Universal Expiation, Definite Atonement: Did Jesus Die for the Sins of All People?

Full disclosure: this article presents a slightly altered version of the doctrine of atonement and imputation than the one typically held by Reformed theologians. I have not arrived at my conclusions lightly, however, and I do not believe we should set this discussion aside as an idle, esoteric theological controversy.  Our doctrine of atonement has far-reaching implications for (at least) salvation, piety, and evangelism, so I think it is important we make sure our views on atonement agree with the whole, balanced counsel of the Bible.

In this, one central goal has guided me: greater faithfulness and submission to more of the Bible simultaneously. I believe refined doctrinal positions should at least do the same justice to biblical texts as the original positions did, and in addition, the refined positions should do a better job of explaining the few anomalous passages that have before escaped our resolved theological compass. It is my contention that hermeneutical gymnastics are the canaries of error—we resort to them almost exclusively when our doctrinal views are unbalanced or erroneous.

At the same time, it does no good to change our doctrinal stance to accommodate a handful of “difficult,” outlying passages if our new stance completely fails to do justice to the overwhelming remainder of Scripture. Doctrinal innovation is especially disastrous if our main reason for seeking a refined position is that we have either become bored with the traditional view or are tired of defending it against the forces of an ever-turning cultural tide.

With that in mind, let me be clear that my revisitation of atonement and imputation (especially the imputation of sin) stems from a sincere desire to be faithful to the regularly cosmic soteriological and hamartiological language of the Scriptures, but I believe further that my view does no damage to the major doctrines (e.g., definite atonement, justification by faith) the traditional Reformed view has regularly and, I think rightly, defended.

Conflating Expiation, Propitiation, Atonement, and Salvation

The question, “Did Jesus die for the sins of all people?” will immediately elicit the negative from most Reformed Christians, since most of us assume that Jesus cannot erase a person’s debt of sin without “saving” that person, and additionally, we believe that Jesus did not come to save everyone.

That He did not come to save everyone should be apparent from the fact that not everyone is saved, unless you think a Sovereign God and a Perfect Messiah could fail in their mission. But it is my contention in this essay that, as odd as it sounds even to my own ears, Jesus could have died for the world’s sin without the world being saved and without God failing to accomplish any part of His Sovereign plan. I will attempt to show this from Scripture and reasonable inference.

By conflating salvation and the payment of sin’s debt, many Reformed theologians have, perhaps unwittingly, blurred the subtle distinctions between expiation, propitiation, and salvation. Expiation is the removal of an offending cause (in our case—sin’s debt). Propitiation is the appeasing of an offended one’s wrath allowing for the reconciliation of estranged parties.1

 Most often, propitiation and expiation have the same outcome, which explains why they are often conflated: to remove a cause for wrath is usually to appease the wrathful one and therefore to effect reconciliation.

This is not always the case, however. If the offending party refuses to be reconciled, even after his original offense has been removed and the offended party’s wrath is appeased, full reconciliation cannot happen, and wrath is sure to be rekindled—perhaps to an even more pitched degree. In fact, the offending party’s refusal to be reconciled becomes the new and overwhelming grounds for relational rupture.

To this point, Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor (Matt. 18:21–35) may instruct us. The unforgiving servant was forgiven a massive debt (clearly representative of the sin God has forgiven us), but because the servant did not evince a master-like forgiveness toward his fellow servants, he ultimately suffered an even greater punishment. We should not read too much into a parable, but it should strike us immediately as strange: the debt is paid, yet the servant is not saved. What does this mean?

Finding a Central Question on Imputation and Atonement

Consider this question to clarify our trajectory: “Can a person be saved by Jesus’ death without being unified to Jesus by faith?” The answer should come readily: No, of course not. A person cannot experience any of Jesus’ saving work without being unified into Him. Union with Christ alone makes the application of Jesus’ saving work possible. Without that union effected by faith, even Jesus’ death is useless to us for salvation. As Calvin says:

We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.2

There are two necessary conditions for reconciliation with God (i.e., salvation). One is payment to God for sins already committed (often called Jesus’ passive obedience), and the other is the presentation to God of a perfect righteousness (often called Jesus’ active obedience). The question of this essay then is this: Is it possible that one of those conditions, namely, payment for our sins (expiation/propitiation), could be satisfied without necessarily meeting the other condition (full reconciliation/salvation)? As odd as this may seem, Jesus’ passive obedience is not alone a sufficient condition for salvation, for it is only by being united to Christ in faith that we share in His righteousness and therefore “enter His rest” (Heb. 4:1ff).

So let’s refine our central question yet again. Can a person be the beneficiary of Jesus’s passive obedience without benefitting automatically from Jesus’ active obedience? We know that Jesus cannot impute His righteousness to us unless we are unified into Him by the Spirit through faith (this is at root what is actually meant by full reconciliation with God), but, and this is crucial: Can sin be imputed to Jesus without Jesus being spiritually unified to the sinner? If so, could the total sin of humankind be transferred to Jesus without all human beings themselves uniting to Him? That is the central issue, isn’t it? If all human sin can be imputed to Jesus without all human sinners being joined to Him, then it is possible (but not necessary) that Jesus died for the sins of all men without them ultimately being fully reconciled to God by that alone.

I will have to consider this issue in pieces, then I will answer some objections, the most obvious of which involves the unacceptable and repulsive possibility of double payment for sin.

Imputed Sins or Imputed Sin?

We know certainly that Jesus died for (in the sense of because of) sin. Further, Jesus died not only for our sins, but for sin categorically. If Adam hadn’t brought categorical sin into the world by sinning, a substitutionary sacrifice of appeasement for reconciliation would not have been necessary. Clearly, Jesus came to deal with the reality of sin and its cosmic sway over human beings and the universe, not merely particular sins in particular people (in fact, the one does not deny the other).

It is important here to note specifically what John the Baptist said: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). Jesus takes away the sin of the world, and not merely some sins. Sin here is singular, which indicates a universal reality hanging over the cosmos.

Consider also 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The definite verb “be” is coupled with the, again, singular “sin,” whereas our becoming righteousness is subjunctive. Jesus certainly and definitely became sin, so that we “might [subjunctive] become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Note the similarly cosmic or universal aspect of other passages concerning sin and salvation:

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:18–19; emphasis mine)

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. (Rom. 5:18)

For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. (1 Tim. 4:10)

And He Himself [Jesus Christ the Righteous] is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)

It is this last text, and others like it, that have caused the most consternation for Reformed Christians, and simply because we tend to believe Jesus could not have paid for sins without that payment ineluctably resulting in salvation. Such cosmic expiation/propitiation seems to contradict our view on definite atonement. These texts are more easily and more naturally understood, however, and without necessary impingement on definite atonement, if we take them to mean: Jesus paid for all human sin, thereby removing the cause of humankind’s relational rupture with God the Father our Judge, but the payment of our sin debt does not guarantee that personal and particular reconciliation with God will happen (i.e., salvation) because each individual could still remain separated from Jesus—having no union or identity either in Him or, particularly for continued reconciliation, in His righteousness.

My contention is that the Cross, not merely sufficient to pay the whole debt on sin, actually did pay the whole debt on human sin, particularly against God the Father as Judge.3

 Jesus’ death (expiation) satisfied God’s wrath (propitiation) creating the possibility of reconciliation with God if only we would be reconciled by faith into Jesus (atonement, salvation).

Romans 5:8f speaks to this: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by [lit., in] His life.” Notice: much more we will have salvation in His life (when we enter into it), having had reconciliation purchased through His death. The accomplishment of reconciliation to God (which happened while we were separate from Jesus) is here markedly distinguished from salvation “in His life.”

What does it mean here, and in other places (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:18), that Christ’s death is applied to us even before we had entered into Him in faith—while we were yet “ungodly” and “enemies.” It’s easy to overlook texts like this, yet they are central to our understanding of the relationship between propitiation and salvation. If Jesus died for us while we were yet separate from Him in sin, then it seems His passive obedience can apply to you even without union through the Spirit. This does not effect full reconciliation, however, since full reconciliation (salvation in Christ’s life) requires a presentation of righteousness only possible by union with Jesus.

So Why Does Anyone Go to Hell?

This raises the obvious and pressing question: “Why then are not all saved?” Or the related questions: “Is sin paid for twice? Why does anyone suffer punishment in hell if sin has been paid for already on the Cross?” The simple answer is this, as has already been affirmed: Not all are unified to Jesus Christ and His righteousness through faith.

That needs unpacking, however, for its implications may not be obvious at first. Jesus’ death, were it payment for all sin, could still not be payment for itself. By simple logic, it could pay for anything and everything but itself, in the same way that you can borrow money to pay any debts other than the one debt you just incurred by borrowing to consolidate your debts. In other words, even if the Cross paid the debt for all your previous sins and even the categorical sin of humankind (i.e., Original Sin), there would still be at least one transgression left outstanding on everyone’s account: crucifying the Son of God! Is not crucifying Jesus a sin so heinous that it completely overwhelms all other sins? And if you have not been crucified with Christ in union with Him, you are responsible for His crucifixion because your sins contributed directly to its necessity.

The only way to avoid the wrath due to those who crucified Christ is to be reconciled with God in Christ while there is time. In other words, one would have to take up Jesus’s Cross and follow Him in death, being raised with Him in righteousness. One would have to put off the crucifying old man and put on the once-crucified, now-resurrected new man in order to be free from the guilt of the Cross. Jesus is the only human being totally innocent of His rejection and crucifixion, and if you are not found in Him, you are therefore guilty of the Cross.

There is a terrifying and sobering reality in this. Jesus’ first coming was at the same time an extraordinary magnification of God’s mercy and grace to us in providing the only way of reconciliation, but it also just as significantly raised the stakes for unbelievers. The author of Hebrews expounds on this at length:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26–30)

Centrality of Union with Christ

The only refuge then is union with Jesus, through which the believer is unified to Him on the Cross (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24). The body of Christ, the true church, is not culpable for the crucifixion: in Christ, we are the victim of Jesus’ rejection, not its perpetrators. So, in the end, you have two choices for representative identity: Adam the Efficient Cause of Sin and the Formal Cause of the Crucifixion or Jesus Christ the Crucified. There is no neutral ground, no person not included.

Therefore, the one who refuses union with Jesus is guilty almost singularly for the one single transgression the Cross does not cover (the Cross itself), and no other sins matter much in the face of that (though one’s sins evidence, of course, continued separation from Jesus and His holiness). Additionally, by continuing to sin, humans continue reinforcing the cause of the crucifixion, as if “they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Heb. 6:6).

Consider the Parable of the Landowner (Matt 21:33ff). Once the worthless stewards had murdered the son of the landowner, all of their other transgressions paled in comparison. All their former failures were subsumed into their murder of the son. Jesus makes this rejection (or acceptance) the central issue of the parable in His explanation: “And he who falls on this stone [Jesus, the chief corner stone] will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust” (Matt. 21:44). 

One would think, then, that if all other sins had been cleared away by or at least subsumed into the enormity of the Cross, the main issue of the Last Judgment would mainly focus on Jesus, and particularly—whether or not a person rejected union with Him (and thereby became culpable for His crucifixion). And this seems to be exactly what we find! When I consider the relatively scant biblical data we have on the Final Judgment, I am always struck by two quite odd revelations:

    1. It is Jesus Christ and not the Father (as one might expect) who is Judge in the end.
    2. The decisions of the Final Judgment seem quite pointedly fixed on one’s treatment of or relationship to Jesus and the people unified into Him.

Judgment of the Father or of Christ?

To the first point, in John 5:22, Jesus says, “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son.” Other texts point clearly to Jesus as the Final Judge (Acts 10:42, 17:31; 2 Tim. 4:1; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 4:5). In Revelation, we see the slain Lamb coming to the throne and receiving the sealed book of Judgments from the right hand of the One on the Throne (Rev. 5:6–10). This seems to be the very point at which judgment is delivered to Jesus: after his accomplished death, resurrection, and ascension to the throne-room of heaven.

That the Judgment Seat on the Last Day belongs to Christ and not the Father (or God more generally) has not regularly been explored, but this truth should cause us to pause. Most would agree that Jesus bore the wrath of the Father on the Cross. If God the Father dispensed the wrath, isn’t He the offended party? That would seem to be the implication. So why has He turned over judgment to the Son in the Last Judgment if, in fact, many offenses against the Father are still outstanding (in unbelievers), and they still need adjudicating?

It would seem that, through his being slain, the Lamb has consolidated to Himself all rights of Judgment. On account of the Cross, He has become the chief Plaintiff in the lawsuit between heaven and earth, so, following His Father before Him, He has become the chief Judge. In a manner of speaking, he bought up all the debt of human sin on the Cross, so that it is with Him alone that all people must now have dealings for right standing in the Judgment (cf. Jn. 14:6).

Why Judgment Comes on the Unbeliever

To the second point, concerning the mode of Christ’s prosecution in the Last Day, notice why “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16) comes upon unbelievers in the Final Judgment. Revelation contains numerous explanations on this point: “for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets” (16:6); “and I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (17:6); “and in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (18:24). Judgment comes against “those who pierced him” and those responsible for “the blood of saints and prophets,” who are really one and the same. These twin realities are not separable in the least, because of the saints’ union to Christ.

Perhaps the first herald of the Gospel to fully understand this was Paul, and he was taught this truth from his first encounter with Christ, when he heard, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Paul might have responded, “Lord, when did I persecute you? I have merely persecuted Christians.” To which Jesus likely would have countered, “To the extent that you persecuted those who are in me (i.e., “the least of these”), you have persecuted me.”

This should remind us of perhaps the most extensive biblical account of the Final Judgment we have, found in Matthew 25:31ff. In it, again, the judgment seems entirely focused on how believers or unbelievers have acted toward Jesus and His people. Have they evidenced unity with Jesus by being Christ-like to “the least of these”? Or have they evidenced separation from Jesus (even active antagonism against Him)? This union between believers and Christ is so great that Paul even goes so far as to say that his own suffering for Jesus’ saints (at the hands of unbelievers) was “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24).


In summary, Jesus’ passive obedience has a cosmic and universal application: it removes sin from the cosmos, preparing it for its final recreated state, and it is the way, absolutely clear of any obstacles, for any to be reconciled with God.

That all people can be beneficiaries of Jesus’ death even without uniting to Him in faith is made quite clear by the Scriptures: He died for us while we were yet estranged from Him in sin so that we could enter through Him into fellowship with God (Eph. 2:13f). His death makes our union possible by removing all obstacles to reconciliation, but His death in our behalf does not require that union has already happened, for many are yet not found in Him. And without union (which effects the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us), there is no abiding reconciliation with God and therefore no salvation.

So our sin can be imputed to Jesus without union through the Spirit, but His righteousness cannot be imputed to us without that union. In this way, our sins against the Father are forgiven in the Son (through the Cross), and our sins against the Son (in the Cross) are forgiven in the Spirit which unifies us to Him. But denying the Spirit and rejecting reconciliation altogether is unforgivable.

In conclusion, it was not God’s intention through the Cross to save all human beings, but to open the only way of salvation for all human beings through Jesus. If He hadn’t truly opened the way, and that to all, how could any be saved? He made the way clear, so that His people could enter in. With all this in mind, we can outline some of God’s central intentions in the Cross.

Christ’s death on the Cross was used in God’s Sovereign plan

    1. to clear away sin entirely as an obstacle to reconciliation,
    2. make the way to salvation clear for all, and
    3. draw into Christ those elect who were called from eternity in Christ,
    4. to relieve the cosmos finally of its futility under sin,
    5. remove all excuses in the Judgment, and
    6. put all things in subjection under Christ.

No one has an excuse for not being reconciled to God, because Jesus actually did for all people everything necessary for reconciliation: He paid the debt, and He conciliated our justly wrathful God. The only thing all humans must now determine is their relationship to Christ and Him crucified: Are we responsible for the crucifixion, or are we victims of it in Christ? These are the only two options, so all humans are subject by this to Christ, Lord of all.

Further Implications

There are numerous other implications to the view I’ve presented, some of which I would like to briefly outline here.

First, it explains the almost uncanny change in disposition from our God in the Old Testament (fulfilling Just Wrath and Righteous Judgment warnings for the future) and our God in the New Testament (fulfilling Grace and Mercy promises from the past). The New Testament God is an appeased God, not a different God as some have wrongly supposed (e.g., Marcion). The Father has been fully satisfied in and by His Son, and therefore, the only wrath left to visit on the wicked belongs to the Son.

Second, mirroring that meditation, the Son, by the time we reach the end of Revelation, has undergone a quite complimentary change in aspect. The meek and gentle Lamb who divested his glory to be the vessel of the Father’s wrath to enrich us to overflowing has become the fierce and mighty Shepherd King, with eyes of lightning, feet like burnished bronze, and a sword coming out of his mouth to judge the nations. The Wrath of the Father has become the Wrath of the Lamb.4

Third, union with Christ is indispensable to the Gospel of reconciliation. It will be that very union upon which our judgment will stand or fall in the Last Day. We cannot walk in the reconciliation to God, that Jesus made open to all people with His death, outside of union with Jesus through faith. This is another way of stating the obvious: that unless we will be reconciled, we won’t be.

Fourth, all human beings are defined by their relationship to Jesus and His death, believer and unbeliever alike. We are all one or the other: either crucified, raised, and ascendant (and therefore judging, Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 20:4) with and in Christ or we are responsible for His persecution and death (both against Him and against His “witnesses”) eternally.

Fifth, Christians in union with Christ will suffer as He suffered and be rejected as He was rejected. That is why we rejoice when we are persecuted for righteousness (James), because this is one of the clearest ways the Spirit testifies in our heart to our union with Christ, the certainty of our salvation, and our ultimate freedom from the enormous guilt of the Cross.

Sixth, we would all naturally refuse to be reconciled to God (according to the bondage to our sin nature) unless we were and are found in (called in) the Son (The Word, The Book of Life) from before time began (2 Tim. 1:9), so definite atonement still carries full force. As Jesus said, “All that the Father has given Me will come to Me” (Jn. 6:37). So only those who are given to Christ by the Father in eternity will experience salvation fully, for they alone will “much more” unite themselves to Christ’s life and righteousness in time, thereby fleeing the wrath to come against those “who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 1:8). But, on the other hand, none of us can be certain who the Father called in Christ from eternity, so in humility, hope, and obedience…

Seventh, we offer the pure and simply free Gospel of accomplished reconciliation to any and all people—completely unfettered by any conditions, either of works or the undisclosed roster of election. Our particular sins (and the original, categorical sin in humankind) had blocked our way to God. But all our sins have been forgiven in Christ, while we were all yet separate from God and His enemies. This is not conditional. Jesus died for the sins of all, even if they will not believe into Him, and we can and should tell people without equivocation that Jesus died for them. Jesus paid all that is necessary for all, and the way to God is therefore entirely clear and unblocked through Him. All that is left for our salvation is for us to in fact be reconciled.

Eighth, faith then is not so much an active deed but a relinquishing. It is only by holding on to our nature in sin—and our separation from Christ in that sin—that we spoil the accomplished reconciliation for ourselves. Salvation would be accomplished in a person without any works on his part if only he would deny himself and enter Christ’s rest! Justifying faith then is not an Arminian work of the flesh (as some might charge to this view), but in fact a ceasing from the works of the flesh.5

And after this justifying (one could even say passive) faith (this dying to self and ceasing from the works of the flesh), which is grounded in the reality of our eternal identity in Christ and instigated by the testimony of the Spirit in us, an active faith of sanctification immediately begins our walk in Christ’s life and righteousness, whereby out of the black, dead soil of our crucified sin nature grows the fruit of the Spirit, sovereignly prepared beforehand in Christ Jesus.

So faith is also a gift, and not a work. The faith that relinquishes the self is not a work, but a resting from dead works. The faith that actively walks in Jesus involves works, of course, but only because the “new creation” has been given life in Jesus. Total faith involves both dying to self (which is the application of Christ’s death particularly and uniquely to those who are unified to Him) and living in Christ. Only those who never live in Christ have never died in Christ, though Christ died because of and for their sins nonetheless.

So, in the end, God Himself accomplished everything necessary for our salvation, through Christ. We must receive His life, His life-giving Word, in faith and then walk in His righteousness, for the alternative option is unthinkably grim.

Namely that, ninth, if you refuse God’s inestimable grace in this, you will incur on yourself an even greater judgment, for your very denial of Jesus makes you liable for the infinite debt of Christ’s death and you will also be held variably accountable for your respective part in the tribulation of His witnesses (because they are in Him) for all eternity. This highlights both the incalculable riches of God’s grace toward those who believe and the unfathomable abysses of the Lamb’s wrath which will come against those who reject Him all the way to their deaths and persecute His children (in Him) along the way.

Tenth, there is no need for theological gymnastics concerning the cosmic soteriological passages of Scripture. More than before, the biblical authors speak naturally and on their own terms. For me, this view of unlimited expiation and definite atonement unexpectedly refreshes many texts of Scripture without deadening the abiding vitality of traditional Reformed interpretations.

With this in view, I will close with the most quoted, perhaps now most often overlooked, verse in all the Bible, with the context following it:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes into Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes into Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed into the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16–18)


The bulk of this article was my final paper for Systematic Theology III: Christology, Soteriology, and Eschatology which I completed in the spring semester, 2017, at Reformed Theological Seminary Atlanta. I edited it slightly for online publication.

  1.  I primarily defer here to Morris’s fine summary: “Propitiation means the turning away of anger; expiation is rather the making amends for a wrong. Propitiation is a personal word; one propitiates a person. Expiation is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or a crime.” Leon Morris, The Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1983), 151.
  2.  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), III.1.i., 557.
  3.  Although, as I explain later, the Cross cannot pay for itself. So it pays the whole varied debts of sin other than the overwhelming single debt that it itself incurred to those who refuse to be reconciled.
  4.  This might also explain the puzzling verbal shift between the seemingly objective constitutional wrath generally associated with God (orgē) in the majority of the Bible to the more personal word for wrath (thymós) associated with God, in the Lamb, only in Revelation (Rev. 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15).
  5.  This is one reason why the author of Hebrews says keeping the Sabbath is an abiding commandment—because it pictures our entrance into Christ’s rest and our relinquishing of our own identity in sin (“the deeds of the flesh”). In this light, it is interesting to note the language in the Old Testament concerning the Sabbath (as translated in the NIV): deny yourselves and do no work (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32; Num. 29:7).

11 responses

  1. Mr. Minkoff:
    I would not know where to begin critiquing this paper without producing a Barthian tome. But as I generally find it imprudent and counterproductive to go negative on another person’s screed rather than present a coherent positive screed of my own, this screed just makes the latter project all the more pressing. Saying this, the inability to coherently understand and articulate the Justification, and the Justice in the Justification, and the nature and attributes of Justice in general, is the primary reason why I reject all forms of modern Evangelicalism, including its Reformed stream, although I would be well within the mainstream of earlier Reformed orthodoxy.

    But let me point a few things. You say , ,
    “Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor (Matt. 18:21–35) may instruct us. The unforgiving servant was forgiven a massive debt (clearly representative of the sin God has forgiven us), but because the servant did not evince a master-like forgiveness toward his fellow servants, he ultimately suffered an even greater punishment. We should not read too much into a parable.”

    I am well aware that the Reformed stream denigrates the meaning of this passage in order to repudiate an economic justice understanding of substitutionary atonement; as if the one model of understanding necessarily negates the other, rather than complements it and indeed, mitigates some of the potential waywardness that might occur by relying upon only one particular understanding.

    However, the Sermon of the Mount also utilizes the indebtedness model.

    Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:25–6)

    And the Lord’s prayer freely utilizes debt and sin interchangeably. (Luke 11:4 – hamartias, opheilonti; cf. Matthew 6:12). Few understand the ancient practice of debt bondage (i.e. nexum), whereby the person pays with his person until that debt is relieved. In the context of a sinner and divine judgment, that will never occur, apart from Christ and His substitutionary atonement.

    This leads to a second point. You say “Propitiation is the appeasing of an offended one’s wrath allowing for the reconciliation of estranged parties,” wrath being the operative word in dispute. It is very true that the pagans saw the human propensity to sacrifice as a means to appease/placate the gods’ displeasure, an emotive and rather inscrutable measure to discern. However, one observes that the God of Scriptures and of the Hebrews transformed the sacrificial impulse and system by quantifying it in the context of justice and its principles. (i.e. Different manner of sins required different types of sacrifices.)

    It is true that 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 utilizes the word propitiation. But neither passage declares what is being placated. And it would be my contention that it is not God’s wrath so much that is being placated, but the exact and exacting principles of a divine and universal justice. The reasoning is this. God proclaims that the foundation of His sovereignty is righteousness and justice (Psalm 89:14, 97:2).

    One of the attributes of justice, being public righteousness, is the ability by all concerned to rationally scrutinize the matter. Scriptures also makes this point in Romans 3:21–6. Unfortunately, English translators have modified the meaning of the Greek word dikaiosuné to mean righteousness, rather than justice. But in all pagan Greek writings, justice is its true and common understanding unto whom Paul wrote. The Greeks did not have a concept of righteousness in the same sense as the Hebrews. Rectitude or conformity to an external standard is the closest they had (hosiotés – Luke 1:75, Ephesians 4:24)

    The wrath of God is beyond the scrutiny of others, just as the subjective and psychological pain and suffering of victims is beyond the scrutiny, measure, and divination of others. If Christ’s substitutionary atonement is to have any judicial coherence, it must be based upon better things. My argument would be that the measure is not the level of suffering or wrath sated, both inscrutable to human beings, but upon the intrinsic merit of Christ’s person, especially in relationship to human creatures. This is scrutable. By this, one can see how Christ is judicially sufficient as a payment price for all sin, sins, and sinners, whether using the economic or penal substitutionary model. And by this, grace is established upon the ramparts of a potentially comprehensible justice, rather than apart from justice or apart from an scrutable justice (Romans 3:31).

    As to your primary premise that Christ died for the actual sins of all people and that we will be judged, not on the basis of our sins and trespasses but upon our relationship to Christ; the John 3:17-8 did immediately come to mind, for which reason I find it ironic that you would cite it for prooftext.

    For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 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. – John 3:17–8

    It would seem from that passage that if Christ had not been sent, the whole cosmos would stand in a state of already condemned. And thus, Christ is a gift, an act of a graceful escape from an already condemned state, rather than merely being a replacement legal and legalistic standard (a New Covenant of Works) by which one must go through the hoops to attain.

    Even grammatically, your citation as proof positive of your position, seems incoherent. How can one not be judged if one believes, if Final Judgment is based on belief?

    I don’t know how to reconcile your position with “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24), the word for sin being plural, (although in John 8:21, it is singular). Or reconcile the basis of Judgment being knowing and accepting, as indicated by many scrutable manners, but failure to consistently do (Matthew 7:2, Romans 2:1, 14–5).

    • I’m thankful for your response, since it is the most substantive feedback I have received thus far. Perhaps I am daft, but I don’t see how what you have written here substantially differs from what I wrote. God’s wrath in the Scriptures is not hard to divine, as it is not fickle or inscrutable but consistent and revealed. His wrath is constitutional, as opposed to merely human wrath, so if you want to say that His “principles” and not His person have been offended, I’m okay with that. But I don’t think the distinction is all that helpful or informative, and I believe it to be more delicate about God’s character than the Bible is. The Bible speaks plainly about God’s anger with sin, and it seems as personal as salvation.

      Your last three or so paragraphs are sort of a mystery to me. I don’t see how anything you said disagrees with what I wrote. Again, I’m not trying to be daft (I can’t help it), but I can’t see what you’re taking issue with there. I never said that Christ’s death wasn’t for sins as well as sin. I do believe that our sin(s) is/are re-oriented by Jesus’ death, but it is our particular sin state (in other words, the particular sins that we choose against and instead of Christ) that we “die in.” That particular sin state (state of sins as well as sin) still has everything to do with a different identity—apart from Christ. It is still centrally the relationship to Christ that determines guilt or lack thereof. Anyway, got to get back to work. Thank you for interacting at such length, I’ll read and re-read your comment later and see if I can better understand your points.

      • Sorry, for not replying earlier. Lost contract with this thread earlier because of computer crash and rebuild.

        This distinction between objective and scrutable principles of justice versus a subjective and inscrutable/measurable measure of divine wrath is not an insubstantial matter. This distinction was explicitly delineated in the Canons of Dort and other early confessions as the primary basis regarding justification. (Calvin was first trained as a lawyer.) The stakes are these:

        a) modern Christianity, including its Reformed branch, has lost an understanding of the nature and attributes of justice.The evidence is considerable, broad, and deep. Judgment/justice is one of the premier three aspects that Christ denounced the religious leaders of his day – (Matthew 23:23 – krisin is the Greek term used, which is properly translated as judgment. But a rational and pristine judgment (“according to truth” – Romans 2:2) requires an understanding of the rational principles of justice) in order to administer this judgment without caprice and the appearance of caprice.)

        b) consequently, the justification through the judicial mechanism of imputed substitution afforded by the atonement of Christ becomes rationally and judicially incoherent and unintelligible and thereby easily scorned by its skeptics. The most vivid display of this incoherence was in IHOPU’s “Monster God or Monster Man” debate (September 13, 2014) between Michael Brown and Brian Zahnd

        QUOTE Brian Zahnd

        “But particularly abhorrent is the penal substitutionary atonement theory that turns the Father of Jesus into a pagan deity, who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice and this will not do. In other words, the God who is mollified by throwing the virgin into the volcano or the God who is mollified by His Son being nailed to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus.

        And neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid quo pro by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive. In other words, Calvin’s economic model for the Cross simply won’t do. I mean how would it work? The idea is that a payment is being made. So how does this work?

        Does God say, “Well look. I want to forgive sins, but I am gonna get paid. And I want an innocent life. That’s a given. And let’s see. I want his death to be painful. Crucifixion, that will do. But I want some torture before hand. I want there to be some lashes. Ah you know, a crown of thorns, that would be nice. I want a crown of thorns.”

        And we might way, “how many thorns will be enough to pay the price? Ten?”

        Oh no. There must be a minimum of nineteen thorns in the crown for me…”

        END QUOTE

        Bingo! Zahnd has exposed the incoherent absurdity, although I suspect that neither Brown and most advocates of substitutionary theory understand what Zahnd is driving at or the stakes that are involved. And to this, I give this theological adversary, Zahnd, full marks for the pithy wit by which he has destroyed the PSA framework. Except, Zahnd has not destroyed the framework but a defected and corrupted understanding of the PSA framework that has taken root and prevails in Evangelical / Reformed circles.

        But the consequence of this intelligibility is that a person who subscribes to a theory other than some form of imputed and substitutionary justice will been internally badgered and extrinsically drawn to adding conditions to the basis of their justification.

        It is this that I am getting at.

        And it assists in your general argument that the atonement of Christ has the potential to judicially cover for the sin/sins of all human (a.k.a. hypothetical universalism). For rather than an inscrutable measure (from a human perspective) of divine wrath or Christ’s full suffering being the weight of measurement, it is the intrinsic infinite worth of Christ itself, Christ being God, that is the scrutable weight of measure.

        The scriptural “punishment” of Adam and his posterity is spiritual death (separation from God the source of Life), to which psychological and physical death ensues, and an abandonment to the elements and evil that already exists. Christ, whose ontological value is infinitely greater than that for whom he consensually suffered, suffers first and foremost, a spiritual death (separation from God – “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me . . .”), as the exact form of substitutionary punishment that Adam and his posterity suffers.

        You may ultimately agree with me as to PSA, as you say. But my point, is that my understanding is more coherent and rationally defensible against a sharp adversary like Zahnd..

        • One correction – “But the consequence of this intelligibility” should be “But the consequence of this unintelligibility. One comment – I think that the primary problem also is that those subscribe to the “sating of divine wrath” understanding of PSA are not even aware that there is a rational/judicial problem.

        • It seems most of our disagreement is on whether God’s wrath is inscrutable/irrational/unquantifiable. I don’t think it is. God’s justice is certainly satisfied (in the sense of the “indebtedness” concept that you brought up). I have no issue with thinking of atonement in those terms, but I don’t think atonement is exclusively transactional. In fact, Zahnd’s view, and perhaps yours (though I’m not sure you have yet delivered a positive statement of your view) depersonalizes the atonement. God’s wrath is also soothed/appeased, because God is not a limiting concept or an unfeeling cosmic bank with a transparent, public disclosure of all its accounts. Again, the Bible is less delicate about this than you and Zahnd are. Zahnd is able to avoid all the texts about God’s wrath through a vaguely Marcionite view on the Old Testament God and canon. I don’t think you’re willing to treat the Bible so flippantly. So how do you address the obvious, clear, and repeated issue of God’s wrath that pervades both Testaments?

  2. Hi Michael,

    I read this article with some interest when you first released it and have been pondering it since. I appreciate your exploration of the universality of Christ’s sacrifice. However, I do have a couple concerns about the framework presented here that I think are better addressed by the traditional Reformed view.

    1. You write “My contention is that the Cross, not merely sufficient to pay the whole debt on sin, actually did pay the whole debt on human sin, particularly against God the Father as Judge” (with the exception of the sin of crucifying Christ:) “And if you have not been crucified with Christ in union with Him, you are responsible for His crucifixion because your sins contributed directly to its necessity.”

    This strikes me as a (more complex) variant of the old universal atonement theory “Christ died for every sin except for unbelief.” It suffers from a similar problem. At some point in our lives, we’ve all committed that residual unforgiven sin (refusing to be reconciled to Christ), so how can we be forgiven for that sin – if Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t cover it – in order to now be reconciled to Christ?

    If we can simply distance ourselves from that sin by “putting off the old man,” why doesn’t that work for all of our other sins? Isn’t it still a sin against a holy God that must be propitiated?

    2. You write “One would think, then, that if all other sins had been cleared away by or at least subsumed into the enormity of the Cross, the main issue of the Last Judgment would mainly focus on Jesus, and particularly—whether or not a person rejected union with Him (and thereby became culpable for His crucifixion).”

    Romans 2 stands out as a counter-argument here, as Paul directly attributes the righteous judgment of God on the day of wrath to the sins described in Romans 1: “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things… But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

    If the wrath against these sins is still outstanding, for those who have refused to repent, it seems that the debt has not been paid after all.

    Perhaps there is a middle-of-the-road option here: your discussion of the transfer of justice from God the Father to God the Son suggest the transfer of *ownership* of the debt. In other words, perhaps in His death Christ really did take on the offense of the sins of every individual from God the Father, just not in a salvific sense. The sins are not erased (except by union with Christ), but the wrath that was previously the Father’s to dispense is now Christ’s.

    This explains the passages like 2 Peter 2:1, which describe unbelievers that Christ “bought”. It also explains the transfer of judgment to Christ, and it gives Christ’s sacrifice an appropriately universal character. It fits better with passages like Romans 2, which describe unbelievers being judged for those same sins that Christ bought.

    Looking forward to your thoughts!

    • Hi. Thanks for the feedback!

      1. Union with Christ fundamentally changes our relationship to the cross. By putting off our old man, the perpetrator of the cross, and joining with Christ in His righteousness, we become (as new creations in Christ) the victims of the Cross and the beneficiaries of the resurrection. The residual sin of unbelief (and other sins) in the believer is still “in” the old man, which either dies on the Cross or is punished eternally in hell. If we cling to the old man as our identity, we find no place in Christ. It should terrify us that we sin still at all, and we should take the warnings of Hebrews seriously in that regard. Our life as Christians is one of crucifying the old man and his lusts. I think part of the confusion here is that belief has both a personal and abstracted sense. You can believe God at His word without being unified/reconciled to Him. But saving faith is fundamentally connected to union with Christ. Without that union, we are lost. With that union, there is no unbelief in us at all per se, but only in the crucified old man.

      2. Paul actually ascribes the final wrath to their impenitence and hardness of heart. It was “just” (“according to truth” in the Greek) for God’s wrath to rest on “those who practice such things,” but again, the final wrath was being “stored up” (meaning it was not dispensed until the end) because of their hard-hearted refusal to be reconciled (in the face of God’s great grace). If the wrath had already fallen on people for their sin, they would not be alive to repent. The very reality of repentance means that the penalty for sin (as just and according to truth as it is and was) did and does not fall on us (or we would all be dead before we had time to repent). Further, I believe that continued sin of all kinds evidences the fact that unbelievers are not reconciled to God or in union with Christ’s righteousness. And sin always deserves God’s wrath. But, as you say in the middle approach, Christ dispenses the wrath of God, being very God Himself. Your middle-of-the-road option differs little from what I claimed in the article actually. I don’t think Jesus took sin from the unbeliever in a salvific sense, of course, because they are not saved. As I said in the article:

      On account of the Cross, He has become the chief Plaintiff in the lawsuit between heaven and earth, so, following His Father before Him, He has become the chief Judge. In a manner of speaking, he bought up all the debt of human sin on the Cross, so that it is with Him alone that all people must now have dealings for right standing in the Judgment (cf. Jn. 14:6).


      . . . the payment of our sin debt does not guarantee that personal and particular reconciliation with God will happen (i.e., salvation) because each individual could still remain separated from Jesus—having no union or identity either in Him or, particularly for continued reconciliation, in His righteousness.

      That being said, I agree that, in shorthand, God still condemns unrighteousness, even the unrighteousness Christ paid for on the cross. But the reason is that sins of all kinds are and were always a falling short of his character. We want to make it about an unfeeling/abstract standard (the “Law”), but God’s Law/Word is not dead—He is living and active. Sin was always personal for both God and us. The sins that God’s wrath justly rest on are nothing less than our rejection of communion with Him.

  3. I don’t know if you’ll see a new comment on an article this old or have time to respond to it, but I’m curious about how “Unreformed” this actually is.

    While this perspective does not match the standard explanation of the Reformed individual, does it explicitly contradict any of the core confessions? Or is it only at odds with expanded interpretation within the tradition?

    • Hi! Thanks for commenting. I agree with you that, though my view here might not agree with certain interpretations of Reformed doctrines within the Reformed tradition, it does not contradict the core doctrines themselves. That said, I have not seen anyone else arguing for this view within or without the Reformed community. Have you?

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