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Jesus died for us ...

What do we mean when we say, "Jesus died for us"? Who are the "us" for whom Jesus died?
A number of years ago, I read a paper, written by Dr Alan C. Clifford. It was entitled, "Atonement for all, salvation for  some." It had the sub-title: "Authentic Calvinism: A Clarification." In this paper, Dr Clifford presents 16 pages of quotations from Calvin. He makes two important observations: (i) "Calvin places election in the wider context of the Atonement rather than vice versa" (p.1); (ii) "Failure to detect this has led high Calvinist expositors to misinterpret Calvin's thought" (p. 1). The question, raised by Dr Clifford, could be summed up thus: Does the Gospel break through so freely within the Calvinistic system as it does in the writings of Calvin himself? This is the question of the relationship between the system and the Gospel.
In the early years of my Christian life, I had a friend who spoke, with great zeal, about defending "the five points of Calvinism." With great vigour, he gave the impression that the cardinal point of the Gospel was this: Christ died "for the elect, and the elect only." The more I've thought about this, the more I've come to emphasize the importance of keeping things in proportion - speaking of the Christian faith with a proper Biblical balance: If God was so concerned to teach the doctrine of limited atonement as rigidly as some would have us believe, should we not expect Scripture to make this point more clearly than it does?
In the opening chapter of his book, Divine Election, G. C. Berkouwer emphasizes Calvin's twofold warning: "On the one hand, we must not be silent where God speaks; on the other hand, we must not speculate beyond that which God, in His wisdom, has set us." (p. 15). Aware that theological reflection can so easily take on a life of its own, Berkouwer places great emphasis on "our responsibility to return always to Scripture" (p. 23). He emphasizes the importance of "speaking in the light of the full context of the Gospel message" (pp. 18,21). This, he insists, is so important if we are to avoid lop-sidedness in our preaching of the Gospel, the Good News concerning "Christ crucified."
Again, in the early years of my Christian life, I had a friend who stopped me in my tracks when I was describing a conversation I had with a man with whom I was sharing the Gospel. I said, "I told him that Christ died for him." Before I could say any more, my friend said to me, "You told him what?" I repeated it, "Christ died for him." My friend asked, "How do you know that Christ died for him?"
This conversation, from a long time ago, raised questions in my mind: How are we to understand the doctrines of election and atonement? How will our understanding of these doctrines shape our preaching of the Gospel?
Another friend, from the early years of my Christian life, suggested to me that one can hardly the Gospel if we depart from the doctrine of limited atonement. As I have thought about this, I have asked the question: How far can we systematize the Gospel message without hindering its proclamation? As I asked this question, I became aware of a tendency to simplify or systematize Scripture seems content to describe atonement and salvation in a more complex way - "atonement for all, salvation for some" (the title of Alan Clifford's paper, with which this post began).
While I do not agree with the view that questioning the doctrine of limited atonement leads to a dilution of the Biblical Gospel, I must point out that one need only read Jim Packer's introduction to John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, to understand why some people are so strongly committed to the idea that the doctrine of limited atonement is the only acceptable view. To those who are thoroughly committed to Owen's view of the atonement, we should draw attention to the differences between Owen and Calvin.
Rather than speaking of a limited atonement, like Owen does, Calvin distinguishes between sufficiency and efficiency (atonement for all, salvation for some - again, the title of Alan Clifford's paper on Calvin).
Commenting on 1 John 2:2, Calvin "does not say ... that "whole world" means the "elect world" . (Clifford, p. 2) - "Calvin ... taught that the elect partake efficaciously of an atonement nonetheless provided for all conditionally ... When his statements are particularist, he is merely affirming the certain and limited efficacy of redemption in the case of the elect, rather than denying an ordained salvific universalism which undergirds the proclamation of the Gospel. When Calvin says,'God is the Saviour of the elect', he is merely stating the undeniable; but he, nowhere, employs the exclusive particularist expression, 'Christ died only for the elect'. Without questioning that Calvin often speaks of the efficacious redemption of the church, it is equally beyond doubt that he affirms a conditional salvation for the world" (Clifford, p. 2).
In the early years of my Christian life, I was greatly influenced by the preaching of Rev George Philip. Many years ago, George Philip was invited to speak at a conference by Rev Jack Glass, but, first, he was asked to state that he agreed with "the five points of Calvinism". In his reply, George Philip stated his opinion that the Scriptures did not teach such a rigid view of limited atonement, as it is presented to us in "the five points of Calvinism". By distancing himself from the rigidity of the doctrine of limited atonement, George Philip was not moving towards the kind of absolute universalism, which has become so common in modern theology. Rather, he was emphasizing that there is an openness about the Biblical proclamation of the Gospel, an openness which we do not find in a rigid doctrine of limited atonement.
We see this openness in the preaching of George Philip. In his sermon on "Judgment" in the booklet, The School of Discipleship, he comments on the words of a hymn, "None need perish, none need perish;, All may live, for Christ has died." - "None need perish because Christ has died. Judgment need not be, because Christ has died. But the corollary to that is simply that judgment must be, when the Christ who died is refused" (p. 81). Later, he reminds his hearers of these points: "I spoke, at the beginning of the message of the Gospel, declaring that none need perish. Oh, my friends, no-one needs to come into judgment, but many will" (p. 87). George Philip's sermon ended with these words, "If, in your heart, you find yourself, saying, 'Preacher, preacher, I do not want to be judged on the Great Day. I want to be forgiven. I want to be part of God's eternal Kingdom', then let the message of the Gospel to your heart tonight" (p. 88). This is a good example of preaching which emphasizes the universality of the atonement without teaching the doctrine of universal salvation.
During my years as a theological student, I was greatly influenced by the writings of G. C. Berkouwer. I, first, became aware of the writings of Berkouwer, a student conference at St Andrews. George Philip was the main speaker at this conference. At this conference, I met two Dutch students. Some of Berkouwer's books were on the bookstall. One of the dutch students was a theological student. Berkouwer's books attracted his interest. After the conference, I took the Dutch students to Edinburgh. We visited the Free Church Book Room. I came across the book, Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, edited by Philip E. Hughes. This book contained a chapter on Berkouwer.  It was written by Lewis B. Smedes. This chapter attracted my interest. I bought the book. After reading the chapter on Berkouwer, I wanted to read more and more of Berkouwer.
Berkouwer emphasizes "the universality of "Christ's sacrifice ... Christ has died for all" (The Return of Christ, p. 387, n. 1). He insists that we must preach the message that "the sacrifice of Christ is sufficient for the forgiveness of all sins" (Divine Election, p.226). Asking how, in our preaching of Christ crucified, we are to speak of the forgiveness of sins, he emphasizes that the Gospel does not come to us, saying, 'Christ died in your place, all your sins are forgiven." He points out that it is one thing to say to sinners,'You are loved by God', and it is quite another thing to say, 'You have been forgiven by God.' Berkouwer tells us that we must remember that the Gospel comes to us as a call to faith, a call to receive the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ. When we preach the Gospel of God's love, we must take care in our use of the word, 'forgiven.' When preaching Christ as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, we must call upon our hearers to believe in Him so that they might be saved by Him. We must not offer to our hearers a shallow, superficial and false assurance of forgiveness. We must call them to put their faith in Christ and receive salvation from Him (Divine Election, p. 233). 


This post first appeared on The Theology Of G C Berkouwer, please read the originial post: here

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