For Whom Did Christ Die?

July 15, 2016

by Jonathan Gibson

In his epistles, Paul speaks of Christ’s death in both a particularistic way (for a specific group) and a universalistic way (for an undefined, ambiguous group). I would argue that these texts present compatible elements of Paul’s atonement theology. The universalistic texts do not counter the possibility of definite atonement in Paul; rather, they are complementary to it. Close attention to the universalistic texts themselves reveals that the meaning of “many,” “all,” and “world” cannot be simplistically interpreted in each instance as “all without exception” or “every single person.” My analysis reveals four important points when considering the universalistic language in Paul:

First, though Paul had the linguistic arsenal to state unambiguously that there was no one for whom Christ did not die, he chose not to use it. The terms “many,” “all,” and “world” remain undefined and ambiguous, dependent on context for their meaning.

Secondly, the meaning of the universalistic terms “many,” “all,” and “world” is influenced by various contextual factors: (1) an implicit union with Christ (Rom. 5:12–21; 2 Cor. 5:14–15); (2) an ecclesiological context in which the apostle is confronting false teaching that promoted an elitist and exclusivist culture in the church (1 Tim. 1:4–7; 4:1–8; Titus 1:10, 14–15; 3:9); (3) a literary context where the focus is on “all kinds of people” (1 Tim. 2:4–6; 4:10; Titus 2:11–14); (4) a redemptive-historical context whereby Paul is presented as Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 22:15); (5) a theological context in which monotheism is the basis for the gospel being for all people (1 Tim. 2:5–6; cf. Rom. 3:27–31); and (6) inner-biblical connections with texts in the New and Old Testaments (1 Tim. 2:6; cf. Matt. 20:28//Mark 10:45; cp. Isaiah 53; Titus 2:14; cp. Ezek. 37:23). Attention to these factors constrains us from concluding that Paul has a distributive meaning to his universalistic terminology.

Thirdly, a text such as Colossians 1:20, in which the universal impact of Christ’s atoning work is spotlighted, turns out to be inconsequential for discussions over the extent of Christ’s substitutionary death: to argue retrospectively from the universal extent in his death is an illegitimate deduction. As Romans 8:19–23 demonstrates, the universal restoration of the whole creation is premised on a particular redemption—the adoption of the sons of God.

Fourthly, the “perishing” texts of Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11 (cf. Acts 20:28) were shown in the end to support definite atonement rather than universal atonement; and those who wish to employ them in defense of a universal atonement must answer to the repercussions for the perseverance of the saints: some for whom Christ died are saved and then finally lost.

With these points in mind, it is now reasonable to see how Paul’s universalistic language is more than compatible with his particularism. Two important qualifications, however, are necessary:

First, in arguing for a non-distributive meaning to the terms “many,” “all,” and “world,” I do not wish to suggest that by these terms Paul means “many elect,” “all the elect,” or the “world of the elect.” If there have been some Reformed interpreters who have argued like this, then their exegesis is unfortunate. Calvin has proved to be a better example to follow: he does not fall foul of interpreting the term “all” in 1 Timothy 2 as meaning “all the elect” on the one hand, or of arguing that the apostle intends the meaning “all without exception” on the other hand. Rather, there is a third option, “all sinners without distinction.” As Calvin argued, discussion of predestination is irrelevant to context, but neither does that drive him to conclude that “many” and “all” must therefore necessarily mean “everyone.” Paul’s language is deliberately undefined and ambiguous, and all sides in the debate should respect this.

The reason that at times Paul employs universalistic language in relation to the atonement is because he is confronting heresy in the church that promoted salvation for an elite and exclusive few. Paul is emphatic in such contexts: Christ died for all, for the world, for Jew and Gentile. The terms are redemptive-historical: Paul views the gospel as the end of the ages in which God’s grace and love is to be proclaimed to all peoples of the earth. He is the “great universalizer of the gospel.” In this regard, the “all without distinction” meaning should be seen for what it actually is: all-inclusive all-embracing—no one is left out: not Gentile, not women, not slave, not barbarian, not children, not elderly, not poor, not white, not black—not anyone!

Secondly, the organic dimension of those for whom Christ died must not be neglected in Paul’s atonement theology. Paul presents Christ’s death for individuals (Gal. 2:20), but also for organic wholes (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25; 2 Cor. 5:19). As Husband and Head, Christ died for his bride and body; as Cosmic Savior, he died for the world; and as the Last Adam, he died for a new humanity. In this regard, Christ truly is the Savior of the world—an innumerable number of people from every tribe and language and nation.

This piece is adapted from Jonathan Gibson, “For Whom Did Christ Die? Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective, eds. David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 328–330. Used with permission of the publisher.

Jonathan Gibson

Dr. Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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