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Marc Roby: After taking a week off to discuss the proper Christian response to the current corona virus pandemic, we are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, are we ready to start looking at the order of salvation, or ordo salutis as it is often called?

Dr. Spencer: We are indeed ready. In Session 141 three weeks ago we noted that salvation began in eternity past with God’s sovereign electing love. We then also noted that, as John Murray put it in his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation”[1] is our union with Christ.

Marc Roby: And we have spent the bulk of two sessions examining that union, which is a wonderfully edifying topic.

Dr. Spencer: Well, that’s an understatement for sure.

Marc Roby: I also recall that you mentioned what is often called the golden-chain of salvation in Romans 8:30 where the apostle Paul wrote that those whom God “predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: I did quote that verse because it is the closest thing in the Bible to a single statement of the ordo salutis. I also noted that some of the steps in the complete order, although not those in the golden chain, can be moved without serious theological consequences and that some of them are not meant to be interpreted temporally, but rather logically. And so we are almost ready to give the order.

Marc Roby: What else do you want to say before we give the order?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that because we are all by nature objects of God’s wrath, our greatest need is to be reconciled to God. We need to take a moment to appreciate God’s amazing, gracious plan of salvation.

Murray points out that God has provided for our greatest need in a way that “exhibits the overflowing abundance of God’s goodness, wisdom, grace, and love. The superabundance appears in the eternal counsel of God respecting salvation; it appears in the historic accomplishment of redemption by the work of Christ once for all; and it appears in the application of redemption continuously and progressively till it reaches its consummation in the liberty of the glory of the children of God.”[3]

Marc Roby: That is wonderful. And I look forward to the liberty of the glory of the children of God.

Dr. Spencer: As do all of God’s adopted children, that is our eternal destiny. And, with all of that said, I think we are now ready to give the actual list.

Marc Roby: Should I give you a drum roll?

Dr. Spencer: I don’t think that’s necessary. John Murray first lists the following five items; effectual calling, regeneration, faith, justification, and finally, glorification.[4]

Marc Roby: And three of those five elements are listed in that golden chain of salvation by Paul.

Dr. Spencer: They are. Paul lists calling, justification and glorification in that order. Murray then inserts regeneration and faith, in that order, after calling and before justification. Now the order of regeneration and calling could be reversed with no major problems, but they must come before justification as we will discuss in more detail later.

After giving these five basic elements, Murray then adds the other elements that are usually included in the list.

Marc Roby: And what are those?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the first is repentance, which as Murray says is “the twin sister of faith – we cannot think of the one without the other.”[5]

Marc Roby: Well, biblical repentance is a turning away from and forsaking our sins, and biblical faith is a turning to Christ in complete trust, so what Murray says makes perfectly good sense. Repentance and faith are really two sides of the same coin; you turn away from sin and to God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. So whether you put repentance before faith or faith before repentance doesn’t really matter, although I personally like repentance first because at least logically you turn away from sin first and then you turn to God. As is often said, you need to hear the bad news before you will receive the good news. But true biblical repentance and faith always occur together. The word conversion can also be used to represent both repentance and faith.

Marc Roby: What does Murray add to the list next?

Dr. Spencer: Adoption, which is an amazing doctrine. God doesn’t just forgive our sins, which is incredible enough in and of itself, he also adopts us as his children. We are told in John 1:12 that God gives to all who receive Jesus Christ, who believe in his name, “the right to become children of God”.

Marc Roby: That is a staggering privilege. We find it difficult to forgive those who sin against us in any serious way, but God not only forgives, he brings us into his family.

Dr. Spencer: That does blow your mind, doesn’t it? And we’ll talk about it in more detail later of course, but for now we just need to note that adoption must come after justification. As Murray correctly notes, “we could not think of one being adopted into the family of God without first of all being accepted by God and made an heir of eternal life.”[6]

Marc Roby: That makes good sense.

Dr. Spencer: Murray next places sanctification in the sequence. He wrote, “Sanctification is a process that begins, we might say, in regeneration, finds its basis in justification, and derives its energizing grace from the union with Christ which is effected in effectual calling. Being a continuous process rather than a momentary act like calling, regeneration, justification and adoption, it is proper that it should be placed after adoption in the order of application.”[7]

Marc Roby: That again sounds perfectly reasonable.

Dr. Spencer: And that brings us to the last element, which is perseverance. Murray wrote that “Perseverance is the concomitant and complement of the sanctifying process and might conveniently be placed either before or after sanctification.”[8] While I agree that it goes along with sanctification, I prefer to place it after sanctification, which is where Murray places it, simply because we must persevere to the very end of this life.

Marc Roby: Very well, the entire order then, as given by Murray, would be the following: effectual calling, regeneration, repentance and faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and finally, glorification.

Dr. Spencer: That is the order he uses and the one we will use. And we are now ready to start with the first item on the list, effectual calling.

Marc Roby: And how would you like to begin?

Dr. Spencer: I want to go through a few of the questions and answers from the Westminster Shorter Catechism because it does an outstanding job. Question 29 asks, “How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?”

Marc Roby: And the answer is that “We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Spencer: Which makes two very important points. First, Jesus Christ is the one who accomplished our redemption. He purchased our freedom from sin with his blood. Secondly, it is primarily the Holy Spirit who applies redemption to believers. The Catechism goes on, logically, in Question 30 by asking, “How does the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?”

Marc Roby: And the answer is that “The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”

Dr. Spencer: We see several important things in this short answer. First, we again see that our redemption is accomplished, or purchased, by Christ. Second, the Spirit applies that redemption to us by working faith in us; in other words, by bringing us to saving faith, which we shall see requires that we be regenerated, or born again. And third, one result of this faith is that we are united to Jesus Christ as we have discussed in the past couple of weeks.

Then, in Question 31 the Catechism gets right to the issue we are dealing with and asks, “What is effectual calling?”

Marc Roby: And the answer given is that “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very rich answer. There is a lot of information packed into a single sentence. First, we note that effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit. God is the active agent. We are passive recipients. Murray notes that “the fact that God is its author forcefully reminds us that the pure sovereignty of God’s work of salvation is not suspended at the point of application any more than at the point of design and objective accomplishment.”[9]

Marc Roby: In other words, salvation is God’s plan, God’s accomplishment and then he applies it to individual believers.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, although we do not remain entirely passive, we do respond as we’ll see. Murray also notes that “It is God the Father who is the specific agent in the effectual call.”[10] He cites Romans 8:29-30 again to support this view.[11] In Verse 29 we are told that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son”. Since this verse speaks of “his Son” it is obvious that it is speaking about God the Father, so in the following verse, Verse 30, when it says that “those he predestined, he also called”, it is obviously saying that God the Father does the calling. Murray also cites 1 Corinthians 1:9, where we read, “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”

Marc Roby: That again makes it clear that it is the Father who does the calling.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does, so Murray’s claim is completely biblical. The second thing we see in the Catechism answer is that the Spirit convinces us of our sin and misery.

Marc Roby: Well, we obviously must recognize the problem before we are going to be interested in the solution to the problem.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. You can’t put the cart before the horse. We must first receive the bad news that we are sinners under the wrath of God and headed for hell before we will be receptive to God’s solution to that problem, the good news of the gospel. And that leads directly to the third thing we see in the Catechism answer. The Spirit enlightens our minds in the knowledge of Christ.

Marc Roby: And some knowledge is surely necessary for salvation.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Knowledge alone won’t save us, but true saving faith has specific content, it isn’t just some nebulous feeling or vague generality. We must know that we are sinners, deserving God’s wrath, and that Jesus Christ, who was completely sinless, took our sins upon himself, went to the cross, and bore the wrath of God on our behalf. God then raised him from the dead to demonstrate that he had accepted the offering and that death had no hold on Jesus Christ. We can’t be saved without knowing, believing and trusting in these biblical truths.

Marc Roby: And these are not metaphorical truths. For example, Christ was really, physically, raised from the dead. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:20 that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Dr. Spencer: And this idea of firstfruits implies an abundant harvest to follow. That harvest is all of the elect. And now comes a key piece God’s solution to our problem. In our natural state we are all enemies of God, dead in our transgressions and sins. It is impossible for those who are God’s enemies, and who hate him, to respond to this knowledge favorably. And so the Catechism next says that the Spirit “does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ”. This is speaking about regeneration, or new birth, without which no one can or will be saved.

Marc Roby: Jesus himself told Nicodemus, as we read in John 3:3, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And then, in John 3:5 Jesus added, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

Dr. Spencer: Effectual calling and regeneration are very tightly linked. In fact, in seventeenth century theology they were often either spoken of as synonymous or regeneration was thought of as a part of effectual calling.[12] One way to distinguish them is to say that the effectual call is external, while regeneration is, as Murray describes it, “the beginning of inwardly operative saving grace.”[13]

Marc Roby: And, of course, the idea of God’s call being efficacious is consistent with what the Old Testament says as well. In Isaiah 55:10-11 God says, “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.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful passage. No one can thwart God’s plan. We can’t stop the rain from watering the earth and we can’t stop his call from being effectual. But there is also what is sometimes called the general call, which can be distinguished from God’s effectual call. Not everyone who hears the gospel is born again and then responds in repentance and faith. Although Murray points out that when the New Testament refers to a call with reference to salvation, it is almost always referring to the effectual call.[14]

Marc Roby: I suppose the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew Chapter 22 is a possible exception.

Dr. Spencer: Murray agrees with you. For those who don’t remember the parable, there is a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son, but the people originally invited to the banquet all make excuses and refuse to come. So the king orders his servants to go out into the streets and invite anyone they can find. When the banquet hall is filled with people, the king notices one man who isn’t wearing wedding clothes. We then read, in Matthew 22:13-14, “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Marc Roby: I think many people find that parable somewhat disturbing.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure you’re right about that. But the idea is simple. There is a general gospel call that goes out to everyone, and salvation is free, it cannot be purchased. But, we cannot come on our own terms. Only those whom God has chosen will be granted new birth, will then repent, believe and be united to Jesus Christ. Those who do so, will be clothed in the righteousness of Christ himself as we read in Galatians 3:27, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Marc Roby: That is most glorious truth, and I look forward to spending more time on this discussion next week, but it seems like a wonderful place to close for today. So, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would enjoy hearing from you.

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 170

[2] 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.™.

[3] Murray, op. cit., pg. 79

[4] Ibid, see the bottom of page 86

[5] Ibid, pg. 87

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, pg. 89

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid, pg. 90

[12] Lois Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 470

[13] Murray, op. cit., pg 93

[14] Ibid, pg. 88

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. When we finished last week we were in the midst of discussing the glorious topic of the believer’s union with Christ, which John Murray called “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[1] Dr. Spencer, you had made the point that this union is spiritual, which indicates that the Holy Spirit is the bond and that this relationship is different from other unions. At the end of our time you mentioned that this union is also mystical. Now, what did you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we were again following the treatment in John Murray’s excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, and to explain what he meant by calling our union with Christ mystical he cited the wonderful doxology with which the apostle Paul finishes his letter to the church in Rome. We read this doxology in Romans 16:25-27, “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.” [2]

Marc Roby: And so, when Murray calls our union with Christ mystical, he means that it is a mystery in the sense that Paul used that word in this passage.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And there are four points that Murray makes from the passage about this mystery. First, this mystery was, as Paul wrote, “hidden for long ages past”, which simply means that it was hidden from us as creatures. It was always in the mind of God of course. And the second point is that the mystery did not remain hidden, Paul goes on to say that it was “now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God”.

Marc Roby: In other words, we learn about Jesus Christ, his person and his redeeming work, through the Bible, which was written down by God’s command and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is what Paul meant. When he referred to “the prophetic writings”, he wasn’t just speaking about the Old Testament prophets. The phrase is a synecdoche for the entire Bible.

Marc Roby: And we should probably remind our listeners that a synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part of something is used to refer to the whole.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a good reminder. And this was the third thing that Murray noted from Paul’s doxology; namely, that the mystery was revealed in the Bible. It is available to everyone in every nation. It is not the sole possession of some special class of people and it is not discovered by a subjective process of meditation or private encounter with the risen Lord. It is objective and can be looked at and understood by all.

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a very important point. And it certainly distinguishes this mystery from many other things that we might call mysterious.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is very different. And the revelation had to be objective because the fourth thing Murray points out is that the purpose of God’s revealing this mystery is, as Paul put it, “so that all nations might believe and obey” God. If the revelation were purely subjective, then we would all be able to say we were believing and obeying what had been revealed to us and no one would be able to contradict us.

Marc Roby: And that would eviscerate real Christianity. It would make it an entirely subjective and personal thing.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly would. But real Christianity is based on objective truth that is presented to us in the Bible. That doesn’t mean that people won’t distort that truth and falsely call themselves Christians, that happens all the time. But it does mean that we have an objective standard to which we can compare ourselves to see whether or not we are truly Christ’s disciples.

Marc Roby: And distorting God’s Word is a very dangerous thing to do. Peter spoke about this. In 2 Peter 3:16 he commented about the writings of the apostle Paul and said that “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

Dr. Spencer: Everyone who calls him or herself a Christian should pay careful attention to the implicit warning given in that verse. We have to be very careful with the Word of God. This is especially true in our day when there is an abundance of astoundingly bad theology being preached from many pulpits and presented in many books, podcasts, TV shows and so on.

If you think you are a Christian, you must read the Word of God carefully and test what you read or hear from others to see whether or not it is in agreement with God’s Word. The Bible must be our ultimate standard for truth. Non-biblical faith may make you feel better here and now, but it will not save you from eternal damnation.

Marc Roby: Jesus himself told us, in John 8:32, that “the truth will set you free.” And the Bible is the truth.

Dr. Spencer: And we all by nature prefer to be told things that are pleasant and agree with our old sinful nature. But if we have been born again and enjoy union with Christ, we will acknowledge in our hearts that the Bible is, in fact, the Word of God and we will desire to know and obey it even when it corrects us. I’m not saying that always happens without some degree of pain and struggle of course, but it will happen.

Marc Roby: Paul wrote in Romans 8:29 that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son”. The fact that we must be conformed implies that we need to change.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does imply we need to change. And the Word of God is the primary means of our being conformed. We must be very careful to not be deceived. If someone comes to you and tells you what he thinks the Word of God means, you must look into the Word and see if he is right. Don’t just accept the word of man. If he truly is a man of God speaking the Word of God to you, he himself will exhort you to read that Word.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the comment made about the Bereans in the book of Acts. In Acts Chapter 17 we read about Paul and Silas presenting the gospel to the people in Thessalonica and Berea, two towns in what is now modern-day Greece. And in Acts 17:11 we read, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great verse. If more people would do that today many modern preachers would be without any followers. Anyone who tells you that God’s desire for you is to be rich and famous and always healthy is lying to you and all you have to do is read the Bible for yourself to see that clearly.

But, getting back to idea of union with Christ being a mystery that has been revealed, we see this elsewhere in the New Testament as well. For example, the apostle Paul tells us of his mission in Colossians 1:25-27, where he wrote that he had become a minister of the church, “by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Marc Roby: Now that is explicit, the mystery is Christ in us, which is also called the hope of glory. Praise God!

Dr. Spencer: Praise God indeed. Paul also mentions this mystery in his letter to the church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 5:31 we read the famous line, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” But then in Verse 32 Paul surprises us by saying, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Marc Roby: That entire passage in Ephesians 5 is wonderful, it compares the relationship of Christ and his church to that of a husband and wife.

Dr. Spencer: And we should notice that the union spoken of there is not just the union of Christ with individual believers, it is the union of Christ and his church. We, as believers, should never think of ourselves apart from the church. We are a part of something much greater than ourselves. It is only in learning to love others and function as a part of that whole that we can fulfil God’s commands and, therefore, his purpose for us.

Marc Roby: In fact, Christ told his disciples in John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Murray also points out that the union of a husband and wife is not the only similitude used to describe our union with Christ. The most amazing example is in John 17:21-23 where as part of his high priestly prayer Jesus prays for all believers, asking, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Marc Roby: That is truly amazing to consider. We are to be united to one another and to God in some sense in the same way that the Father and Son are united in the Trinity.

Dr. Spencer: It is completely amazing. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of the same essence. One God in three persons. But Murray is also careful to guard against reading too much into this similitude. He wrote that “Similitude here again does not mean identity. Union with Christ does not mean that we are incorporated into the life of the Godhead. That is one of the distortions to which this great truth has been subjected.”[3]

Marc Roby: Yes, that is an important warning. Mormons believe that we can become gods and a number of modern preachers teach the heretical “little god” doctrine that we are all gods, albeit with a little “g”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we briefly discussed the little god doctrine in Session 48 and I don’t want to waste time refuting it again here, it is patently stupid, contrary to all observable fact and blasphemous to boot. We always need to be careful to not go too far with any analogy or metaphor, whether it is used in the Bible or anywhere else.

But, getting back to our union with Christ, the Bible uses other analogies as well.

Marc Roby: One that immediately occurs to me is that of a building. In Ephesians 2:19-22 Paul wrote to gentile believers, telling them that Christ gives them the same access to the Father that Jewish people have. He wrote, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Dr. Spencer: That is another wonderful metaphor, although certainly less exalted than the godhead. We, as Christians, are like the stones in a temple, cemented together to become a dwelling for God’s Spirit, and Jesus Christ himself is the chief cornerstone.

Another metaphor that is used is that of a body. In Ephesians 4 Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ and says that pastors, teachers and others are given to the church to help us mature. In Verses 15-16 he writes, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Marc Roby: I love that metaphor, and Paul uses it more than once. The church is the body of Christ and he is the head. And we each have our part to play, we must each do our work to build each other up in love or the body doesn’t function properly.

Dr. Spencer: This whole biblical idea of the church completely destroys the idea of many modern people that religion is a purely private thing. It is not all about my personal relationship with God. I cannot have a personal relationship with God without also having a relationship with God’s church, his family. It is impossible. We are all parts of the body and we need each other.

Marc Roby: Paul wrote at length about the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians Chapter 12. For example, in Verse 21 he wrote that “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s very true. As our Pastor has said, the idea of an eye floating around by itself, disconnected from the rest of the body, is an abomination.

Marc Roby: Yes, not to mention more than a little grotesque.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is a gross image to say the least. We are to be united to Christ and to one another. But Murray notes that “Of all the kinds of union or unity that exist for creatures the union of believers with Christ is the highest.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s a challenging statement. We all need to ask ourselves if that is true of us.

Dr. Spencer: I heartily agree. And this opens up one more issue with regard to our union with Christ that must be explored.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is called a mystical union not only because it was a mystery that has been revealed, but also because it is mystical in the normal sense of that word, meaning a subjective experience.

Marc Roby: We often shy away from the subjective because it is so easily abused.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, but we need to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater as the old saying goes. Murray wrote that “It is necessary for us to recognize that there is an intelligent mysticism in the life of faith. Believers are called into the fellowship of Christ and fellowship means communion. The life of faith is one of living union and communion with the exalted and ever-present Redeemer. … There is no communion among men that is comparable to fellowship with Christ … The life of faith is the life of love, and the life of love is the life of fellowship, or mystic communion with him who ever lives to make intercession for his people and who can be touched with the felling of our infirmities.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful statement.

Dr. Spencer: And Murray concludes that section by saying that “communion with God is the crown and apex of true religion.”[6] But we must always be careful to guard against the dangers of subjectivism, which is why this mystical union is based on God’s revelation in the Bible. We do have real communion with Christ, but he has given us an objective revelation to circumscribe, or to put a fence around, our subjective experience. If we go outside of what the Bible teaches, our experience is not genuine. We always need to test the spirits. We read in 1 John 4:1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

Marc Roby: And we need the Bible to allow us to test the spirits. Do you have any last word on this topic?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, the final point that Murray makes about our union with Christ we actually already mentioned last time when we looked at Romans 8:9-11, that point is that our union is with the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Marc Roby: That is incredible.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And let me finish this topic with one final quote from Murray. He wrote, “Here indeed is mysticism on the highest plane. It is not the mysticism of vague unintelligible feeling or rapture. It is the mysticism of communion with the one true and living God.”[7]

Marc Roby: That’s a wonderful conclusion. And now let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to answer you.

 

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 170

[2] 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.™.

[3] Murray, op. cit., pg. 168

[4] Ibid, pg. 169

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, pg. 170

[7] Ibid, pg. 172

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Last time we finished our discussion of the doctrines represented by the acrostic TULIP; namely Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as we noted, the doctrines represented by the acrostic TULIP are the five doctrines that are characteristic of Reformed theology, which we believe to be the best theology for summarizing what the Bible teaches. They do not present the whole picture, but they do represent what distinguishes Reformed theology from Arminian theology, which is by far the most common theology presented in seminaries and churches today. They also distinguish Reformed theology from Lutheran theology, which is itself different from Arminian. And, I might add, there are differences even among groups who call themselves Arminian or Lutheran.

I don’t really want to get into all the history of the different Protestant denominations at this time, I would rather move on to look at the sequence of events in the application of the redemption accomplished by Christ to the lives of individual believers.

Marc Roby: And that sequence is usually called the ordo salutis, or order of salvation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. And the Bible never spells out the entire order in one place, but it does give us a partial list, which is often called the golden chain of salvation.[1] In Romans 8:30 the apostle Paul tells us that those God “predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”[2]

Marc Roby: And what a wonderful chain that is. It all began with God’s electing love in eternity past and it moves with absolute certainty to glorification. It is, from beginning to end, a marvelous demonstration of God’s love, mercy, power and wisdom.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. And I want to take the time to go through the ordo salutis in some detail. We will, in general, follow the treatment given in John Murray’s excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, which we have used a number of times before. In that book he notes that “God is not the author of confusion and therefore he is the author of order. There are good and conclusive reasons for thinking that the various actions of the application of redemption … take place in a certain order, and that order has been established by divine appointment, wisdom, and grace.”[3]

Marc Roby: I know that not everyone agrees on the exact order, so what does Murray say about that?

Dr. Spencer: He discusses the order and points out that there are some items that must be put in a certain order and other items where the exact location in the sequence is debatable and not particularly important. We should also note that the order is not always a temporal order, some of it is, but some of the items only represent a logical order and may actually occur simultaneously.

Marc Roby: And where does Murray choose to begin?

Dr. Spencer: Well, you actually said it a couple of minutes ago when you said that it all began with God’s electing love in eternity past. Murray begins his exposition by saying that “No treatment of the atonement can be properly oriented that does not trace its source to the free and sovereign love of God.”[4]

Marc Roby: We can all say “amen” to that. If it weren’t for God’s love and mercy, we would all be eternally lost.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, although God’s love isn’t just a step in the application of redemption, it is rather the one truth that underlies all of creation and redemption. There is also one other thing, which again isn’t a step in the process, but underlies the entire process, and that is union with Christ. Murray discusses this after going through the ordo salutis, but I think that is a bit anti-climactic, so I am going to deviate from him on this point and discuss union with Christ first.

Marc Roby: We have spoken about the believer’s union with Christ several times before, most notably way back in Sessions 13 and 14. In looking back at those, you quoted John Murray there also. He wrote that union with Christ is “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[5]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great quote and completely biblical.

As I said, union with Christ is not just a step in the application of redemption. The entire Christian life is lived in union with Christ. In Ephesians 1:4 Paul tells us that God chose us in Christ “before the creation of the world”, so in a sense all Christians, even those who have yet to be born, have been united to Christ for all eternity.

Marc Roby: And yet there is great mystery here since we are also told in the very next chapter, in Chapter 2 Verse 3, that before we were saved, “we were by nature objects of wrath.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great mystery. We are also told in Romans 5:10 that we were enemies of God and in Colossians 1:21 that we were alienated from God and were enemies in our minds because of our evil behavior. All of this emphasizes the amazing work that God does in saving us. Our alienation from God was real. Our being subject to the wrath of God was real. Our being enemies of God was real. And yet, in his eternal plan, he had already chosen us to be saved. In that sense, and only in that sense, we can be said to have been united to Christ in eternity past. But God still had to do a miraculous work and cause us to be born again in order to unite us to Christ in this life through the instrument of faith. A radical change had to take place, we needed new hearts.

Marc Roby: Which God promised to his people more than 500 years before Jesus was born. We read of that promise in Ezekiel 36:26, “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.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, what a glorious promise that is. And we have already quoted from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, where he wrote in the first chapter that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Then, in Chapter 2, he starts off in Verse 1 by saying that we were dead in our transgressions and sins and, as you quoted a minute ago, he says in Verse 3 that we were by nature objects of wrath. But he then goes in Verses 4 and 5 to say, “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.” This is the fulfillment of the promise given through the prophet Ezekiel. God makes us alive.

But the key point for our discussion today, is that God made us alive in Christ, and he did it because he had chosen us in Christ before the creation of the world.

Marc Roby: And Paul goes on in that chapter to say, in Verse 10, 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: That’s right. God’s ultimate purpose, of course, is his own glory. And we are to contribute to that by doing the work he has ordained for us to do. Just as Jesus brought God glory by finishing the work he was assigned, as he tells us in John 17:4. So we fulfil the command to glorify God by doing the work we have been assigned to do.

Marc Roby: And Paul gives us that command in 1 Corinthians 10:31, where he tells us “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. But getting back to the subject at hand, union with Christ is an amazing topic, on which all true Christians should take time to meditate. It will lead you to give great thanksgiving and praise to God for his amazing mercy, wisdom and power.

We have seen that we were chosen in Christ and that when God regenerated us we were made alive in Christ, or we can say created in Christ. But there is more that can be said. In Romans 6:4-8 we read that 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. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 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—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a great description of the symbolism of baptism and also of the reality of the life of a true believer. Baptism all by itself doesn’t accomplish anything, it is just an outward sign of the inward change. But if the person who is baptized has truly been born again, then it is a true sign of the fact that he has died to his old, sinful way of life and has been enabled by regeneration to live a new life in union with Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. And our union with Christ will never end. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about Christ’s second coming and, in 1 Thessalonians 4:14, he wrote, “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.” Now “fallen asleep” is a euphemism for dying, so Paul is indirectly telling us in this verse that when believers die, they die in Christ.

Marc Roby: And Paul also tells us, in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 that “since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s wonderful, we will be united with Christ in being resurrected at his second coming. And we will also be united with Christ in sharing in his glory for all eternity in heaven. When he comes again we will all receive glorified bodies. We read in Philippians 3:20-21 that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Marc Roby: Now that is something to look forward to.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. And so we see that we were chosen in Christ, we were created, or we could say born again, in Christ, we live in Christ, we die in Christ, we will be raised from the dead in Christ, we will receive glorified bodies in Christ and we will spend eternity enjoying fellowship with God and one another in Christ.

Marc Roby: Hallelujah!

Dr. Spencer: Hallelujah indeed! John Murray wrote that “The perspective of God’s people … has two foci, one the electing love of God the Father in the counsels of eternity, the other glorification with Christ in the manifestation of his glory. The former has no beginning, the latter has no end.” And he went on to say, “What is it that binds past and present and future together in the life of faith and in the hope of glory? Why does the believer entertain the thought of God’s determinate counsel with such joy? Why can he have patience in the perplexities and adversities of the present? Why can he have confident assurance with reference to the future and rejoice in hope of the glory of God? It is because he cannot think of past, present, or future apart from union with Christ.”[6]

Marc Roby: What a wonderful statement of the glorious hope and joy that all true Christians have. I’m confident we could all benefit from spending more time meditating on it.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure you’re right about that.

Marc Roby: Do you have anything more you would like to say about our union with Christ?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. Murray goes on to make several important points. The first point he makes is that our union with Christ is spiritual.

Marc Roby: Now that’s a word that is often abused in this day and age.

Dr. Spencer: And that was true even when Murray wrote this book over 60 years ago. He said that the term is frequently used “to denote what is little more than vague sentimentality.”[7]

Marc Roby: Yes, that is very much what we still see today, even among professing Christians.

Dr. Spencer: That is, unfortunately, true. But Murray explains that in the New Testament the word spiritual “refers to that which is of the Holy Spirit. … Hence when we say that union with Christ is Spiritual we mean, first of all, that the bond of this union is the Holy Spirit himself.”[8]

Marc Roby: And we must remember that the Holy Spirit is personal. He is the third person of the Holy Trinity, not some cosmic force or a metaphor for God’s influence through his Word or anything else people might imagine.

Dr. Spencer: That is very important. He is a person whom we can grieve when we sin and who instructs us, guides us and empowers us to live the Christian life. Romans 8:9-11 is a very important passage in this regard.

Marc Roby: Let me read that passage. The apostle Paul wrote to believers, saying “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”

Dr. Spencer: There are two important points that we can make from that passage. First of all, we see that union with Christ involves all three persons of the godhead. Notice that Paul starts off referring to just “the Spirit”. He then refers to the “Spirit of God”, and then to the “Spirit of Christ”, then he refers to Christ himself being in us, and then to the “Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead”, which clearly refers to God the Father. We must notice the trinitarian nature of this passage. We will discuss this aspect of union with Christ more later.

Marc Roby: I’m definitely looking forward to that conversation.

Dr. Spencer: Secondly, we note that the Spirit lives in us, he is a person, not a power.

Another passage relating to the nature of this union is in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. In this case the context is Paul’s addressing the serious nature of sexual sin, but in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 he wrote, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is an amazing thing to consider, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Spencer: I think it is incomprehensible in fact. But it should cause us all to be far more careful how we live. We are never alone. God is with us. It isn’t just the fact that he sees and hears everything, but he is with us in a very intimate and personal way that we can’t really define or describe in detail. When Jesus says that a man has committed adultery in his heart if he looks at a woman lustfully, we have to realize that if we do that, or have any other thoughts that are sinful, the Holy Spirit is in us and knows those thoughts and feelings!

Marc Roby: You’re quite right in saying that we should all be more careful in how we live, and that includes our thoughts and emotions.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they are included. Murray goes on to explain a second thing that he means by saying that our union with Christ is spiritual. He means that it is a spiritual relationship, by which he means it is different than other kinds of unions. It is different than the union of the three persons in the godhead. It is different than the union of the two natures in Christ. And it is different than the union of body and soul in man. It is, he says, a union “which we are unable to define specifically.”[9]

Murray then goes on to make a second point with regard to our union with Christ. He says it is mystical.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to examining that in our next session, but we don’t have enough time left today to start a new subject, so we should stop here and I should remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would enjoy hearing from you.

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

[2] 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.™.

[3] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 80

[4] Ibid, pg. 9

[5] Ibid, pg. 170

[6] Ibid, pg. 164

[7] Ibid, pp 165-166

[8] Ibid, pg. 166

[9] 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 finished discussing the doctrine of limited atonement in our last session. So, Dr. Spencer, what do you want to cover today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, now that we have finished covering all five of the reformed doctrines represented by the acrostic TULIP, I’d like to show how these doctrines are interrelated and together comprise part of a logically-coherent understanding of the system of theology presented to us in the Bible.

Marc Roby: And we should remind our listeners that TULIP stands for the five reformed doctrines of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints.

Dr. Spencer: And we should also point out that these may not be the best possible descriptions of the doctrines, but they are commonly used terms. We should also say that these five doctrines do not fully summarize biblical soteriology, they only point to the major points of difference between Reformed and Arminian theology.

But, with all of that said, I want to look at how these doctrines all logically fit together. R.C. Sproul, in his book What is Reformed Theology? wrote that “The moral inability of fallen man is the core concept of the doctrine of total depravity or radical corruption. If one embraces this aspect of the T in TULIP, the rest of the acrostic follows by a resistless logic.”[1]

Marc Roby: I seem to recall you using that quote before.

Dr. Spencer: I did use part of it, but we didn’t go on at that time to show how the doctrines all fit together, which is what I want to do today. If we accept as true the clear biblical teaching that we are born sinful, we do not seek God, we suppress the truth, we are enemies of God and we are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins, in other words that we are totally depraved, then the other four points of TULIP follow necessarily.

Marc Roby: And the things you just said are all biblical. Not only are we born sinful, but King David wrote, in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”[2] And Paul wrote in Romans 3:11 that “no one [] seeks God.” He also wrote in Romans 1:18 that men “suppress the truth by their wickedness” and in Romans 5:10 that “we were God’s enemies” and in Ephesians 2:1 he wrote that we “were dead in [our] transgressions and sins”.

Dr. Spencer: And if we take that as the starting point, the other four doctrines necessarily fall into place. So, let’s look at unconditional election first and see how it depends on and fits with total depravity.

Marc Roby: The alternative to unconditional election is, of course, that God elects, or chooses, whom to save based on some condition, in other words, based on something we do or don’t do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The standard position taken by most non-Reformed believers, like Arminians, is what is called the prescient view of election. The word prescient simply means to know something beforehand. In other words, this view is based on God’s foreknowledge. The idea is that since God knows everything that will ever happen, he looks into the future and sees who will accept his offer of salvation and he then elects those people to be saved.

Marc Roby: I know that those who hold this view often point to Romans 8:29 where we read that “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.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the proof text that is used, but it doesn’t support their contention. Let’s first note, as both sides will agree, that it is obviously not just speaking about God knowing someone in the sense we usually use that term because God knows everyone and the phrase “those God foreknew” is being used to identify a specific group of people.

Those who oppose the idea of unconditional election usually say this refers to God’s foreknowledge of the faith of some people. But, as John Murray points out in his commentary, “Even if it were granted that ‘foreknew’ means the foresight of faith, the biblical doctrine of sovereign election is not thereby eliminated or disproven. … The question would then simply be; whence proceeds this faith which God foresees? And the only biblical answer is that the faith which God foresees is the faith he himself creates”.[3] Murray then lists a number of Scriptures to make his point, beginning with the passage in John Chapter 3 where Christ tells Nicodemus that no one can see or enter the kingdom of God unless he has been born again, or born of the water and the spirit. (John 3:3,5)

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a powerful passage. Dead people don’t make themselves come alive. Similarly, it would make no sense to say that I caused myself to be born again.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. Murray also cites John 6:44, which we’ve looked at before. In that verse, Jesus says that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” The Greek word translated “draws” in that verse is ἑλκύω (helkuō) and it could also be rendered as drag, it is something that is done to you, not something you do and not just some gentle persuasion or suggestion. And to give just one more of the verses Murray cites, he lists Ephesians 2:8, which says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. So our salvation comes through faith, it is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God.

Marc Roby: Those verses also clearly support the biblical doctrine of unconditional election.

Dr. Spencer: They do. And Murray also makes an argument from the Greek grammar that the proper meaning of the term foreknew in Romans 8:29 is really that God foreloved a certain group of people.[4]

Marc Roby: And because he loved them, he predestinated them to be saved.

Dr. Spencer: Right. And Martin Luther, in his commentary on Romans goes back one verse and looks at Romans 8:28, which says, “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.” Luther notes that “This passage is the foundation on which rests everything that the Apostle says to the end of the chapter; for he means to show that to the elect who are loved of God and who love God, the Holy Spirit makes all things work for good even though they are evil”.[5]

Marc Roby: And when we read about those who love God, I immediately think of 1 John 4:19 where we read that “We love because he first loved us.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great verse to show that if we love God, it is in response to his prior love for us. Romans 8:28 also says that Paul is speaking about people who “have been called according to [God’s] purpose”, which immediately makes me think of Ephesians 1:11, where Paul wrote that “In him”, referring to Jesus Christ, “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”.

We could again go through many more Scriptures, but the point is that because man is totally depraved, his election must be unconditional. He is incapable of doing anything on which his election could be conditioned.

Marc Roby: And that brings us to the L in TULIP, limited atonement.

Dr. Spencer: And since we just spent a number of sessions defending that doctrine I will be very brief here. Remember that all true Christians believe that the atonement is limited in some way since the only alternative is universalism, that everyone will be saved, and no Christian believes that. So, the real question is whether the atonement is limited in its effectiveness or its extent. But, if it is limited in its effectiveness, we have a serious problem.

Marc Roby: And why is that?

Dr. Spencer: Because our salvation would then depend, ultimately, on ourselves. If everyone is equally able to respond to the gospel, the difference between a person who is saved and one who is not saved must be found in the people themselves, not in God.

And if that were true, it would give us something to boast about, it would detract from God’s glory, it would mean that Christ was not telling the truth when he said “it is finished” from the cross and it would mean that we are not totally depraved. We would, in fact, be capable of doing at least one thing that pleases God, namely, choosing to repent and believe.

Marc Roby: And doing that would, in fact, be an act of obedience pleasing to God. Because in Acts 17:30 we are told that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” And in 1 John 3:23 the apostle tells us that God’s command is “to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, to repent and believe would obviously be obedient to those commands and therefore pleasing to God, but in Romans 8:6-8 Paul tells us that “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 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.” So, clearly it must not be possible for a person to repent and believe until and unless he or she is born again, which is a work that only God can do.

Marc Roby: And so we have now seen how total depravity, unconditional election and limited atonement are all inextricably linked together. That brings us to the doctrine of irresistible grace, how is it linked with the other elements of TULIP?

Dr. Spencer: Well, it is linked, again, by the doctrine of total depravity. If we are dead in our transgressions and sins, then we will resist God’s offer of salvation. Dead people don’t accept any offer, not matter how wonderful it is.

Marc Roby: That is a powerful argument. It doesn’t take any active effort for a dead person to “resist” an offer of salvation, he doesn’t have to do anything. He is dead! And he remains dead.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. When Christ commanded Lazarus to come forth from the tomb he did obey and came out. But I can say with absolute certainty that while he obeyed and walked out on his own power, he did not come back to life on his own power! God had to miraculously bring him back to life before he could hear and obey Christ’s command.

Marc Roby: And, in the same way, God must bring those who are dead in their sins to life by causing them to be born again. And only then can they obey the gospel call to repent and believe.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. But to use an even stronger biblical statement, we are by nature God’s enemies, we are actively hostile to him. The thought that we could somehow be brought to love God by an offer of grace without having our nature changed first is simply inconceivable. So let me read again a quote I’ve used before because it makes the point so clearly.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: The great 20th-century theologian John Murray summarized the problem in the following way. “If this is man’s condition in sin, then there can be no pleasure in the will of God. Enmity against God must express itself in opposition to every manifestation of his holy will. How then can we expect that man will answer with delight the call to enter into God’s kingdom of glory and virtue? How can a man dead in trespasses and sins, and at enmity with God, answer a call to the fellowship of the Father and the Son? How can a mind darkened and depraved have any understanding or appreciation of the treasures of divine grace? How can his will incline to the overtures of God’s grace in the gospel?”[6]

Marc Roby: Yes, I do remember that passage, and I think it is impossible to successfully argue against Murray’s logic. Clearly, God’s grace must be irresistible or it will not bring about salvation.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And that brings us to the final doctrine in TULIP, the perseverance of the saints. This is again logically connected with the other doctrines. Remember that Christ’s atonement is either limited in its effectiveness or its extent. Reformed theology, in agreement with the Bible, says that the atonement is limited in its extent, not its effectiveness. If it were possible for a true Christian to fall away from the faith completely and finally, then we would again have to say that Christ’s atonement was not truly effective.

Marc Roby: I see your point. And we would again have a problem with Christ’s statement that “it is finished”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we would. Reformed, or biblical, theology says we must be born again first, and then we respond in repentance and faith. But if we think about that for a minute, it becomes obvious that we can’t fall away from faith completely and finally. If I have been born again, my fundamental nature has been changed. And nothing I do can destroy that change and make my nature go back to the old nature I had before. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Marc Roby: And yet, Christians still sin, and sometimes they can sin grievously. Look at King David committing adultery with Bathsheba and then murdering Uriah to try and cover it up. Or Peter denying three times that he even knew Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Those are the two most prominent examples of true believers falling into terrible sin. But they were both ultimately saved, neither one of them lost his salvation. We must remember the system of biblical doctrines represented by TULIP. We were dead in our sins, enemies of God. But because of his divine, eternal, electing love, not conditioned on anything we would or could ever do, he caused us to be born again and granted us the gift of repentance and faith. We do respond of course, but salvation is, ultimately, a sovereign work of God and his purposes cannot be thwarted by anyone. Christ spoke about the security of those who trust in him in John 10:28-29. He said, “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 a glorious promise. My security is not based on my strength, but on God’s strength.

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.”

God elected a certain number of people to eternal life, based on his own good pleasure and purposes, not conditioned on anything they can or did do. Then, in time, he causes each of his chosen people to hear the gospel and he regenerates them, giving them a new heart so that they can respond to the gospel in repentance and faith. He then works with them to sanctify them and he guarantees that he will complete the work he begins. That should not make us be complacent or lazy, quite the contrary, it should encourage us to work extra hard to please God as sinners saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Marc Roby: And so we see that the reformed doctrines represented by the acrostic TULIP, Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints all fit together logically.

Dr. Spencer: And they form a part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. In our next session, I want to move on and start looking at the specific steps in the salvation of a believer, called the order of salvation, or ordo salutis.

Marc Roby: Very well, I look forward to that. And I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’ll do our best to answer you.

[1] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 128

[2] 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.™.

[3] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997, pg. 316

[4] Ibid, pp 316-317

[5] Martin Luther, Romans, pg. 130

[6] J. Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 169

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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 addressed the objection raised by some that this doctrine prevents the gospel from being an honest offer of salvation for everyone. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to cover today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at another objection brought against the doctrine of limited atonement. Arminians and others will insist that we must affirm th at natural man has free will in the sense of being able to accept or reject God’s offer. This is really the same objection, just expressed from a different perspective, but it is worth discussing because the different perspective leads the discussion in a slightly different direction.

Marc Roby: Our discussion last week centered on showing that we can be justly held accountable for decisions we make even though those decisions are, at least in part, a result of our own nature, which is not something we ourselves chose or caused.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good short summary. And the core issue was whether or not our ability limits our responsibility. And that is again the core issue in saying that we must affirm man’s free will but, as I said, the free will perspective leads us in a slightly different direction.

To be precise, the objection assumes that it is unfair of God to judge someone for not responding to the gospel in repentance and faith unless the person is able to do so. In its most extreme form people are viewed as having what is called libertarian free will, which means that their decisions are entirely uncaused. Not only are they not controlled by God, but they are also not controlled by our nature, in other words our desires. They are absolutely free.

Marc Roby: We discussed this topic before and you pointed out, in Session 84, that this view of human free will is really illogical. Unless our decisions are just random events, there must be some reason why we choose one thing as opposed to another.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s true. And not only that, but if our choices were completely uncaused, how could we be held morally accountable for them? They would really just be random events, there wouldn’t be any intention, good or bad, behind them. In a very real sense, we would not be responsible for our choices. In fact, I don’t think you could legitimately call them choices, they would just be events that occurred, and events that involve us but are not deliberately chosen by us. So, far from ensuring that we can be justly held accountable for rejecting the gospel, the idea of libertarian free will destroys human accountability.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting point.

Dr. Spencer: The theologian John Frame makes essentially the same argument. He has a very good short discussion of free will in his book Salvation Belongs to the Lord. He wrote that “if human action were completely uncaused, divorced from our character and desires, it would be a random accident, not a responsible choice. … So, in my judgment libertarian freedom is not the ground of moral responsibility; indeed, it destroys moral responsibility.”[1]

Instead of libertarian free will Frame argues in favor of what is called compatibilist freedom. As the name implies, this is a kind of freedom that is compatible with divine sovereignty. It is also, I would say, a freedom that is compatible with reason and experience.

Marc Roby: Alright, can you explain what this freedom is?

Dr. Spencer: It is the freedom to do what you want to do, within the obvious limits of what is physically possible of course. This is more or less what Jonathan Edwards had in mind in his treatise on free will, which we also discussed in Session 84. In this view, my desires and my logical thinking about consequences and so forth all come into play in my decision making, and when all the factors are considered, I do that which I most want to do.

This freedom is logically compatible with God’s sovereignty because my decisions are not random and God, with his perfect exhaustive knowledge of me and all of my circumstances, can predict with absolute certainty what I will freely do. He can then also change my circumstances or put thoughts in my mind as needed to bring about exactly the end he so desires. But in no case does the Bible teach that God forces me to do anything, I do have compatibilist freedom.

Marc Roby: Very well. Do you have anything more you want to say on the topic?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. The topic is so important that I want look at it in a slightly different way. And John Frame has a more in-depth treatment of human responsibility and freedom in Chapter 8 of his book The Doctrine of God and I think he makes a helpful distinction there between two different uses of the word responsibility.[2]

Marc Roby: What two uses are those?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we sometimes use the word responsibility to refer to accountability, and sometimes to refer to liability. Accountability assumes that there is an authority who is going to judge us and hold us accountable, while liability has to do with our incurring a debt of some sort because of the actual results of our actions. But the results of our actions can depend on things outside of our control and we are not, therefore, always fully liable for them. So, for example, if I am in a traffic accident, I am accountable for my own actions, but if wrong actions by others contribute to the accident making it much worse than it would otherwise have been, I am not fully liable for all of the damages.

Marc Roby: How does that distinction apply to the issue of human freedom?

Dr. Spencer: Well, first, we are fully responsible, in the sense of being accountable, for our actions. God is the ultimate judge of all and will hold everyone accountable. We are even responsible for our moral nature. Frame correctly says that “We are responsible for what we are. We did not individually make ourselves evil by nature, but we are responsible for that evil anyway. Our inheritance from Adam is not the result of our individual choice, but we must bear the guilt of it.”[3]

Marc Roby: I agree that that is the biblical teaching, but it is still hard for people to accept.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, it definitely is hard for us to accept, but it is true. Therefore, if we are Christians, we must embrace it as the truth. And as we’ve noted before, none of us would have done any better than Adam did anyway. God chose the perfect representative. Therefore, there is nothing unfair about it.

In fact, to give a silly example, but one that helps to illustrate the point, imagine some perverse dictator who decides to have a one-on-one basketball game to determine whether or not I get to go on living. I’m much better off if Lebron James plays for me than I would be if I play for myself. Similarly, I think it is safe to assume that Adam was a better representative than I would have been.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a silly, but nonetheless interesting, illustration. And so we are responsible for our actions in the sense of being accountable, even if those actions are determined by our inherited nature. But what about responsibility in the sense of liability? How does that fit into the discussion?

Dr. Spencer: Well, Frame points out correctly that it is biblical to say that ability may, to some extent, limit responsibility in terms of liability. Let me give a biblical example.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: After God gave his people the Ten Commandments, he had Moses give them a number of specific examples for how to apply those commandments. For example, in Exodus 22:2-3 we read that “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” [4]

Marc Roby: The second half of that statement makes it obvious that in the first case, it is assumed that the thief broke into the home during the night. And it would seem that this specific application takes into account the fact that I am more capable of a measured response in the daytime than I would be at night.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is exactly the case, yes. If someone breaks in at night you can’t see as well and may have been awakened out of your sleep and not know if the person is just trying to steal something or is a danger to your person or your family, whereas in the daytime you are better able to properly assess the danger to yourself and your family and to respond in a less drastic way. So, the Bible recognizes that while I am accountable for my actions in both scenarios, I am not equally liable for the results of my actions at night because I am not as capable of properly assessing and responding to the situation.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting example.

Dr. Spencer: And let me give just one more, this time from the New Testament. In Luke 12 Jesus told us about two different servants. In Verses 47-48 we read that he said, “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Marc Roby: That short parable makes a clear point that being given more knowledge or ability or whatever increases our responsibility.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, in terms of our liability, but not in terms of our accountability. Notice that both servants were punished, so both were held accountable. But the one with greater knowledge was punished more severely. His liability was greater because his knowledge was greater.

Marc Roby: Alright, so how does this apply specifically to the case of limited atonement?

Dr. Spencer: Well, first of all, without God, there would be no ultimate accountability at all. Therefore, Frame wrote that “Without God’s control over the universe, there could be no human responsibility.”[5] And he was specifically speaking about responsibility in the sense of accountability in that passage.

Marc Roby: That certainly makes sense. The whole concept of accountability requires that there be someone to whom we are accountable. But what about liability?

Dr. Spencer: Well, when it comes to liability, I think it is clear biblically that people will be judged differently based on how much revelation they have received. For example, in Hebrews 10:26-29 we read that “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

Marc Roby: That should be terrifying to anyone who has been a member of a good church and then walked away from the faith.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should be. And it isn’t the most terrifying passage in that regard. In Hebrews 6:4-6 we read, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”

Marc Roby: You’re right. That’s even more frightening. And praise God that what is impossible with man is possible with God.

Dr. Spencer: Praise God indeed. We also have the parable of the prodigal son to give us hope for those we know who have walked away from the faith. But the point is still powerfully made that the greater our knowledge and experience of the truth, the greater our liability is for rejecting it.

Marc Roby: That is clear. I can also think of another clear verse about our knowledge or ability influencing our liability before God. James warned his readers, in James 3:1, that “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Dr. Spencer: Well, that is not one of my favorite verses, but it does make the point. And tying this all back into the doctrine of limited atonement, I am confident that those who have never heard the gospel will be punished less severely than those who have heard and rejected it. They will still be punished for not seeking God however. We read in Romans 1:20, “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.” But it is still true that the punishment of those with greater revelation will be worse.

Marc Roby: And so God is not unfair in judging all men, independent of whether or not they have heard the gospel message.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God is not unfair to anyone. He treats some people with perfect justice and he treats his elect with mercy. But no one is treated unjustly.

Marc Roby: That’s a very important point.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And so, to wrap up what I want to say about the doctrine of limited atonement, let me simply point out that those who oppose this doctrine don’t do so on the basis of biblical exegesis. Rather, they oppose it because their human reason concludes that it is somehow unfair. Then they try to find biblical support for the position. But, as we saw in our previous sessions on this topic, the supposed support they cite is very weak and is equally compatible with the Reformed doctrine. The biblical position is actually clear if you do not allow yourself to sit in judgment over the Word of God.

Marc Roby: I’m reminded of Paul’s response to man’s objection that God’s electing some people to salvation is unfair. In Romans 9:19 Paul states the objection by writing “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” In other words, how can you blame me for not repenting and believing if I am unable to do so because of my sinful nature? And he then Paul gives us God’s response in Verse 20, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’”

Dr. Spencer: That is the most definitive answer given to us on this topic. Paul would never have had to ask and answer that question if he had been teaching something other than the doctrine of limited atonement.

Marc Roby: We are just about out of time for today, do you have anything else you’d like to add to the discussion?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, in his book Salvation Belongs to the Lord John Frame wrote that “The fundamental point here is not the limited extent of the atonement, though that is a biblical teaching. The fundamental point is the efficacy of the atonement.”[6] In other words, the most important issue biblically is that we uphold the truth that God saves his people. He does not just make salvation possible and leave it up to us, he saves us. We were dead in transgressions and sins as we read in Ephesians 2:1 and God made us alive with Christ as it says in Ephesians 2:5.

John Murray wrote that “when we examine the Scripture we find that the glory of the cross of Christ is bound up with the effectiveness of its accomplishment. Christ redeemed us to God by his blood, he gave himself a ransom that he might deliver us from all iniquity. The atonement is efficacious substitution.”[7] Jesus Christ’s sacrifice actually accomplished our salvation, it did not just make it possible for us to be saved.

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful conclusion. Now let me close by reminding our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’ll do our best to answer you.

[1] John Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, P&R Publishing, 2006, pg. 96

[2] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002

[3] Ibid, pg. 120

[4] 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.™.

[5] Ibid, pg. 125

[6] John Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, P&R Publishing, 2006, pg. 153

[7] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 75

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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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