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A Definite Atonement: John Murray’s Case for a Disputed Doctrine

A Definite Atonement: John Murray’s Case for a Disputed Doctrine

The extent of the atonement should be determined by faithful readings of the Bible—thick readings, if you will, as opposed to thin readings of Scripture. Murray does that well, and all those who take up this doctrinal debate should read him and follow his exegetical method. 

For whom did Christ die? For all nations without distinction? For all persons without exception? For everyone? Or only for the elect?

In any doctrinal exposition of the cross of Christ, the question of the atonement’s extent (or intent) is necessary. And throughout church history, especially since the Protestant Reformation, a great debate has arisen in response to the question. That dispute has divided Calvinist from Arminian, Reformed from Wesleyan, and Particular Baptist from General Baptist—to name only a few. Thus, it is not possible in one blog—let alone in one book—to resolve all the difficulties, but it is possible to lay out some of the issues and a few of the exegetical debates.

To that end, I offer ten points from John Murray. His little book, Redemption Accomplished and Appliedprovides a concise argument for the extent of the atonement that comes from a Reformed position. If I were writing a chapter on the extent atonement, I would do it differently, but I appreciate Murray’s commitment to biblical exegesis in his chapter. Even though he leaves many proof texts unchecked, what he does say sets his readers in the right direction. And for that reason I offer the following points from his chapter as a superb model for entering this debate.

Ten Arguments for Definite Atonement

1. Proof texts are not sufficient to prove the extent of the extent of the atonement.

John Murray begins his chapter highlighting a few verses which appear to support a universal atonement (i.e., that Christ died for all persons without exception). But quickly, he calls us to consider if isolated proof texts can adequately support the doctrine. He writes,

We are not to think, however, that the quotation of a few texts like these [Isa. 53:6; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 2:2] and several others that might be quoted determines the question. From beginning to end the Bible uses expressions that are universal in form but cannot be interpreted as meaning all men distributively and inclusively. Such words as “world” and “all” and such expressions as “every one” and “all men” do not always in Scripture mean every member of the human race. For example, when Paul says with reference to the unbelief of Israel, “For if their trespass is the riches of the world . . . how much more their fulness” (Rom. 11:12), are we to suppose that he meant that the trespass of Israel brought the riches of which he is speaking to every person who had been, is now, and ever will be in the world? Such an interpretation would make nonsense. The word “world” would then have to include Israel which is here contrasted with the world. And it is not true that every member of the human race was enriched by the fall of Israel. (59)

2. Universal language does not mean a universal atonement.

Closely connected to the point that we must read texts in context, Murray goes on to say that universal language does not automatically produce a doctrine of definite atonement.

So it will not do to quote a few texts from the Bible in which such words as “world” and “all” occur in connection with the death of Christ and forthwith conclude that the question is settled in favor of universal atonement. (61)

Proving his point, he appeals to Hebrews 2:9 (“so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone”) and its following context.

We can readily show the fallacy of this procedure in connection with a text like Hebrews 2:9. What provides the denotation of the “every one” in the clause in question? Undoubtedly the context. Of whom is the writer speaking in the context? He is speaking of the many sons to be brought to glory (ver. 10), of the sanctified who with the sanctifier are all of one (ver. 11), of those who are called the brethren of Christ (ver. 12), and of the children which God had given to him (ver. 13). It is this that supplies us with the scope and reference of the “every one” for whom Christ tasted death. Christ did taste death for every son to be brought to glory and for all the children whom God had given to him. But there is not the slightest warrant in this text to extend the reference of the vicarious death of Christ beyond those who are most expressly referred to in the context. This texts shows how plausible off-hand quotation may be and yet how baseless is such an appeal in support of a doctrine of universal atonement. (61)

The point Murray makes in this passage can be made throughout the New Testament, which means that universal language does not automatically result in a doctrine of universal atonement. More on this below.

3. Extent is the wrong question, intent is the right one.

Moving from the language of Scripture to the language of doctrine, he asks if the extent of the atonement is even the right question.

The question is not the relation of the death of Christ to the numerous blessings which those who finally perish may partake of in this life, however important this question is in itself and in its proper place.

The question is precisely the reference of the death of Christ when this death is viewed as vicarious death, that is to say, as vicarious obedience, as substitutionary sacrifice, and expiation, as effective propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. In a word, it is the strict and proper connotation of the expression “died for” that must be kept in mind.

When Paul says that Christ “died for us” (1 Thess. 5:10) or that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), he does not have in mind some blessing that may accrue from the death of Christ but of which we may be deprived in due time and which may thus be forfeited. He is thinking of the stupendous truth that Christ loved him and gave himself up for him (Gal. 2:20), that Christ died in his room and stead, and that therefore we have redemption through the blood of Christ. (62, emphasis mine)

4. Definite atonement does not deny universal, non-saving benefits.

Once we ask the right question, and ascertain the proper relationship between priest and new covenant people (my emphasis, not his), we can begin to see how the cross relates to the whole world, even to those who reject it or never hear about it.

The unbelieving and reprobate in this world enjoy numerous benefits that flow from the fact that Christ died and rose again. The mediatorial dominion of Christ is universal. Christ is head over all things and is given all authority in heaven and in earth. It is within this mediatorial dominion that all the blessings which men enjoy are dispensed. But this dominion Christ exercises on the basis and as the reward of his finished work of redemption. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:8-9).

Consequently, since all benefits and blessings are within the realm of Christ’s dominion and since this dominion rests upon his finished work of atonement, the benefits innumerable which are enjoyed by all men indiscriminately are related to the death of Christ and may be said to accrue from it in one way or another. If they thus flow from the death of Christ they were intended thus to flow. It is proper, therefore, to say that the enjoyment of certain benefits, even by the non-elect and reprobate, falls within the design of the death of Christ. The denial of universal atonement does not carry with it the denial of any such relation that the benefits enjoyed by all men may sustain to Christ’s death and finished work. (61)

To those well-versed in argument for universal atonement, they will not readily accept this universal, non-saving benefit as logically consistent. But it is important to see that those who hold definite atonement do not deny a universal effects of the cross (see Colossians 1:20 and my theological exposition of that passage). What those like Murray deny is a universal procurement of salvation that does not actually save.

5. Christ’s redemption is effective. Glory! Hallelujah!

While advocates of universal atonement stress the greatness of the cross in terms of size and scope, advocates of definite atonement argue for its greatness in terms efficacy and design. All that God intended, he accomplished on the cross. To this point Murray asks the question, “What does redemption mean?” He answers,

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