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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. We have been discussing the doctrine of limited atonement and Dr. Spencer, in our last session you made a solid case for the Reformed, or biblical, position that Christ only died to save his elect. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: We could go on examining more verses that support the biblical case for limited atonement, but I really don’t think there is any need to do that. If you read through the New Testament with this question in mind, the biblical teaching is clear. I think most people who reject this doctrine do so for reasons other than biblical exegesis. Therefore, rather than continuing down that course, I would like to look at the major objections usually raised against this doctrine of limited atonement, or particular redemption as it is sometimes called.

Marc Roby: Very well, what objection do you want to handle first?

Dr. Spencer: That this doctrine makes the offer of salvation somehow disingenuous. In other words, that if this doctrine is true, we cannot make a free offer of salvation to someone honestly, which would be deadly to the great commission given to us by Christ when he commanded us in Matthew 28:18 to “go and make disciples of all nations” [1].

In order to think about this objection, let’s first consider the case of the apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas preaching to the people in Pisidian Antioch.

Marc Roby: We know that the first thing they did was go into the synagogue and preach to the Jews. In fact, we are told in Acts 17 that doing so was Paul’s custom (Verse 2).

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And their preaching drew large crowds, so we read in Acts 13:45-48, “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”’ When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.”

Marc Roby: That passage is yet another one that teaches the doctrine of limited atonement, it clearly says that those who were “appointed” for eternal life believed. But what does it have to do with the objection about the gospel offer not being genuine if limited atonement is true?

Dr. Spencer: Well, consider all of those who heard Paul and Barnabas and yet were not appointed for eternal life. They also had the gospel preached to them. Back in Verses 38-39 of Acts 13 we read that Paul had told them, “through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified”. So, the question is, was that a lie? Was the forgiveness of sins not really being offered to them at all? If it wasn’t possible for some of them to believe because of their unregenerate nature, was it a genuine offer?

Marc Roby: Well that is definitely an objection that you frequently hear. How would you respond?

Dr. Spencer: I would first point out that the question has a hidden assumption built into it.

Marc Roby: What assumption is that?

Dr. Spencer: That our ability limits our responsibility. In other words, if we are unable to respond positively to the gospel call to repent and believe, then according to this view we cannot be held responsible for failing to repent and believe.

Marc Roby: I think that is a very common notion.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that it is common, but we need to be very careful and think this through. It is a topic that can get very emotional and we can be easily led astray if we don’t think carefully and, as Christians, we must not only think carefully, but biblically.

Let’s begin by dealing with one case that you might think is pretty obvious and easy. If I am physically forced to do something, I am not morally responsible for that action.

Marc Roby: That seems perfectly reasonable and I suspect all of our listeners would agree.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure they will. But now try and come up with real examples and you will see that it becomes much more difficult. For example, suppose I work for a bank and know the combination to the safe. Now suppose a robber comes in and puts a gun to my head and tells me to open the safe. I think we would all agree that I am not guilty of theft if I open the safe for him. No rational person would expect me to surrender my life to save some of the bank’s money.

Marc Roby: Agreed.

Dr. Spencer: But now think about a soldier in the German army in World War II being commanded to help run the gas chambers at Auschwitz. He would have every good reason to believe that if he refused, he would be killed. Is he now morally responsible if he participates?

Marc Roby: I think almost everyone would say that he is, although they might disagree about the extent of his guilt.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And yet, what if a gun was actually pointed at his head and he was told to pull the handle that would release the gas? I think most people would still say that he should refuse, and could be held accountable if he didn’t, but we all start to get a little nervous about it because we realize that he is, in a sense, being forced. The reason most people would say the soldier is responsible, whereas the bank employee is not, is that the crime the soldier is being forced to commit is not just stealing money, but killing innocent people. Therefore, most people would say he should refuse even if it costs him his life.

I bring this up only to show that it is much more difficult than you think to decide some cases. But, even here, we would clearly not hold the person accountable if someone much stronger than he grabbed him and physically made him pull the handle even though he did his best to oppose the act.

Marc Roby: I think we can all agree to that.

Dr. Spencer: OK, so we’ve done away with the easiest case, which was still not always as easy as we might like. Now let’s get to a harder case. What about the person who is an alcoholic and, even knowing that he is, goes into a bar, gets drunk, and then causes an accident that kills someone as he’s driving home? Is he guilty of murder?

Marc Roby: I’m sure that most people would say he is responsible, although he is clearly not guilty of pre-meditated murder since he never intended to kill anyone.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But it was, in another sense, premeditated. He deliberately went into the bar knowing that he would get drunk and knowing that he was going to drive home afterward and therefore he knew, or certainly should have known, that it was entirely possible he would kill someone in a car accident. And this gets even more difficult if you believe, as many people do, that alcoholism is itself some kind of illness for which the person himself is not responsible.

Marc Roby: Yes, that view is very common as well.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And whether it is right or not isn’t important for our present discussion. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Even with that assumption, the man was not forced to go into the bar, he was not forced to drink and get drunk, and he was not forced to get into his car and try to drive home. Therefore, most people, while perhaps feeling very sorry for him, will still hold him accountable for his actions.

Marc Roby: Although the penalty will be far less severe than if he had killed the person deliberately.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and quite appropriate. But my point for the present discussion is simply this; even if a person’s nature is such that there is a strong tendency to act in a certain way, we hold the person accountable for his actions.

Marc Roby: I suspect that our listeners can all agree that that is the case.

Dr. Spencer: And now let me point out something else. We all know what it is like to have a very strong desire to say or do something that we know we shouldn’t. Some situation presents itself and we have a desire that we ourselves judge to be inappropriate. Now some of those desires are only mildly inappropriate and would, at most, garner a disapproving look from others, but some of those desires are far more inappropriate and would lead to serious consequences.

Marc Roby: Unfortunately, I’m quite confident that everyone knows what you are talking about.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure we all do. But most people are able to say “no” to such desires, especially the ones that are seriously wrong. Now, we may say “no” more out of the fear of the consequences than from some more noble motive, but we say “no” nonetheless. However, the daily news bears clear witness to the fact that not everyone is able to quell their worst desires all the time. People steal, assault, rape, murder and so on. We do, of course, in our legal proceedings take mitigating factors into account, but we don’t just say the person is not responsible because he or she was doing what they desired, even though we may have, at one time or another, experienced a similar desire ourselves.

Marc Roby: Of course not. Getting angry and wanting to punch someone is something we can all relate to, but actually acting on that momentary urge is something far more serious.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s clear. And so I finally come to the point I wanted to make. We do consider our internal nature to be something for which we can be justifiably judged. We do it ourselves when we judge some desire to be inappropriate and therefore don’t act on it, and we do it as a society when we judge someone for acting on an inappropriate desire. The key point is that we can, in fact, be held morally accountable for our actions even though we may not be 100% responsible for our own nature, which produced those actions.

Marc Roby: And so, I assume your conclusion is, that when someone hears the gospel and fails to respond in repentance and faith, he can be justifiably held accountable because he is not being forced to refuse.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Even though his nature prevents him from repenting and believing. As Paul wrote in Colossians 1:21, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” That statement is true for every one of us. We were all born enemies of God. It is the sinful nature we inherited from our first father, Adam. But in terms of our behavior, we are free to do what we want to do and we can, therefore, be reasonably held accountable for that behavior. God’s offer of salvation in the gospel is genuine, the fact that people who have not been born again cannot respond because of their sinful nature and enmity against God does not do away with the sincerity of the offer. God will save all who come to him in true repentance and faith.

The idea that we can’t be responsible for our decisions unless they are absolutely free decisions, meaning that we have the ability to choose any possible option, is simply not true.

Marc Roby: I see your point just based on our own understanding of human behavior and responsibility, but, of course, the most important question for a Christian is this, what does the Word of God say about it?

Dr. Spencer: That is the most important question, and the Bible makes it clear that God will hold everyone eternally accountable for how they respond to whatever revelation they have received. If someone has never heard the gospel message, he will still be held accountable for not having sought God, because as Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-20, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

Marc Roby: In other words, there is no innocent native in some far corner of the earth who is free from condemnation because he has never heard about God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. That person simply does not exist. All men are without excuse. But, of course, there will be even greater judgment for those who have heard the gospel and still do not repent and believe. Jesus himself told us in John 3:18 that “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Marc Roby: That is not a popular verse in our society, which treats religion as if it were just a part of culture and that every religion therefore, is as good as every other.

Dr. Spencer: It is a monstrously unpopular idea. But that doesn’t decide the case, does it? The facts that we all get sick and die are also universally unpopular, but they are true nonetheless.

We got into this question about whether our ability limits our responsibility because I said that it was an unstated assumption behind the accusation that the doctrine of limited atonement prevents us from making an honest offer of the gospel to people we meet. I would now like to address that objection head on.

Marc Roby: Very well, how would you respond to that objection?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that the exact opposite is true. If the atonement was not limited in its applicability, in other words if Christ died to pay for the sins of every single human being, then the atonement would be limited in its effectiveness as we noted in Session 136. And in that case, we would not be offering the full powerful salvation that God offers to sinners. Let me quote John Murray’s book Redemption Accomplished and Applied. He wrote that “The truth really is that it is only on the basis of such a doctrine”, by which he means the doctrine of limited atonement, “that we can have a free and full offer of Christ to lost men. What is offered to men in the gospel? It is not the possibility of salvation, not simply the opportunity of salvation. What is offered is salvation. To be more specific, it is Christ himself in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work who is offered.”[2]

Marc Roby: That is an important point. We read in John 19:30 that just before Jesus died on the cross Jesus himself said, “it is finished.” He could not have said that if he only made salvation possible. He would then only have been able to say that his part in the work was finished, but we still had work to do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. Let me offer an analogy that has been used before. Picture someone drowning in the ocean. He is being swamped by waves and is on the verge of going under for the last time. The idea that Christ died to make salvation possible for all is analogous to simply throwing this drowning man a life saver. It doesn’t actually save him; he still has to find the strength to reach out and lay ahold of it. But that is not the biblical picture of salvation. The biblical idea is that we aren’t just drowning, we are already on the bottom of the ocean dead. A life saver will do us no good. God reaches down and brings us up from the bottom and gives us new life in Christ.

Marc Roby: I think you have used that analogy before, but it is a wonderful illustration of the true, powerful offer of salvation contained in the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: It is a great picture, yes. We do our part when we present the gospel to the people we come in contact with. We have no way of knowing which of them have been chosen by God for eternal life, but we know that those whom God has chosen will be born again by the powerful working of God’s Holy Spirit and will then respond to the gospel call with true repentance and faith. They may not respond right away, but that is all in God’s hands. The fact that his power is at work in saving people gives us the confidence to preach the gospel. That is why Paul wrote in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”. He knew that the gospel is the instrument through which God brings people to salvation. It isn’t just an offer that they can accept or reject, it is true salvation for the elect.

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful truth. God will save his people from their sins. Our confidence is in God and his great power, not in our faith, or our good works, or anything else in all creation.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why Paul wrote to the church in Philippi saying, as we read in Philippians 1:6, that he was “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Salvation is the work of God from beginning to end. He began it in eternity past by choosing a particular group of people whom he planned to save, he brings it about in the life of every individual believer by causing him or her to hear the gospel, by regenerating them so that they can respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, and then working with them to sanctify them and, ultimately, to bring them into heaven to spend eternity with him.

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful and powerful salvation to be sure. I know you have another objection to the doctrine of limited atonement that you want to address, but I think it will have to wait until next week. Right now, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to respond to you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 65

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. We have been discussing the doctrine of limited atonement and in our last session we noted that all true Christians believe that the atonement is limited in some way, since they all agree that not everyone is saved. So the real question becomes, “For whom did Christ die?” Arminians and others say that he died to make salvation possible for everyone, but the biblical position is that he died only for the elect.

We finished last time by showing that one of the best verses used by Arminians to support their position, 1 John 2:2, is actually compatible with either position and can’t decide the question. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to say a little bit more about 1 John 2:2. The verse says that Jesus Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”[1] We showed last time that in speaking of “our sins” the apostle could very well be talking about Jewish believers, in which case the contrasting phrase “the whole world” would simply refer to non-Jewish believers. There is no need to assume that he is including all people without exception.

Marc Roby: Very well, what else do you want to say about that verse?

Dr. Spencer: Well, John Murray also deals with this verse in his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied. He notes that the apostle John could have three reasons for using the phrase “the whole world” without intending to indicate that the atonement was universal. His first reason is very similar to what I just discussed. Murray says that “It was necessary for John to set forth the scope of Jesus’ propitiation – it was not limited in its virtue and efficacy to the immediate circle of disciples who had actually seen and heard and handled the Lord”.[2]

Marc Roby: So, in other words, he is saying that when John refers to “our sins”, the group he has in mind is even smaller than all Jewish believers, it is only the “immediate circle of disciples”.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. In which case, the phrase “the whole world” would refer to all other believers, whether they were Gentiles or Jews. But Murray goes on to give two more reasons why John used the phrase “the whole world”. The second reason he proposes is that John was emphasizing the exclusiveness of Jesus as the propitiation. In other words, there isn’t some other propitiation available for other people. Jesus is the only possible propitiation for everyone in the world.

Marc Roby: That would certainly make sense. What is the third possibility that Murray discusses?

Dr. Spencer: He points out that it was necessary for John to remind his readers that Jesus’ propitiation is of perpetual efficacy. In other words, it applies to future sins and future believers just as much as to those who were the immediate recipients of his letter.

Marc Roby: Yes, that all makes good sense. And I think it establishes conclusively that 1 John 2:2 does not argue persuasively in favor of either the Arminian or Reformed position.

Dr. Spencer: No, it clearly does not. And before we move on to make a positive biblical case for the fact that Christ died only for the elect, let’s look at one more verse that is sometimes used to support the idea that Christ died to make salvation possible for everyone, John 3:16. In that verse Jesus himself tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Some have claimed that when it says “God so loved the world”, it is referring to all people universally. The idea would then be that he gave his Son for everyone, but only those who believe in him “shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And how would you respond to that interpretation of the verse?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that it is reading far too much into the verse. Just as with 1 John 2:2 this verse does not provide clear evidence for either the Arminian or Reformed view. When Jesus tells us that “God so loved the world” there is absolutely nothing in the context or the verse itself that would prevent that from simply meaning he loved people from all different nations, cultures and epochs. In other words, his love was not exclusively to the Jewish people.

Marc Roby: That sounds perfectly reasonable. And even though we already dismissed the idea of universal salvation, I can’t help pointing out that if you look just two verses later, in John 3:18, it again provides clear biblical evidence that universal salvation is unbiblical. That verse reads, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Dr. Spencer: That is one of the many verses that make it clear that God is not going to save every person. Only those who place their faith, that is their trust, in Jesus Christ alone will be saved. But in any event, 1 John 2:2 and John 3:16 provide no support for the idea that Jesus died for the sins of every single human being. So we need to look elsewhere to answer the question, “For whom did Christ die?” And God didn’t leave us to wonder or speculate on this point. I’m going to begin by following John Murray in putting forward two arguments from Scripture that make the answer clear.[3]

Marc Roby: Okay, what’s the first argument?

Dr. Spencer: The first argument is based on Romans 8:29-39. Romans 8:29-30 set the stage for the following verses by identifying a specific group of people who are being written about, we read, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Now twice in these verses Paul refers to those whom God predestined to be saved. And as we move on and look at the following verses, we must remember this context. Now let’s go ahead and look at the first two of the following verses.

Marc Roby: Very well, the next two verses are Romans 8:31-32, which read, “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

Dr. Spencer: And based on the previous verses, we know who Paul is referring to when he says that God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all”, the “us all” in this verse is all of those whom God has predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, in other words, those whom God has chosen to save. God gave Jesus Christ for the salvation of a specific group of people, not for all of mankind.

Marc Roby: These verses do state that quite explicitly. Although I can imagine someone objecting and pointing out that Paul said that God gave up his Son “for us all”. Some might say that the word “all” there is important.

Dr. Spencer: Murray deals with this argument decisively. He quite correctly stated that “It would be absurd to insist that the presence of the word ‘all’ has the effect of universalizing the scope. The ‘all’ is not broader than the ‘us.’ Paul is saying that the action of the Father in view was on behalf of ‘all of us’ and the question is simply the scope of the ‘us.’”[4]

Marc Roby: And it is clear given Verses 29-30 that the scope of “us” is all of those whom God has predestined to eternal salvation.

Dr. Spencer: And it becomes even clearer as you go on in the passage. The passage continues in Romans 8:33 where Paul wrote, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.” Paul is continuing to speak about the same group of people, those who are included in the statement that God gave up his Son “for us all.” The group referred to as “us” in that statement is again spoken of here when Paul asks “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” So the “us” are again seen to be those whom God has chosen. And then he says “It is God who justifies.” Which again refers to the same group of people as we see if we go back to Romans 8:30, where Paul wrote, “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”.

Marc Roby: That is solid biblical evidence to support the Reformed view that Christ died only for the elect.

Dr. Spencer: And it becomes clearer and clearer as you go on in the passage. In Verse 34 Paul again refers to the fact that Christ died, and adds that he was raised to life and is “at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” And then in Verse 35 he asks the rhetorical question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”

Marc Roby: And the obvious answer being that no one can separate us from his love.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And after asking that rhetorical question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”, he goes on to list different things that you might think could separate us and he then draws his wonderful conclusion in Verses 38 and 39 where he wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful passage that should provide great comfort to every believer. God, the Creator of all things, the Sovereign Lord of his creation, has purposed to save us and nothing and no one can thwart his eternal plan.

Dr. Spencer: That is great comfort and it again emphasizes the fact that this group of people for whom Christ died, is that group, and that group only, whom God has chosen and whom God will save eternally.

And now I want to look at Murray’s second biblical argument in support of the Reformed doctrine that Christ came to die only for the elect.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: Murray’s second argument can be summarized by first saying that there is clear biblical teaching that all of those for whom Christ died will live a new life, meaning that they will put their sins to death and walk in obedience to God’s commands. They will not do that perfectly of course, but the change will be evident. And then secondly, we simply note the obvious, which is that not everyone lives such a life and therefore, Christ did not die for everyone.

Marc Roby: That second point is so obvious that it doesn’t need any support. There are many people who do not even pretend to want to follow God’s law, let alone have any success in doing it. In fact, I think it’s patently obvious that most people reject the Bible as having any authority to direct their lives. Therefore, it seems you really only need to make a biblical case for your first statement, namely, that there is clear biblical teaching that all of those for whom Christ died will live a new life. What biblical support do you want to present for that statement?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s do that in stages. First, in 2 Corinthians 5:14 we read that “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” We don’t need to spend any time figuring out who is referred to by the word “all” in this verse because it says explicitly that one, meaning Christ Jesus, died for all, and therefore all died. So, whatever group is referred to by “all”, we have established that every single person for whom Christ died, also died in some sense.

Marc Roby: And that is exactly what Paul also says in Chapter 6 of Romans. In Romans 6:2-3 we read, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is exactly right, and those verses show that when Paul said all died with Christ in 2 Corinthians 5:14, he didn’t mean literal physical death, he meant that they died to sin. In other words, they died to their old way of life.

And if you go on to next verse, Romans 6:4, Paul wrote that “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Which establishes that those who died with Christ did so in order that they could live a new life.

Marc Roby: And Paul goes on in that Chapter 6 of Romans to tell us about this new life. In Romans 6:6 we are told, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin”, and then in Verses 12 and 13 Paul says, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”

Dr. Spencer: That is about as clear as it can be. And so, we have established that the Bible teaches us that those for whom Christ died also died with him. And they died in the sense of dying to sin in order that they can live a new life of obedience to God. Now, as we said earlier, it is patently obvious that not all people live such a life, so we can conclude that they have not died with Christ and, therefore, he did not die for them.

Marc Roby: That logic is quite solid. So I would that say Murray’s two arguments are very strong support for the Reformed view that Christ died only for those whom God chose to save.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, but there is even more biblical evidence that we can adduce in support of this claim. For example, in John 10:14-15 we read that Jesus Christ said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” This metaphor of Christ as a shepherd and his people as his sheep is common in the Scriptures and it never refers to all people as being his sheep. And yet, we are told here by Jesus himself that it is for his sheep that he laid down his life.

Marc Roby: One of the places where we learn that not everyone is one of Jesus’ sheep is in Chapter 25 of the book of Matthew. Jesus tells us about the final judgment and says, in Verses 31-33 that “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And then Christ goes on to relate that the goats represent the wicked and will be sent to hell, while the sheep will go to heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That passage does make it quite clear that not everyone is considered one of Jesus’ sheep, and therefore when Jesus said in John 10:15 that “I lay down my life for the sheep” he was implicitly excluding other people. An even better set of verse to support the idea that Christ only died for the elect is found in Romans 5:8-10.

Marc Roby: Okay, let me read those verses. Paul says there, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

Dr. Spencer: Those verses are again quite explicit. Paul says Christ died for “us” and then goes on to say who is meant by “us.” It is those who are justified by his blood, saved from God’s wrath, reconciled to God and saved through his life. In other words, Christ died for those who are actually saved, not all men.

Marc Roby: Do you have any last quick points to make before we run out of time for today?

Dr. Spencer: I’ll cite just one more verse. In John Chapter 17 we read what is called Christ’s high priestly prayer. This was a public prayer that he made just before being arrested and crucified. And in Verses 6 and 9 we read that he said to God the Father, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. … I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” While this is not conclusive by itself, it would be completely unreasonable to think that Christ died for people he was not even willing to pray for.

Marc Roby: I certainly see your point, and I think we have made a solid case for the Reformed position that Jesus only died for the elect, those whom God chose, from all eternity, to save. Now let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 73

[3] Ibid, pp 65-71

[4] Ibid, pg. 66

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. We have been discussing the doctrine of limited atonement and in our last session we finished with the four specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ according to the theologian John Murray.[1] He lists the following: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. So, Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we have covered what is meant by atonement, which is far more comprehensive and glorious than many modern Christians realize. But we now have to deal with that troublesome word “limited”.

Marc Roby: And, of course, the only other options to a limited atonement would be either no atonement at all, or a universal atonement.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. We’ll ignore the logical possibility of no atonement because the whole of biblical Christianity deals with the fact that God saves his people and, therefore, has atoned for their sins. If God didn’t provide an atonement for our sins, then everyone, without exception, would be doomed to hell.

But we do need to deal with the other possibility. There are people, even some professing Christians, who believe that ultimately, everyone will be saved, which would require that the atonement be universal, rather than limited. But such a notion is completely unbiblical.

Marc Roby: Although, shockingly, even the current Pope believes in universal salvation.

Dr. Spencer: He certainly seems to. The Apostolic Exhortation he wrote soon after becoming Pope in 2013, called Evangelii Gaudium, which means the joy of the gospel, displays his universalism rather clearly by speaking of God’s love to all men without distinction and by saying that Jews and Muslims worship the same God as Christians. I’ve written a brief analysis of the Pope’s exhortation, which is available on the web. It’s useful to see how a humanist philosophy can cause a person to pervert the gospel. And the link is in a footnote to this podcast transcript.[2]

Marc Roby: And the Pope’s view is shocking because, as you noted, the idea of universal salvation is completely unbiblical. For example, we read in Matthew 7:13-14 that Jesus himself said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” [3]

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, Jesus is speaking in that passage about eternal destruction and eternal life. He makes that absolutely explicit in the 25th chapter of Matthew where he talks about the final judgment. We read in Verses 32-33, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

Marc Roby: And the sheep represent Jesus’ chosen people, for whom he is the Good Shepherd as he tells us in John 10:11.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And continuing with Matthew 25, in Verse 34 we read that Jesus said, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” But, to those on his left, the goats, we read in Verse 41 that he will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And he makes the eternal nature of both completely clear in Verse 46, where he says that those who are cursed “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Marc Roby: People don’t like the idea that anyone is cursed by God, but it is a clear teaching of Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, many people will deny it because they don’t like it, but we can’t let what we like and don’t like determine what we think is true. We need, instead, to change what we like and don’t like to conform to what God says is good and true.

We are all rebels who deserve to be cursed by God, but the amazing thing is that he chooses to save some. But he does not save everyone, and there are many more Scriptures that show the idea of universal salvation is completely unbiblical. For example, in Revelation 20:12 John wrote, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life.” And in Verse 15 he wrote that “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” He also tells us that the lake of fire is the second death, in other words, it is not just the physical death of this body, it is eternal death. It is hell. In Verse 10 of that Chapter he called it a lake of burning sulfur. He wrote, “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

Marc Roby: That is the most terrifying thought imaginable.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. We need to be serious about our salvation. And this question about how the atonement is limited is a very important question. We’ve dismissed the idea that Christ didn’t atone for the sins of anyone, and we’ve shown that the idea that Christ atoned for the sins of everyone is unbiblical, so now it’s time to look at the precise way in which Christ’s atonement is limited.

Marc Roby: And, although the phrase “limited atonement” is usually associated with Reformed, or Calvinistic, theology, the truth is that all true Christians believe that Christ’s atonement is limited in some way.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, because all true Christians will admit that not everyone is saved. Therefore, either Christ’s atonement was not efficacious in saving everyone, or it was never meant to save everyone. But either way, it is limited.

Marc Roby: And, of course, when our Arminian brothers and sisters claim that Christ’s atonement made salvation possible for everyone, they are, in essence, admitting that it was not efficacious for everyone.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great point. John Murray makes the same point in his excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, which we have used a number of times. He wrote, “If some of those for whom atonement was made and redemption wrought perish eternally, then the atonement is not itself efficacious. It is this alternative that the proponents of universal atonement must face. They have a ‘limited’ atonement and limited in respect of that which impinges upon its essential character. We shall have none of it.”[4] We could put this another way; if the atonement has universal applicability, in other words, if Christ died for all men, then his death didn’t really save anyone, it only made salvation possible. Our response then becomes the deciding factor.

Marc Roby: But in Matthew 1:21 we are told that the angle of the Lord spoke to Mary’s husband, Joseph, and told him that “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The angel didn’t say that Jesus would make salvation possible.

Dr. Spencer: And this issue is so important that I want to take some time to look at it in reasonable detail. And before we do that, we need to make an important distinction. We need to recognize that there are two completely different kinds of debts that we can owe.

Marc Roby: And what are those?

Dr. Spencer: We can have what is called a pecuniary debt, or a judicial debt. The word pecuniary comes from the Latin word for cow, or money. A pecuniary debt is a financial debt. So, for example, if I purchase a car without paying the full amount up front, I incur a debt for a particular amount of money. Let’s say that I owe $10,000. Now if some generous person, such as my good friend Mr. Roby, chooses to go to the bank and pay the $10,000 I owe, my debt is paid in full and the bank has no right to expect any additional payment from me or anyone else.

Marc Roby: That would indeed be a very generous thing for me to do.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would. But my point is that the bank is not being generous or gracious in any way by accepting your payment on my behalf. They only have the right to be paid $10,000, it makes no difference who pays it and they have no right to expect any additional payment, the debt is paid in full. In fact, if I didn’t know that you had paid it in full and I sent in a payment of $1,000, the bank would be obliged to pay the $1,000 back to me.

Marc Roby: That’s all clear, but what about the other kind of debt, what you called a judicial debt?

Dr. Spencer: A judicial debt is forensic, meaning that it has to do with justice, and courts of law. If someone murders another person, for example, there is no exact payment in kind possible. Even if the offender is put to death, it doesn’t bring back the person who was murdered. In this case, we are really talking about punishment, not repayment.

Charles Hodge explained the difference this way, “In the case of crimes the matter is different. The demand is then upon the offender. He himself is amenable to justice. Substitution in human courts is out of the question. The essential point in matters of crime, is not the nature of the penalty, but who shall suffer.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is an important point, the essential thing is punishment. As you said, it isn’t a matter of repaying some financial obligation.

Dr. Spencer: Hodge also brings out another important difference between financial obligations and crimes.

Marc Roby: What difference is that?

Dr. Spencer: That the penalty cannot be paid by someone else. As Hodge said, “Substitution in human courts is out of the question.” If I commit a crime and am sentenced to a year in jail, you cannot serve the sentence on my behalf.

Marc Roby: Yes, that too is an important difference.

Dr. Spencer: And now let’s apply this to the topic of the atonement. When we speak about our sins being paid for, we are not talking about a pecuniary debt. There is no exact payment possible. If I offend God and violate his law in some way, there is no way for me to satisfy that debt with some kind of equivalent payment in kind. In fact, as we have noted before, since God is infinite in his person and glory, when I sin against him my debt is, in some sense, infinite.

Marc Roby: Which is an insurmountable problem for us as finite beings.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. But – and here is where God’s amazing grace, wisdom and love come into play – God does two things to solve this problem. First, he graciously accepts a substitute in my place, which is something a human court of law will not do. I am the one who deserves to be punished, but God allows my punishment to be taken by another.

Marc Roby: There is still a problem though, this substitute has to be capable of satisfying the infinite debt. And no mere creature can do that. We can spend eternity in hell and the debt is still not paid.

Dr. Spencer: And so, the second amazing thing God does is to provide an acceptable substitute, one who can pay an infinite penalty. In other words, he provides a substitute who’s sacrifice has infinite worth. Jesus Christ, the unique God-man is that substitute. We will see several times as we move on with our discussion why this distinction, namely that my sin leads to a judicial debt rather than a pecuniary debt, is so important in discussing the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

Marc Roby: Alright, so then we are ready to move on with discussing whether Christ’s work of atonement made salvation possible for everyone or if it was only for those who are actually saved.

Dr. Spencer: We are. And the first point to make is that because this is a judicial debt, not a pecuniary debt, and because Jesus Christ is infinite God as well as fully man, his death was of sufficient worth to pay for all the sins of every human being who has ever existed or ever will exist. Arminian and Reformed believers agree on this point. Therefore, the real question in dispute is not over the worth of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

Rather, the real question could be put this way, “For whom did Christ die?” Did he die to pay for the sins of all men? That is the position taken by Arminians, Lutherans, Dispensationalists and others, which I am calling the Arminian position for brevity. Or, did Christ die only for the elect? That is the Reformed and, I would say, biblical position.

Marc Roby: How do you want to approach resolving this question?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin by looking at some of the evidence usually adduced in favor of the Arminian position.

Marc Roby: Very well. I know that Arminians often cite 1 John 2:2 in support of their position. In that verse the apostle wrote that Jesus Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Dr. Spencer: That is one of their strongest pieces of support, but when you examine it carefully in context it really doesn’t directly argue for their position at all. This verse alone is perfectly agreeable with either position.

Marc Roby: Okay, can you explain how that is so?

Dr. Spencer: Certainly. First of all, phrases like “the whole world” can mean different things in different contexts. For example, in Luke 2:1 we read that “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” I’ve used the English Standard Version here because it renders the Greek more literally. The question is, obviously, what is meant by “all the world” in this verse. The 1984 NIV that we usually use renders the verse this way, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” The word Roman is not in the original Greek, but it is certainly an accurate translation nonetheless. It is obvious that Caesar Augustus did not issue a decree that a census should be taken in China for example. So, given the context, “all the world” means the entire Roman world.

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s pretty obvious.

Dr. Spencer: And so, in the same way, we need to ask what the phrase “the whole world” means in 1 John 2:2. The verse says that Jesus Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Notice that “the whole world” is contrasted with a smaller group, of which the apostle and his readers are members. He refers to “our sins”, so we need to know who this group he refers to with the word “our” is.

R.C. Sproul does a good job of looking at this verse in his book What is Reformed Theology? And he notes that the word “our” could possibly refer to Christians in contrast with non-Christians. And, if that were the case, then “the whole world” would refer to non-Christians and the verse would support the Arminian position.[6]

Marc Roby: What is the other option that Sproul mentions?

Dr. Spencer: That the word “our” could refer specifically to Jewish believers. Sproul writes that “One of the central questions of the church’s earliest formative period was this: Who is to be included in the New Covenant community?”[7] If you take the word “our” in this sense, then the phrase “the whole world” would simply refer to non-Jewish believers. There would be no reason to assume that it refers to unbelievers at all.

Marc Roby: That makes good sense, and certainly shows that this verse is consistent with either view and does not, by itself, point us one way or the other. I look forward to continuing this discussion, but we are out of time for today. So, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And we will do our best to respond.

[1] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 19

[2] Dr. Spencer has written a brief analysis of the Pope’s declaration, which is available here (https://gracevalley.org/teaching/pope-francis-an-analysis-of-his-apostolic-exhortation-evangelii-gaudium/).

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] Murray. op. cit., pg. 64

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 470

[6] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 176

[7] Ibid

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. We have been discussing the doctrine of limited atonement and the “specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ”[1] according to the theologian John Murray. He lists four categories: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. We have covered the first three of these, so, Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed with the final category of redemption?

Dr. Spencer: Let me start with a quote from Murray. He wrote that “Just as sacrifice is directed to the need created by our guilt, propitiation to the need that arises from the wrath of God, and reconciliation to the need arising from our alienation from God, so redemption is directed to the bondage to which our sin has consigned us.”[2]

Marc Roby: And that raises an obvious question. To whom or to what are we in bondage?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we need to be careful in answering that question. Many would be tempted to say that we have been redeemed from the law, but that is not true in general. When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, we read in Matthew 22:37-40 that he answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[3]

And Murray notes that “It would contradict the very nature of God to think that any person can ever be relieved of the necessity to love God with the whole heart and to obey his commandments.”[4]

Marc Roby: That would be an unbiblical conclusion. We have made the point a number of times that we are, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:29, “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” and Jesus was perfectly obedient. He tells us in John 8:29 that “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”

Dr. Spencer: We have addressed this issue many times because it is of fundamental importance and is often misrepresented in modern churches. So Murray is very careful to be more specific. The first thing he notes is that we have been redeemed from the curse of law. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”

Marc Roby: And the curse of the law is the punishment that is due to us for violating it.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Murray says that “The curse of the law is its penal sanction.” Sin is a violation of God’s law and Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death”. But Christians have been delivered from death in its fullest sense, which is why Paul wrote that wonderful passage in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the answer to Question 85 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, and it is worth taking the time to look at that question and answer. Question 85 reads as follows – and I’m modernizing it a fair amount here; Since death is the wages of sin, why are the righteous not delivered from death, since their sins are forgiven in Christ?

Marc Roby: And the glorious answer is that “The righteous shall be delivered from death itself at the last day, and even in death are delivered from the sting and curse of it; so that, although they die, yet it is out of God’s love, to free them perfectly from sin and misery, and to make them capable of further communion with Christ in glory, which they then enter upon.”

Dr. Spencer: The question, of course, is a very difficult one. In essence, it asks, “Why do Christians have to die?” There is mystery here and we cannot give a complete answer. But we can say, as the Catechism does, that we are “delivered from the sting and curse” of death. When death is a penalty for sin, it has a great sting and is a tremendous curse because it leads to eternal hell, the unending wrath of God.[5]

But, for a Christian, that sting and curse are removed. We must still experience the death of our bodies, but for a Christian, as Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to die is gain.” It brings us into the very presence of God and our souls are perfected. We then remain in that perfected but disembodied state until Christ comes again, at which time we receive our new glorified bodies and spend eternity in heaven where, as we read in Revelation 21:4, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Marc Roby: That is a glorious and unimaginable future, which I long for with all my heart.

Dr. Spencer: And I do as well. We will speak more about that in a later session, but for now it is enough to note that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice redeems us from this curse of the law.

Marc Roby: What a wonderful redemption that is. What else does Christ’s atonement redeem us from?

Dr. Spencer: It redeems us from the ceremonial law. Paul explains this in his letter to the church in Galatia. He uses the example of a child coming of age. In those days a minor child would be under the supervision of a παιδαγωγός (paidagōgos), which is a Greek word that means one who leads a boy and is the origin of our word pedagogue. When the child comes of age, he would no longer be under the supervision of the παιδαγωγός. Let me read a passage from Paul’s letter using the English Standard Version of the Bible because it translates the passage more literally. In this passage, when you hear the English word “guardian”, it is translating the Greek word παιδαγωγός. In Galatians 3:24-26 we read, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”

Marc Roby: So, in other words, Paul is saying that believers, viewed as a whole, came of age when Christ came, to whom we are all united by faith.

Dr. Spencer: That is the idea. The law was our guardian, but when Christ came he redeemed us from this guardianship. In Galatians 4:4-5 Paul wrote, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”

Therefore, Christ’s coming brought an end to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, which included the system of sacrifices. We read about these ceremonial laws in Hebrews 9:10, “They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.”

Marc Roby: And this new order was ushered in by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. A couple of verses later, in Hebrews 9:12, we read that Christ “did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.”

Marc Roby: And so we are no longer bound to keep the Jewish ceremonial laws dealing with kosher food, ceremonial washings, specified feast days, animal sacrifices and so on.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We are free from all of that. But as I noted earlier, we are not free of our obligation to keep the moral law. Murray writes that “Christ has redeemed us from the necessity of keeping the law as the condition of our justification and acceptance with God. Without such redemption there could be no justification and no salvation. It is the obedience of Christ himself that has secured this release.”[6] Notice that if we did have to keep the law to be saved, there could be no salvation. But, as Paul wrote in Romans 3:20, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” So, although anyone who has been truly born again will live a life characterized by the obedience of faith, our obedience is not in any way meritorious. It is the obedience of Christ alone that saves us.

Marc Roby: And praise God for that obedience. What else does Christ’s atoning sacrifice redeem us from?

Dr. Spencer: It redeems us from both the guilt and the power of sin. The effect of our being redeemed from the guilt of sin is our justification and the forgiveness of our sins. The effect of our being redeemed from the power of sin is that we have the ability to say “no” to sin and to walk in holiness for the glory of God.

Marc Roby: And what a wonderful power that is.

Dr. Spencer: But it is a power that is completely eviscerated by the unbiblical teaching that Christ can be your Savior and not your Lord. Murray wrote that “Redemption from the power of sin may be called the triumphal aspect of redemption. In his finished work Christ did something once for all respecting the power of sin and it is in virtue of this victory which he secured that the power of sin is broken in all those who are united to him. It is in this connection that a strand of New Testament teaching needs to be appreciated but which is frequently overlooked. It is that not only is Christ regarded as having died for the believer but the believer is represented as having died in Christ and as having been raised up with him to newness of life. This is the result of union with Christ.”[7]

In other words, Christ is victorious, he defeated sin, Satan and death itself, and because we are united with him we can also have victory over sin, Satan and death.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of 1 John 5:4 where we read that “everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”

Dr. Spencer: I like that verse. And I like the way the puritans used to speak about living a victorious Christian life. We need to get that language back into usage. Christians have a glorious freedom in Christ, a freedom to not sin! Too often today self-professing Christians think that they have a freedom to sin all they want because they are saved by grace alone. But that is a complete perversion of the true gospel. Paul dealt with this very question in the book of Romans. In Romans 6:1 he asks the question, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”

Marc Roby: And then he begins his answer, in Romans 6:2-4, by saying, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Dr. Spencer: We see here the symbolism of Christian baptism, we were “buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” We died to our old sinful nature and have become new creations. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul wrote, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” If we have been born again, we are new creations and we will live overcoming lives in union with Christ. We will never be perfect in this life, we sin every day, but we don’t have to sin. We have the freedom and the power, to say “no”!

Marc Roby: Paul went on in Romans 6:6-7 to say, “we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the freedom we have in Christ. And Paul goes in Verses 12-14 to explain what it really means to be under grace instead of under the law. He wrote, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” As I said earlier, to be under grace is to have the freedom to not sin.

Marc Roby: What a glorious gospel this is. It is much greater freedom to have the power to not sin than it would be to be able to sin and not pay the penalty.

Dr. Spencer: And our indwelling sin is not our only enemy. The devil is real and his demons are real. They hate God and they hate God’s people and they do not want us to have victory over sin and live holy lives that bring glory to God. They want to bring us down and make us fail. As Christ told us in John 10:10, the devil only comes only to “steal, kill and destroy.” But he mostly does it by bringing temptations for things that our remaining sin desires.

Marc Roby: But God promises us, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, that “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a very comforting promise. But we must take the way out that God provides. We need to be on our toes, ready for battle. Paul wrote about this in Ephesians 6:11-13 where he commands us, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

Marc Roby: And the full armor of God includes salvation itself, truth, righteousness, faith, the Word of God and prayer.

Dr. Spencer: We need spiritual weapons to fight spiritual battles. Many people who consider themselves Christians today either deny the reality of the devil outright, or deny his reality in practice by never giving any thought to the spiritual warfare in which all true Christians are engaged. If you are a Christian but have no sense of this warfare, you are in serious danger.

Marc Roby: But we are promised that we can win in this war. James tells us in James 4:7, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful promise. Satan is far more powerful than we are, but as we read in 1 John 4:4, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” So if we submit ourselves to God, meaning that we walk in humble obedience, depending on his grace and promises, then we can overcome Satan because we are united with Christ.

Marc Roby: And so, as you said, Christ has redeemed us from both the guilt and the power of sin.

Dr. Spencer: Let me read one more quote from John Murray to conclude this topic. He wrote that “redemption from sin cannot be adequately conceived or formulated except as it comprehends the victory which Christ secured once for all over him who is the god of this world, the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience.”[8]

And, for those who may not know, those are all descriptions, or titles, used for the devil in the Bible. He is the “god of this world”[9] – with a little ‘g’, he is the “prince of the power of the air”,[10] and he is the “spirit that now works in the children of disobedience.”[11] When Christ redeemed us from sin, he gave us victory over our sin, over this world, and over Satan.

Marc Roby: Hallelujah! Christ’s atoning sacrifice has secured the ultimate, eternal victory for all of his people.

Dr. Spencer: And we have now seen that the atonement is described in the Bible in the terms of a sacrifice, a propitiation, a reconciliation and a redemption.

Marc Roby: And with that we are out of time for today. So, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate hearing from you.

[1] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 19

[2] Ibid, pg. 43

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] Murray, op. cit., pg. 44

[5] For a good short treatment of this answer in the Catechism, see J.G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism, A Commentary, Ed. By G.I. Williamson, P&R Publishing, 2002, pp 197-198

[6] Murray, op. cit., pg. 45

[7] Ibid, pg. 48

[8] Ibid, pg. 50

[9] 2 Corinthians 4:4 (“god of this age” in the NIV)

[10] Ephesians 2:2 (“ruler of the kingdom of the air” in the NIV)

[11] Ephesians 2:2 (“spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” in the NIV)

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. We have been discussing the doctrine of limited atonement and the “specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ”[1] according to the theologian John Murray. He lists four categories: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. Last time we covered sacrifice. So, Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today with the category of propitiation?

Dr. Spencer: We should begin by defining propitiation. Murray writes that “To propitiate means to ‘placate,’ ‘pacify,’ ‘appease,’ ‘conciliate.’ … Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.”[2]

Marc Roby: It is worth noting that you won’t find the word propitiation in the 1984 NIV Bible that we use as our primary source.

Dr. Spencer: No, you won’t. The translators shied away from using the term. You will find it, however, in four places in the New Testament of the English Standard Version.[3] Murray discusses the fact that this term has been troublesome for some. He wrote that “Perhaps no tenet respecting the atonement has been more violently criticized than this one.”[4] But he also notes that this criticism is mostly because the term is misunderstood. He wrote that “It has been charged that this doctrine represents the Son as winning over the incensed Father to clemency and love, a supposition wholly inconsistent with the fact that the love of God is the very fount from which the atonement springs.”[5]

Marc Roby: That view of the atonement would certainly be at odds with the Bible. The famous verse in John 3:16 tells us plainly that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” [6] And it is clear that “God” here refers to God the Father. It is he who loved the world enough to send his Son.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right. Murray wrote that “To say the least, this kind of criticism has failed to understand or appreciate some elementary and important distinctions. First of all, to love and to be propitious are not convertible terms. It is false to suppose that the doctrine of propitiation regards propitiation as that which causes or constrains the divine love.”[7] In other words, God can love us and still need to be propitiated. It is not the propitiation that brings about his love. He loves us, but because he is holy and just, our sins still require propitiation.

Marc Roby: As a poor analogy we could note that a good human father loves his children, and yet will still be properly angry with them and need to be appeased, or we could say propitiated, when they sin.

Dr. Spencer: That analogy is readily understandable and useful. Murray says that “The wrath of God is the inevitable reaction of the divine holiness against sin. Sin is the contradiction of the perfection of God and he cannot but recoil against that which is the contradiction of himself. … To deny propitiation is to undermine the nature of the atonement as the vicarious endurance of the penalty of sin. In a word, it is to deny substitutionary atonement.”[8]

Marc Roby: And that is how you very quickly end up with a deviant form of Christianity that views Jesus Christ as just being a good moral teacher and example, rather than the unique God-man who loved us enough to take our sins upon himself, bear the wrath of God, and die to save us.

Dr. Spencer: And such an aberrant form of Christianity is also a false Christianity that cannot save anyone, which is why this topic is so important. I understand the modern thought that it is somehow vulgar and unsophisticated for God to require a propitiatory sacrifice to atone for sins, but we simply must recognize how vulgar and offensive sin itself is. It isn’t just that we are not always as nice as we should be, or that we are sometimes a little selfish or anything like that. We must recognize that, at its core, sin is rebellion against God. It is a denial of the Creator/creature distinction. We are, in essence, saying that God has no right to tell us how to live.

Marc Roby: Yes, we see that clearly in the Genesis account of the fall of man. God had told Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die. They were allowed to eat from every other tree, they were only forbidden to eat from that one. But we read in Genesis 3:4-5 Satan came in the form of a serpent and said to Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Dr. Spencer: And when Eve allowed herself to consider that statement, which directly contradicted God, she was, in essence, rejecting her position as a creature and assuming that she had the right to decide who was telling the truth. It was a rejection of God’s authority and it implicitly accused him of lying to them and not treating them well, in other words, of denying them something good.

Marc Roby: It is not pleasant to think seriously about sin. The more you think about it, the worse it appears.

Dr. Spencer: And we never fully comprehend in this life how bad it really is. But let’s move on with discussing propitiation as being one of the categories the Bible uses to describe Christ’s atoning work.

Murray notes that in the Old Testament, the concept of propitiation is “expressed by a word which means to ‘cover.’”[9]

Marc Roby: And that makes perfect sense. If something is offensive, we can cover it up so that the offense is no longer visible.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. God is offended by sin. It needs to be covered. We noted last week that in the Old Testament period the high priest would go in to the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the cover of the ark. The ark contained the law of God, which the people had broken and which, therefore, testified against them. The symbolism was that when God, who appeared above the cover, looked down toward the ark, his view of the law would be blocked by the blood. In other words, the blood covered the tablets of the law, which testified against the people.

Marc Roby: One of the uses of the law identified by theologians is to drive us to Christ since it is evident that we have not, and indeed cannot, keep it.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And in the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in use at the time of Christ, called the Septuagint, the Greek word used for the atonement cover is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which can be translated as the place of propitiation.[10]

We see this word used in the New Testament. In Romans 3:25 the apostle Paul wrote that God presented Christ as a “sacrifice of atonement”, which is how the NIV translates the Greek word hilastērion. The ESV translation[11] is better and uses the word propitiation.

Marc Roby: I think that clearly establishes that propitiation is one of the categories in terms of which the Bible speaks of the atonement.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, but before we move on to the next category, I want to read one more short quote from Murray. He wrote that “the idea of propitiation is so woven into the fabric of the Old Testament ritual that it would be impossible to regard that ritual as the pattern of the sacrifice of Christ if propitiation did not occupy a similar place in the one great sacrifice once offered.”[12]

Marc Roby: That argument makes good sense. And now I assume we are ready to move on and examine the next category, which is reconciliation.

Dr. Spencer: You assume correctly. Murray writes that “Reconciliation presupposes disrupted relations between God and men. It implies enmity and alienation. This alienation is twofold, our alienation from God and God’s alienation from us.”[13] People often object to the idea that there is enmity, or hostility between us and God or God and us, but this is a completely biblical statement. In Colossians 1:21 Paul wrote, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” And in Romans 8:7 he wrote that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.”

Marc Roby: Those verses certainly make the case that sinners are hostile enemies of God.

Dr. Spencer: And there are others we could use as well, but I think those suffice. But in addition to looking at the attitude of sinners toward God, we also need to look at God’s attitude toward sinners. In Romans 2:6-8 we read that “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” If you reject the truth – that is you reject Jesus Christ and his gospel, you will experience God’s wrath and anger. In fact, by my count the word wrath is used 28 times in the 1984 NIV translation of the New Testament to refer specifically to the wrath of God that will be poured out on sinners.

Marc Roby: And, of course, there is also the difficult verse we have looked at before in Romans 9:13 where Paul quotes from the Old Testament prophet Malachi and tells us that God says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. I think the reason people have such a hard time dealing with the idea of God hating anyone is that they don’t realize that our hatred is almost always sinful, so you can’t think of God hating the way a human being hates. But there is a kind of hatred that is devoid of sin. Murray writes, “If we dissociate from the word ‘enmity’ as applied to God everything of the nature of malice and malignity, we may properly speak of this alienation on the part of God as his holy enmity toward us.”[14]

Marc Roby: That is a bit hard to do – to think of enmity without malice or malignity. But God does not wish to do harm to anyone just for the sake of doing harm. When he hates someone and subjects them to his wrath, it is because their sin is, as you noted earlier in a quote from Murray, “the contradiction of the perfection of God”.

Dr. Spencer: It is difficult to remove our sin from the idea of hatred and anger, but we must try. God’s anger, hatred and wrath are holy and perfectly justified.

And in making our point so far, we have only quoted from the New Testament because many people incorrectly think that God is not wrathful in the New Testament. But God has not changed. As Paul tells us in Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men”. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. He is merciful to those whom he chooses to save, but he sends the rest to eternal hell, which is treating them justly for their sins. As Jesus himself tells us in John 3:18, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Marc Roby: And Christ’s atoning work reconciles those who trust in him to God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. Paul wrote about Christ in Colossians 1:19-20, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Now, when it says that was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things”, it doesn’t mean that everyone will be saved. Taken in context and interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture, it is obvious that it means all of those whom God has chosen to reconcile.

Marc Roby: There is a question though of whether we are speaking about God changing us to take away our enmity against him, or whether the reconciliation is referring to God’s enmity toward us being removed.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in the verses I just read from Colossians it may well be God changing us, but Murray notes that when you examine the Scriptures carefully, “It is not our enmity against God that comes to the forefront in the reconciliation but God’s alienation from us.”[15] He makes a lengthy argument to support this contention, but I’m only going to give part of it here because I think it is sufficient. Interested listeners can examine the original reference for more details. So, let’s take a look at two passages, beginning with Romans 5:8-11.

Marc Roby: Okay, well let me read those verses. Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Dr. Spencer: Let me point out two of the things Murray notes about this passage. First, we were reconciled to God when we were God’s enemies. That makes no sense unless the word “reconciled” is referring to God’s attitude toward us. Secondly, we see that we have “received reconciliation.” In other words, it is a gift given to us. It is not something accomplished by us.

But the passage in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 is even more powerful in making Murray’s point.

Marc Roby: And in those verses Paul wrote, “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. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Dr. Spencer: I will again summarize only a portion of Murray’s argument. Note that it is God who is working in this passage, not us. He has reconciled us to himself and he made Christ to be sin for us. Also note that the passage says God is “not counting men’s sins against them.” That is clearly speaking about his attitude toward us. And it speaks about what we have called the double imputation; namely, that God imputes our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us. Verse 21 says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The fact that this is speaking about imputation makes it clear that it is not speaking about a real change in our attitude.

Marc Roby: Although if we are born again, there certainly will be a change in our attitude.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, that’s very true, but Murray’s point is simply that the emphasis is placed on the removal of God’s enmity toward us, which flies in the face of much of the modern view about God being so nice and loving that he is never angry with anyone.

Marc Roby: Very well. We have now made the case that the atoning work of Christ is categorized as a sacrifice, a propitiation and a reconciliation. That leaves just the fourth category mentioned by Murray, that of redemption. But that will have to wait for next week because we are out of time for today. So I’ll take this opportunity to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we will respond as soon as possible.

[1] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 19

[2] Ibid, pg. 30

[3] Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10

[4] Murray, op. cit., pp 30-31

[5] Ibid, pg. 31

[6] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[7] Murray, op. cit., pg. 31

[8] Ibid, pp 32-33

[9] Ibid, pg. 30

[10] W. Bauer, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Ed., Revised and augmented by F.W. Gingrich and F. Danker, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979, pg. 375

[11] i.e., the English Standard Version

[12] Murray, op. cit., pp 29-30

[13] Ibid, pg. 33

[14] Ibid, pg. 33

[15] Ibid, pg. 34

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, in our session last week we started to look at the doctrine called limited atonement and you said that you wanted to follow John Murray’s outline for covering the atonement. He began by noting that all of Christ’s work could be subsumed under the rubric of obedience.

Dr. Spencer: And that is a critically important point since, as we read in Romans 8:29, we were “predestined to be conformed to the likeness”[1] of Jesus Christ. If his whole life’s work can be properly characterized by obedience, and Murray is certainly correct in saying that it can, and if we are to be conformed to his likeness, then it must also be true that our lives should be characterized by obedience.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a perfectly rational conclusion, and we could add that our obedience should be increasing all the time.

Dr. Spencer: We could add that yes. All true Christians are in the process of being sanctified. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

And, in Christ’s great high-priestly prayer in John Chapter 17, he says to the Father, as we read in Verse 4, that “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” And we are told in 1 Corinthians 10:31 that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” The conclusion is obvious. To glorify God, which is our purpose in life, we must obediently complete the work he has given us to do, just as Christ himself did.

Marc Roby: And this reinforces the point we made at length in Session 121 that true Christians walk in what Paul called the obedience of faith[2].

And, after presenting the obedience of Christ as the “comprehensive category under which the various aspects of Biblical teaching may be subsumed”, Murray went on to say that “The more specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ are sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.”[3] So, how would you like to begin to look at these categories?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s take them one at a time and begin with the first one he lists; namely, sacrifice. I first want to show that Murray is correct in saying that the Bible presents Christ’s work of atonement as a sacrifice and then explore a bit what that means. If we turn to the book of Hebrews, we find a clear presentation of this idea. In Hebrews Chapter Nine the author speaks about the Old Testament sacrificial system. He describes the setup of the tabernacle and refers to the inner room or Most Holy Place, which contained the famous ark of the covenant.

Marc Roby: That ark contained the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And our listeners may remember that the high point of the Jewish year is now, and has always been, the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. On that day during the Old Testament period, the high priest went into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled blood on the cover of the ark, which was called the atonement cover.

Marc Roby: And it is worth noting that only the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place and even he was only allowed to do so once a year.

Dr. Spencer: That is important. This was the most sacred duty the high priest had. Remember that the Most Holy Place was in the tabernacle, which was also called the Tent of Meeting since that is where God said he would meet with the representative of his people.[4] The symbolism is that when God, who said he would appear in a cloud above the ark,[5] looked down at the ark, he would see the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the cover and that would block his view of the law, which his people had broken.[6]

In any event, in Hebrews 9:7-9 we read that “only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.”

Marc Roby: In other words, the Old Testament sacrificial system was not ultimately capable of dealing with our sin problem. It pointed toward a greater reality.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the point. And the writer of Hebrews explains this. In Hebrews 9:11-14 we read, “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

Marc Roby: That clearly tells us that Jesus “offered himself” to God, which means he was the sacrifice, the ultimate Passover lamb. In fact, in John 1:29 we are told that when John the Baptist saw Jesus he said to his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Dr. Spencer: And the writer of Hebrews also uses the word sacrifice. In Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And the Greek word used here for sacrifice is θυσία (thusia), the normal word used to describe the Old Testament sacrifices.

Marc Roby: Alright, I think we have established that Christ’s atoning work can be described as a sacrifice.

Dr. Spencer: And, in addition, we have shown how the Jews at the time of Christ would have understood that idea. They would have understood it in the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system.

Marc Roby: Which involved far more than just the sacrifices performed on the Day of Atonement. Sacrifices were a normal part of worship in the Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: They most definitely were. The animals offered in sacrifice were intended to be received in place of the person bringing the offering, in other words, they were substitutes. God instructed his people through Moses how the sacrifices were to be made. In Leviticus 1:4 we read that the person bringing a sacrifice “is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.”

Marc Roby: This is the doctrine called substitutionary atonement. By laying his hands on the animal, the sinner was symbolically transferring his sins to that animal.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. It was the person who had sinned and deserved to die, but God graciously provided this means of atoning for his sin. It is bloody and disgusting, especially to modern people like us who purchase our meat in shrink-wrapped containers at the grocery store, but it was meant to be a reminder of the seriousness of sin and the fact that it must be punished.

And, as Murray notes, “the Old Testament sacrifices were basically expiatory. This means that they had reference to sin and guilt. Sin involves a certain liability, a liability arising from the holiness of God, on the one hand, and the gravity of sin as the contradiction of that holiness, on the other. The sacrifice was the divinely instituted provision whereby the sin might be covered and the liability to divine wrath and curse removed.”[7]

Marc Roby: And, as you noted, this provision is gracious. It would have been just of God to demand the life of every sinner.

Dr. Spencer: In which case there wouldn’t be anyone left. But God’s plan is to create and to purify a people for himself. And this is the way he has chosen to do it. The Old Testament sacrificial system was incapable of ultimately solving our sin problem, it pointed to Christ.

The author of Hebrews points this out when we read in Hebrews 10:1-4 that “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

Marc Roby: The logic of those statements is impeccable. If the Old Testament animal sacrifices had been ultimately efficacious, they would have stopped. There would not have been any need to repeat them.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, the logic is unassailable. And the writer goes on to contrast the limited nature of the Old Testament sacrifices with the ultimate efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice. We read in Hebrews 10:10 that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: I like that phrase, “once for all.” It reminds me of what Jesus himself declared from the cross. We read in John 19:30 that “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Christ’s work of redemption was finished.

Dr. Spencer: That is important. In one sense, there is still work to do since God has not yet called all of those whom he has chosen to repentance and faith. And he has not yet finished working in those whom he has called, we are still in the process of being sanctified. But in another sense, the job is finished. There is no further need of sacrifice. The work of redemption is complete, all that is left is the application of that work to individual believers.

Marc Roby: It is wonderful to know that the end is absolutely certain. God’s plan will be executed without fault. We can be absolutely sure of all of his promises.

Dr. Spencer: And of all of his threats. There truly is only one thing needful in this life, and that is to come to know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord. All of God’s enemies will be eternally destroyed and all of his people will enjoy eternal life in his presence. The best bumper sticker I’ve ever seen simply said “I know what happens in the end, God wins!”

Marc Roby: I like that.

Dr. Spencer: There is, however, one more important point to make about Christ’s atoning work being presented in the Bible as a work of sacrifice.

Marc Roby: What point is that?

Dr. Spencer: That Christ was not just the sacrifice, he was also the priest. John Murray wrote, “That Christ’s work was to offer himself a sacrifice for sin implies, however, a complementary truth too frequently overlooked. It is that, if Christ offered himself as a sacrifice, he was also a priest. And it was as a priest that he offered himself. He was not offered up by another; he offered himself. This is something that could not be exemplified in the ritual of the Old Testament. … in Christ we have this unique combination that serves to exhibit the uniqueness of his sacrifice. The transcendent character of his priestly office, and the perfection inherent in his priestly offering.”[8]

Marc Roby: As we noted last time, Christ was not put to death against his will, he was actively obeying the Father in allowing himself to be crucified.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is an amazing truth. And it makes me think of the best human illustration I’ve ever heard about God’s plan of salvation.

Marc Roby: What illustration is that?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I think it was R.C. Sproul that I heard tell this story, but I don’t know exactly where I heard it. In any event, it goes something like this.

There was an earthly king who discovered that someone had stolen something very precious to him. So he issued an edict that a search should be made throughout his kingdom to find the object. And, if the person who stole it was identified, he specified that the punishment would be 40 lashes with a serious whip.

Marc Roby: That’s a very harsh punishment.

Dr. Spencer: Well, as I said, the object that was stolen was precious to the king, and we must remember that the offense was against the king, not just against some ordinary citizen. But to continue with the story, when the object was found everyone was shocked to learn that it was the king’s own very old mother who had taken it.

Marc Roby: That would put the king in a very difficult situation given the punishment he had decreed for the offender.

Dr. Spencer: It would indeed. In fact, the king’s mother was so old and frail that 40 lashes would undoubtedly kill her. But the king had issued his edict and it would be patently unjust of him to change the punishment solely because the offender turned out to be someone he personally knew and loved.

Marc Roby: So what did he do?

Dr. Spencer: He did the only just thing, he ordered that she be given the 40 lashes. And you must picture the scene. The king’s men take his frail old mother and tie her to the post, and the man with the whip steps back and looks to the king for the order to begin the sentence.

The king does, in fact, order that the sentence be carried out, but at the same time he wraps himself around his mother so that the blows all fall on him and his mother’s life is spared. By doing this, the king could demonstrate both his justice in making sure that the appropriate punishment was meted out and his great mercy in taking the punishment himself in order to spare his mother.

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful illustration. Jesus had always had perfect fellowship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, and it is impossible for us to imagine the pain he endured when the Holy Spirit abandoned him and the Father poured out his wrath on him.

Dr. Spencer: We get some small indication of the pain from Jesus’ cry from the cross. We read in Matthew 27:46 that when Christ was on the cross, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Marc Roby: And Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, where King David uttered the same cry.

Dr. Spencer: But in the case of King David, the reality is that God never completely abandoned him. Whereas God did abandon Jesus while he poured out the full force of his wrath upon him.

We need to recognize how terrible sin is. In order to solve our sin problem and save us, it required God the Son to become incarnate and it required that the perfect fellowship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit had enjoyed for all eternity to be broken for a time on the cross. It is simply not possible for us to fully grasp this. It is the ultimate possible expression of love, not just on the part of the incarnate Jesus, but on the part of the infinite, eternal, triune God.

Marc Roby: That is incredible to consider. Are we done with looking at the fact that the Bible presents Christ’s work of atonement as being a sacrifice?

Dr. Spencer: Yes we are. So we are ready to move on to the second category Murray mentions; the Bible also represents Christ’s work of atonement as being a propitiation.

Marc Roby: And that will have to wait for our next session. But now I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] See Romans 1:5

[3] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 19

[4] See Ex 25:22

[5] See Lev 16:2

[6] See P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2011, pg. 150

[7] Murray, op. cit., pg. 25

[8] Ibid, pg. 28

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, last week we presented the wonderful truth that God will see to it that all of his elect will persevere in the faith. And so we have now covered four of the five points of reformed faith summarized by the acrostic TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. I assume we are going to move on to discuss limited atonement next, right?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, but I also want to remind our listeners that these five points do not fully cover the biblical doctrine of soteriology. We started with them because they are often points of contention between different evangelical believers.

Marc Roby: Very well, so how would you like to begin looking at the doctrine of limited atonement.

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin with what Jesus himself said. In Mark 10:45 we read that he told his disciples that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1] Also, in John 10:14-15 Jesus said that “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” And the apostle Paul wrote, in Romans 4:25, that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” And then in Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And in Hebrews 9:27-28 we are told that “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people”.

There are many more Scriptures we could look at, but that is enough to establish the fact that the reason the second person of the Holy Trinity became incarnate in the man Jesus, was to serve as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of his people.

Marc Roby: In fact, after Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion, he was speaking about his impending sacrificial death and said, in John 12:27, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, Jesus knew what was going to happen to him and he knew why. He was preparing to bear the sins of all of his elect and suffer the wrath of God in our stead as had been foretold in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 53:5 we read the famous verse, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” And then a bit later in Isaiah 53:10 we read that “it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.”

Marc Roby: That is astounding to consider. We are the ones who rebelled against God and sinned, but it was the Lord’s will to cause Jesus to suffer and to make him a guilt offering in our stead.

Dr. Spencer: The atonement is central to the Christian faith. Many modern professing Christians seem to have lost this focus. They ask “what would Jesus do?” in different situations, but they are only thinking of him as a kind-hearted teacher of morals, which misses the mark by a wide margin. As the angel of the Lord told Joseph in Matthew 1:21, “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

We all deserve hell and Jesus came to suffer and die in our place so that we can come to be with him in heaven. Jesus is our Savior and Lord, not just a good moral teacher.

Marc Roby: Well, given the importance of the atonement, we should probably provide a definition. Everyone has some idea, of course, from everyday usage what it means to atone for something. If I forget my wife’s birthday, which I would never do of course, but if I did, I could, for example, atone for that lapse by buying her some roses and taking her out for a nice dinner. But what is a more precise theological definition of atonement?

Dr. Spencer: Well, J.I. Packer wrote that “Atonement means making amends, blotting out the offense, and giving satisfaction for wrong done; thus reconciling to oneself the alienated other and restoring the disrupted relationship.”[2]

I think that is a pretty good definition that contains two important points. First, we have offended God. We have done wrong and satisfaction must be paid. Second, we are alienated from God, and he from us, and we need to have that relationship restored. But there is another aspect we could include here, and that is the idea of redemption. We are all by nature “slaves to sin”, as Paul tells us in Romans 6:17 and the atoning death of Christ redeems us and sets us free from that bondage.

Therefore, I want to look at the topic of atonement using the outline presented in John Murray’s excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied.

Marc Roby: And how does Murray define atonement?

Dr. Spencer: He notes that “The more specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ are sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.”[3]

Marc Roby: Well, we have our work cut out for us in looking at each of those terms.

Dr. Spencer: That we do, but before we get there, Murray makes another point that will probably come as a surprise to most people, but is extremely important in terms of the practical application of the doctrine of salvation.

Marc Roby: What point is that?

Dr. Spencer: Well, immediately after giving the list of specific categories for considering the atonement, he writes, “But we may properly ask if there is not some more inclusive rubric under which these more specific categories may be comprehended.” And then he answers the question by saying, “The Scripture regards the work of Christ as one of obedience” and Murray says that obedience can be “viewed as the unifying or integrating principle.”[4]

Marc Roby: Yes, you were right. That is an unexpected turn in considering Christ’s work of atonement.

Dr. Spencer: Well, stick with me for a few minutes and I think it will all make sense and the importance of his point will become apparent.

Marc Roby: Very well, please continue.

Dr. Spencer: Murray begins by pointing to Isaiah 53, from which we have already quoted. In that passage, which actually begins in Isaiah 52:13, Jesus is called the Lord’s servant.

Marc Roby: In fact that passage is the most famous of what are sometimes called Isaiah’s “servant songs”.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And Murray’s point is simply that Christ’s work is described there as that of an obedient servant. He then also quotes John 6:38, where Christ says, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” And Paul wrote, in Romans 5:19, that “just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Which obviously refers to Adam’s disobedience and to Christ’s obedience.

Marc Roby: And what a contrast that is! If we are still in Adam we are bound for hell, but if we are in Christ we are bound for heaven.

Dr. Spencer: Those are the only two options. We are represented by one or the other. But let’s get back to examining the Scriptures that support Murray’s contention that Christ’s work can be subsumed under the rubric of obedience. In the famous passage about Christ’s humility in Philippians 2, we read in Verse 8 that “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!” And, finally, Murray cites Hebrews 5:8, which says that “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered”, which doesn’t imply that Christ was ever disobedient. It simply means that as the man Jesus grew he was tasked by the Father with greater and greater works and learned from each one of them how to do the Father’s will with perfect obedience.

Marc Roby: And when we speak about Christ’s perfect obedience, it is humbling to consider that in Romans 8:29 we are told that we have been “predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

Dr. Spencer: That is one of the reasons Murray’s point about Christ’s obedience is of great practical importance. It puts the lie to the idea that we can have Jesus Christ as our Savior but go on living a disobedient life. We all sin, but if our lives are characterized by disobedience to God, then we have not been born again. You will know a tree by its fruit. But, let’s get back to the obedience of Christ as the rubric under which we consider his atoning work.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: Murray points out that Christians sometimes improperly speak about Christ’s life as his “active” obedience and his death as being his “passive” obedience. But Christ was actively obeying the Father even in his death. The proper use of those terms derives from the fact that, as Murray says, “the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands.”[5] When Christ allowed himself to bear the penal sanctions, that was his passive obedience and when he fulfilled the positive demands of the law, that was his active obedience.

The key point here is that, as Murray writes, “The death upon the cross, as the climactic requirement of the price of redemption, was discharged as the supreme act of obedience; it was not death resistlessly inflicted but death upon the cross willingly and obediently wrought.”[6]

Marc Roby: Which reminds me of John 10:17-18 where we are told Jesus said, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the point. Murray wrote that “When we speak of obedience we are thinking not merely of formal acts of accomplishment but also of the disposition, will, determination, and volition which lie back of and are registered in these formal acts.”[7]

Marc Roby: In other words, our attitude matters! If we are grumbling in our hearts as we do what we are told to do, we aren’t really obeying.

Dr. Spencer: That is the point. And now we finally get to the conclusion of this discussion about obedience. Murray wrote that “It is obedience that enlisted all the resources of his perfect humanity, obedience that resided in his person, and obedience of which he is ever the perfect embodiment. … And we become the beneficiaries of it, indeed the partakers of it, by union with him. It is this that serves to advertise the significance of that which is the central truth of all soteriology, namely, union and communion with Christ.”[8]

If you look at God’s overall plan you see that he created Adam and Eve perfect, but with the ability to disobey. It was that disobedience, and the resulting disobedience of their natural offspring, that brought all of the troubles we see in this fallen world. And so God’s plan to fix this problem begins with the perfect obedience of Christ and we become partakers of that obedience by being united to Christ by faith.

Marc Roby: And we then demonstrate, or prove, that we are united to him by living obedient lives ourselves, albeit imperfectly.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And when we get to discussing the application of redemption to us as individual believers by going through the steps in what is called the order of salvation, we will see that our union with Christ is not just one step along the way, it is the foundation for the whole process.

Marc Roby: And according to the apostle Paul, there was a sense in which believers were united with Christ even before the creation of the world. In Ephesians 1:4 he wrote that God “chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: What a wonderful phrase that is, “in him”, or “in Christ”. The phrase “in Christ” shows up 89 times in our NIV Bibles and the phrase “in him” also shows up many more times with the same meaning. Union with Christ surely is, as Murray claims a number of times, “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[9]

Because of our depraved sinful natures, we are incapable of saving ourselves. Jesus Christ came to save his people and it is only in union with him that we can be saved. As we read in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

Marc Roby: And the fact that God chose us in Christ shows that God this plan of salvation in mind from all eternity. It is not something he came up with because things didn’t work out the way he had planned.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. In making his glory manifest, God created mankind knowing that the fall would occur, but also knowing that he was going to save some from that fall for the praise of his glorious grace, while leaving others to justly suffer for their sins to the praise of his glorious justice. And there was agreement from all eternity within the Trinity that the Son would become incarnate and accomplish redemption for his people.

Every aspect of a believer’s salvation is accomplished in union with Christ. Not only were we chosen in Christ, but we are also saved in Christ.

Marc Roby: Ephesians 2:10 famously says that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s wonderful, we were “created in Christ”, meaning our new birth was in union with Christ. And we also live the Christian life in union with Christ. In 1 Corinthians 1:4-5 Paul wrote that “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge”. Paul also wrote, in Galatians 2:20, that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Marc Roby: And Christians also die in Christ. Paul wrote in Romans 14:8 that “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

Dr. Spencer: And he also wrote, in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 that “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” We will talk more about union with Christ later, but I first want to move on to discuss the specific categories, as Murray calls them, under which the Scriptures discuss the atonement of Christ; namely, sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to doing that, but we are out of time for today, so we’ll have to pick this up next time. Before we sign off, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we’ll do our best to respond.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Pub., 1993, pg. 134

[3] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 19

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, pg. 21

[6] Ibid, pg. 22

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid, pg. 24

[9] Ibid, e.g., pg. 170

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. At the end of our last session we were discussing the reformed, or biblical, doctrine of God’s irresistible grace. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we have already noted that this doctrine, while it is denied by the post-reformation Roman Catholic church, Arminians and Lutherans, is biblical. It was not something that first appeared in the reformation though, it had been the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, through St. Augustine, long before the reformation. But, the most important question, in fact, the only one that really matters, is what does the Word say? And, on that score, the answer is clear.

Marc Roby: In our last session we quoted Roman 8:30 in support of this doctrine, which says that those God “predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: And that passage, which is sometimes called the “golden chain” of salvation[2], is clear biblical support for irresistible grace. But there is much more.

Marc Roby: What other Scriptures would you cite in support of the doctrine?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s begin in the Old Testament. God tells us in Isaiah 55:10-11, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Marc Roby: That is a clear statement of the efficacy of God’s Word. What other Scriptures would you cite?

Dr. Spencer: In the famous passage in Ezekiel 36:26-27, God declares, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” And note that God says I will give you a new heart, I will remove your heart of stone, and I will put my Spirit in you to move you to follow my decrees.

God doesn’t just make salvation possible and hold out an invitation for us to accept or reject, he removes our old heart, gives us a new one, and puts his Spirit in us to move us to obedience. In other words, he causes us to be born again.

Marc Roby: And, as we noted last time, that metaphor of new birth is itself significant evidence that we play no role in our regeneration. It is a monergistic work of God.

Dr. Spencer: And a monergistic work means a work that is done by one person alone, in this case, God. It is the opposite of a synergistic work in which two or more parties cooperate. Just as no one is responsible for bringing about his own physical birth, so no one is responsible, even in part, for bringing about his own re-birth.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of what John wrote in his gospel. In John 1:12-13 we read, “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a good passage. Our new birth is not the result of human decision. This is really the crux of the issue in irresistible grace. Does God cause us to be born again, or do we cooperate? Those who want to say we cooperate are concerned with preserving the idea of man’s free will, while those who say we do not cooperate are concerned with preserving God’s sovereignty.

Marc Roby: And, of course, as you said earlier, the only question that really matters is what does the Word of God say?

Dr. Spencer: And, while we have not gone through all of the verses we could, we have adduced a number of verses to argue that Scripture teaches that God is sovereign not only in electing some to salvation, but then in bringing that salvation about by the irresistible working of his Holy Spirit causing a person to be born again.

But we must be careful to note that we still truly and freely respond to God’s call. He monergistically changes our nature through re-birth but then, in that new nature, we freely choose to repent and believe. As it says in the Westminster Confession of Faith, “All those whom God has predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.”[3]

Marc Roby: This goes back to our discussion of free will. We do have the freedom to choose what to do, but our choice will always be consistent with our nature. Prior to being regenerated, all men are enemies of God and will not, in fact cannot turn to him in faith.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, Paul wrote in Romans 8:7-8 that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” And repenting and believing would please God, so they are among those things that an unregenerate person simply cannot do.

And finishing what you were saying about the fact that we do have the ability to choose what to do, once God causes us to be born again, we have a new heart. In other words, we have a new mind, will, affections and so on.

Marc Roby: I like the way Paul puts it in Romans 6:18. He says that “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Dr. Spencer: That expresses it very well. Before God regenerates us, we are slaves to sin and could not choose what is good, but then regeneration frees us from sin and we become slaves to righteousness. And so, as new creations in Christ Jesus, we freely choose to repent, believe and walk in obedience.

Marc Roby: What Paul calls the obedience of faith in Romans 1:5.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The question boils down to how significant is that work that is required to save us? Is it just a matter of persuading us to the truth of the gospel? Or, as the doctrine of total depravity would indicate and as the Bible teaches, are we truly enemies of God in need of a whole new nature? The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge wrote that “If regeneration is a change effected by the man’s own will; if it be due to the mere force of truth and motives, it is a small affair. But if it be the effect of the mighty power of God, it is as to its nature and consequences supernatural and divine. The whole nature of Christianity turns on this point.”[4]

Marc Roby: Now that is a strong statement.

Dr. Spencer: It is very strong, but I think it is correct. We don’t just need a little help to be saved, we need radical change. The biblical doctrines all logically fit together. Back in Session 128 I quoted R.C. Sproul, who wrote that “If one embraces this aspect of the T in TULIP, the rest of the acrostic follows by a resistless logic.”[5]

If we are totally depraved, then we are incapable of responding to God’s command to repent and believe. Therefore, if our salvation depended on us, no one would be saved. God must work first. And the very first thing God did with regard to our salvation was accomplished in eternity past. We read in Ephesians 1:4 that God chose us in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Marc Roby: And that election must have been unconditional if total depravity is true since there is nothing in us, and nothing we can do, that will merit salvation in any way.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And his grace must be irresistible because, as totally depraved sinners, we would resist it to the end if that were possible. It’s interesting to note that independent of the position of the modern Lutheran church, Martin Luther himself would have agreed on this point. In his famous work The Bondage of the Will, he wrote that “now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. … Thus it is that, if not all, yet some, indeed many, are saved; whereas, by the power of ‘free-will’ none at all could be saved, but every one of us would perish.”[6]

Marc Roby: That’s very interesting. His final conclusion is exactly what we have been saying. If it were left up to the supposed freedom of our own unregenerate will to accept God’s offer of salvation, “none at all could be saved, but every one of us would perish.”

Dr. Spencer: And although it would be anachronistic to speak of Martin Luther having anything to say directly about TULIP, since that acrostic came more than 70 years after his death, this quote does tie in one more of the five doctrines represented by the acrostic. Notice that he said that because our salvation is under the control of God’s will, he has “the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him.”

And, although I left it out of the quote the first time, he then cites John 10:28-29 where Jesus is speaking to the Jews about his followers and says that “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

Marc Roby: That is marvelous comfort indeed. We are held in Christ’s hands, and in the Father’s hands.

Dr. Spencer: And it supports the fourth doctrine we want to look at from the TULIP acrostic; namely, the perseverance of the saints.

Marc Roby: Although, as has been pointed out by many, a better name for the doctrine might be the preservation of the saints since our confidence is really in God’s sovereign power, not our ability to persevere.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. All of God’s chosen people will persevere, but only because he enables them to do so. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, as we read in Philippians 1:4-6, that “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Marc Roby: And when Paul refers to the “day of Christ Jesus” he is, of course, referring to Christ’s second coming, which he wrote about in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, where we read, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the glorious hope that all true believers have. God will complete the work he has begun in each one of us and we will be given a glorious body like that of the resurrected Christ we are told in Philippians 3:21. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is also supported by Romans 8:30, which we have looked at a number of times. It says that those God “predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” No one who is predestined by God for salvation is able to finally and utterly fall away. So, although true Christians can certainly backslide and fall into serious sin, they will always be brought to true repentance.

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort. Paul also wrote, in 1 Corinthians 1:8-9, that Jesus Christ “will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”

Dr. Spencer: And Paul also said, in his benediction to the church in Thessalonica, as we read in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

The message in all of these verses is consistent. God is faithful and as the sovereign Lord over all creation, he will save those whom he has chosen to save. Not one of them will be lost.

Marc Roby: This does not mean, however, that everyone who professes to be a Christian will ultimately be saved.

Dr. Spencer: Not at all. That would contradict Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21, where he tells us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Marc Roby: That verse should make everyone who claims to be a Christian shudder. As Paul commands us in Philippians 2:12, we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we should. We can have assurance of faith, as we will discuss later, but that is not incompatible with a careful, honest and even fearful, self-evaluation. Our confidence is based on God’s truthfulness, power and faithfulness, not on ours. He alone is unchangeable and cannot lie or be deceived. But, at the same time, we can never be presumptuous in believing that we are among God’s elect. The biblical doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints should never, ever be used in a presumptuous way. If we have been born again, we will live in a way that makes that new birth evident. If we don’t, we have no basis for personal assurance.

Marc Roby: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very important principle. We must examine our own fruit. It is easy to say “I repent”, but true repentance always includes turning away from the sin. We are told in Acts 26:20 that the apostle Paul, in speaking before King Agrippa, said, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”

Marc Roby: And, when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist, we read in Matthew 3:7-8 that he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Dr. Spencer: And, most famously of course, in James Chapter Two we have the discourse about faith without works. James asks a serious question in Verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” And he then goes on to explain that a faith without deeds, in other words, without proof of a changed heart, will not save anyone.

In fact, he points out that even the demons have an intellectual faith, but the result is that they shudder in abject fear.

Marc Roby: True saving faith is more than just knowing and agreeing with the facts of the gospel. We must place our personal trust in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly right. And we will talk about that more later, but I think we have said all that we need to for now about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Marc Roby: And with that we have completed four of the five doctrines represented by the acrostic TULIP. We’ve discussed total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. So that only leaves the doctrine of limited atonement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the only one left. But we are nearly out of time for today, so I think we had better stop. And this podcast will be released on December 26th, the day after Christmas. So, before we sign off, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of our listeners a blessed Christmas and a victorious new year in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Marc Roby: I join you in that and I will also remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we would appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] e.g., see R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 143

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 10, Par. 1

[4] C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg 697

[5] Sproul, op. cit., pg. 128

[6] M. Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Trans. By J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnson, Fleming H. Revell Comp., 1957, pg. 314

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, last time we finished discussing the doctrine of unconditional election, which says that God chooses whom he will save based on his own good pleasure and not any merit in us. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I would like to take some time to examine how we, as believers, should respond to the biblical doctrine of God’s unconditional election. We know how an unbeliever will respond; he will cry out that it isn’t fair. But as we’ve indicated, we all deserve God’s wrath. It would be perfectly fair for God to condemn us all. The amazing thing is that he chooses to save anyone. And so, the question remains, how should a believer respond to this doctrine?

Marc Roby: Well, it seems obvious that we should respond with great thanksgiving and praise!

Dr. Spencer: And, I would add, all the more so because God’s election is not conditioned on anything we have done or will do or, in fact, anything we can do. Once we realize that our new birth is a free gift from God, totally undeserved – in fact, given in spite of the fact we deserve condemnation – then we should be filled to overflowing with thanksgiving and praise.

Marc Roby: And that makes me think of the phrase in Ephesians where Paul speaks about the praise of God’s glorious grace. We read in Ephesians 1:4-6 that God chose us in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”[1]

Dr. Spencer: And Paul repeats the same idea just a few verses later. We read in Ephesians 1:11-12, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”

The ultimate purpose of creation is the manifestation of God’s glory and the saving of his people is a marvelous part of this work and a great contributor to that glory.

Marc Roby: And it is also an incomprehensibly great blessing for us who are saved!

Dr. Spencer: Well, that is certainly true. And the doctrine of unconditional election is also a great comfort to believers. In Romans 8:28-30 the apostle Paul wrote, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

Marc Roby: That is comforting. Paul writes in the past tense even though our glorification is still in the future. He is letting us know that it is absolutely certain.

Dr. Spencer: And the first verse of this passage, Verse 28, where Paul wrote, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”, should provide tremendous comfort for all of God’s children.

Let me quote the theologian Wayne Grudem. He wrote the following about these verses; “If Paul looks into the distant past before the creation of the world, he sees that God foreknew and predestined his people to be conformed to the image of Christ. If he looks at the recent past he finds that God called and justified his people whom he had predestined. And if he then looks toward the future when Christ returns, he sees that God has determined to give perfect, glorified bodies to those who believe in Christ. From eternity to eternity God has acted with the good of his people in mind. But if God has always acted for our good and will in the future act for our good, Paul reasons, then will he not also in our present circumstances work every circumstance together for our good as well?”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful conclusion, and a great comfort. But the apostle Paul goes on in that chapter to say even more about the comfort this provides to us.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, he most certainly does. In fact, he begins right way by asking the question we are dealing with now, in Romans 8:31 we read, “What, then, shall we say in response to this?” In other words, given God’s amazing plan of salvation and the certainty we have that all whom he has predestined for salvation will be called, justified and ultimately glorified, how should we respond? And he begins his answer by asking a rhetorical question, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Marc Roby: And the obvious answer to that question is that no one can successfully oppose us. And then Paul goes on to draw another wonderful and comforting conclusion in Verse 32. He writes, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a great and logical deduction. In God’s unconditional election he chose us to be saved. But that salvation, while free to us, was unbelievably costly to God. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, had to become a man and die for us. And, as Paul correctly reasons, if God didn’t spare his own Son, we can be confident that he will give us everything we truly need for life and godliness. God never leaves work unfinished.

And so Paul goes on at the end of Romans 8 to ask some more rhetorical questions and to conclude that we who are in Christ are more than conquerors and that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Marc Roby: And we need that comfort given the trials and tribulations that come with this life in a fallen world.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. I don’t want to go off track too far from discussing soteriology, but it is obvious to anyone who looks at this life honestly that we have many troubles. God does not promise his children a trouble-free life. Quite the opposite. We read in John 16:33 that Jesus himself told us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And that is why we who are in Christ are promised that we will overcome the world as well.

In his commentary on this passage at the end of Romans Chapter 8, the Rev. P.G. Mathew notes that Paul lists seventeen enemies that Christians face; hardship, persecution, famine, danger, death and so on. But, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:37, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Rev. Mathew notes that “Troubles make us trust only in Christ. We hope not in this world but in the world to come. Sufferings for Christ’s sake cause the things of this world to grow strangely dim. These sufferings focus our spiritual eyes on Jesus.”[2]

Marc Roby: That is great encouragement. As God’s children we know that even the troubles and pain we go through in this life have a good purpose.

Dr. Spencer: And it will all be used by God to redound to his greater glory. But there is one more thing I want to say about how we should respond to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Marc Roby: Alright, what is that?

Dr. Spencer: It should be a great encouragement to us to share our faith.

Marc Roby: You usually hear people say that this doctrine discourages evangelism. So I think you need to explain that comment.

Dr. Spencer: It’s actually quite simple. If everyone has the power to either accept or reject the gospel message, then I can easily be afraid that my evangelism will fail to bear fruit. And, not only that, but it may be that my inept presentation is the reason someone doesn’t put his faith in Christ. Just think about how terrible that would be to have to live with.

Marc Roby: I’d rather not. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s eternal damnation.

Dr. Spencer: Nor do I. But the doctrine of unconditional election gives me confidence to tell others about Christ. My witnessing absolutely matters, God has ordained the means as well as the end. But at the end of day, I can be absolutely confident that all those whom God has chosen will, in fact, come to true saving faith. We are the means, but any success we have is not based on our own efforts, it is based on God’s eternal election.

Marc Roby: I see your point. And it sounds like we are done discussing the Christian’s proper response to the doctrine of unconditional election. Before we move on, perhaps I should briefly summarize the points we’ve made so far with respect to soteriology.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a good idea, so please proceed.

Marc Roby: Very well. We have shown that man’s greatest need, in fact his only real need, is for salvation, because every human being will, after this short life, spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Secondly, we have shown that because all men are sinners and enemies of God, they will not and, indeed, cannot, accept his offer of salvation until and unless God causes them to be born again. Thirdly, we have shown that God sovereignly chooses whom he will save, not based on anything in them, or anything he foresees they will do, but solely based on his own free sovereign will.

Dr. Spencer: And if we go back to the acrostic TULIP, which to remind everyone stands for the biblical doctrines of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints, we have now covered the first two of these; Total depravity and Unconditional election. But rather than cover them in the order they appear in the acrostic, I now want to move on to examine Irresistible grace.

Marc Roby: Which we have briefly mentioned before. It is the doctrine that says that we cannot resist God’s saving grace. In other words, if he causes us to be born again, we will necessarily respond in repentance and faith.

Dr. Spencer: That is the doctrine. When Paul dealt with the objection to the biblical doctrine of unconditional election, he wrote in Romans 9:19, as we read last time, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” The expected answer is, of course, that no one can resist God’s sovereign will. So, this verse expresses the idea of the irresistible nature of God’s efficacious call.

We also see irresistible grace in the verse we read earlier today, Romans 8:30, “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” It is clear that Paul is spelling out an unbreakable chain of events. If God has predestined us for salvation, he will call us. And if he calls us, we will be justified and glorified.

Marc Roby: And, of course, Paul is not listing every step in the process here. As I’m sure we will discuss in more detail later, justification, for example, is based on conversion, in other words on our having repented of our sins and placed our faith in Jesus Christ. And our repenting and believing can only occur if we have been born again, or regenerated. So it is evident from these verses that God’s call is effectual in bringing about our regeneration.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. Jesus gave us a great illustration of God’s effectual call when he called Lazarus forth from the tomb. Lazarus had been dead for several days and yet, when Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out!” He came out of the tomb still wrapped in the grave clothes.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a great illustration.

Dr. Spencer: This doctrine of irresistible grace is not something new with the Protestant Reformation either. It goes all the way back to St. Augustine. Let me quote the 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge; “Augustine, holding as he did that man since the fall is in a state of spiritual death, utterly disabled and opposite to all good, taught that his restoration to spiritual life was an act of God’s almighty power; and being an act of omnipotence was instantaneous, immediate, and irresistible.”[3]

Marc Roby: That certainly makes sense. As we have said before, dead people don’t make themselves come alive.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, one of the arguments Hodge uses to support this doctrine, which is a very strong argument I might add, is that the metaphors used in the Scriptures are important. He wrote that “As the blind could not open their own eyes, or the deaf unstop their own ears, or the dead quicken themselves in their graves; as they could not prepare themselves for restoration, or cooperate in effecting it, so also with the blind, the deaf, and the dead in sin. The cure in both cases must be supernatural.”[4]

Marc Roby: And we see all of these metaphors in the Bible. For example, in John 12:37-40, the apostle speaks about the unbelief of some of the people and says, “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very common metaphor. In fact John is quoting from Isaiah 6:10 where God commands the prophet to “Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Marc Roby: It is a paradoxical truth that the same gospel message brings life to some and hardens others against it.

Dr. Spencer: And it is precisely because of sinful man’s depraved condition. I’m sure some of our listeners have heard the analogy that the same sunlight which softens wax also hardens clay. The different responses to the sun’s heat are caused by the inherent differences in the materials.

Paul speaks about this in his second letter to the Corinthian church. In 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 he speaks about the different responses people have to the gospel. And he wrote, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” Note that we are to God always the aroma of Christ. There is no ambiguity or difference in the message itself. But this one message is the smell of death to those who will not, and indeed cannot accept it because of their sinful natures. While to those who have been born again it is the fragrance of life.

Marc Roby: And Hodge also spoke about the metaphor of being dead. He said that the dead cannot “quicken themselves”, which is an old-fashioned way of saying bring themselves back to life. And we see the metaphor of death most famously in Ephesians 2:1 where Paul tells the Ephesian believers that “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins”, referring to their lives before they were regenerated.

Dr. Spencer: And he keeps the same metaphor going when he says in Verses 4-5, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Marc Roby: Well, I’m sure there is more to say about the doctrine of irresistible grace, but I think it will have to wait for our next session. Let me close by reminding our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our very best to answer.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2011, pg. 705

[3] C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, vol II, pg. 712

[4] Ibid, pg. 692

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, at the end of our session last week we dealt with the very difficult material in Romans Chapter 9, where Paul tells us quite clearly about God’s sovereign election of some to be saved and others not to be saved. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to say a little more about the presentation in Romans 9 and then defend the biblical view of God’s sovereign unconditional election against some of the most common objections. The doctrine of unconditional election says that God chooses whom he will save based on his own good pleasure and not any merit in us.

The last thing we looked at in Romans 9 was God’s response to man’s objection that it isn’t fair for God to judge him given that God is completely sovereign in deciding whom to save.

Marc Roby: And God’s answer, in essence, was to shut your mouth. As a mere creature you have no business questioning the Creator.

Dr. Spencer: That was the answer. And then Paul went on, in Romans 9:21-24 to say, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”[1]

Marc Roby: Those verses are extremely difficult for people to accept. We spoke at length about them recently, in Session 109.

Dr. Spencer: And interested listeners can go to the archive and read or listen to that podcast. I don’t want to repeat it all here. But we noted there that an unbeliever will not accept the answer. He will continue to accuse God of being unfair. But a believer will accept God’s answer, even though it is still hard.

Marc Roby: Yes, it is very hard to understand. When we are born again, we are given a new worldview, which accepts God’s Word as our ultimate standard for truth even though God has not revealed a complete answer to the question of how to reconcile his sovereignty and our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: The tension between man’s freedom, or responsibility, and God’s sovereignty is one of the most difficult things for us to deal with. And I say “deal with” rather than “understand” because we can’t fully understand it. We can see that it is not a true contradiction, but we cannot fully resolve the tension.

In his commentary on Romans, the Rev. P.G. Mathew wrote that “The point of contention in Romans 9-11 is the conflict between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. Paul never offers a logical solution to this tension, except when he concludes ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”[2]

Marc Roby: And that says about all that we, as creatures, can say in regard to this issue. As we are told in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. We cannot fully explain how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom and responsibility. But we certainly can say a bit more about whether or not the Lutheran and Arminian position avoids this complication. Remember that Lutherans and Arminians claim that every human being has the ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. They assume that by doing so, they protect God from the charge of being unfair by electing some to salvation while leaving others to pay for their sins in hell.

We have already shown that this is at odds with the biblical teaching, but we can say even more, because even if it were a possible interpretation of the biblical data, it doesn’t shield God from man’s charge of being unfair.

Marc Roby: Well, please explain why not.

Dr. Spencer: The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge said it well, so let me quote him. He wrote that “If it be right that God should permit an event to happen, it must be right that He should purpose to permit it, i.e., that He should decree its occurrence.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s a very important point, and a great way of putting it. If we think we are somehow isolating God from a charge of being unfair for his eternal election by leaving it up to men, we still have to face the problem that according to the Lutheran and Arminian view God permits some people to refuse his offer and go to hell. The end result is the same, not everyone is saved. So, as Hodge says, if it is right for God to permit such an event, it must also be right if his purpose is to permit it, or we could say, if he foreordains it.

Dr. Spencer: And Hodge draws a very reasonable conclusion from this observation. We must remember that he refers to the reformed view of the decree of election as the “Augustinian system”, since it was also the teaching of St. Augustine. Hodge wrote that “The Augustinian system, therefore, is nothing but the assumption that God intended in eternity what He actually does in time.”[4]

Marc Roby: And that sounds eminently reasonable. The only logical alternative is that God is no longer sovereign over his creation, which would be a frightening thought.

Dr. Spencer: That would be a very frightening thought. We would not be able to trust any of God’s promises. And so, as you said, Hodge’s conclusion is completely reasonable. He goes on to write that all “anti-Augustinian systems”, which certainly includes Lutheran and Arminian theologies, “assume that God is bound to provide salvation for all; to give sufficient grace to all; and to leave the question of salvation and perdition to be determined by each man for himself. … The question is not which of these theories is the more agreeable, but which is true.”[5]

Marc Roby: That’s a critically important point. We should want to know the truth, even if that truth is in some way less agreeable to us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we certainly should. Especially when we take into account the fact that we are finite, sinful creatures, so what we think of as being agreeable certainly should not be the standard we use. But Hodge goes on to make a very good point about which view is true.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: He writes, “And to decide that question one method is to ascertain which accords best with providential facts. Does God in his providential dealings with men act on the principles of sovereignty, distributing his favours according to the good pleasure of his will; or on the principle of impartial justice, dealing with all men alike? This question admits of but one answer. … the fact is patent that the greatest inequalities do exist among men; that God deals far more favourably with some than with others; that He distributes his providential blessings, which include not only temporal good but also religious advantages and opportunities, as an absolute sovereign according to his own good pleasure”.[6]

Marc Roby: I’m afraid I have noticed that “the greatest inequalities do exist among men”, we certainly aren’t all equally capable in virtually any endeavor I can think of.

Dr. Spencer: No, we aren’t. And we need to recognize that God is the one who sovereignly decides what gifts to give to each person. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul addresses the issue of gifts given to different people in the church and he writes, in Verse 11, that “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” And this isn’t just true of gifts we are given for the edification of God’s church. God is sovereign over all the affairs of men. When Paul was speaking to the people in Athens he declared, as we read in Acts 17:26, that from one man God “made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

Marc Roby: The Old Testament teaches us the very same thing. For example, in Job 12:23 we read that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.” And, in Psalm 139:16 King David declared to God that “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Dr. Spencer: It is a clear teaching of the Bible that God is sovereign over every detail of life. We don’t choose where, when or to whom we are born, and we don’t get to choose how tall we are, what color hair we have, what gifts we have and so on. And the flip side of that is that we have no basis for pride if we possess some particular gift, be it intellectual, musical, athletic or whatever, and we also have no rational basis for thinking that God has been unfair to us if our gifts aren’t as great as we would like. God doesn’t owe us anything. He never treats anyone unjustly.

Marc Roby: Do you think there is someone whose gifts are as great as he or she would like?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I doubt it. I certainly haven’t met the person. But let me finish this discussion by stating Hodge’s conclusion. He wrote, “It is therefore vain to adopt a theory which does not accord with these facts. It is vain for us to deny that God is a sovereign in the distribution of his favours if in his providence it is undeniable that He acts as a sovereign. Augustinianism accords with these facts of providence, and therefore must be true. It only assumes that God acts in the dispensation of his grace precisely as He acts in the distribution of his other favours; and all anti-Augustinian systems which are founded on the principle that this sovereignty of God is inconsistent with his justice and his parental relation to the children of men are in obvious conflict with the facts of his providence.”

Marc Roby: That is a very solid, logical argument. We should avoid having our theology be inconsistent with known facts.

Dr. Spencer: We should avoid holding any theory that contradicts known facts, whether we are talking about theology, physics, chemistry or whatever. But in every one of these fields there is a natural tendency to construct theories that are consistent with our own underlying assumptions. And if some of our assumptions are wrong, we are going to come up with wrong theories.

Marc Roby: And when we see that one of our theories doesn’t comport with the facts, it should cause us to go back and reconsider our assumptions.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. We should seek to gather together all of the available data and then find the theory that best explains all of it. That is no less true in theology than it is in physics and chemistry. But in doing this, we have to realize that we need some ultimate standard for determining truth and, as we have said many times, the ultimate standard of truth for a Christian is the Bible.

Hodge wrote, “If the office of the theologian, as is so generally admitted, be to take the facts of Scripture as the man of science does those of nature, and found upon them his doctrines, instead of deducing his doctrines from the principles or primary truths of his philosophy, it seems impossible to resist the conclusion that the doctrine of Augustine is the doctrine of the Bible. According to that doctrine God is an absolute sovereign. He does what seems good in his sight. He sends the truth to one nation and not to another. He gives that truth saving power in one mind and not in another. It is of him, and not of us, that any man is in Christ Jesus, and is an heir of eternal life.”

Marc Roby: It is interesting that Hodge notes in that statement that God doesn’t send the truth to every nation. In other words, not every human being who has ever lived has heard the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: That statement is undeniably true. And it also argues against the standard Lutheran or Arminian position. No one can accept as true a gospel they have never heard, and it is obvious that not everyone in history has heard the gospel. So even if all people did have equal ability to respond in faith, not all have equal opportunity and you’re right back to the initial question about God’s fairness. We can’t let our own idea of fairness overrule what the Bible clearly teaches.

There is one final argument that Hodge makes against those who object to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Marc Roby: What argument is that?

Dr. Spencer: He points out that Paul would not have had to provide the answers he does in Chapter 9 of the book of Romans if the Lutheran and Arminian position were true. Hodge wrote, “What appearance of injustice could there have been had Paul taught that God elects those whom He foresees will repent and believe, and because of that foresight? It is only because he clearly asserts the sovereignty of God that the objections have any place.”[7]

Marc Roby: That’s a fantastic point. Paul’s asking and answering the question about fairness makes no sense if the Lutheran and Arminian understanding is correct.

Dr. Spencer: The bottom line is that we may think that fairness requires God to give all of us the same ability to accept or reject his gospel offer, but our thinking that does not make it so.

Marc Roby: And perhaps there are good reasons for not giving us all the same ability.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in fact, I would say that there are. We have shown before because of our total depravity, if God didn’t do anything, no one would choose to believe and we would all be condemned. Our natures are initially at enmity with God and cannot choose him.

But on the other hand, if God changes our nature so that we love him, which is what happens when we are born again, then we are guaranteed to choose him.

Marc Roby: And it seems like we are right back to the issue of free will, which we have discussed before.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the problem. The notion that our will is completely free from any constraint, even our own predispositions, is illogical. As we have discussed before, unless you want to think that your decisions are completely randomly, there must be some predisposition one way or the other for us to make any decision. So, in particular, the idea that we could be in some neutral state where we could freely choose either to accept or reject God is, I think, simply impossible. We are either against God, or for him. There can be no neutrality. And, in fact, I would argue that if someone was neutral, that would be sinful. How could you not love the perfect God? How could you be neutral toward your Creator?

Marc Roby: I see your point. And it appears as though we have finished discussing the doctrine of unconditional election. Is that true?

Dr. Spencer: For now, yes.

Marc Roby: Very well, then this looks like a good place to stop for today. Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2014, pp 62-63

[3] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 336

[4] Ibid, pg. 337

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, pp 337-338

[7] Ibid, pg. 352

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