hell are there because like Adam, they sinned against God, and because they did not repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

And that already gives us the clue to the next question, “Who then shall be saved?” Heidelberg Catechism answers,

Ang maliligtas ay yun lamang na,

sa pamamagitan ng tunay na pananampalataya,

     ay ikinabit na parang sanga (grafted) kay Cristo

     at tumanggap ng lahat ng Kanyang mga benepisyo.

John 3:16 is clear that whoever believes, only those who believe, will not perish but have eternal life. Verse 18 adds: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Verse 36 further adds: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Even Abraman was justified as righteous only when he believed God (Genesis 15:6).

And that’s the first major point we learn here: Salvation is only to those who believe in Christ.

We cannot receive the benefits of Christ’s gracious saving work without believing in it, without faith. (Akala ko ba grace and “unconditional?”) Now, faith itself is not the reason or the basis that God would forgive and justify a sinner. God forgives and justifies a sinner because a sacrifice has already been made. It is on the ground of Christ’s righteousness.

But in order for that sacrifice and its saving benefits to be effectual to the particular person, the sinner must believe it. There must be a means by which Christ’s work and righteousness is transferred or communicated or imputed to the person. (Hindi mangyayari na wala kang alam, walang nababago sa isip at puso mo, tapos gulatan na lang na ligtas ka pala. There must be a renewal of your heart and mind and the evidence of faith.) So faith is the instrument by which God bestows Christ’s saving benefits to the person.

Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith…”

So here we will pause for a moment. What does this mean to us? 

If you desire eternal life, you must repent and believe in Jesus Christ. If you want to escape God’s wrath and eternal punishment in health, you must admit your sinfulness and ask for God’s forgiveness. Embrace Christ and his finished work, believing God’s promise that when you put your faith in Christ as your only Savior and Lord, you will be saved. (There is no other way, not even just attending a church.)

And if we profess that we have already repented and believed in Christ, let us continue to examine ourselves and make sure that our faith is indeed true (knowledge of God’s Word and living according to it). That we continue to repent and believe in Christ, and by his grace, continue to bear fruit as evidence of our faith in him.

[TRANSITION] Now, we understand that Christ’s atoning work, and the benefits of his sacrifice, is limited only to those who believe. The deeper question is this: “When Christ died and atoned for the sins of men, did he only make salvation possible for everybody? So that it will be effective for others (those who would believe), but not effective to some. Or did God designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of a specific people?

B. SALVATION IN CHRIST IS DEFINITE ONLY FOR GOD’S ELECT

We need to face this crucial question because there are other Christians and churches who also deny universalism but have a different view on the place of atonement in the salvation of men. Like us, they also insist that to be saved and justified before God, you must repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

But here’s their crucial point. For them, Christ died to make salvation only possible for all, but it is up to men whether they will believe or not in order to be actually saved (i.e. Arminianism). It is as if after Christ died and completed all his work and went to heaven, God has been looking who will repent and believe Christ. But he has no control on that. And since the Scripture says that God does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, all he could do is “wish” that people will indeed receive Christ.

If this is the case, then it means Christ did not save a particular people and he is not sure who will be actually saved (“bahala na”).

But let us look at the Scriptures. In Ephesians 5:25-27, we read:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (i.e., the church), 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by ithe washing of water with the word…

Perhaps, the best passage is John 10:11-15:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

The sheep is specific, and it is the sheep owned by the shepherd (Christ). And throughout the passage we identify that these are the people whom God has already given for Christ to save.

And so we need to view the atonement of Christ within the larger context of God’s whole redemptive plan. In Ephesians 1:3-5, Paul clearly says that believers have been chosen (elected) by God even before the foundation of the world. And in verse 5, it reads, “he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.” 

From eternity past, believers are already predestined to be reconciled to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So what happened is not that God elected certain people to be saved before the foundation of the world, and then when Jesus Christ died, salvation was made possible to everyone (everyone is given the opportunity to actually believe and actually saved). It doesn’t make sense. 

What happened then is that from eternity, God designed the atonement of Christ to fulfill and ensure the salvation of those whom he elected to be saved.

Again, this brings up the same question, “If Christ’s atonement is limited only to the elect, doesn’t that make him powerless?” Not necessarily. If I can do something, but I choose not to do it, my choice to limit my power or activity doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability to do it. God is all-powerful, but by his wise counsel, he chose to limit his salvation only to the elect.

“Doesn’t it make God unjust?”

We don’t have all the time to discuss election here. But it is suffice for us to affirm that God is all powerful to save all mankind, but he is also holy and just. While all people are sinners heading to hell, God will show his mercy in saving some, while also show his justice in not saving the rest (cf. Romans 9:18).

Going back to the exclusivity of Christ’s atonement, only those who believe receive the saving benefits of Christ. And the reality is this: Only the elect will truly repent and truly believe in Christ.

Christ made this clear when he made a distinction among his audience in John 10:25-27.

“… but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 

He didn’t say: “Now because you do not believer, you will not belong to my sheep.” Rather, “You do not believe because you are not my sheep at all. It only proves that you are not my sheep.” And if we recall what Christ said, he laid down his life only for the sheep.

Many Christians who hold the Arminian view—consciously or unconsciously—would criticize us that Reformed view makes the gospel unnecessary. No. As we mentioned earlier, God commanded that the gospel should be preached to anyone and anywhere. After all, we do not know who will actually believe the gospel and be saved. We cannot discriminate. We still call people to repent and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

What we only point out is this: That if we are led to true repentance and true faith in Jesus Christ, it all goes back to the sovereign and gracious choice of God to save us among the rest of mankind. 

  • Why are you saved, while the other person is not?
  • How can you say that Christ died for you, but not for the other person?
  • How did you come to faith in Jesus Christ, while the other did not?
  • How come did the Spirit brought you to faith, but not the other person?

Etc., etc.

We cannot separate our conversion, or the atonement of Christ, from the rest of the entire redemptive plan of God throughout eternity. Again, God designed the atonement of Christ to fulfill and ensure the salvation of those whom he elected to be saved. As Louis Berkhof said:

“The effect of the atonement is that it not only made salvation possible for the sinner, but actually secured it.” ~ Louis Berkhof

CANONS OF DORT, 2nd Main Doctrine, Article 8

Sapagkat ito ang pinaka-makapangyarihang kalooban at pinaka-mapagbiyayang kagustuhan at layunin ng Diyos Ama, na ang pinaka-mahalagang kamatayan ng Kanyang Anak ay magbigay ng buhay at epektibong pagliligtas sa lahat ng Kanyang mga hinirang, upang Kanyang ipagkaloob sa kanila lamang ang pananampalataya tungo sa pagiging matuwid sa Kanyang harapan (justifying faith) at sa pamamagitan nito ay tiyak at walang sablay na dalhin sila tungo sa kaligtasan. Kumbaga, layunin ng Diyos na si Cristo—sa pamamagitan ng dugo ng krus kung saan ay pinatunayan Niya ang bagong tipan (new covenant)—ay epektibong ililigtas mula sa bawat bayan, lahi, bansa, at wika silang lahat at tanging sila lamang na mga hinirang mula sa walang hanggan tungo sa kaligtasan at mga ibinigay sa Kanya ng Ama. Layunin ng Diyos na pagkalooban Niya sila ng pananampalataya na Kanyang nakamit para sa kanila sa pamamagitan ng Kanyang kamatayan—kasama ang lahat ng iba pang mga kaloob (saving gifts) ng Banal na Espiritu. Layunin ng Diyos na nilisin Niya sila sa pamamagitan ng Kanyang dugo mula lahat ng kanilang mga kasalanan, ang orihinal at aktwal na kasalanan*, ito man ay nagawa bago sila sumampalataya o pagkatapos nito. At layunin ng Diyos na Kanyang matapat na iingatan sila hanggang sa katapusan, at sa huli ay dalhin sila nang walang dungis o kapintasan sa maluwalhating presensya ng Diyos magpakailanman.

God elects his people, and because Christ died for them, their salvation is fulfilled, sealed, and secured until the end. Christ himself said about his sheep: 

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand… or even the Father’s hand.” (John 10:28-29).

So in the final analysis, Christ died to certainly and actually save the elect, and the elect only. It is not only a limited atonement. It is a specific and definite atonement. Definite to save the elect, the true believers in Christ.

“God is not a mere spectator in the redemptive history, watching and wishing that people would put their faith in Christ so people will be saved. No, he is sovereign in salvation and definitely saved his people in Christ.” ~ R.C. Sproul

That’s the second major point we learn here: Salvation is Christ is definite only for God’s elect.

[TRANSITION]: Now what does this imply to us?

CONCLUSION

First of all, this should bring us to humility and gratitude. If we are true believers, we understand that it is not because of our work. It is because God, from eternity, has already planned everything for our salvation. That’s why it’s a “golden chain of salvation.” God did not only elect us but made sure that our sins—specifically ours—will be covered by the blood of Christ and that we shall indeed be justified righteous in his sight.

Second, this gives exceedingly great peace and comfort for the true believer. If you truly repent and believe in Christ, you can be certain that, on the cross, Christ died specifically for you and to actually save you. And when we reach heaven, Christ will not be surprised that we are there. Because Christ has certainly and specifically loved us from the very start until the end.

[ILLUSTRATION] 

Which demonstrates true care and love for the recipient: A rich man comes and brings food and various gifts, laid it on a table, and said to the crowd: “Free for all!” He doesn’t know who will take it; he doesn’t care whether you get the chance to take it or not. But another man comes and hands you a box with your name written on it, and says, “This one is for you.” Which one of them truly loves you and cares for you? To whom will you be grateful for?

In the same way, brothers and sisters, that’s how Christ loves us. It is not by chance that we become believers and have eternal life. It is by God’s loving and sovereign choice, a gift specifically for us. That is why even though we know that Christ died for the church as his whole body, we can still say (like Paul in Galatians 2:20), that Jesus Christ “loved me and gave himself for me.”

“Amazing love! how can it be 

That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

May Christ’s definite atoning work cause us to give all praises and glory to God alone.

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