Below are my notes from Sunday School almost two weeks ago. I list several reasons why I believe that the doctrine of Definite Atonement is the best way for us to understand Christ’s mighty work upon the cross. I left off a reason that has since been brought to my attention by Dr. Stephen Wellum, namely that in His role as our High Priest Christ is interceding for the church alone, not for any outside the church. One might think of how the priests of the Old Covenant never made sacrifices for sin for gentiles outside their nation – they were making atonement for a specific group of people, or individuals. It would have been preposterous for them to make sacrifices “for the whole world” when the point of such sacrifices was to point forward to an Ultimate Sacrifice for the elect, namely the blood shed by Christ at Calvary.
I hope you enjoy the notes!
17:9-10 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.  All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.
Jesus says three really profound things here – some of which we’ve already talked about, but because they are being repeated by Jesus I think we can assume that means they’re important, so, we’ll discuss them again.
Jesus is praying for an exclusive group of people and not praying for another group. He’s also saying in His prayer that that ownership over these people is shared between Himself and the Father, and lastly, that He’s “glorified” in these people.
First, I think that verse nine is probably one of the best proof texts for the doctrine known as “limited” or “definite” atonement. The doctrine is a divisive one for us Baptists – so much so that its very difficult to hold the view that the doctrine is indeed reality without getting at least some grief from church and lay leadership.
The doctrine of Definite Atonement, simply stated, espouses that while the atonement Jesus offered on the cross is so valuable that its meritorious for the whole world, yet, that atonement has not been done for the whole world, but only for those whom God has chosen out of the world.
J.C. Ryle puts it this way, “It is true that Christ loves all sinners, and invites all to be saved; but it is also true that He specially loves the ‘blessed company of all faithful people’, whom He sanctifies and glorifies. It is true that He has wrought out a redemption sufficient for all mankind, and offers it freely to all; but it is also true that His redemption is effectual only to them that believe.”
This doctrine is rooted in love. It is for love that we are called, and for the glory of God that He chooses to intercede for some and not others. Paul says, “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” (Eph. 1:4b-5).
D.A. Carson notices that though God loves the world in the broader sense of His creation, yet there is a specific sense in which He loves His elect unto salvation, “However wide is the love of God (3:16), however salvific the stance of Jesus toward the world (12:47), there is a peculiar relationship of love, intimacy, disclosure, obedience, faith, dependence, joy, peace, eschatological blessing and fruitfulness that binds the disciples together with the Godhead. These themes have dominated the farewell discourse.”
Although this is a tricky doctrine to get our minds around, I believe it is easiest to understand to doctrine in terms of God’s intentions. Did He send Jesus to die for every single person in the whole world, or did you send Jesus to die for only certain chosen people that were predestined to salvation?
It seems to me that verses like 17:9, and others, when combined with shear logic and an understanding of God’s character and plan of redemption lead us unquestionably to the latter choice – that Jesus died specifically for His sheep, the elect, the chosen ones.
There are many reasons Biblically for thinking this, In John 5:21 we learn that the Son grants life only “to whom he will.” In John 6:37-44 we learn that both the Father and the Son are working together to select and draw a specific group of people to themselves – a thought which so confused and offended the Jews (along with Christ’s claim to be “bread from heaven”) that many abandoned Him soon thereafter (John 6:66). In John 10 we learn that Jesus laid down His life for His “sheep” – a specific group of people that were “His”, as distinguished from all people everywhere.
But there are numerous instances in Scripture outside of John’s gospel where the doctrine is assumed as an underlying principle of truth. In Ephesians 5:25 we learn of how men ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “gave himself up for her” – again, not for the whole world, but for “her”, for the church, the elect.
In Acts 20:28 Paul states the Jesus died for the church specifically, and that in His death He “obtained” her by His blood. This is a theme throughout Paul’s writings. In Ephesians chapter one Paul labors the point that a specific group of people were predestined to salvation from “before the foundation of the world.” This group was called according to a purpose and according to the power of God (which is what Ephesians 2:1-10 explains).
Paul appropriates this saving work to a specific group of people, and includes himself in that group when he says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Christ became sin “for our sake.”
Not only is this the clear teaching of Scripture, but there are also logical reasons for thinking this. Let me offer a few of them that have helped me sort this out in the years I’ve studied the topic:
First, Ephesians 1:4 tells us that believers were predestined “before the foundation of the world.” If God knew whom He would save, why would Jesus not know those for whom He was dying? It doesn’t seem probable that in His incarnation He would suddenly forget His own plan and scope of redemption.
Perhaps you could posit that Jesus, in His humanity, didn’t know all of that information – as we see with His second coming in (Mark 13:32). However, Jesus doesn’t show any specific ignorance or underlying ignorance in this are in the gospels. Furthermore, we must remember that He never stopped being God. Infinite knowledge was at His disposal, and regardless of whether He tapped into that (so to speak), or had it conveyed to His humanity by the Spirit (as we see in other places like Luke 2:52), the preponderance of Biblical evidence seems to favor His knowing at a minimum that He was dying for a specific group of people, and probably exactly who those people were.
Secondly, even if you manage to believe that Jesus didn’t know everyone who He was dying for during His ministry on earth, you would still have to explain what the other Members of the Trinity were thinking. In other words, God the Father and God the Spirit still knew (and never stopped knowing) who would be saved by Jesus’ work of atonement. They never stopped being omniscient, did they? They didn’t suddenly get amnesia! It wasn’t as if they looked down on humanity after the cross and said, “Now, who were we going to apply this to again?”
Third, Definite Atonement is called “definite” because it means that if Jesus died to save you, you will definitely be saved. This doctrine complies with God’s character and power and the spirit of Ephesians 2:1-10 and Romans 8:31-19. There is a plan that’s been in place from eternity past and it involves you – a plan that cannot be thwarted! Similarly, God’s character is such that He desires all the praise and glory, and this is exactly what He gets when His precise plan of redemption is applied by the work of the Spirit in the lives of lost sinners. No credit goes to us, and there is no sense of uncertainty in this doctrine because God is faithful to His plan and is powerful enough to carry it out.
Lastly, if God didn’t know for whom Jesus was dying, then how would God the Spirit know who to regenerate to life? I believe that God is the one who sovereignly awakens Christians to spiritual life from spiritual death. And because of this, I believe that God is the one who takes the initiative to regenerate us, which means that He must know who His “targets” are (so to speak)! It’s not as if the spirit simply goes around “accidentally” regenerating people! No does He wait for some inkling of faith to appear in the heart of an unbeliever – for we know that faith is not something that is created apart from the work of God – it is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9)!
There are immense implications – especially for our comfort as Christians. The first comfort is that the necessary result of believing that God is sovereign over salvation is believing that He will definitely finish the work He set out to do (Phil. 1:6), and that He actually knows who He’s saving – and has always known!
The second comfort is knowing that if Christ loves us enough to intercede on our behalf for salvation, certainly He continues to intercede for us as our Great High Priest every day and every moment. He is seated at God’s right hand and is praying on our behalf – He is speaking to the Father for us. What an Advocate! Not simply for salvation, but for our every need. I remember that fellow deacon Jim Dobbs devoted an entire year to praying for me as a new deacon – he told me this upon my ordination, and it blew me away. I would get check ups from him every now and again, and he would remind me of his prayer for me. This holiness, this love will always remain in my mind. How much more impressed ought we to be when the Son of God promises and does the same thing for us – not for the past year alone, but from before the foundation of the world!
Therefore, for all our difficulties with this doctrine Jesus doesn’t seem to share in our mental hardship. Jesus does it for us when He says, “I am not praying for the world.” He states that He has a certain group of people for whom He is interceding (John 17:9), for whom He is calling (John 6:44) and therefore for whom He is (be extension) living and dying for.
It’s as if He wanted to stop and say “by the way, not that you don’t already know this, but I’m not interceding on behalf of the whole world here, just the specific people I’ve mentioned above.”
Carson goes a step farther, “To pray for the world, the created moral order in active rebellion against God, would be blasphemous; there is no hope for the world. There is hope only for some who now constitute the world but who will cease to be the world and will join those of whom Jesus says for they are yours.”
Well the consequences of all of this ought to be joy for us. We ought to really enjoy the fact that Jesus had a plan, stuck to the plan, succeeded in the plan, and is powerful enough to bring that plan to fruition and consummation when He returns.
The second thing we read in these verses (9-10) concerns ownership and this idea that within the Trinity we are cherished and “shared”, if you will, by the Father and Son. A few examples:
For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. (John 5:21)
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:7)
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. (John 14:9-11)
In Luke’s Gospel we read a series of verses that really sum up this passage in John – which simply shows the consistency of Christ’s teaching on this point:
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:22)
The upshot of this is that for many of us who long to belong to someone or something greater than ourselves, Christ is that someone. I wonder how many Christians miss out on the sweetness of these verses and the beautiful soul comforting truth that you belong to someone, not just anyone, not just the run of the mill guy or gal, or the Kiwanis or the Rotary, but to the most powerful, most loving Person in the world (and outside of it) and the most meaningful, most important cause in world history – the church of Christ.
If you are lonely, if you are unattached, if you are a lone wolf, then you now must realize the truth that Christ has not left you alone. He has not left you unattached. You are His sheep, the “human sheep” of His pastor, and He cares deeply for you. As we read in John 16:27, “for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”
Again, don’t miss this: God’s saving purposes may be mysterious to us, but one part of the mystery is not veiled, and that is the unmistakable mark of love that these doctrines are rooted in. It is love for us, and most of all a love for His glory that underlies and drives this narrative.
The third thing Jesus says is that He is “glorified” in us. This is very important because of what verse 11 says about Him leaving the world. He has left the world and has manifested His Father’s name to us, and now it is our mission, our life’s goal to manifest His name (His gospel) to the world.
We know as Christians that our end is often said to “glorify God”, and we also know from many church services and Sunday school lessons that we do this by obeying Him, and in so doing we’re bringing Him glory. But the fact that He is gone and we are here got me thinking about how much He has included us in His work. It’s not that He’s left us alone – we know that much from this context especially – and we know He is the One working in and through us, yet He gets glory from our obedience. He changes our hearts and we in turn obey. He is irresistibly good to us, is He not?
Perhaps I am not adding anything valuable that anyone else wouldn’t have thought of, but when I think that we are His instruments down here on earth to carry out His plan and that He is actually here using us, working through us, helping us to be like Him, remaking us in His image – that really puts the whole passage in an amazing light. He chooses us, He cares for us, He intercedes for us, He owns us as His own, and He finds glory in us. I love the fact that He is working in my life and the lives of those around me! That gives me great purpose as I type out my notes, as I study the Bible, as I minister to others. I know that all I do He is doing with and through me, and that He’s right here. I cannot help but point to Him in all I do. We Christians out to read verses like this, and reason through them with the truth that Paul came to when extolling the Corinthian church with what is our mission and our message as well:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,  but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,  but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:22-31).