What did Jesus come to do? What was his intent in his ministry and in his atoning sacrifice? Did Jesus in fact accomplish what he intended? What would it mean if he did not?
I was reading recently about the doctrine of the atonement, and I saw a fascinating little way of speaking of what Jesus came to do. In many ways, it helps us to grasp the extent of the atonement. The point ran something like this: Jesus died either for all the sins of all people, for some of the sins of all people, or for all of the sins of some people. Which is it?
If Jesus died for all of the sins of all people, then all people must be saved. If Jesus died for all of the sins of all people, yet all people are not saved, then the death of Jesus for those people somehow failed to accomplish the purpose for which he died. We reject this, and thus we must reject the notion that Jesus died for all of the sins of all people.
Did Jesus then die for some of the sins of all people? That would mean that Jesus died for all of the sins of some with exception, that there are some sins for which he did not die. Is there any biblical evidence that Jesus died for, let’s say, 99 out of 100 sins. But you and I have to make up for that last sin in order to be saved? This is clearly not the teaching of the Scripture. And, of course, if this were the teaching of the Scripture, then we would know that Jesus only died to provide the possibility of saving a people, but his death would have actually secured no salvations, not one.
Universalists believe the first possibility, that Christ died for all of the sins of all people and thus all will be saved. Those coming from an Arminian position logically must hold to something like the second position. Christ died for all of our sins except for the sin of unbelief in him. We must make up for that sin on our own by believing in order to have all of our sins covered. Because, if Christ died to pay for your unbelief, that sin would be covered and your salvation would necessarily be guaranteed.
But the third position, Christ died for all of the sins of some people, is another view entirely. There we present the idea that Jesus, in his death, perfectly and successfully accomplished all he intended. Jesus came to rescue a particular people for the Lord. His death paid the penalty for all of their sins, including the sin of unbelief before their repentance. There would thus be no way that those would not be saved, for they have all of their sins perfectly atoned for in Christ.
I thought of this little argument when reading through my daily reading plan in Matthew. Look at a simple verse that I think almost every Christian knows.
Matthew 1:21 – She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Note two things that the angel says to Joseph about Jesus. He will, emphasize that will, save his people, emphasize that his, from their sins. Will means it is a sure thing. There is no saving effort of Jesus that fails. He will save. Whom will he save? He will save his people. He will not save all people. He will save people who are his.
I believe that this verse that we only read around Christmas time is a pointer to the fact that Christ sovereignly, effectively, totally accomplished the work he came to accomplish. He came to save his people. There is nothing in this text that would indicate that he tries to save others, but they will against him and thwart his work. There is nothing in this text that indicates that all are his people and he is trying to save them. Instead, the text, in its most natural reading shows us that he will—a certainty which cannot fail—save his people—a people who are a definite and determined group—from their sins—which he accomplishes by perfectly paying the penalty for every last one of those sins. And there is nothing to indicate, in this text, that the group known as his people is merely a potential group that is as yet undetermined. Thus, the verse appears to indicate that Christ dies for all of the sins of some people, not some of the sins of all people or all of the sins of all people.
Oh, I know, many reject this notion. And, I most certainly will not have us argue these points in a comment thread. However, I read this, and I see something beautiful and worthy of praise. He will save his people. He will accomplish his mission perfectly. He will not fail, not even once, in any way. His people will be saved. And this is a glorious testimony to the power of God, the perfection of God, the perfection of the work of Christ, and the extreme glory of grace.
I could not be saved on my own. I could not contribute to my salvation. I would, had God left me to myself, have opposed him in the depths of my heart. But God is gracious. God changed my heart. God brought me salvation. God did this through the perfectly complete work of Christ. And because that work is perfect, I know that the grace of God on my life is totally secure. There is no sin of mine for which Christ did not die. Thus, there is no sin of mine, past, present, or future, which could ever separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. And all this gives me joy and hope.
And there is no true argument of injustice against this position. Do you want the death of Christ to have applied to you and covered your sins? Come to Jesus in faith and repentance. If you do, then you can know that he died for you. If you refuse him, you can know that he did not die to cover your sins. But this is not him treating anyone unfairly. In fact, it is him being gracious, giving forgiveness to those who do not deserve it. And it is him leaving to themselves those who, by their refusal, show that they want nothing to do with him or his grace.
The mission of Jesus is accomplished. He will not have failed in any regard to do what he intended to do. All for whom Christ died will be saved, they must be.