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“I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know me. . . .

and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).

 


 

Definite Atonement

 

 

At the start of John 10, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between false teachers (viz. false shepherds) and Himself—the true Shepherd that protects His sheep and gives them eternal life.[1] In verse 15, however, Christ makes another very theologically significant statement pertaining to the definiteness and specific purpose of the atonement—that is, who it is for whom He died: “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down My life for the sheep” (huper tōn probatōn, lit., “on behalf of [or “for the sake of”] the sheep”): Biblically, the atonement served to satisfy or, more precisely, “propitiate” (hilasmos)[2] the Father.

huper (“on behalf of”)

 

In this passage, the Greek preposition huper (meaning “on behalf of,” or “instead of”) was used to express the actual and literal “substitutionary” or vicarious death of Christ—i.e., a substitutionary atonement. Koinē Greek,[3] unlike English, is a very defined language, a language of precision. Accordingly, prepositions (along with other parts of grammar) have a great significance in biblical exegesis (i.e., critical interpretation). In many passages where the atonement is in view, the NT authors chose the preposition huper to indicate that Jesus’ cross-work was a literal and definite substitution. Note the following passages where huper is used to clearly indicate this:

 

 

 

In addition to huper, the preposition anti, which is semantically similar, is used at places such as Mark 10:45 to stress the nature and intention of Jesus’ substitutionary work: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for [lutron anti, lit., “ransom in the place of”] many.”[4]

 

 

Returning back to our text, John 10:15, it must be clearly emphasized: Jesus says that He specifically died for His sheep. His death did not make men “savable,” but rather His death secured and guaranteed the salvation of those whom He intended to save—His sheep: it was a definite atonement. The Scriptures clearly particularize who it is for whom Christ died.

 

 

The atoning cross-work of God the Son was not a vague non-specific universal work for which no one is actually (only potentially) atoned, but rather it was definite and according His perfect sovereignty and pleasure of His will (cf. Eph. 1:4-5, 11).

 

 

 

The death of Christ was an actual substitutionary atonement in which Christ literally and fully paid the penalty for sin, bore the curse, dies the death that our sins deserved, propitiating the Father, fully and perfectly satisfying divine justice. Either Jesus’ death achieved an actual propitiation (see note 2 above) literally averting wrath actually paying for sins, or it did not.

 

 

 

Universal Atonement?

 

In opposition to definite atonement is the majority view of the church (as well as the Roman Catholic Church): universal atonement. That is, that Jesus’ death merely made men “savable,” a “potential” salvation—for it did not “actually” secure salvation for anybody. In this view, (a) His cross-work did not actually redeem anyone in particular and (b) it reduces the atonement to a universal possibility that is actuated only when certain conditions (viz. the faith-act) are met. In other words, His death potentially redeemed or atoned for every single person, but an actual redemption is dependent on man’s free choice.[5]

 

 

PROBLEM: To preach, as most evangelists do, that Jesus died (thus, atoned) for “every single person” that ever lived (as a universal atonement teaches) implies the doctrine of universalism (i.e., every person will be saved). For if Jesus’ sacrifice really did achieve the forgiveness of the sins of every single person and produced an actual propitiation[6] on their behalf, then, all would be saved (universalism). There would by absolutely no biblical basis whatsoever for any to go to hell, divine justice would have been perfectly satisfied—and wouldn’t make any difference whether one accepts or rejects Christ: For if “all sins” means “all sins,” then even the sin of rejection would fully be paid (unless one asserts that Christ propitiated, forgave, and paid for 99% of the sins of all men). Clearly, universal atonement is unbiblical.

 

 

The biblical position is definite atonement: Christ infallibly saves every single one of those for whom He laid down His life—“and I lay down My life for My sheep.” He substituted Himself on their behalf, in their place. His cross-work perfectly secured salvation for them—it did not make salvation a possibility, but rather it actually saved those for whom He died. The blood of Christ is sufficient to save all men, but efficacious to those for whom the atonement was intended: All that the Father gives Me will come to Me . . . all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it[7] up on the last day. . . . No one can come to Me unless the Father . . . draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37, 39, 44).

 

His atonement was definite. Christ not die potentially for those who might believe, but rather He died specifically to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This is the very heart of the gospel—God actually redeems men “from every tribe, language, people, and nation” granting them salvation apart from works (cf. Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 1:9).

 

In Acts 16:6-7, Paul and his companions on their second missionary journey, were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. As a result, the gospel spread westward into Europe, not eastward toward Asia, thus, at that time, many Asians died never hearing of Christ.[8] Hence, hearing the gospel is controlled by the providential sovereignty of God. It is inconceivable then to assume that God sent His Son to save people who, by the direction of His own providence, never hear the gospel in order that they may believe and be saved (cf. Luke 10:21-22; John 5:21; Rom. 9:3-6, 13, 16; 11:5-7, 28).

 

Jesus said that He gave His “life for His sheep,” “a ransom for many” in which He “delivered Himself up for sacrifice on behalf of His church” (John 10:15; Mark 10:45; Eph. 5:25).]

 

 

“God has chosen you [heilato][9] from the beginning for salvation. . . .” For He has “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus. . . .” (2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:9; cf. Acts 13:48; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 2:8).


 

NOTES

 

[1] John 10:28 reads: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from My hand.” This is one of the clearest affirmations regarding the nature of justification in terms of the promise of eternal salvation. The clause “they will never perish” (ou mē apolōntai) is a double negative followed by an aorist subjunctive also called an emphatic negative. It is the strongest way in Greek to deny or negate a future possibility. It is used only about 85 times in the NT. The clause literally reads: “never never [ou mē], not even a possibility, perish” (often used where salvation is in view, e.g., John 6:35, 37; Rom. 4:8; see Gk.).

 

[2] The term “propitiate” (hilasmos) means, in simple terms, “to placate” or “appease.” Theologically, when Scripture says that Jesus is our “propitiation” (1 John 2:2), it indicates that through His death our sins (as Christians) were not only forgiven, but divine anger, the very wrath of the Father was turned away: The Son’s atoning sacrifice placated the Father. Many today downplay the aspect of the Father’s wrath by suggesting that hilasmos merely means forgiveness of sin (“expiation”)—removing the lexical meaning from the word for the sake of presenting God as an all-loving-no-wrath kind of God. Of course, that is a distortion of the biblical presentation of the love of God. In saying that though, the term also does not define God as ill-tempered always desiring to deal swiftly and hurtfully with His human subjects unless they appease Him by gifts and offerings, as hilasmos is defined in pagan literature (cf. Homer's The Iliad). The wrath of God is holy justice dealing righteously against sin. It was because of His infallible love, grace, and mercy that God sent His Son as the atoning sacrifice that satisfied holy justice. That is why hilasmos can be translated as “propitiation,” not “expiation,” which would denote only forgiveness or the removal of the penalty sin without any implication of turning away wrath and placating the Father. The fact is, hilasmos carries two ideas: 1) cleansing or forgiving sins and 2) removing or averting wrath. Hence, Jesus is said to be our “Advocate” in the proceeding verse (note: 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 are the only places where hilasmos appears in the NT). Thus, an appropriate English equivalent of hilasmos is “propitiation.” Note the prefix “pro” denoting that the satisfaction was made before the Father. But because of the complexity of the term “propitiation” some opt to use “atoning sacrifice” (e.g., NIV, NET, etc.), which sufficiently communicates the meaning.

 

[3] The NT was written in Koinē (“common”) Greek.

 

[4] Matthew 20:28 reads identical to Mark 10:45 (lutron anti pollōn [lit., “as a ransom on behalf [or “in the place”] of many”; cf. Isa. 53:11). After careful lexical and linguistic study regarding the preposition anti, Greek scholar, Daniel Wallace, concludes:

 

the evidence appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of viewing a)nti\ [anti] in Matt. 20:28/Mark 10:45 as meaning in the place of and very possibly with the secondary meaning in exchange for. . . . (GGBB, 367).

 

[5] In this view, man, not God, is sovereign over his own eternal destiny. Further, this notion sees the initial faith-act as the very cause or ground of justification—making “faith” itself a meritorious work that one must do to earn justification. However, grammatically, never in Scripture is “faith” said to be the cause of justification, rather it is always said to be the very instrument God uses to justify (cf. Rom. 4:4-8; 5:1; Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 1:9).

 

[6] The Greek reads in 1 John 2:2: kai autos hilasmos estin (lit., “and He propitiation is”). Note that the verb estin (“is”) is in the present, not the future tense. Thus, Christ is (not potentially) the literal and real atoning sacrifice that averted God’s wrath.

 

[7] Rather than using the masculine pronoun auton, “him,” the neuter pronoun auto (“it”) is used here. The neuter describes the elect (i.e., the ones that the Father gives to the Son) as a whole or, as F. F. Bruce says, “the sum-total.”

 

[8] But eventually, the gospel was preached in Asia (cf. Acts 19:10).

 

[9] The term heilato (has chosen you) is an aorist middle indicative (lit., “chose for Himself”). The middle voice indicates that the subject (God) is both the agent and the doer of the action upon Himself, or for His own advantage. Literally, “God chose for Himself (heilato) from the beginning (aparchēn) those for salvation [eis sōtēpian]. . . .” (cf. Acts 13:48).

 

 

 

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