For Whom Did Christ Die?

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I hold no strong convictions on the distinctive feature of the Calvinist teaching of predestination and reprobation. I find both predestination and free will in Scripture, and I cannot really reconcile. Like the triune nature of God or the exact nature of the Eucharist I believe it is one of the mysteries God did not fully reveal to us, and I am content to leave it like that.

However, in a recent discussion with my brother he said that as far as he can see, this Calvinist teaching taken to its logical coclusion would imply that Christ did not die for all which contradicts passages of Scripture like 1 Timothy 2:5-6, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 1 John 2:2, or John 3:16-17.

I believe that this Facebook comment[1] by Lutheran pastor, theologian, and author Chad Bird sheds some light on this question:

Since every time I present the Gospel in its pure, not-watered-down beauty, some wonder if I am a universalist (that I believe everyone will be saved), here is something that perhaps will help.

For whom did Christ die? Everyone. Everyone from Adam to the last person who will be born before Christ returns. In my (Lutheran) tradition, we often call this “objective justification,” that is, the death and resurrection of Christ have objectively taken care of everyone’s justification. All have been died for. Atonement for all has been effected, whether they believe it or not. I often compare this to the sun shining. The sun is shining down on all. Now, of course, some can close their eyes or stay inside and flatly deny that the sun is shining down on all, but their subjective unbelief or denial does not negate the objective fact. It’s still true.

When is Christ’s work of atonement effective for the believer? Again, in my tradition, we often call this “subjective justification..” This is when the objectively accomplished, universal work of Christ is subjectively given to the person who believes. Then is it “effective.” It “takes effect” in their lives, we might say, so that they become Christians, receive forgiveness, life, salvation, etc. To continue the analogy from above, subjective justification is when they are ushered outside by the Spirit to bask in the warmth of the sun or have their eyes opened to see it. What had been true all along becomes “real” for them as they receive it.

I have no idea where Chad Bird stands on this particular Calvinist doctrine (although my impression is that most Lutherans hold to a moderate form of this teaching), but I found his comment helpful as I reflect on my conversation with my brother.

As Christians, and particularly as Evangelicals indebted to the Reformation, we consider the Bible to be our standard of faith and practice. Many doctrines, such as the Trinity, the doctrine of predestination, or even the “five Solas” of the Reformation were formulated to clarify what Scripture teaches in response to some teaching perceived to be unbiblical and erroneous. As such the are often somewhat polemical in nature, designed to counter the error rather than to cover all the bases.

These errors often contain a grain of truth, taken to extremes. If we consider this “falling off the horse” of sound doctrine, then the doctrine formulated in response to the error is designed to pull the rider back on the horse. However, if we forget their polemical nature, if we start to believe that this or that doctrine is the final word we are tempted to pull too hard and end up falling off the other side of the horse.

God has not revealed all in Scripture; He has revealed all things necessary for Salvation. “All” about the infinite, transcendent Creator would far exceed our capacity as finite creatures. God is omiscient; we “know in part”. God sees everything clearly; we see everything “through a glass, darkly”.[2] We need to accept that fact and learn to live with that.

Chad Bird has served as a pastor, professor, and guest lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew. He holds master’s degrees from Concordia Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. He has contributed articles to many journals and websites and is the author of several books, including The Christ Key & Limping with God.

  1. Comment on his own Facebook post The Nun and the Stripper[]
  2. 1 Cor 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.[]
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