It's true. Only a twisted reading of this chapter of scripture, ignoring plain logic, can yeild any other result. The fact that man's religious tradition has forced many intelligent and good people to read it in another way is a shame. That said, the time for the reformation of our understanding of God's plan of salvation is at hand. A greater vision is contained in the Bible than most see. Yet. As our understanding of faith and God has advanced in many ways, Salvation Theology will experience a renaisannce as clarity is returned and we can once again see what Jesus and the Apostles taught so clearly in the early church.
This short paper is intended to examine the scriptures that relate to the scope and power of atonement. There are many other aspects of atonement (necessity of, mechanism of, etc.) that we will not deal with herein, at least not in depth. These topics are all connected with the one at hand and would be appropriate to study to add further depth to the basic concepts we shall establish in this work. It is important to logically orient our facts in the order of primacy that they deserve in answering the question, however, so nothing that is discovered outside of this treatment will, we believe and assert, contradict the scriptures we shall examine, being many of the primary texts relating to the power and scope of the blessed atonement provided by the grace of God through our most wonderful and exalted Lord Jesus Christ. Once the power and scope of atonement are established, we can move on to understanding the particulars freely and with confidence in the foundation already laid. To Him be Glory in the Church and in our lives as He works out the plan of the ages in loving service to our mighty Father God and for the happiness and exceedingly great joy of all!
What is the scope and power of Atonement?
First, we must deal with the scriptures describing atonement directly and the scope that is stated.
Romans 5 is a primary text in this regard:
Rom. 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Rom. 5:6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
A key principle here is that the work of atonement was done by God for us in Jesus Christ when we were powerless and when we did not look for His help. In other words, Atonement is God’s peculiar and particular work, which was accomplished by an interaction or transaction between the Father and the Son. It is not man’s work (as Ephesians 2:9 tells us – “not of works lest any man should boast”) it is the work of God by justifying us, which is to say, making us right before God and then giving us the faith to receive this truth, which again is God’s work. This is not to say man has no responsibility in life. It IS indeed to say that the most important work has been solely reserved to the hand of God and His sovereign design and action. God does not leave the question of Man’s destiny in the hands of Man. God, as the loving father and sovereign of the universe, reserves and commands that responsibility to Himself. As we consider whether salvation belongs to Man or God or some combination thereof, we can have confidence when we understand that it is not within Man’s ability to chose his ultimate destiny. Were it possible for Man to make that most important choice, we would live in constant fear and dread for ourselves, our loved ones and indeed all mankind, for we are fickle creatures, changing our minds often and unable to stay the course consistently even when we do make up our minds. If we admit our true ability and nature, we will be much better off than if we live in a fantasy world of an exalted “sovereign will of Man” that simply doesn’t exist!
No, God reserved and preserved the choice of salvation to Himself. This is at once obvious and clear when we consider the question logically and without prejudice and without attempting to puff ourselves up. Why would a sovereign and wise God leave such a momentous question in the hands of mortal, failing creatures? Such would be, at the minimum, an extremely bad idea, especially given the fact that God knows full well how fickle we are! Additionally, we would do well to recognize that Almighty God created Man, knows the future absolutely and so Man’s poor choices are neither unknown to God nor unplanned for by God. This is implicit within the doctrine of God and His fore-knowledge that the scripture absolutely declares.
Of course, some will set up a straw man argument at this point (if you are unfamiliar with the term Straw Man Argument, please look it up) and say that “God doesn’t create robots”. By God reserving the determination of salvation to Himself, He has not created a robot. In many areas of life, we do not have authority but that does not make us robots. It is a plainly false and illogical accusation that, because God reserves the question of our salvation to Himself, we are robots since we clearly have other choices that God has delegated to us to make! If we were robots, this would not be the case. Further, this argument tries to say that Man has ultimate sovereignty in his own choices, which is obviously not true. Many of the most important things that shape how we decide things in life are out of our control. We make choices based on our hormonal make-up, whether we are male or female, what time in history we were born in, what country we were born in, the nutritional choices of our parents, the financial status of ourselves and our community, our genetic predisposition to certain personality traits, etc. All of these push us in one direction or another and affect our choices and limit or coerce our will. Thus, we have very limited choices in life, based on our construction at birth and our environment. We are not completely free of outside influence. Our choices are pushed and pulled and molded by many factors outside of our control, thus we are not “free moral agents” in any kind of complete sense. This should be obvious to all. But these influences do not make us robots either. We have some choices and God has reserved to Himself some choices regarding us. He holds us accountable for the choices He has delegated into our authority and He drives us to other conform to the choices He has made in His authority. This is clear throughout scripture, especially when dealing with the situation of the hardening of Pharoah’s heart, the forced conversion of Paul on the road, the calling of each of the disciples when commanded by Jesus to follow and so many other examples. God “forced” each situation. When it comes to salvation, God is not a gentleman! And praise God that He is not! He knows that decision is too great for us and therefore we can have confidence, not in our own decision which we can revoke at any time and can’t be depended on to make in the first place, but rather in the power, love, wisdom and sovereignty of God. To rob God of the choice in salvation is, in this writer’s determination, to set up Man as a God. The determination of who will ultimately be in God’s kingdom is that momentous of a choice.
Rom. 5:9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
We are told that Atonement saves us from God’s wrath in some way. Does that mean, in light of other scriptures, that we do not undergo any punishment? Hebrews 12 tells us that God “scourges every son whom he receives”. We DO receive punishment that leads to correction. In light of the Atonement, however, we know that we do not suffer the wrath of God that is the legal result of our sinful lives. Remember, this discussion of Atonement by Paul speaks to the ultimate work of Christ on the Cross for us and our ultimate position in Him, not necessarily all the specific details and the timing of each of our individual realization of the atonement. The full wrath that is deserved by our sin would utterly destroy us. The Atonement will save us from this full wrath of God.
10 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! 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Notice again the explanation that we were reconciled while we were enemies, not when we “asked” Him to save us. This is an important distinction to make since it was not Man that asked for or even knew he needed reconciliation, but rather God knew we needed it and provided it as an unasked for gift when we were still enemies of God. Think in terms of what this would mean were it applied to us and our enemies. It would mean that we gave our enemy the greatest gift we could give when our enemy still hated us and didn’t want anything from us. This is the kind of love and the kind of gift in atonement that God has provided. Not a response to our asking for a relationship with Him, but His providing it to us when we didn’t want it. That is a true miraculous gift and it clearly shows that ALL the glory for salvation and atonement for our sin accrues to God alone!!
Rom. 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned — 13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
Here we have a discussion of how sin entered the world. This is crucial because Paul is here building a comparative case between Sin and Atonement. It will be important to fully understand this comparison when we get to Atonement.
What we see here is that through a single man (Adam), all people have inherited sin. One man, one transaction doomed the entire creation to be caught and bound in sin. Part of what is being communicated here is the concept of inheritance with regard to our basic condition of life and death. Because of Adam’s sin, we have inherited death, which puts us out of fellowship with God. It is clear here that we did not fall out of fellowship with God because of our own actions, but rather because we have what might be referred to as a genetic inheritance from Adam. That inheritance is Sin and Death, the dual operation of rebellion to God. Every person conceived since the time of Adam has had this inheritance and is therefore under the curse and condemnation of sin. Every person conceived is also out of fellowship with God because of this inheritance. Some will complain that it is not fair that we have sin and death and are out of fellowship with God through no fault of our own. Indeed this would be unfair according to Biblical standards of fairness if God did not provide a complete remedy. So while there appears to be temporary unfairness, it is only because it sets the stage for a greater good that affects all those who have been affected by the inherited sin and death. Keep in mind this principle of inheritance as we move forward and understand God’s remedy. Remember that logically, the remedy must be at least equal to the curse.
It is here important to call out a specific problem with the translation. Romans 5:12 above, as translated, doesn’t make much sense. In essence, as translated above, it tells us that we all inherited sin from Adam BECAUSE we all sinned. But this is contrary to the rest of the passage as well as to common sense and logic. The word translated BECAUSE is the Greek phrase Eph Ho and, in looking at other passages in which these words appear and their context, this means “on which”. In other words, sin and death entered in the world ON WHICH we all then sin. This is in perfect concord with this passage and others uses of that Greek phrase. Because we inherit sin from Adam, we then commit sin and have death from our first moment of existence.
To further illustrate this point, Paul tells us that Sin and Death are two parts of the same equation. Two sides of a single coin, so to speak. Death comes simultaneously because of Sin. If we didn’t have death until we commit a single sin (which would be case if we were to say death comes because we sin), then abortion would be impossible for the child in the womb has not sinned. But this is not the case. The child in the womb has sin and death not “because all sinned” or because he/she sinned, but rather because he inherited from Adam “on which” he will sin later. Therefore, he is mortal and can die. Any other interpretation does violence to the Greek language, grammar and syntax and to simple logic and common sense.
How Effective was Christ’s Work?
Rom. 5:15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!
First, we are told that the Gift (atonement) is greater in some way than the original trespass. How? The rest of the passage defines the “greaterness” in terms of scope of application and scope of result. Scope of application is how many does the gift apply to. When he says it applies to “many”, how do we understand what “many” means? Clearly, we all understand that “many” in this scripture means “everyone ever born”. We are compelled by logic and consistency to carry this meaning through the rest of Paul’s dealing with this thought. Some have tried to define “many” as two different things in the same thought, which militates against sound thinking, logic and grammar. To make that assertion is to complete destroy the meaning of the passage and to completely confuse any possible consistency and logic.
Let’s take an example of what two different definitions of “many” could do in the same passage. If we allow “many” to be different IN THE SAME PASSAGE, then we would be free to make it mean anything based on our idea. It could mean “all who are over 5 feet tall” or “anyone that likes baseball better than basketball”. In other words, to wrest the definition of “many” from the context of these scriptures is to abolish all meaning for it. “Many” MUST be understood by the context of these scriptures in which the word occurs.
We also see that the “greaterness” here discussed has to do with the qualitative aspect of the atonement being greater than the qualitative degradation of the original sin.
Remember our discussion above of inheritance. We see here that the “gift” and “grace” are the remedies to the trespass. It is very important to recognize that “gift” and “grace” are both actions taken by God, outside of the choice and will of the trespasser! In other words, just as the trespasser (sinner) did nothing to inherit Adam’s sin and death, they also did nothing to cause God to give a gift (which we all understand as being one sided) and grace (which is unmerited, unasked for favor). Again, we see that Paul is making clear that God is the mover in these things, not Man. Is it any wonder that He declares, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Ps. 3, Jonah 2,) and “grace is not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2)?
To recap Romans 5:15, we can only conclude that the same group “the many” that inherited sin and death from Adam will inherit grace and atonement from Christ. And remember, it is not by man that atonement comes (not by mans ability or by mans choice, as Paul proved earlier in the passage) but rather the particular work of God alone. Jesus was correct when we said that no one comes to God except God draws them and He was also correct when he said that, if He (Jesus) were lifted up on the cross, He would drag (the literal Greek translation of the word sometimes translated draw) ALL men to Himself. If we limit the “many” that atonement applies to in the above verse, we are forced by logic and grammar to equally limit the “many” that sin applies to. Those that limit the “many” of atonement unwittingly and unwillingly are saying that some do not have sin! This is inescapable. We cannot logically limit the “many” that atonement applies to without utterly destroying the passage and any hope of understanding it.
Paul makes clear again the principle of inheritance in comparing the work of Adam, which brought sin and death, with the work of Christ that brings life and fellowship with God. Both are done by one man, both apply to the exact same scope of people and both pass to those people through inheritance at some point. Paul does not here discuss the mechanism for inheriting either, however. We understand that it is our Conception that is the mechanism for us to inherit Adamic sin. It is not later; it is from the womb. We understand that the mechanism by which all inherit life is our Confession of Christ. It does not happen all at once, obviously, just as all people are not born all at once, but Christ made clear that all people WOULD indeed Confess with their tongue (Phil 2:11, Rom. 14:11, Is. 45:23) and that “confession is made to salvation” (Rom. 10:10). Jesus said it in John 12:32, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” The word here translated draw, as we have previously mentioned, is the same Greek word used later by Paul to indicate the method by which people compel each other to go to court and is there translated “drag”. Obviously, one does not cajole or ask another to come to court for a lawsuit – they force them to. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with Christ over-ruling our supposed “free will” but nevertheless, this is what He said He would do. Indeed, for Paul to be correct in Romans 5, Christ promised that He WILL do it! There is no other option for us to understand these things and maintain sound thinking and logic.
16 Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Here is the seeming “out” that some have tried to say limits atonement. “those who receive”. Some fundamental errors are made in attempting this slight of hand trick with the passage. First, we have already established on the authority of Jesus that no one receives God’s grace unless God moves them too. Therefore, the rest of passage that shows that God will make all receive His grace (which is the only way any one can receive it) is not abrogated by this statement. Logically, our only option for understanding this verse is within the context of the rest of the passage. It is simply saying that WHEN we receive God’s provision (or providing of) grace it is so much greater and more wonderful in comparison in scope than the sin.
Since we all receive Christ at different times, the above naturally tells us that the “receiving of Christ” allows us to “reign in life”. The question this passage answers is a question of the here and now. Those who receive Christ now “reign in life” through Jesus. It does not deal with scope or quantity, as those have already been established by Paul, but rather deals with quality of life.
Rom. 5:18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
One must ask, why does Paul make the statements he does in verses 18 and 19. They seem almost redundant, do they not? They are a repetition of what we have previously heard in this chapter, that one act of sin brings sin to a certain group (also known as everyone who has ever lived) and that a counterbalancing act of righteousness of another, Jesus Christ, brings the cure to that same group (everyone who has ever lived).
It would appear that Paul states this these 2 last times in this chapter because the reality of it is difficult for us to truly believe and therefore he wants to be absolutely sure we understand his meaning and what he is teaching about atonement! Clearly, again, Paul is painting a picture about a group that is called in verse 18 by the name “all men”. Paul says that one trespass, that of Adam, brought condemnation to this group. How many of this group participate? There is no choice in the matter. All receive the condemnation because they inherit it from Adam. And then again, he says that one act of righteousness brings life for that same group. For Paul’s logic and grammar to work, the result must be the same in scope and reverse the condemnation. So Paul tells us in a clear and unambiguous equation that the cure is inherited (remember our discussion of inheritance above) just like the sin was inherited. It therefore affects the same group. Let us keep in mind that this “inheritance” comes through the mechanism of Confession, which God promises will be upon the lips of all people at some point.
Then in verse 19, we have Paul stating it in slightly different terms. Here Paul draws the same equation again, saying the affected group is the same. In this one, however, Paul tells us that the sin that was inherited by all people (“the many” in this verse we understand to be everyone because we know that everyone has inherited sin – we cannot limit the many in this verse to a group less than everyone who has ever been born without saying that some have not inherited sin) and as a result of this inheritance of sin from Adam, they were “made sinners”. They had no choice. They were “made” that way by the external act of their first parent. No one has a problem with this idea. Some have a problem with the second half of the verse, even though it is a repetition of the previous parts of the chapter. Paul says that because of Christ’s work on the cross, “the many” (the same group as the first part of the verse) will “be made” righteous. Again, just as “the many” had no choice in being “made sinners”, they have no choice in being “made righteous”. We cannot twist this verse to give them a choice in being “made righteous” without the corresponding choice of whether or not they are “made sinners”. This is where the critic of the idea of universal reconciliation has no logical, grammatically possible escape. If you limit the number of people within “the many” that are “made righteous”, you must also limit the number of people that are contained within “the many” that are “made sinners”. By doing this, you effectively contradict scripture that says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. You cannot change the meaning of the words in one part of a sentence, such as the meaning of “the many”, and still retain any meaning. Under normal circumstances, everyone would say, “well, that’s so obvious a rule of language that a first grader knows it”. However, in this case, so many people have a problem with the clear language of Paul that they succumb to the temptation to do violence to this passage by changing the meaning of words from one part of the sentence to the other. It is true that the meanings of these words could be different in different passages, depending on the context. But the same words and phrases within a specific sentence must retain their meanings throughout. There is no other option.
Similarly, we cannot change the meaning of the word “made” within the context of the sentence. If we say that the “made” referring to those “made righteous” is some kind of less than absolute action and therefore may depend on the action or choice of the individual, we are forced to do the same for the same word when applied earlier in the sentence to those who were “made sinners”. No one is willing to do that (at least no one with a respect for scriptures and rational thinking) so therefore no one should be willing to do that with regard to being “made righteous”. Just as no one has a choice in being “made sinners”, no one will ultimately have a choice in being “made righteous”. This is what the scripture says and, as uncomfortable for some as it may be, we are obligated to God to believe Him!
The methodology, as described elsewhere in the scripture, by which each are “made righteous” is the one we all understand: confession of Jesus Christ. And the scriptures assures us, as we have already discovered, that “every knee” will bow and “every tongue” will confess. These scriptures are so clear that it baffles the logical thinker about how people can arrive at an alternative conclusion. But so strong is our emotional need to be above others, different from the rest or have something that someone else doesn’t have, that we set rational thinking aside when it comes to the ultimate destiny of all. To say that all people will, as declared clearly by these verses, ultimately have a position in God’s kingdom makes people emotionally uneasy. Therefore, they emotionally rebel against logic and interpret these verses in a way that destroys the meaning. The objection is, at it’s root, emotional not logical. But emotionalism is not a good interpretive tool. We should allow the mind of Christ, which is organized and logical, to rule our reading. If we do so, we will not be caught in emotional objections to the reconciliation of all.
Rom. 5:20 The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Where Sin increased, grace increased more. This is yet another comparative statement made by Paul regarding the relationship of Sin and Grace. Again, Paul shows us that Grace is greater IN MEASURE than Sin! This is a quantitative statement, is it not? Where there is Sin, there is more Grace. And what would be the logical and obvious outcome of this statement? What would be the purpose of God in making Grace abound more than Sin in any situation? Clearly, to provide a remedy for sin. Not a “possible” remedy, but an actual remedy. For if it were only a “possible” remedy, then God has delegated His sovereignty to fate. Is Fate a god? Heaven forbid such silly thoughts.
Then, we see that Grace increased all the more SO THAT it might REIGN to bring eternal life through Jesus. Is reigning a weak or soft word, subject to man’s acceptance or will? Reign is a word denoting, in the strongest possible terms, kingship and power. Grace is not some wimpy “I hope you accept this” doctrine. No, grace REIGNS! Righteousness REIGNS! Jesus REIGNS! The King does not ask for your permission to save you. He commands you to be saved. He “drags” all men to His cross, there to fall down on their knees and confess that Jesus is their Lord which makes Him their Savior! And today, you and I, if we have Jesus as our Lord and Savior, have a special relationship with Him. As Paul told Timothy, Jesus is the savior of ALL men, ESPECIALLY those that believe (1 Tim 4:10). We have a special relationship with Him because we believe today. But that does not say that ALL MEN will never believe. It simply indicates a special place due to timing and the grace of God coming to us earlier.
Now, let us deal with another aspect of Paul’s teaching regarding atonement in Romans 5. In some commentaries, there is an admission that what Paul seems to be teaching here is Universal Reconciliation. However, they say, it can’t be because other scriptures show it not to be true. Let us consider that. Do you think Paul knew that his language “seems to indicate” that all will ultimately be reconciled to God? Obviously he did. If that wasn’t what he really meant, would he not put some kind of crystal clear disclaimer to say that this is not what he really meant? Obviously he would. Remember, Paul was an educated man, a legal scholar some say. Words were clearly important to him. That is immediately clear from reading his letters. If the plain and obvious meaning through this long set of verses were not actually his meaning, he would have told us. He would have put in modifiers or an escape clause or two so that the reader didn’t get confused. Further, recall that the New Testament had not been put into a single work at the point Paul sent this letter. The Romans he was writing to had the Old Testament and Paul’s letter. Therefore, there would be nothing that would clearly modify Paul’s teaching on Universal Reconciliation to which anyone could point to say that Paul really didn’t mean “all men” when he said “all men” in reference to the scope of atonement. The old phrase, the silence is deafening applies here, in regard to anything the Romans would have had to modify Paul’s teaching.
And for us today, the same is true. There is nothing elsewhere in scripture that discusses atonement that indicates a limited scope when considered in the context of the whole. Romans 5 provides possibly the most complete discussion of atonement in the New Testament. And it is clear. The same scope of people that were “made sinners” by inheritance from Adam WILL BE “made righteous” by inheritance from Jesus at the time that when “every tongue confesses” to God, for the Glory of God and the never ending benefit of the sinner.
Reader, we urge you to recognize and glorify God in this amazing scriptural truth! For the question of atonement has much more to do with God’s character and righteousness than it does with Man’s ultimate position. It has to do with God’s logic being consistent throughout all scripture. This conclusion is necessitated not only by these scriptures but by others including the fact that God is unchangeable! God reserves to Himself the most important questions of history – the prophetic destiny of the planet and your ultimate destiny as well. These questions are much too large to leave in Man’s control, as all should clearly understand and admit, and God does not make the Man exalting choice of giving Man control of his own fate. That would a terribly unwise and inconsistent choice, scripturally speaking based on all the revelation we have about wisdom, and God does not make such a bad and unscriptural choice.
To God be the glory, great things he has done! Amen