11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade people, but we are well known to God; and I hope that we are also well known in your consciences. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who boast in appearance and not in the heart. 13 For if we have lost our minds, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 AND HE DIED FOR ALL SO THAT THOSE WHO LIVE WOULD NO LONGER LIVE FOR THEMSELVES but for Him who died and rose on their behalf (2Cor5:11-15)
Paul does not teach limited atonement (aka particular redemption) as such, albeit its benefits do not apply equally to all. But in terms of scope, Paul is insistent and consistent: all were dead so the One died for all and atoned for all (v14). However, “He died for all… that those which live…”. He died for all but not all shall “live”. For what is limited is those who will be delivered from the guilt AND POWER of sin by coming to participate in Christ’s resurrected LIFE (Rom5:10; Jn6:53).
Note also from these verses that “those that live should no longer live for themselves but for Christ”. It is and always has been a minority who no longer harbour worldly ambitions for themselves and their families but have given their lives over to Christ: “For whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it” (Mt16:25). However, the Cross of Christ has a vastly broader, indeed universal significance: “It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Christ, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself whether things on earth or things in the heavens, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col1:19-20). Such a statement cannot possibly be expounded in a single post, pertaining as it does to the raison d’être for the universe!
The Cross of Christ – the central event of history
Paul’s statement does affirm that those such as Luther who regard the cross of Christ as the central event within the history of the universe are right to do so. The issue is how the fruits of Christ’s Passion avail for the individual, given that Paul and the bible as a whole make it clear that no one is to be exempted from final rebuke, potential punishment as well as rewards for how they have lived their lives (cf. recent post on the Judgement Seat of Christ together with Rom2:6-10; Mt13:49; Mt16:27 Mt25:31-46; Heb6:4-8 and the like). So, restricting ourselves within this post to the scope of the atonement:
Christ gave Himself as a ransom FOR ALL; (a fact) to be testified in due time” (1Tim2:6)
For He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for THOSE OF THE WHOLE WORLD (1Jn2:2).
This is supported by the passage under consideration where Paul writes that Christ was MADE sin for us [Greek: ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν – v21]. If Christ was made or became sin, it must be human sin in its totality. It cannot be an act of substitutionary atonement for select individuals or groupings.
The letter of God’s Law disannulled at Calvary
For there is something else that was nailed to the cross apart from our sin in Christ. “Having blotted out the handwriting of the ordinancies that were against us, that were hostile to us; taking it out of the way and nailing it to the cross” (Col2:14). The letter of God’s laws and decrees set out in Torah, which as fallen human beings we invariably fail to keep, have themselves been nailed to the cross – the benefit of which cannot meaningfully be applied to a specific grouping for their requirements no longer apply for anyone (in letter I say, not in spirit – earlier post).
Think about this also – Col2:14 challenges the starting point of many a sermon; namely that natural man is condemned by his inability to keep the letter of God’s Law. On the contrary, it is the latter (legal requirement) that has been condemned. It has been nailed to the cross with Christ and the sin of the world. So whether I currently know, hope or firmly believe that “Jesus has died for me” is of itself an irrelevance. For universal sin and the legal requirements of God’s Law have both been annulled whether I know it or not.
What is needed for salvation
What does matter is that I am cleansed from sin and empowered to live a holy life. That starts with baptism (Rom6:4); thereafter it is a case of “if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jn1:7; cf. Jn6:54-57; Heb1:3 Greek – see note 1). Clearly, none will pursue such a course unless they believe that Jesus is Christ and has atoned for their sin. But an easy believism counts for nothing and the evangelism that advocates it is worse than useless.
As for sin per se, this is how Scripture presents the matter: He became sin for us (2Cor5:21); He gave Himself for our sin (Gal1:4); Christ bore our sins in His own body on the tree (1Pet2:24); He suffered once for sins (1Pet3:18); the iniquity of us all was laid upon Him (Is53:6). Jesus had come in the likeness of sinful flesh so that all sin in the flesh should be condemned (Rom8:3). Not your sin, not my sin, not His chosen people’s sin – SIN! However, only His chosen people will be set free from the domination and bondage of sin whilst in mortal flesh.
The sense in which Christ’s atonement is limited
For only God’s elect shall share in Christ’s life (Rom5:10). It is by such means of grace that they overcome the encumbrances of Paul’s body of this death (Rom7:24-25). “If the Son shall make you free then you shall be free indeed” (Jn8:36). So for the many, including those living before its historical occurrence (Rom3:25) the benefit of the atonement is expiatory; for the few (proportionately speaking) it is both expiatory and cathartic through sacramental participation. It cleanses from sin’s guilt and power by purifying the soul and uniting it with the life of Christ.
The purpose of the Church
Reflecting on the Heidelberg theses and their supporting statements recently examined, it is not evident to me that Luther understood or at least acknowledged any of the scriptural truths I am briefly outlining in the current paragraph. They pertain to the immediate purpose of salvation and the role of the Church in the world. Namely, that Jesus came to save His own people from their sins, not merely from the punishment for sinning (Mt1:21). I.e. they are to be cleansed from sin, not just the guilt of sin. Christ offered Himself “to ransom us from our faults and purify a people to be His very own, eager to do good works” (Tit2:14).
Through such good works, the Church as the mystical Body of Christ on earth and God’s instrument of salvation declares His saving intentions for the whole world. That is through its message and personal witness, “abounding in love towards each other and all men (1Thes3:12). Thereby the Church fulfils its commission to “announce the Good News to every creature under heaven” (Col1:23); for when men and women acknowledge the rule of Christ (i.e. obey the gospel) they themselves become faithful stewards; caring for the welfare of all that is set under them, being, for the present, the natural world.
Note 1 –Heb1:3 is mistranslated in many versions, implying that the sins of the believer were purged at Calvary. “Katharismon” (purification or cleansing) is a noun, not a verb. The New International Version more accurately translates the verse as “(Christ) provided purification for sins”. More strictly it is “Christ made a purification for sin”. We must avail ourselves of it – the blood must be applied.
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Related post: A new creation & The reason Christ gives for His death