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Catechism Class: LD15, Q37, the Extent of the Atonement.


Catechism Class LORD’S DAY 15 Q37

The Extent of the Atonement.


We are looking at Lord’s Day 15, which is an examination of the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that reads, “Suffered under Pontius Pilot.”  That phrase prompts our instructor to ask some very important questions indeed, and to raise issues that are critical to the Christian faith.  For example:

  • What is the extent of Christ’s atonement?  In other words, to whom is the salvation that he purchased for us at the cross applied?  
  • What is the duration and extent of his suffering?  Was it just at the cross?  
  • What was the nature of that suffering, the true depths of suffering that he endured for me?  
  • What was the PURPOSE of His suffering? The the relationship between suffering and sacrifice?
  • What are the consequences of his suffering, personally, upon those who are the recipients of the grace it bestows? 
  • If Christ suffers for us on body and soul, what are the implications for believers?

We could never deal with all of these important issues in one twenty minute lesson.  So we are going to divide this catechism question into several parts, over several lessons.  In this lesson, we will ask one of the most important questions of all, a question that has divided opinion among evangelicals for generations.  For whom did Christ die?  Or, to put it better, “What is the extent of the atonement?”  We shall briefly look at the three main theories about the extent of the atonement, and we shall attempt to get a better understanding of one of the most misquoted verses in the bible, John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  Before we begin, let’s read the scriptures, and then let’s learn the catechism question and answer:-

Isaiah 53:12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.  1 Peter 2:24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.  So our catechist asks us: What do you understand by the word “suffered?”  The answer we must give in reply is, That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race in order that by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.

The question of the extent of the atonement has been an ongoing debate in the visible church for hundreds, if not thousands of years!  There are three basic positions:-

  1. Christ died for everyone, so therefore everyone will be saved.  This is often known as ‘universalism.’  People who hold this view, and there are many in the visible church, believe that when Jesus died on the cross, his death procured salvation everyone, whether they know it or not, whether they believe it or not.  After all if God is all-powerful, and Christ’s death is for all sinners, then all sinners must surely be saved, even those who are unrepentant!   So, they would argue that everyone will go to heaven when they die, Moslems, Hindus, Confucians, even atheists!  When challenged by texts like John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me, they will simply say that they agree!  That no-one will be in heaven without Jesus, and that the atheists and agnostics and panthiests and animists will all be in heaven, not because of their deficient religion, but because of their inclusion in the atonement purchased by Christ on the cross.  It was for that very reason that some of the more liberal missionary societies went out to foreign lands, – not to convert people to Christ, but to improve their education, to make them better more civilised people, so that they would have a better life on this earth – after all their eternal destiny is already secure.  On Talkback on Radio Ulster, back in 2007, a Methodist minister from east Belfast was being interviewed about the death of a prominent local politician at an early age. I had only met that politician on one occasion, at a funeral, but his views were public knowledge.  He had no time for religion, and certainly no time for evangelicalism.  The presenter, David Dunseath, asked the minister if the politician, whom Dunseath regarded as a ‘good man’ and a ‘peacemaker’ would be in heaven. The minister stuttered for a few seconds before agreeing, that yes, the politician would be there. Wrong answer.  The correct answer would have been, “We’ll leave that to God to judge! . I wonder was that minister a universalist?   
  2. Christ’s Death is for the whosoever will. We often refer to this as ‘arminianism.’ This second position is better known to us – in evangelicalism.  It is the view that prevails in most modern evangelical churches, – the belief that Jesus’ death was for everyone in the whole world, in every age, but that in order to avail of that atoning work, the sinner must respond,  must do something, for example, make a ‘decision’ or in very extreme cases, like in the American ‘Church of Christ’ – ‘obey the gospel’ – a euphemism for baptismal regeneration.  So the Arminian believes that Christ died for all sinners but that only those who believe will be saved.  There’s the difficulty.  How can a sinner who is spiritually rotten to the core, whose heart is deceitful and desperately wicked make such a decision?  We’ll come back to this in a few minutes.
  3. Christ died for those who are his.  This is often called Calvinism, because this doctrine was stated quite clearly by the reformer John Calvin, although it was not ‘invented’ by him – It was the doctrine of the Apostle Paul!  Calvinists believe in the total depravity and sinfulness of man, and his inability to save himself,  so therefore God must initiate the process.  He des this even before the foundation of the world by choosing out a people for himself, – his ‘elect’ and in his love drawing them to himself with irresistible unmerited favour – his grace.  They respond to that divine work by believing and trusting in Christ, resting upon his finished work on the cross, and, now fully aware of and utterly abhorring their sinful lost condition, repenting of all their sins, and serving the Lord.  Thus Christ’s work on the cross is specifically for his own people.  As the promise to Joseph is given in Matthew 1:21, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.”  So Calvinists believe in a ‘particular redemption’ – sometimes also referred to as ‘limited atonement.’ 1 John 4:10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Romans 3:25-26 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

There are other opinions of course.But these are the three main views of the extent of the atonement.  The second two, Arminianism and Calvinism, always cause controversy among sincere Christian brothers and sisters.  Some years ago, the denomination that I belong to was renewing their constitution, and the existing constitution contained a fairly basic statement of faith – a minimum doctrinal standard, to which each individual independent church must subscribe, to remain in fellowship with the others.  A committee was set up to review the matter and report to the General Executive Committee, the final draft then to go to Assembly for debate and ratification.  The process has never been completed, because when the proposals reached the first hurdle, the Executive Committee, the issue of the extent of the atonement was debated so fiercely by good and godly brethren, that no agreement could be reached.  One fellow minister, a godly respected man, long into retirement, was almost in tears, as he defended the arminian position, claiming that he could not stand before his God in good conscience if he belonged to a denomination that did not believe that Christ died for all and that all men everywhere do not have the opportunity to be saved. That was how seriously, people took this matter, and how fervently and passionately they defended their positions.  

10 Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
in chains of iron held;
11 They scorned the ways of God Most High,
against his words rebelled

12 And so he made them labour hard
in bitterness and shame.
They stumbled, and they could not rise;
to help them no one came.

13 Then to the LORD they cried for help;
he saved them from their doom.
14 He broke away their cruel chains
and brought them out of gloom.

15 So let them thank him for his love,
the deeds which he achieves—
16 Because he breaks down gates of bronze
and iron bars he cleaves.

So, how did Zacharius Ursinus, our ancient instructor deal with the problem of determining the extent to the atonement? To cast some light on this we need to do some history.  It was in the 16th Century, that the Elector Frederick III of the Rhineland Palatinate decided that it would be good to have a book of basic instructions for the laity in his dukedom. The Palatinate at that time was predominantly Lutheran, but with a growing and vociferous Calvinistic minority, and there were doctrinal tensions between the two branches of protestantism.  Some of these tensions centred around the doctrines of the extent of the atonement, and the nature and purpose of the sacraments.  Ursinus was a ‘Calvinist’ who was trying to encourage and promote Calvinistic theology without incurring the wrath of the Lutherans.   Frederick decided to commission a catechism that would bring the two sides together, and bring religious harmony throughout his dukedom.  The proposed catechism was put together at the university of Heidelberg, and credits the faculty there for its composition, but it was largely the work of Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus. The new catechism would combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed theology and would counter the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, by its constant references to scripture.  It succeeded, in my opinion, by introducing a splendid blend of moderate calvinism, a biblical statement on the atonement that the Lutherans could buy into, and with the removal of Lutheran sacramentalism, one that the Calvinists would find acceptable.

Some have questioned whether, in Lord’s Day 15 Ursinus is going too far to accommodate the Lutherans.  As a Calvinist, should he not be clearly stating that Christ died only for the elect?  But give careful consideration to what the writers are actually saying. To help us, let’s consider John 3:16, one of the most misquoted evangelical proof-texts used by Arminians and semi-Pelagians to cast doubt upon the doctrine of particular redemption. Let’s remind ourselves of that verse again: John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Consider these points:-

  1. When ‘proof-texting’ this verse, evangelicals will stress the world ‘whosoever’.  That’s not even grammatical!  The ‘whosoever’ has an inbuilt modifier – WHOSOEVER WILL and cannot be read without that modifier, just because it suits you own theories better.  That ‘whosoever’ is conditional upon belief on the part of the one who would experience Christ’s forgiveness.  Jesus confirms this in John 6:44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.  So, the ‘whosoever believeth’ is not really a problem – unless you just ignore the modifier, which is poor exegesis.
  2. Whosoever will, WON’T! In Romans 3, Paul writes, 3:10-12 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. That’s a pretty conclusive and damning assessment of man’s ability and willingness to come to Christ and seek forgiveness in his own strength and ability. And it is not alone in the scriptures.  We are taught in scripture that in our unregenerate state, we are DEAD in our trespasses and sins.  Ephesians 2:1 And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Colossians 2:13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Now, let’s follow the analogy through.  Dead people don’t and can’t make any decision to come to life.  The state of deadness precludes that decision.  In context, John 3:16 comes immediately after Christ’s teaching to Nicodemus on being ‘born again’. By any stretch of the imagination, birth is not for ‘the whosoever’ – it is something that we have no choice in, no control over whom our parents are, the date of our birth, our nationality or our status or our gender.  Birth is not something we can choose to do.  An equally valid translation of ‘born again’ is ‘born from above’ which gives us the sense of birth being the wilful act of our father.  Furthermore, our sinful rebellion against God affects every part of our person, our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our will – all are ruined by sin and all are incapable of comprehending God’s means of salvation, – thinking ourselves to be righteous, we go about parading our own good works and worthiness. Romans 1:21-22 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, Unless we are awakened to our true state by the Holy Spirit we will never accept that we need a Saviour and turn to Christ.  
  3. But God loves the WORLD!  The other (and in my opinion) the really difficult part of this verse is the reference to God’s love for the WORLD that he gave His only Son.  Was Christ’s death for everyone in the whole world?  If so are all people saved, since Jesus died for all?  Obviously not, otherwise hell would be empty!  Or is God not sovereign?  Is it that he wants to save us, but isn’t omnipotent enough to do so? But why read more into this than necessary.  To say ‘world’ in a non-Christian context would imply the ‘earth’ – the planet upon which we live.   – The Greek word translated as world is simply κόσμον – the word from we get cosmos.  It could also simply mean the created world, the earth and the universe.  Some may attempt to argue that Christ’s death was not for trees and animals and soil and the created order, it was for people.  Yes, that’s true, in that mankind is God’s special creation, the pinnacle of his creative activity.  But there is no doubt that creation is deeply affected by the Saviour’s death.  Romans 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.  Paul is telling us that God loved His Creation, and it too will be ‘redeemed,’ indeed there will, one day be a new heaven and a new earth.  But is this the primary meaning of the text, when Jesus was speaking about how a sinner may enter the Kingdom of God?  Is there not a more contextual application of the verse?
  4. The solution.  I don’t insist that anyone else agrees with me on this matter, but the belief expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism is that Christ’s death is SUFFICIENT for all the sins of all mankind, but is EFFICIENT only for those who are His, by election from before the foundation of the world.  In other words that the fulness of God’s wrath for every sin, whatever and whenever, was laid upon Jesus at the Cross, and he bore it for us.  This is one of the reasons why our redeemer had to be divine.  No mere man could have borne that awful burden.  But how is that atoning work applied to our hearts!  Only by grace through faith in Christ, and since grace cannot be earned or deserved, and faith is the gift of God, then only those whom God has chosen can receive the forgiveness for sin obtained by Christ at the cross.  This is not to be confused with the so-called “Four point Calvinism” which denies particular redemption and at the same time it does not detract from the positive atonement of the elect at the Cross.   Let’s look at the Canons of Dort, one of the other documents in the Three Forms of Unity:-

The Canons of Dort,  Second Point of Doctrine

Article 3: The Infinite Value of Christ’s Death,  This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

Article 8: The Saving Effectiveness of Christ’s Death. For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all the elect, in order that God might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that Christ should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death). It was also God’s will that Christ should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.

The sufficient/efficient distinction satisfies texts like 1 John 2:1-2  My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.  And it simultaneously satisfies texts that indicate that salvation through Christ’s atoning death was NOT something offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis but was to fully atone for the sins of the elect. Like:  1 John 4:10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Romans 3:25-26 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Well, this topic is difficult!  If you haven’t followed it all, please don’t despair.  Listen to the podcast again, and read the transcript, and check out all the Bible verses – and more!  Be a good Berean.  Join in the conversation, in the Heidelberg Catechism Facebook group, or contact me directly by emailing  

Podcast – AirDate: 2nd November 2021

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