The doctrine of definite atonement states that in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of His sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. In a nutshell: the death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, and not only was it intended to do so, but it actually achieved it as well. Jesus will be true to His name: “He will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The doctrine is theologically rich, but it is also immensely practical, especially in relation to the church.
Two pictures in the New Testament dramatize Christ’s love for the church. There is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep and the Bridegroom who sacrifices Himself for His bride (John 10:15; Eph. 5:23–25). The first picture has implications for Christian pastors; the second has implications for Christian people.
Implications for Pastors
First, definite atonement intensifies the care of a pastor for his people because it reminds the pastor that it was for this particular group of people that Christ died. In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders to pay careful attention to the flock of God and to care for the church of God, “which he obtained with his own blood.” The relative clause is, in a way, unnecessary in the flow of Paul’s speech. Its presence, however, adds poignancy to the exhortation: pastors are to protect and care for the church because God purchased her with His own blood. As Richard Baxter wrote to pastors:
Oh, then, let us hear these arguments of Christ, whenever we feel ourselves grow dull and careless; “Did I die for these souls, and will you not look after them? Were they worth my blood, and they are not worth your labor? . . . How small is your condescension and labor compared to mine!”
When pastors look out on their congregations each Sunday, remembering that they are the purchase of Christ’s blood, it creates and deepens a most tender affection for them.
Second, definite atonement reassures the pastor of the eternal security of his people because his flock is safe in Christ’s hand and in the Father’s hand (John 10:28–29). The security of God’s people is doubly assured because Christ and the Father are one (v. 30). This truth helps pastors not to worry so much for their sheep to the extent that they forget to whom they really belong. Each day, after a pastor has fulfilled his duties, he can rest with the conviction that Christ will lose none of those given to Him by the Father. The sheep for whom the Good Shepherd laid down His life cannot be lost.
Implications for Christian People
First, definite atonement intensifies the personal aspect of God’s love for believers individually and for believers corporately. Martin Luther said that the sweetness of the gospel is found in the personal pronouns: “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). That individual expression is also accompanied by a corporate one: “Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).
The love of Christ for the church is a particular, special, exclusive love that is differentiated from His universal, general, inclusive love for everyone. This discriminating love is no more offensive than a husband who vows to love his wife with the words forsaking all others, I will be faithful to you as long as we both shall live. Love discriminates. A husband’s exclusive love for his wife makes her feel positively special among other women. The same holds true for individual Christians and the church as a whole: we are the most treasured people on earth. Christ’s love for us was not an afterthought, but a forethought—we are the reason He came down from heaven.
Second, definite atonement enhances the Christian’s view of marriage. The Bible begins with a marriage between Adam and his wife, and it ends with the celebration of the marriage between Christ and His church. Central to these two marriages is the concept of union. Human marriage has at its core a one-flesh union, and thus it is a picture of the union between Christ and His church.
Paul uses the image of a head and its body to drive home the point. Christ, the Bridegroom, is also the head, who gives Himself for His body, to which He is united. Paul’s marriage exhortations to husbands and wives are based on this union between head and body (Eph. 5:28–32). The implications are profound: a husband who does not love his wife is like a man who harms his own body; a wife who does not respect her husband is like a body that ignores instructions from its head. Both behaviors result in damage and dysfunction. Yet marriages, even in Christian churches, are often sadly like this. But if we paused for a moment to consider that our marriages preach the love story of Christ’s union with His bride, how different would they be?
These observations demonstrate that, rather than being a heady doctrine discussed only by scholars, definite atonement is immensely practical for Christian pastors and people alike.