Jesus laid down His life for His church: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27).
Jesus laid down His life for His elect: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:32–35).
Jesus prays for His people, not for the world: “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9).
All this shows us is that Jesus’ death was a substitution. If He died in the place of all people, then all people will be saved. If He was substituted for some, then those will be saved.
The Biblical Objection
What about all the “all” passages in the Bible that, some say, suggest Jesus died for everyone without exception? There are several passages, but what I want to say is that the “all” passages must be read with their context in mind as well as with all the rest of Scripture in mind. As I mentioned before, “all” doesn’t always mean all people without exception, or every single individual who has ever lived. Sometimes “all” means what it means here in Revelation 5:9–10, where all kinds of people are being described as redeemed. Other times, “all” means all nations—the Jews along with the gentiles. Alongside the passages that speak of the particularity of Christ’s death, you can see that the best reading of Scripture is that Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all kinds of people, Jews and gentiles, “from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Look at John 3:16–17. Notice that the purpose of God’s sending His Son is explained with two purposes clauses: “that whoever believes in him should . . . have eternal life” and “in order that the world might be saved through him” (emphasis added). If the “world” in verse 16 is every human being, then every human will be saved, because verse 17 says He saves the world. We know that cannot be the case because not everyone is saved. So, the “world” must refer not to all people but to something else. What is the “world?” It’s the “world” of darkness and unbelief (see John 1:10). God loved this world of fallen and rebellious sinners despite its hatred of Him. Even further, God’s love extends not only to sinful Jews but to the entire world of sinners, including the gentiles in all corners of the earth (John 4:42; 11:51–52; 12:32; Rev. 5:9). The point of John 3:16–17 is that God’s love is so immense that any sinner who believes shall be saved. It speaks of the sufficiency of Jesus.
Look also at 1 John 2:1–2. The nature of “propitiation” is to turn away God’s wrath. If this text means every human, then it means the wrath of Almighty God is no longer upon anyone. When John says, “and not for ours only, but . . . the whole world,” he is speaking either as he spoke in John 3:16–17 of the sufficiency of Jesus or as he echoed our Lord’s words in John 17:20: “I do not ask for [the disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”
Finally, look at 1 Timothy 2:4–6. The context is not Christ’s death but prayer in public worship. Paul commands prayer “for all people” (v. 1). His concern is not for every individual person, but for all “all sorts and conditions of men” (Book of Common Prayer). He specifies prayer for government officials as if to say, “Pray for them so that we can continue praying for everyone else.” God does desire the salvation of “all people,” that is, all kinds of people. He is concerned not only with Jews but with gentiles, with the rich and the poor, with white and black, with aristocrats and workers, with men and women. If God’s will or desire here concerns every individual, then what about other texts of Scripture that speak of His will or desire in choosing some and not others? God is not confused, so His desire for the salvation of all is reconciled with His electing choice when we understand that He wants all kinds of people saved.
The Biblical Benefits
Why does all this matter? I want to conclude by offering three biblical benefits to affirming the intentional and effectual satisfaction of God’s justice by Jesus Christ on the cross for His elect.
First, it gives us assurance and confidence that our Savior has been for us from eternity, on the cross, and into eternity. That assurance and confidence can say, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain” for me, “and by your blood you ransomed” me “for God from” this “tribe and” this “language and” this “people and” this “nation, and you have made” me “a kingdom and” a “priest to our God, and” I “shall reign on the earth.”
Second, it gives us reason to worship. He actually and personally died for me to actually and powerfully accomplish my redemption from the slavery of sin and the kingdom of Satan.
Third, it gives us reason to preach, evangelize, and bear witness in the world. If Jesus Christ actually, personally, and powerfully died for some “out of every tribe and out of every language and out of every people and out of every nation,” then there are particular people in every tribe, every language, every people, and every nation who must come to repentance and faith.
What a song is being sung in heaven even now. Let’s make it our song here on earth. This part of the Canons of Dort ends with these words:
This plan, arising out of God’s eternal love for his chosen ones, from the beginning of the world to the present time has been powerfully carried out and will also be carried out in the future, the gates of hell seeking vainly to prevail against it. As a result, the chosen are gathered into one, all in their own time, and there is always a church of believers founded on Christ’s blood, a church which steadfastly loves, persistently worships, and—here and in all eternity—praises him as her Savior who laid down his life for her on the cross, as a bridegroom for his bride. (2.9)
The tribes, languages, peoples, and nations are right outside our doors. What are we waiting for? Jesus’ death is sufficient for an infinite number of worlds of sinners; tell them, knowing that God will effectually apply it to His people by His mighty grace.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Synod of Dort and was first published on May 23, 2018. Previous post.