This series looks at what is commonly referred to as the "5 points of Calvinism", but we're also mot interested in looking at each of these truths, and how they show 5 characteristics of grace. Today's study focuses on limited atonement. Our context and philosophical worldview could cause us to baulk at this topic and the thought that God’s atonement is limited. But limited atonement also means that grace is triumphant. As we unpack this passage in Hebrews 9, let's remember that both these things can be true -- that atonement is limited and also grace is triumphant.
(A) Limited Atonement is Effective (Heb 9:15-17)
Heb 9:15 is somewhat in the middle of an argument, but we can learn from this verse that Jesus is described as a mediator in a new covenant. He is a person in a role of a structure with 2 actions -- there is a calling, and those who are called also receive something. Jesus also offers himself up as death, and as a result, he has redeemed them from transgressions under the first covenant.
There are so many Christian words and Christian ideas here — mediator, new covenant, inheritance, calling, salvation etc etc. We have a tendency to use these words in Christian circles, many times imprecisely used. But let us realise that Hebrews was not written for academics at a conference, and neither is it for the highly elite. It is for struggling Christians, Christians under persecution who seem to be forsaken by God and in God-forsaken circumstance. I’m not sure why we all attend Bible study, but what does Scripture offer you today? What does it say to us? The writer is trying to persuade us to think theologically. He tells us that because Jesus is the mediator of this new covenant, playing this role in this new structure, we who are called have this inheritance, and because He has died, we have been redeemed from our sins. We have an inheritance, and He promised that He has bought us out of sin. We, in Christ are not poor and bankrupt, and not as helpless as we think we are. Nothing we have done cannot be bought back by our Saviour. The mediator has done something, and it means something for us.
In Heb 9:16-17, the writer of Hebrews is trying to persuade us that Jesus really died, and that His death does something, and in His death, something else died with Him — the old covenant. Do you see how legal debate is included in the word of God? Does this surprise you? Does this sound like the world of faith you live in? Furthermore, the effectiveness of that death and the extent of its achievement is also written to persuade us. Jesus did die, it meant something, something happened and it happened for you.
The Bible offers an explanation of what the various events in the Bible mean! Atonement at the very first level is effective. The Bible does not declare information that has no purpose. These words are meant to persuade us of the realities of Jesus’ death. A thousand times a day, we struggle to believe this. The fear of man overshadows who God is. Our immediate concerns trumps the truth that Jesus died to redeem me, and I am a redeemed sinner with an eternal inheritance waiting for me. If you had to sit down and list what the death of Jesus achieved for you, how long would your list be? The writer of Hebrews is trying to draw the links for us and is reminding us of our true identity. Take that to your heart and see the effectiveness of this atonement. Bring it with you to face guilt, shame, anxiety, worry and fear.
(B) Limited Atonement is Necessary (Heb 9:18-22)
The writer of Hebrews explains the design of the Old Covenant to address the meaning of “atonement”. The first part of the covenant involved Moses declaring all the commandments to the people (Heb 9:19). Every part of the law had to be declared because the people were going to be bound by this. They needed to hear it. Then, Moses springs blood of calves and goats on all the people and the book (Heb 9:20). This is important because the covenant was inaugurated by blood (Heb 9:18). This is strange, truthfully. Blood is sacred in all cultures, because it is associated with life and death. For blood to be sprinkled, it meant that the animal is dead and has its life drained out. The covenant is life and death. This is what this symbolized. Breaking it means death, like the animal that was sacrificed.
Heb 9:20 tells us that this was God’s command for His people. Even the tent and the objects of worship were sprinkled in this blood (Heb 9:21). Imagine your place of worship being sprinkled by blood. Atonement in the old covenant was about death. Under the old covenant, those who sinned and broke the law of God died. Atonement is the only thing that ensured that you don’t die immediately because of your sins. Atonement means the act of death substitution for the payment and forgiveness of sins.
But what is the goal of atonement? Why is it so important to connect the need for blood with its goal? The goal of atonement is for the forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22). But why? God insisting it in this way shows the severity of sin, and the infinite worth of the person that is offended (i.e. God). Imagine if you sinned against someone important, say, your mum, and she calls you to kill the dog in order to gain the forgiveness and reconciliation of the relationship. This is pretty intense, but this is infinitely worse against God. We sin against God all the time. We covet our neighbour’s car and doubt all of God’s provisions in that one moment. If we lived in the OT, we would have to take a goat and lay our hands on that goat and have
that blood drained out. But yet we come so flippantly to God with our sins, and have compromised the worth of our God. We come to God with a simple sorry, and quickly proceed to ask for something for us. Atonement forces us to say, what is it that God has done for us to be reconciled back to him! Who are we? Just this day, the sins of our hearts are as high as the smoke that would have filled the community in Leviticus. All the thoughts of our hearts require atonement. All the lustful, man-centred, God-ignoring, selfish, angry thoughts. This is why the hymn writers wrote: full atonement can it be, Hallelujah what a Savior!
This also means that there needs to be a reorientation back to the cross! We need to continually go back to the event where Jesus died, and ask, what did He do and what did He do for me. We need it more than we need physical food or drink, because what good is it to fulfill our physical body if our soul disappears into eternity. There is no moment in this life that we will never need the atonement for Jesus and the grace that we need. We need to remember that “this is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you”. This is for us, not for that person who has backslidden or our non-Christian friend. If we think this way, our hearts are out
of sync with the gospel.
(C) Limited Atonement is Specific (Heb 9:23-28)
The writer of Hebrews goes on to explain that the OT drama of atonement and the covenant was just a vague, imperfect picture of reality. The sacrifices and the objects were but copies of the heavenly reality (Heb 9:23). There is also a better priest in Christ. The writer is arguing that the new covenant is better! What is achieved in this new covenant is so much better and we have something so much better than what they did.
Notice also how at the end of Heb 9:24, Christ appears in the presence of God "on our behalf? The passages are for you. Do you believe this? Look beyond the intellectual arguments. Do you believe that this is for you when you struggle at work, when you struggle with believing whether God loves you? I don’t know what you’re struggling with tonight but take heart. This passage tells us that there is something for us. What exactly is it? Look to the next few verses.
From Heb 9:25-28 we see that Christ's death was:
- not like the yearly priestly sacrifice (Heb 9:25)
- not like a repeated suffering from eternity past (Heb 9:26a)
- once for all, putting sin away (Heb 9:26b)
- just as it is…for man to die…so Christ… (Heb 9:27-28a)
- ….will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but… (Heb 9:28b)
- to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Heb 9:28c)
Thus, the atonement is superior, precious, decisive, guaranteed, effective and specific. Specific for those we are eagerly waiting for Him. How do we address the specificity of this atonement? If the death of Jesus on the cross is so great, why is there hell? If you believe in hell, there is a problem isn’t it.
There are generally 3 views of hell and salvation.
- Universalism -- The Bible is clear that there is a hell, and there will be people in it.
- Inconsistent universalist -- Jesus died for anyone to believe, but it’s up to them to decide whether they want. Is God unable to save all? surely it cannot be, because the death of Jesus on the cross meant something!
- Particularist — Jesus’ death is effective only for a group and not for all. Is God unwilling to save all? Why is this a problem for us? It seems like God is unwilling to save all.
There are some common passages that we commonly use to think about this. John 3:16 tells us that God loves “the world”. Here the world does not mean the expanse of the world, but refers to the world in its rebellion against God. This is consistent with the use of the word “world” in the book of John. In 1 Jn 2:2, we see that God was the propitiation also “for the sins of the whole world”. John is referring to the nations and the broader community beyond the apostolic community. It is also stated clearly in 2 Pet 3:9. God desires repentance in His will of intent, but not in his will of decree. Hell exists, so it doesn’t mean that everyone will be saved automatically.
This is not an easy topic to study and think about. It is challenging, but there are some encouragement from this too. Boice and Ryken in their book "Doctrines of Grace", write, “Calvinism insists that salvation is by grace from beginning to end. Salvation is a gift, in every sense of the word . . . The gift is given to those to whom God chooses to give it; and although it is offered to everyone, it is not given to everyone. When God does choose to grant this gift, however, he effectively places it in the hands of his child; and once it is received, it can never be lost, stolen, or damaged." Our salvation is secure! But how to we rest in this security. We need to consider this: why did Jesus die for me? If He died for me, what does this mean not only for my past, but for all of my days? The atonement of Jesus is effective for all my days because it is specifically for me. If you are in Christ, the atonement is specific and effective for you, (insert name)! Do you believe this?