The mystery of how the atonement of Christ works in Man’s salvation has plagued earnest souls for millennia: How does God provide salvation for Man apart from works? If there is nothing we can do to earn salvation then how do we obtain it? In other words, if God offers salvation to us through Christ’s atonement for sin, apart from what we do, and if He does not save all people, then how does the atonement of Christ actually accomplish this? How can the atonement of Christ itself actually pay for anyone’s sins without ultimately saving everyone? If Christ’s atonement did not by itself purge anyone’s sins in particular, then how do we benefit from it to have our own sins forgiven? And if the atonement is only for a few, then how does God offer salvation to all? The answer to these important questions lies in the timing of the Cross: take it outside of time and space to find in it an effectual sacrifice purging all the sins of believers — and only of believers, not of any unbelievers — and yet still providing a means of being reconciled to God for all who seek Him. It is a limited atonement which ultimately and infallibly saves all of God’s elect, and only the elect, and yet it is always available to all mankind — no one is excluded from it by God Himself.
One billion centuries from now … nothing of this earthly life will be of any real significance to us except one thing: that we have become an object of God’s favor … and not of His fury. This one thing, from a natural perspective, may properly define the entire objective of life.
Those who perceive this have given themselves to study and to seek God, working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. Clearly, to entertain the slightest possibility of failing to find most secure and steadfast security with respect to eternal life — if that security may be found — is to live in profound carelessness, blindness and darkness. This study is of such singular theological importance a special term has been derived for it: Soteriology.
Yet as profound and vital a subject as this evidently is, it appears that very few apply themselves to seek the truth for themselves in order to fully understand it. Of those few who study the topic in any depth, most simply review what others before them have debated and claimed in order to teach this to others. Very, very few appear to apply the type of honesty and rigor that one would expect in such an endeavor. And of those who appear to have made an honest effort here, I find no one who has wrestled the matter through to my own personal satisfaction. Not a single soul.
In my view, after debating with hundreds of souls, many of whom with theological training, and after searching a through a multitude of denominations, and reviewing the historical literature, there are basic, fundamental, important questions which are not answered well, if at all. We must try to answer these kinds of questions for ourselves in order to be complete. If we disagree with one another we should respectfully debate the topic; so please feel free to challenge me over any aspect of this precious topic. I would love to explore further with anyone who is interested.
That we might not find complete answers to such important questions in our culture and common literature can be daunting, suggesting that such debates are fruitless since agreement is so rare, since confusion and misinformation is so rampant. Yet we must expect the enemy to do his best to deceive and confuse us all, especially on this particular topic, and that he would do his utmost to make it extremely difficult for any soul who finds God’s answers here to make them public knowledge. That the topic is worthy of our diligent pursuit is evident to all: no one denies its importance, most of us are just intimidated by the vastness of the noise surrounding it. I am not … eternity itself drives me forward, even if I must travel alone.
So let us see if we can distill the topic and find some clarity.
A first intuitive step might be to ask the simple question: Can I be sure that I will go to Heaven? And if we can affirm a positive answer here, we will naturally then ask, How? We must all begin here, for there is no point in exploring the intricate details of how the dynamics of personal salvation work if we do not even have salvation, or if we cannot know that we have it. We must have some concept of the basics in order to proceed. If you have not answered these preliminary questions fully in Christ, such that you now know that you have eternal life and can never lose it, then please consider reading another article before continuing here: That You May Know.
Getting the basics down is certainly the first step: we cannot build a more complete understanding of salvation until we have a proper foundation. With a proper foundation laid in Christ, and having faith in Him as our Savior, we may begin in earnest to build a more complete understanding of what He has done by studying Him in more depth. Let us do so.
Christ Himself a Propitiation
In the Bible, it is written, “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” This statement, recorded in 1 John 2:2, presents both a bright hope as well as a dilemma for the thoughtful saint.
Firstly, it points us to Jesus Christ as our hope of eternal life, which is definitely promising. If we are to find favor with God we know that it is through Christ and Christ alone, there is no other name under Heaven which gives us any hope. It is a good place to begin, and particularly good for us since a thoughtful study of this particular verse begins to expose vast gaps in the common understanding of salvation. Let us study this precious text phrase by phrase.
The subject of the statement, He, is the divine Person: Jesus Christ. He is set forth as central in our salvation. The first word in the text that suggests real investigation is the word propitiation. Christ Jesus is, “the propitiation for our sins.” What does this mean?
First, before going straight to a definition, let us notice some obvious things from the text that will help to form a context for the definition of the word propitiation. This propitiation is something that Jesus is, not something that He has done, or that He is going to do; a propitiation is not something that Jesus was at one time. This “is” is a present tense, state-of-being verb, not an action verb. Part of His nature, part of what defines Jesus Christ as a divine Being is described in this text. Being a propitiation is a quality that Jesus Christ possesses; it is not an activity that He performs. Jesus Christ Himself, right now, is … the … propitiation.
Now, Jesus Christ is the propitiation for something: there is something that is affected, or at the very least potentially affected, by this propitiation quality of Jesus Christ. This fact is directly implied in the use of the preposition for. There is an association, a relationship, or a connection between the propitiation and something else. The propitiation is directed at, or because of something. He is the propitiation for “our sins:” our violation of God’s law: “Sin is the transgression of the law.” (1 John 3:4)
This our sins that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for, might be yours and mine and everyone else’s sins – in effect all people of all times and places, or they might be just those sins of the author of the biblical text, the apostle John, and certain of his close associates to whom he was writing in particular, or our sins might be just the sins of a more general and very special group of privileged people chosen by God for salvation and called the elect — which apparently also includes John and his intended audience. These are the only reasonable classifications possible to describe the intended meaning of the word our. Either it is indeed everyone, or it is a general group of people that possess a certain quality or privilege, or it is a very narrow group composed of the author and the special recipients of the original letter.
Whatever might be made of our sins, this propitiation that Jesus is right now does not apply only to our sins. As plainly as it can be said in the English tongue, it is written, “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” What does this mean? Whose sins are affected by this propitiation-being of Jesus Christ?
To answer this, still as a matter of context for the definition of propitiation, for an additional moment let us focus our attention on the meaning of the phrase, whole world. These words are very important, for they define the scope of the sins for which Jesus is the propitiation.
At first, it would appear that this phrase whole world might refer to all people the world over, or perhaps to the great majority of people in the world. This would be the meaning of this type of language in most normal conversations. This would naturally mean that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of all people the world over for all time.
However, there are certain people who would boldly argue that these words whole world cannot refer to all of the people in the world, or even to most people. These folks reason that the words refer to a very small (at least, small when compared to the total human population) group of people called the elect – the ones chosen of God to receive salvation – and that Jesus is not the propitiation for the sins of all the people the world over for all time. Their reasons for attempting this tact are compelling ones, which are of necessity entirely unrelated to the text at hand, and we will be considering their reasons shortly.
Simply put, however, when the words whole world are used in any rational context, they mean every single human being or a very large proportion of the entire human population. The context of the idea might be the entire human population, as in the statement, “The whole world suffers from the first sin of Adam.” Here the intended meaning is every single human being that has ever lived at any time.
In other uses, this idea of whole world might exclude certain individuals and simply refer to a significant portion of the entire human population, as in, “And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.” (1 John 5:19) Two distinct groups of people are defined in this text: those who are of God, and the rest of mankind (the vast majority, apparently) who lie in wickedness. Here, it is reasonable to understand that the words whole world do not include the first group mentioned, the we, those who are of God. This is consistent with John’s earlier statement, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God.” (1 John 4:4-6a) John often plainly speaks of two groups which are mutually exclusive: us or we, and, the world. The words whole world would not therefore, in this case, include every single human being as there is a small group of people, the us, who do not belong to this whole world group.
However, this concept of whole world or all men could never mean a very select and narrow group of people — as the elect — which is proportionally very small when compared to the entire human population and which is dispersed over the entire planet. For example, if I would say that “the whole world has been converted to Christ,” you would probably find this to be a manifestly false statement. Yet, I would explain in defense that when I used the words, whole world, I was really referring to a relatively small group of people called the elect which really has been converted to Christ and which is dispersed throughout the world. But why, you might rightly ask, would I use the words, whole world if I wished to convey such a meaning as implied in the elect when the word elect is available to me? I would not, of course, if I wished to communicate clearly, since the words, whole world do not convey the meaning I intend in any rational context. Neither would God use the words whole world to refer to the elect.
At the risk of a seeming exaggeration, I will say carefully that I know of no one who ever uses the words whole world in the context of a reasonable conversation to refer to a small remnant of mankind dispersed throughout all human societies. We would not say, “The whole world is female,” even though there is proportionately a very large number of females in the world, perhaps even a majority of the population is female in every nation and culture the world over. Yet even this would not justify the use of the phrase whole world in the context, since the proportion is not large enough. Neither would we say, “The whole world has cancer,” even though there are cancer victims dispersed throughout the world in every land. I have not heard it said, “The whole world has AIDS,” even though the spread of this disease is reaching epidemic proportions in all parts of the globe. There is no grammatical reason to make these types of statements; it distorts the reasonable definitions of words and it is not justified by any rational context.
In this manner of plainness, it is apparent that the words whole world cannot refer to just the elect. To push this meaning on the text for any reason, even a theologically compelling one, is therefore to handle the word of God deceitfully.
Also, in addition to theological considerations, there are no grammatical or contextual grounds here in our text for excluding any human being and making whole world refer only to a large majority of mankind, to the exclusion of a few. Nothing in the grammatical construction or in the immediate context is violated by including every single human being who has ever lived. This is the plain meaning of the text: Jesus Christ was the propitiation for the sins of every human being living on the planet when this text was penned, and by logical extension, Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the sins of every human that has ever lived, or that ever will live. Most importantly, this certainly includes you and me.
So, the propitiation is something that Jesus is right now, and the sinful state of every human being is somehow either actually or at least potentially affected by this propitiation-being of Jesus. We now have an adequate context for our definition of propitiation, which any good dictionary will provide. Webster’s Second College Edition contains the following. Propitiation is the noun form of the verb propitiate, which means “to cause to become favorably inclined; to win or regain the good will of; appease or conciliate.” Being the noun form of the verb propitiate, propitiation would be an object, person, act, or truth having the quality or the ability to be used to gain the good will of another, or having the quality or ability to cause one to become favorably inclined toward another when that one is not. A propitiation then, for our purposes, is something or Someone that has the quality of being able to cause one Person, God, which is at enmity with another person, you or me, to become reconciled or favorably inclined toward that other person, again … toward you or me.
Now we arrive at a “trouble spot:” we are stating without qualification that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of all people of all time the world over while it is obvious from reading the Bible that God has not become permanently reconciled to all men. Actually, according to Scripture, most people will go to Hell instead of Heaven: God is not propitiated or reconciled with most people. To the contrary, “God is angry with the wicked every day.” (Psalm 7:11) “The wrath of God abideth” on all unbelievers. (John 3:36) Showing that most people are unbelievers, and that very few are Christians, consider also, among many other texts, Matthew 7:14: “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
In light of this problem, those who argue that letting the words whole world mean whole world (really, now … don’t they?) cannot be a correct way to handle the text, reason that the verse would then teach universal salvation due to the meaning of the word propitiation. They argue that if Christ is the propitiation for the sins of all men everywhere, then all men must be saved since God would have to be, in their mind, propitiated toward all men. This drives them logically, but uncomfortably, to reject the plain meaning of the words whole world in our text. They feel that they must either handle the word propitiation deceitfully, or handle the words whole world deceitfully. Out of respect for the atonement of Christ, they opt for the latter deception.
However, the text does not actually say that God has been propitiated toward all men by Christ, only that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of all men. There must be a subtle difference here, for even those arguing away the words whole world are subtly trapped if there is not some other way to look at this. If we accept the idea that God has already been propitiated even toward just the elect, as these folks say, this implied perception of the word propitiation would result in God being propitiated toward the elect even before they become Christians since Christ became their propitiation before they believed. This also contradicts Scripture, for God’s wrath abides on all those who do not presently believe on Christ, including the elect who have not yet believed, who stand condemned before Him while they still continue in unbelief: “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God … (and) … the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3:17,36) God cannot be propitiated toward someone and let His anger burn toward them and His wrath remain on them, for this flatly contradicts any good definition of the word propitiate. Thus, odd as it may seem at first, in no case can we say that God has already been propitiated toward all men, or toward any particular individual, solely based on the fact that Christ is the propitiation for our sins. How shall we explain this in light of the definition that we have so far?
A propitiation would certainly still be a propitiation if it simply had the potential ability to regain the good will or favor of another, even if this good will had not already been regained by means of the propitiation. It would not be inappropriate to describe such thing with this word propitiation. For example, if one man was angry with another through a misunderstanding, and his anger could be thoroughly appeased through the agency of a clarifying letter which had been written by a mutual friend to explain an extenuating circumstance, the contents of the letter would, in a sense, be a propitiation, even before the truths were actually presented, due to their potential effect. The truths in the letter would not necessarily have to become a propitiation as they were used, for their very nature would remain unchanged during use. For the truths to become a propitiation during the act of propitiating would imply a change in the inherent nature of the truths, for having the quality of propitiating is a state of being embedded in the nature of the propitiation: the quality can therefore be independent of its actual use.
Even so, Christ can be a propitiation for the sins of all men without actually reconciling God to all men, since Christ could have the potential ability to do so. Jesus Christ Himself may have the quality or state of being such that He, by His nature, is able to cause God to be conciliated, to become favorably inclined, toward anyone, even though they have sinned against Him. God is not necessarily conciliated toward all men by Jesus Christ simply because Jesus died. Our sins, without some applied propitiation, cause God’s anger to whelm against us even after the death of Christ. Christ has already died, but God has not been conciliated or reconciled to all men. However, Jesus Christ has the quality such that He can conciliate or appease God and cause Him to become favorably inclined toward any human being instead of being angry with them.
As a brief aside, many folks take this anger bit with God rather lightly, choosing rather to concentrate on the love of God and hoping to experience its benefits apart from the propitiation of Jesus. This is a very foolish thing to do. Taking the anger of an omnipotent Being lightly is foolishness that cannot be illustrated or paralleled in the wildest of fables. If this foolishness had any warrant other than simple arrogance, it might be understood as sane. It is not! Do not toy with the anger of Omnipotence. You may only benefit from the love of God eternally if He is reconciled toward you and becomes favorably inclined toward you by means of the propitiation: Jesus Christ.
While it is apparent that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, it is also apparent that God has not become favorably inclined toward all men. There is somewhat of a mystery here which we must not fail to unravel. The whole purpose of life, from a natural man’s perspective, is to obtain the favor of this Creator. To terminate this life under the weight of the wrath of an omnipotently fierce Enemy cannot be measured as personal success in any fashion. We must, if we are sane, seek with all of our might that the propitiation of Jesus Christ might cause God to actually become favorably inclined toward us personally. This may be the most vital pursuit of life.
Now, a word to those of you who are thinking deeply, having become aware of several aspects of the mystery before us. I will be boring you for a moment perhaps, for the sake of the unlearned — please bear with me. The rest must think carefully and proceed patiently. This is a subject that has frustrated honest scholarly theologians for centuries. It is a mystery that has not, to my knowledge, been reconciled by anyone able to express it in our literature.
Some of the paths that we will tread here are certainly well worn. Before long, however, we both will need to be bush whacking! If the truth has not yet been published for the saints, it is no surprise that it is off the beaten path; but if I step off of the trail with you here and make my way straight to it, you may not recognize that we are done when we are. At the risk of boring some, I wish to come full circle without missing a single facet of this precious subject. This will place the truth in its proper context and give us a greater appreciation for it.
The first facet of this beautiful mystery that I would like to explore is why Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins. What is it about Him that causes God to become favorably inclined toward sinners, individuals with whom He would most naturally be very angry? Turn, if you would, to the place where it is written, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all … for the transgression of my people was he stricken … He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities … he hath poured out his soul unto death … and he bare the sin of many.” This text, found in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, is rich for us as we seek to understand what it is about Jesus that makes Him the “propitiation for our sins.”
To summarize this text, the propitiation quality of Jesus Christ lies in the simple fact that when Jesus Christ died on the Golgotha cross nearly two millennia ago, He was punished as a sinner when He was not a sinner. Jesus Christ suffered the full, eternal weight and wrath of God during His six hour stay on that cross so completely that God is satisfied with the suffering of Jesus Christ on behalf of anyone and everyone for whom Jesus did it. Although Jesus did not ever break any of the laws of God, He was punished as if He had deliberately and wholeheartedly broken every last one of the holy laws of God.
Anyone covered by this immense suffering will be treated by God as if they have never transgressed any of His laws in any particle of detail. Not only the commandments which forbid sinful activity are included in this covering, such as “Thou shalt not covet,” “Thou shalt not steal”, and, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” (for these commandments are satisfied by mere neutrality) but those commandments which demand positive perfection in inward behavior are within its scope… commandments such as “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind.”
Jesus, though having perfectly obeyed every requirement of God’s Law with intense delight, suffered as a Substitution for others who did not do so — for some who hated God and His laws. He did this so successfully — and so thoroughly — that the justice of God is completely satisfied in their cases. Jesus Christ has not merely made a payment for their sins — He has become their sin! “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
All of the sins committed by those for whom Jesus died have been completely and permanently dealt with by His death and resurrection. God has no more grievances with these blessed folks, and He never will have any complaints against them for any reason. God Almighty has been thoroughly conciliated and appeased in their case because of what Jesus Christ has become for them. Christ has become their Substitute and they need not fear the wrath and anger of God any more than Jesus Christ Himself (…and we know how much that is!). “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord will not impute sin.” (Psalm 32, Romans 4:8)
It is reasonable for us to be moved to worship and awesome wonder in the presence of such truth, in spite of the fact that some very difficult questions surface because of it. In a spirit of worship, let us not fear to reverently ask these questions and to carefully search out their answers. Hard labor in fertile soil yields rich fruit. These questions and their answers comprise the remaining facets of the subject at hand.
Why are the tenses of the verbs mixed in Isaiah 53? Why is the crucifixion of Jesus referred to as a past act in this passage when the text was penned hundreds of years before the crucifixion? “We hid, as it were, our faces from Him … He hath born our griefs and carried our sorrows … He was wounded … The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all … he was cut off … for the transgression of my people was he stricken … He hath poured out His soul unto death … he was numbered with the transgressors, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
At the same time, why is this act seen as a future event—”He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant … When thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin … He shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.”
Again, mysteriously, why is the present tense thrown in as well—”There is no beauty … he is despised … he hath no form … he openeth not his mouth?”
Blunted scholars may dismiss this woven mixture of the tenses as some sort of superfluous literary elegance, claiming that nothing is really meant by it. This is a great mistake: God makes no purposeless moves.
Secondly, if the sins of certain people have been laid on Jesus Christ such that God is completely satisfied with them for the sake of Christ their propitiation, how can these people remain condemned before they believe on Christ? It is written, in John 3, that, “he that believeth not is condemned already because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten son of God?” Christians become believers, they are not born that way. God’s wrath must abide on anyone who has neglected to believe, and it must remain on them until they do believe. “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Why aren’t the elect, all those who will eventually believe on Jesus Christ and become heirs of eternal life, justified from birth since Jesus has already died? Why and how do the elect become saved when they believe on Christ, if God has been conciliated and satisfied with their cases since the crucifixion of Christ on their behalf? Similarly, how could Abraham, Noah, Job and David have been actually justified through faith in Christ before Christ died for them and actually satisfied God’s demands on their sin?
Thirdly, if Jesus has completely saved all those for whom He died, it would appear that the group of people for whom He has died is fixed and defined rather explicitly, since His death is a completed historical fact and not an on-going sacrifice. The number of the saved is proportionally small to the whole of humanity and God foreknows each one of them. Everyone whose sins were actually laid on Jesus Christ is permanently and eternally safe, and this appears to be a very limited and closed group of people. How then is an offer of a propitiation made to all of the people who have ever lived, as plainly done in the text with which we began?
In a Nutshell
To summarize, we have two problems to deal with.
1) We wish to be saved in present time by a past act, and believe that saints of antiquity were justified in their present time by a then future act.
2) We must speak of an atonement which literally saves only a very limited group of people, the elect, yet this atonement is somehow genuinely made available to everyone who has ever lived.
Perhaps it is difficult for you to see the relationship between these two issues. Historically, a significant relationship has not been perceived to exist between the two, but the connection between them proves to be the key to the whole of the discussion. As we pursue this, we will find that most all of the effort has been spent trying to resolve the second issue (which itself contains two distinct, apparently contradictory parts). We will also find that the resolution of the second issue is neatly tied up in the first. I will explore the nature of the second issue and then show how the first may be used to bring a solid resolution and biblical closure.
Two sets of truths are involved in this discussion which appear to be contradictory, and they relate to the second issue above: a limited, efficacious (“producing an intended effect”, actually saving) atonement and a universal offer of its availability.
Firstly, all of the sins of certain people were laid on Jesus Christ; God is completely satisfied with the sacrifice that Jesus made on their behalf. Jesus Christ paid their sin debt. These people are eternally safe: God will never impute sin to them, nor charge them for the sins they have committed. This truth is clearly perceived from a careful consideration of Isaiah 53: “by His knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities“. Those people whose sins were born by Jesus Christ are justified by what He experienced on their behalf (“by His knowledge”… what He came to know by experience).
The Bible never says that all of the sins of all people were actually laid on Christ, or that Christ actually suffered in everyone’s place individually, or that He actually bore the sins of all men in His own Body on the tree. “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) Only the sins of believers were laid on the body of Jesus Christ, no one else’s sins were laid on Him.
Jesus Christ died as a Holy substitute only for a very small group of people and He infallibly saved each and every one of the people for whom He died. “By one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14). He washed away their sins, completed their salvation, and sat down on the right hand of God forever victorious for these elected, chosen few: “When he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1:3) These blessed people – believers, we call them — were, and are, literally saved by the death of Jesus Christ. This is the first set of truths.
In addition to the above, it is also true that no one who is not now believing on Jesus Christ has been saved by His death. Even if they will believe on Jesus in the future, their sins have not been laid on Him, their sin has not been atoned for, their sins have not been washed away, and God has not been reconciled to them by the death of Christ. On the contrary, God’s wrath abides on all unbelievers — whether they are elect or not: “… the wrath of God abideth on” the unbeliever (John 3:36b). All those who do believe on Christ became saved by His death when they first did believe on Him, and no one is saved by the death of Christ until they do actually believe on Him.
Secondly, the atonement of Jesus Christ is literally offered to every living human being as an available propitiation, and it has never been otherwise. All people everywhere are commanded to believe on Him and trust Him as their Savior. “God commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), and all who have not done so stand condemned because they have not: “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18b). Salvation from an eternal, fiery hell is genuinely offered to all living people. It is by believing on Jesus Christ that salvation is obtained. It is when one believes on Jesus Christ that one’s sins are washed away. This is the second set of truths.
Perhaps now the mystery has become a little more evident to you if you had not seen it before, and you can now see why the most earnest scholars of the Word have either remained in open confusion or they have become dishonest with the issues. Centuries have passed and many able men have set their hearts upon these truths in earnest prayer. Yet, it appears that these two sets of truths are completely contradictory and remain stubbornly opposed to each other. It is as if there were only two choices for an honest soul in this: either Christ really saved no one in and of Himself when He died, or He is not the propitiation for everyone’s sins and no one ever becomes saved.
The Historical Debate
Up until this point in time, we have had only these two well-worn paths from which to choose as we explore these questions. Each path begins with a denial of one of these precious basic truth sets in favor of the other, and proceeds to twist all of the scriptures that teach the truths that have been rejected. Each path begins with an apprehension of one truth, only to assume the falsehood of the other because it sees no possibility of reconciliation. Neither of these two presumptions can lead to a resolution of the issues with integrity because each starts out by denying clearly established biblical truth.
Those of us who are unwilling to deny ANY of the Word are left speechless and confounded. It appears that these two sets of truths are inexplicably opposed to one another. It is therefore claimed by many that the issue cannot be resolved with integrity. This all-important subject … yea the MOST important subject of all, appears to be beyond our simple comprehension.
The latter of the two truth sets is represented in the widest of the two paths, commonly called Arminianism. Briefly, this position involves thinking of Jesus Christ, the “Propitiation”, as not actually reconciling God to anyone in and of Himself, but simply making it possible for men of their free choice of God to reconcile themselves to Him by an act of their free will. According to this view, all of the sins of all men were actually laid on Christ, but Christ’s death availed nothing by itself. His death really saves no one — only makes it possible for one to become saved if and when they choose to receive it.
This position is entirely inconsistent with Isaiah 53. Christ Himself has effectively perfected believers through His sacrifice: “By one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14). However, to the Armenian, Christ’s death was a potentially empty agony, God hoping for the best when laying salvation at the feet of an arrogant mankind in a supposed Age of Grace. It is claimed now that the willful choice of the unbeliever is what gives the death of Christ its meaning. It is only when the unbeliever decides to accept Christ that God accepts the death of Christ as a payment for sin. For those who never do choose God, Christ’s suffering for their sins retains only aesthetic value. It would have even been hypothetically possible, in this view, for Christ to have suffered and to have actually saved no one at all. His death could theoretically have been completely wasted through our own obstinate rebellion.
The motive behind this position — an apprehension of the second set of truths. These folks understand that … somehow … the gospel is legitimately offered to all men, and people become saved when they believe on Him. From this they conclude that Christ could not have died for only the elect, and that the payment that Jesus made only makes salvation a possibility for all, not a certainty for a few. They focus on the love of God and assume that this love implies that God has an earnest but frustrated desire that all men be saved, that God has determined the salvation of none and longed for the salvation of all.
Fatally, this view of the inefficacy of the death of Christ and the meaninglessness of Christ having sins laid on Him with no actual results, leads quite easily to a false gospel that substitutes Lordship, sinner’s prayers, asking Christ to come into the heart, asking for forgiveness, etc. (ad nauseam) in place of genuine God-given repentance and faith in Christ. Would to God that this were clearly understood!! Please ponder this carefully if it is not clear to you. The fatality is eternal …
In direct contradiction to Arminianism, Calvinism, as it has come to be called, grasps the first set of truths only to flatly deny the second. Perceiving the sovereign power of God and intuitively realizing the consequences of Jesus having someone’s sins laid on Him, the Calvinist realizes that everyone for whom Jesus died must be permanently and completely saved by His death. Christ could not suffer in vain: and as He purposes, so He does. They are honest with passages such as Isaiah 53 and glory in the completeness of salvation and in the providence of God, only to twist and turn when confronted with a universally available atonement legitimately offered to all men. They cannot stomach the words “whole world” in our chosen text, and must make the words mean something (“the elect”) which they cannot mean. They are confounded by the fact that God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe on Christ (Acts 17:30), even though a Calvinistic understanding of the atonement would imply that God is telling the non-elect to believe a lie (that believing on Christ would actually deliver them when it would not, since — as they suppose — His death is not available to them).
The Calvinist, by rejecting a universal offer of salvation, unwittingly raises an impenetrable wall between Himself and the atonement. Since the Calvinist avows that Christ’s death is available only to a very few and the rest are deceived, he can never be positively sure that Christ died for him personally. There is no way for him to tell for sure if that “inner voice” of awkwardly feeble witness that suggests that he may truly be one of the elect is not just a delusion instead of the Holy Spirit. This is a direct and fatal blow to the definition and concept of faith, destroying the very assurance of eternal life which all of us must somehow find for ourselves.
The Calvinist strips himself of anything concrete to believe in since he has artificially limited the availability of the death of Christ. This fact is borne out by historical accounts of famous Calvinists who doubted their salvation regularly, especially when near death. It is confirmed by many today in a Calvinistic Lordship camp who claim that assurance of salvation is in itself arrogant, and can at best only be based on a lifetime of commitment to Christ and Christian growth. Calvinists are often so bold in this blindness that they claim that doubting one’s salvation is a sign of humility, and that assurance of salvation is arrogant and inconsistent with holiness.
Yet how much obedience is enough? for how long? And what of John’s, “that ye may know that ye have eternal life?” (1 John 5:13) How can one be crying out “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8) while wondering which family he is in? The scripture indicates that we should never live a single moment without assurance of salvation: for any honest soul, to live honestly with any doubt at all about eternity is paralyzing, crippling, debilitating. This teaching then leads people to shallowness and dishonesty with respect to the most important aspect of life just so they can function — which can only harm the conscience and impede any real growth in Christ.
Only a fool can live sanely while entertaining any particle of doubt about where he will spend eternity. God did not intend for us to be doubting our salvation as part of a healthy grounding in Him. If we do not deeply perceive that we are in no more danger of eternal hell fire than Jesus Christ Himself, if we are not in our own mind as safe as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, we walk in doubt and unbelief. One should — with all diligence — seek complete assurance of eternal life, and only rest when in such deep assurance. One can only find this when ALL is dependent on the Savior, and NOTHING depends on us. The essence of “faith unto salvation” is destroyed in any other view. As in the Armenian view, this twist of Calvinism is likewise eternally fatal. If the danger were only perceived … it is difficult to emphasize this enough.
Additionally, Calvinists, in understanding the efficacy of the death of Christ, are faced with the dilemma we have raised concerning the timing of justification resulting from the death of Christ for the elect. Has a Christian always been saved? Is conversion just learning that you are saved? How can God’s wrath abide on an unbeliever elected to salvation? How can an unbeliever elected to salvation be “condemned already” if Christ has already died for him and propitiated God toward him? This dilemma cannot be resolved honestly in the traditional Calvinistic paradigm.
Both Arminianism and Calvinism are thus tainted with poor logic and grammatical dishonesty. Literally, in understanding the two positions presented above, we have seen the best that both current and historical annals of Christianity have to offer. Alarmingly, both are inherently fatal — in a profound and eternal sense.
I am not a scholar of any sort in my opinion, but I believe anyone familiar with Christianity and its literature would agree that every position claiming a biblical basis with any degree of integrity is more or less represented in one of these two positions. Of course, Catholicism and other pagan religions which openly teach salvation by works and ritual are not discussed here, as this is beyond our scope.
My point is this: there is a blatant gap inherent in each of these two positions and these gaps have not been mutually addressed by anyone … literally. Since it has been perceived that there is no hope of resolution, the gap has even been denied. No one, to my knowledge, has resolved the truths represented in these two positions into a unified coherent whole. This objective is, believe it or not, my present pursuit.
Is There an Answer?
It would initially appear that the objective is unreachable: these two positions appear hopelessly incongruous, such that we appear bound to live with irreconcilable inconsistencies in Christian thought. However, axiomatically, I cannot accept this. I assume that our God is a God of consistency and logical order, that He does not contradict Himself, and that He means exactly what He says with words that perfectly express His truth. There are not “holes” in God’s theology, and in His Word He must have revealed His mind on the subject we have before us.
I conclude this because the subject before us is simply too basic and important for Him to have purposefully left us to such logical disarray permanently. We are to seek out His mind patiently and purposefully and we must not accept a counterfeit at any cost. There must be a third position, or some combination of the above positions, that will do justice to all of the truths we have considered. Any true, correct position must harmonize both the love and sovereign control of God and recognize the depraved filthy will of man for what it really is. It must preserve the dignity and efficacy of the atonement of Jesus Christ without denying its universal availability, and it must deal with the dilemma of the chronology of justification.
It’s time for a bit of “bush whacking,” if you will. Let’s gird up the loins of our minds, take out our spiritual “machetes,” and break a new trail to the truth. It lies in between the two well-traveled paths of Arminianism and Calvinism, and is most easily accessed from either, by another path that I will call (for lack of anything better) the TimeX Theory of Chronological Dissonance, or more simply, the TimeX Theory.
When we look carefully at the two sets of truths represented in Arminianism and Calvinism, we notice that the apparent differences between them can be expressed in terms of chronological inconsistencies. This observation draws a distinct relationship between the two summary issues considered above. On the one hand, Christ saved the elect when He laid down His life for them; on the other hand, one is not saved until he believes. This is an inconsistency in the timing of justification. Again, on the other hand, salvation is genuinely available to all people of all time, perhaps implying that the total final number of the saved is uncertain. Yet, the death of Christ is a completed historical act; on that dreadful, awesome crucifixion day He saved every soul that He ever intended to save. This is a time-related inconsistency in the availability of justification. This concept of chronological inconsistency has not been the center of the discussion between the two opposing theological camps; apparently, it has not even been considered. Instead, on each side, energies have been wastefully spent trying to justify a rejection of one set of biblical truths in order to hold to the other. No one can hope to be successful in this. When one purposes to reject truth, one plans dishonesty, inconsistency and failure.
Consider with me issue number one, that we seek to be saved in present time by an act of the historical past, and we believe that saints of old were justified in their present time by a then future act. Also recall my interest in the inconsistent use of the time tenses in Isaiah 53. As we have seen, the inconsistencies between the two sets of truths in the second issue can be correctly classified as chronological inconsistencies. Yet chronology is the specific subject of the first issue. If all of the apparent inconsistencies embedded in the second issue imply a chronological inconsistency if we accept both sets of truth, and a chronological inconsistency has already become apparent in considering the first issue, then perhaps the truth involves an inconsistency in chronology! Perhaps we need to take time out of the equation (Time-Ex ) in order for it all to make sense.
Now we have a third alternative! Instead of violating one set of God’s truths or another, let us press this TimeX notion of Chronological Dissonance to its limit and see what happens.
Do we have any biblical warrant for so doing? I would much rather violate the normal assumption of well-ordered, time-oriented thought than violate the Word of God! Purposeful rejection of biblical truth should not be an option for any saint of God. However, a step off the beaten path is obviously not a natural one to take; this may require a bit of… “Star Trekking!” Strap in and join me as we enter a time warp!
Please turn in your Bible to the place where it is written, “Beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” It is not often in the Bible that we are told to focus on an issue as one of such singular importance. Can you find another statement like this in your Bible? “Don’t be without understanding in this one area.”
To be sure, there are certain truths that we must not live without, the means of obtaining eternal life being one of several. Yet seldom, if ever, are we pointed directly and explicitly at a truth and told, “If you are going to understand anything at all, make sure you understand this … ,” like we are here in 2nd Peter 3.
So … now that you’ve had some time to think about it (?), what do you think of this truth, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as one day to Him?
Just try to imagine what it would be like … God experiences a twenty-four hour day in the same way that we would experience a millennium. He sees so much detail, such intricate relationships between things that we in our dullness never notice. It is as if time stands still for Him and He ponders and moves upon the most minute details with such thorough and complete consideration that time might as well be irrelevant. He is never in a hurry; He is never late; He is never rushed; He is never delayed; He is never surprised; He is never pressed for time to get things done. He never has to sit and plan something or figure anything out since He knows everything: nothing ever occurs to God. He never thinks of anything new, news never breaks with Him. Think of it … what is time to an infinite Being? Imagine each second of your life being expanded out into four days, five hours, twenty-three minutes, and twenty seconds (for that is how you would have to stretch a day to get it to last a millennium)! Time would truly be at a stand-still for all practical purposes.
We could stop here, as I have probably made my point, but it would not be as fun. If a day is as a thousand years to God, and each of those thousand years has three hundred sixty-five (or so) days, each of which God experiences as a millennium, each of which has another 365,000 days, each of which is as another millennium to God, and … and … and… Get the point? God experiences an infinity of time in the smallest time interval that you can create. “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years …” That’s not all … there’s more!
Now that you have mastered the above (!), we now reverse everything. A thousand years pass with God like a day does to you. Now four days, five hours, 23 minutes and 20 seconds go whizzing by in every second. Your whole life lasts less than three hours. You can’t keep track of anything but the very basic stuff, but now the “big picture” is much clearer … the broad view of earthly existence is more easily in focus. The whole plan of earthly history from beginning to end is compressed into just one week. But … 365,000 of these millennium days is just another compounded millennium to God, which feels just like another day to Him, of which there are 365,000 more compounded millennium days in another doubly-compounded millennium, which doubly-compounded millennium He experiences just like we do a day, which … which … See? The largest time span that you can conceive of passes instantaneously with God! “A thousand years as one day …”
Believe it or not … we are not done! There is that little word “and” in the middle of both of these wonders that joins them together somehow. If each of the above were only true by itself it would be difficult enough, but we are told that both are true for God … at the same time! (Gasp!) Now what do we say? Shall we throw more numbers at it? Look at it sideways or upside down? I wouldn’t know how — I can take you no further. There isn’t any way that I can even begin to illustrate this; it will take a much bigger mind than mine. Just sit back with me and concede to our God that He is a pretty awesome God! He is not bound by time the way we are. He is the infinite Being who created Time.
By the way … now that we are on the subject … what is time anyway? Take a minute and try to define it for yourself. Got it? Simple, right?! Webster has three-quarters of a full page (in tiny print) to just touch on the subject of time. Try this on for a definition: “duration as perceived by sequential experiences.” If that makes any sense to you, how would you relate it to God after considering Peter’s admonition? Does an infinite Being experience time at all? Is anything sequential with Him?
What does duration mean to Someone Who experiences a millennium every day and every day in a millennium, and “quadruply-compounded” millenniums, and all that mumbo jumbo? What is time to One who listens to the prayer of a sick child in Argentina, while simultaneously dealing with a screaming mother in the middle of childbirth in Scandinavia, while comforting a wounded soldier in Iraq, while holding the entire cosmos together like a gigantic clock one molecule at a time? Events do not form in a line for His attention; He does not have a queue of things to notice. He does not deal with things in sequence at all. He governs the universe in a simultaneous continuum of AM-ness. Intricate details of the distant prehistoric past do not blur in His Mind, an unfathomable future of billions of millenniums does not evade His ever minute and clear inspection. All detail in the entire created universe — from the gentle waving of microscopic cilia in deep sea plankton, to the violent smashing of light in the black holes of the farthest astronomic nebula — not only in the present but in all past and future ages — all this detail is the subject of His immediate and untaxed — and unsequenced — attention. “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” … and He did not need to count them — He just knows! Cataclysmic events are intricately sequenced by Him simultaneously in galaxies above the sand of the sea shores in number, effortlessly and intimately: “… the stars, He calleth them all by their names.”
There was a day when this incredible Being, this majestic, awesome, timeless GOD … stepped into time. He became a zygote, an embryo, a fetus. He broke the water of a virgin womb, suckled helplessly at a human breast, and grew up in poverty. He ate and drank and slept, and played in the sand as He grew. He taught Himself to read and write, and eventually learned a trade and worked for His food. He experienced heat and cold and thirst and fatigue … and rejection. He voluntarily became homeless, denying Himself the comforts of human sexuality and family.
There came another day when this Being stood as a grown man, on soil which He had spoken into existence, breathing air which He had created, under a sun which held the planets in perfect check at His bidding, circled by furious enemies (!), and said, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” Even as He walked among us, He was outside of time.
We deal with a Being that sees without an eye, Who knows without a brain. He has no location; He has no age; His strength cannot be measured … all is effortless with Him. He is vast, unmeasurable, boundless, free. He need never move nor analyze … He cannot be frightened or worried or strained or intimidated. There are no close calls with Him, God cannot take risks — He governs all. “Man’s goings are of the Lord. How can a man then understand his own way …” much less obstruct God’s way? How can this Almighty Being be threatened? evaded? conquered? tricked? And we have not yet touched on His purity … “the stars are not clean in His sight…” I say! What has He found impure in the stars? … else it is that they be part of a material creation that contains sinful men. “… how much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?” (Job 15:16) Yet, He lets you worship Him?!… in all of your filth and brokenness?
What does it mean to you … to be loved by this God? What an indescribable … awesome … privilege to be adopted by Him! … nurtured by Him! And you? You will not trust Him? You have trouble obeying Him? You find it difficult to make time to be with Him? You will not wholeheartedly seek Him? You disdain to love Him? What we as Christians take for granted!!
Suppose, in the end, you are not an object of His love … that you are deceived like so very, very many in our day. Suppose that He … this timeless, almighty Being … is finally and eternally furious with you … and turns Himself to crush and mercilessly avenge Himself against you for your rebellion and hatred towards Him??? If you avoid this eternal, hopeless end, you will be one of precious few.
Do not take salvation for granted. Explode with thankful joy if you are sure; seek Him relentlessly if you are not. Ahhh … poor little soul speck … consider carefully … “be not ignorant of this one thing”: JEHOVAH reigns — “sequence,” as a vehicle of comprehension, means nothing to Him. God is not subject to time.
My! … I must admit … not only have I strayed somewhat from my intent (Kindly, pardon my indulgence), I am asking you to stretch your mind a good bit. Patience, please — at least I told you I would do it. I shall now proceed more gently.
Really, all I need from you at this point is to agree with me that God is not bound by time — that past, present, and future all blur into irrelevance with Him. He can go forward in time, He can go backward in time. In fact, He does not need to “go” at all … He is already there … He is still there … always there … at any point in time … at all points in time … at the same time … all the time. He can both pierce the time domain in the person of Christ and experience things as we do, and simultaneously He can be completely above, beyond, and unconstrained by time. Maybe I am asking too much of you here. I hope not … and will proceed with these statements as established. I will relax the time constraint and freely violate chronological order, creating a dissonance in sequence in any statements that I make from here on out in our discussion. That is, I will allow for statements and ideas to freely retain a “Chronological Dissonance” from God’s perspective, and I will not call this illogical or unreasonable. In fact, it is my perception that the significance of Peter’s emphasis on this point will find deeper fulfillment for us in the discussion that follows.
Now that we have biblical evidence that violating chronological order appears to be a reasonable thing for God to do, let us turn to the conversion of the Apostle Paul for some insight into the chronology of justification. If you are as most Christians in our day, you are undoubtedly turning to the Damascus road experience in Acts 9:1-10 where Paul was blinded by Jesus Christ and yielded to His Lordship. Wait a minute … Who says Paul was converted on the Damascus Road during this experience? Who says that yielding to the Lordship of Christ, as Paul did on the road to Damascus, is conversion? The Bible does not. Paul was not converted to Christ, or justified, or “saved” until verse 17, three days after he met Christ on the Damascus road. Let no man deceive you with vain words. You can yield to the Lordship of Jesus Christ with all sincerity and still spend eternity in the lake of fire. Many are trying this broad road to heaven (see Matthew 7:21 and following) but that is no reason why you should. Be very careful in this matter: apparent yieldedness to the Lordship of Christ does not imply justification.
How do I know that Paul was not justified until verse 17 in the account, that he was not justified on the road to Damascus? Well, when Paul recounts his conversion experience in Acts 22, he says something very interesting and significant which is not revealed to us in chapter 9. There, in Acts 22, he quotes Ananias, the fellow that lead Him to Christ, as saying the following to himself (Paul) three days after his direct encounter with Christ on the road, “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (vs 16) Now, side-stepping the issues of baptismal regeneration and decisional regeneration which are inconveniently raised in this passage, let us focus on the washing away of sins.
Would you agree with me that the instruction of Ananias to Paul that Paul should wash away his sins implies that the sins of Paul had not yet been washed away at the time the instruction was given? In other words, would you suspect that Paul’s sins needed to be washed away when Ananias instructed him to do so? Why would you think so? Would Ananias, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, tell Paul to do something that had already been done and that did not still need to be done? I think not. I think that it is plain that Paul’s sins had not been washed away up until this point in time, and that Paul needed to do something so that his sins would be washed away.
Now, would you say that someone has been “converted to Christ” who has not had their sins washed away? Most churched evangelicals would say, “No”. And further, would you say that someone who is not a Christian does have their sins washed away? Again, the answer would be a hearty, “No”. We see that having our sins washed away, being saved, being converted, being justified, and being a Christian are all equivalent ideas. So Paul was converted when his sins were washed away. That is when Paul was justified, when he was saved, it was when his sins were purged or washed away. This was not on the Damascus Road, but three days later in Damascus. So what?
Well, in Hebrews 1:3 we find that Paul’s sins were purged by Christ on the cross several years earlier: “When He had by Himself purged (Paul’s) sins, (Christ) sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Now, according to Webster, to “purge” means to “remove by cleansing.” Paul’s sins were removed from him by the cleansing blood of Christ when Christ died for Paul — that was chronologically before Paul was converted. Yet I have established that at some time chronologically following this purging act of Christ, Paul’s sins remained on him and needed to be purged away. Further, we find that Christ was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8) before He was ever born to go the cross, and that Christ was crucified among the Galatians many years after the recorded crucifixion and in a different geographical location than given in the Gospels (Galatians 3:1). It is also true that Christ was only crucified once, not several times: “He offered one sacrifice for sins.” (Hebrews 10:12) Christ is not being continually crucified. We obviously have a problem to deal with. When was Jesus crucified for the Apostle Paul? When were Paul’s sins laid on Jesus Christ? When were Paul’s sins purged, or washed away?
It is true that Paul’s sins were not washed away until Paul believed on Jesus Christ and trusted in Him as his Atonement. It is also true that Paul’s sins were purged away when Jesus died for Paul. So when did Jesus die for Paul? It must have been when Paul believed! Before Paul believed, his sins had not been laid on Jesus Christ, his sin had not been purged, his sin had not been washed away. When Paul believed on Christ then his sins were laid on Christ in past time. It was only after he believed on Christ that Paul could write “that Christ died for our sins according the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3)
God violated chronological order when He crucified His Son. The atonement was a completed historical fact for Old Testament saints before Jesus Christ was ever born, as seen in the use of past tense verbs in Isaiah 53, and the atonement is presently available to any unbeliever right now even though it is a past and completed fact and only the sins of believers were laid on Christ. From a kingdom perspective, Jesus bore the full weight and suffering for the sins of all of the people of all time who would ever believe on Him during a single six-hour moment in historical, chronological time the way we perceive it. Yet, from our perspective, captive in a time domain, God puts the sins of each individual believer on His Son when they believe. The sins of all of the elect have not already been laid on Jesus from our perspective in time, only the sins of those who have already believed. No one’s sins have been laid on Jesus Christ who has not already believed on Him. This is limited atonement. Yet anyone may (and should) believe on Jesus and have their sins laid on Him in past time. Any and all sinners may believe on Him now and be forgiven even though His work is chronologically fixed and complete. Sinners of old believed on Jesus Christ and had their sins already laid on Him in future time before Christ was ever born! No one capable of rational thought will ever be able to say to God, “I didn’t have a chance to believe on Jesus Christ. You never offered me the opportunity for the forgiveness of my sins.” This is a universal offer of redemption.
You will say that I am being absurd with the chronology: the charge is true! But it is not without reward; I have a limited atonement available to all! That is my purpose, and it is achieved. We are at the end of the path, and we are sitting on top of the truth. Do you see it, my friend? Do you now see why all of the passages that speak of the atonement in detail refer only to us and our and we, the manifested elect, those of us who have already believed on Jesus Christ. In the Scriptures, an unbeliever is never told to believe that his sins have been paid for by Jesus Christ. He is only told this after he believes. He is never asked to believe that his sins have already been washed away before he believes, but after he believes he sees that they were washed away when Jesus died for him. Before he believes he is stained with sin and needs to be cleansed; after he believes on Christ, he finds that his sins were laid on the body of Christ on the cross and were purged away long ago. He has traveled back in time to the foot of the cross and has become purged in present time by an historically completed act.
So … what does the Bible instruct an unbeliever to do if it does not tell him to believe that Jesus paid for everyone’s sins? (God never tells us to believe this) In all of the great sermons preached to unbelievers in the book of Acts, the unbelieving sinner is told to believe on and in Jesus Christ: the Propitiation. The central fact that is stressed in the message is not the atonement itself but the resurrection (which proves the efficacy of the atonement). When specifically exhorted to become a Christian, all that the unbeliever is told is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”(Acts 16:31) It is not a truth, or even a whole set of truths, that the unbeliever is to believe on, but a divine Person. We are to believe in and on a Person, not merely a set of facts. Doubtless, facts about this Person, this Propitiation Being, are involved when we believe on Him, and we believe the central facts about Him if we believe on Him. His deity, His sinless perfection, and His atoning sacrifice involve facts that are central to believing on Him. Yet believing the facts and believing on Christ are not equivalent.
We can believe a lot about Christ without believing on Him, as evidenced in Matthew 7:21-23. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name: and in thy name have cast out devils: and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity”. Doubtless, these wicked folks knew a good bit about Jesus Christ, since they dedicated their lives to serve Him (Just ponder this! Think of this for a moment!…Wow!), and they preached many things in His name, even seeing supernatural signs accompanying their work (… and some think Lordship will save them? … of itself?). We must not substitute a belief in facts about Christ and a commitment to serve Him for believing on Christ Himself.
An unbeliever is to understand and believe that Jesus Christ has made His sacrificial work available to him, and he is to receive and accept Jesus Christ as his personal sin offering to God, as his Substitute. This must be an experience of the power of God at work in the sinner where his soul comes to rest on and trust in Christ Himself without wavering or doubting, as the One paying the full penalty for his own personal sins before God. This trusting and resting, this absence of doubting and wavering, this complete confidence of the soul in Christ as Savior is what having faith in Christ, believing in and on Christ, and receiving Christ means. It is believing on a Person, not merely a knowledge of facts and a dedication to obey. It is in the simple relying on Christ, having our sins laid on Him, finding ourselves safe in Him because of what He has done for us, that God is reconciled to us by His Son Jesus Christ.
The result of this is that the Christian knows that he was purchased by Jesus Christ long ago at the cross: that all of his sins, past, present and future, have all been completely dealt with by Jesus Christ permanently, and that he has been literally saved by the atonement of Christ. He does not look to his act of receiving Christ for assurance of salvation, nor to a life of obedience (but if he did do so, it would eventually encourage him that he actually is a believer, for every believer is characterized primarily by obedience), but to the completeness of the suffering of his Lord. He somehow knows that this was not the case before he believed, even though now he sees that it was all accomplished long ago. He sees further that Jesus saves all for whom He died, that Jesus died for no one in vain, and that all for whom Jesus died are completely and permanently justified from all things.
Yet the Christian also knows that all of those who do not now believe on Jesus Christ should believe on Him, and that even though their sins have not been washed away by Christ, their sins could be and would be washed away if the unbelievers became believers. The Christian tells the unbelievers to believe on Christ and receive forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ and what He has done. The Christian does this in spite of knowing all the while that the hearers remain stained in their sins and that the work of Christ was completely finished once long ago such that nothing can ever be added to it.
In short, the Holy Spirit is teaching the believer, who is mired in a time domain, two sets of truths which can only make sense to a timeless Being. In violating chronological order, the Holy Spirit teaches both sets of biblical truths consistently; neither set should be denied. Denying the universal availability of the atonement separates us from the work of Christ such that we cut ourselves off from genuine faith. In doing this we are left to find what comfort we can in evidences of our supposed adoption. On the other hand, denying the cleansing efficacy of His death hides the power of it from our view and leads us to rest in some mechanism of receiving Him instead of directly in Him as our Propitiation. Denial in either case here can be, and sadly often is, eternally fatal; this is not the path to God’s truth.
We can make sense of these truths in a mutual context only if we can live with sentences that are chronological nonsense, statements such as: “Though you are stained in your sin, and stand condemned in it, if you will believe on Christ as your Savior, then Christ will have died for you and will have cleansed you of your sin.” “Lay your sins on Christ your Sin Bearer, and He will pay for them when He died long ago.” and, “Whether or not my sins had been cleansed by Christ as of 1700 A.D. depends on when you ask me the question. If you ask me now, I will say, ‘Yes’, but if you had asked me before my conversion to Christ, I would have truthfully said, ‘No.'”
By the grace of God we now have a third position available to us as we reverently handle the mysteries of the atonement: the TimeX Theory of Chronological Dissonance. In this most difficult of theological arenas, we finally have biblical resolution and solid closure available to us; we no longer need to feel pressed to twist the Word of God to fit our biases. We need not have holes in our thinking any longer concerning the cornerstone of Christian thought and life. We need not be satisfied with the traditional twistings of either Calvinism or Arminianism since we have before us a way to blend all of Scripture into one coherent whole with respect to the scope and nature of the atonement. We can see and appreciate the efficacy of the atonement of Christ and know that it was effective in accomplishing our salvation. Yet, at the same time, we can sincerely offer salvation to anyone, even the non-elect, knowing that His sacrifice — yea and even His Person, Himself, the Propitiation — has been made genuinely available to all men — even to those who will never believe.
Lastly, let me plainly state that I do not pretend to claim that one must understand or agree with all of the above in order to be a Christian, or to become one. While I do believe that only a very few people are truly born again (personally, I feel that one in a thousand is optimistic), it is clear that people do become Christians, they come to genuinely believing on Christ as their Savior, in spite of much of their understanding. I myself wrestled with these matters for years after having become a thankful vessel of divine faith in my Lord Jesus Christ. He is most often pleased to work in mystery and shroud, yet still He works. He is not hindered by a good deal of ignorance in the mind when creating faith in the heart. The more I come to know Him, the more of His delight I see in the secrecy of His ways. Truly, the secret things belong to God, and He does not flaunt them. But it is not unreasonable for Him to reveal them to us when we seek them from Him with holy and honest persistence.
This is most certainly not the last and final word on this important subject, nor do I claim to be entirely without error in my opinions. However, I do desire that the path that has been so crudely and boldly hacked out here in these few pages will, in time, bring spiritual profit and enrichment to my brothers and sisters in Christ. Your thoughts on the matter are most welcome. Please feel free to share them with me.