When considering the question of the extent of the atonement, it is important to state that most theories regarding it are quite out of bounds because they fail to see that the extent is defined by its nature.(Which is why we refuted objections to the doctrine of the atonement, thus defining its nature, before we took on this topic.) So the real question is regarding the nature of the atonement. The nature circumscribes its extent. It extends as far as its nature intends it to extend. Discussions on this subject are almost always carried on as if the extent of the atonement can be decided without reference to the nature of the atonement. But when we ponder the issue of the extent of the atonement, in other words, for whom did Christ die, by Christ's own words, if they carry any weight with us at all, the verdict is quite decisive. Christ uses several expressions in speaking of whom His death is efficacious for and for whom are its effects. Let us adduce five of them here and comment briefly on each.
First, he calls them the many (Matthew 26:28; 20:28). If we study across the scope of Jesus' teaching, we will find that this expression, the many, is used by Him exclusively to refer to those who are His own, a people given to Him. The word many would not be enough to prove the limited extent of the atonement were it not also for the fact that they are described by marks which cannot be applied universally.
In the 17th century, a dangerous theory was contrived (a fan favorite of the Arminians), which held that when Christ was said to have died for all, this was referring to what had been done to procure redemption, and when He was said to have died for many, or for the Church, it was describing the actual participation of redemption. That this theory is not only false, but also dangerous, can be seen by the fact that our Lord describes the actual offering of the ransom and not just its application.
Secondly, Christ calls the objects of His atonement, His sheep. (John 10:15) We could repeat many of the remarks made above here as well. They are referred to as His sheep already, because they were given to Him by divine decree, and are therefore known as His own. Without a connection between Christ and the objects of redemption, such as that which obtains between shepherd and sheep, or head and body, no atonement could have been made. The Covenant of Redemption demanded such a union.
The phrase my sheep implies two things:
- There was no uncertainty whether He would have a flock. His death already had in view special objects of redemption with whom He was already bound by a covenant necessary for His work of redemption.
- They are His purchased property; they are the fruit of His atonement. This truth negates the Arminian objection that our doctrine assumes that certain people were already Christ's sheep before He died. They were sheep in the Divine purpose, and in Christ's work, though not actually till the ransom was paid for them. Christ declares that He died for the sheep (John 10:26) and the context shows that this refers to the elect given to Him.
The special reference of the atonement to the elect as well as the natural implication that this vicarious sacrifice secures the conversion of those for whom it was offered is incontrovertibly asserted by the words, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring” (John 10:16). First they are called His sheep, then they are described as the objects of redemption, for whom He laid down His life, that is, for whom atonement was actually made, and lastly, they must be led - as sheep led by their shepherd.
Our next post will pick up this theme and look at the next two titles by which Christ refers to the objects of redemption.