Archive for October 4, 2010
This weekend in worship and ABC, we continued our “Credo!” series with a study of the doctrine of the atonement. As I mentioned in ABC, the word “atonement” comes to us via the sixteenth century, literally meaning, “at-one-ment.” That is, the doctrine of the atonement teaches that whereas sin separates us from God, God makes us “at-one” with Him through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul explains it well:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
With these words, Paul offers a simple, yet eloquent, definition of the doctrine of the atonement. The atonement is God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself through Christ. Yet, this definition has caused more than a little debate over the years.
Two opposite and equal errors have been made with regard to the doctrine of the atonement. The first error is that of “universal atonement.” “Universal atonement” teaches that, because God has reconciled the world to himself through Christ, ultimately, no one will stand condemned. Everyone will be saved. Indeed, this what the great church father Origen taught:
So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning…so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is “all in all.” (Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3).
Origen’s borrows the phrase “all in all” from 1 Corinthians 15:28 to assert that God will not just save “a few individuals, or a considerable number,” but all people! Everyone will be saved! This is the doctrine of universal atonement. And it is a false doctrine. Not all people will be saved.
The second error that has crept into the doctrine of atonement is that of “limited atonement.” “Limited atonement” notes that, even though Paul writes “that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ,” not all are saved. Some are cast into hell (cf. Revelation 20:15). Thus, “limited atonement” teaches that God did not reconcile the whole world to Himself in Christ; rather, He reconciled only the world of the elect, or those He has chosen for salvation, to Himself. Indeed, this is the teaching of many modern day Calvinists, although it is debatable as to whether or not Calvin himself taught this.
So what is the way through these debates? Is universal atonement or limited atonement correct? Actually, neither is correct. Lutherans have long made a distinction between objective justification and subjective justification. Objective justification states that when Christ died, He did so for the sins of the whole world. God sought to reconcile the whole world to Himself in Christ. Subjective justification notes that Christ’s objective work on the cross must be received subjectively, or personally, through faith. This is what the Lutheran Confessions call “personal faith”: “Personal faith – by which an individual believes that his or her sins are remitted on account of Christ and that God is reconciled and gracious on account of Christ – receives the forgiveness of sins and justifies us” (Apology IV:45). In other words, the Lutheran confessors teach that Christ’s objective work on the cross does you no good if you don’t trust in it for your forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation! This is why the Scriptures contain constant calls to personal faith (e.g., Romans 10:9-10).
Both objective and subjective justification are needed. Subjective justification is needed because it invites us to have faith and reminds us that without faith, we will be damned (cf. Luke 8:12). Objective justification is important because it reminds us that Christ’s work on the cross is not just for some, but for the whole world. Indeed, it is for you! God not only reconciles the world to Himself in Christ, He reconciles you, for He loves you. This is the true doctrine of the atonement!
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message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!