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What do you think of when you hear the question: For whom did Jesus die? The answer seems rather obvious: for the world. John 1:29 says, after all, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. As a result, many interpreters assert Jesus died for the entire world and not for a predestined number of people. And when one asks how does God reconcile sinners to himself and to each other. The answer also seems rather obvious in the NT: by the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, on behalf of Jewish and Gentile sinners (Rom. 3:25; 4:25; al. 3:13; Eph. 1:7; 2:13, 16).

However, a question that some advocates of the above interpretations are unwilling to answer and in some cases unwilling to consider is what does the term “world” mean when used in association with Jesus’ death? Does it refer to everyone without distinction or to everyone without exception? And how does Jesus’ death intersect with reconciliation.

Everyone without distinction means that Jesus died for all kinds of people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. Everyone without exception would mean that he died for every single individual person.

In my view, Jesus died for all of the sins of all of the people in the world without distinction instead of dying for all of the sins of all of the people without exception. That is, Jesus died for all of the sins of all of the races of people whom God specifically chose to be saved before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-7, 11). God chose to save the elect/chosen based on his good pleasure apart from works or foreseen faith (Rom. 8:29-30; 9:1-29), and he sent Jesus to die on the cross for their sins so that they and only they would receive salvation (Rom. 3:25; 4:25; 5:8-10; Gal. 3:13-14; Eph. 1:7).

To support the above interpretation, I primarily discuss below selected texts from Paul’s letters.[1] In these texts, Paul suggests Jesus’ death actually achieved salvation for those for whom he died. Paul does not present Jesus’ death as hypothetically accomplishing the salvation of all people without exception, but as actually accomplishing salvation for all for Jesus died. And I discuss how Jesus’ death for all of the elect intersects with reconciliation.

Romans 3:24-30: Jesus’ Blood and Justification by Faith

Paul states that Jesus’ death justifies (declares not guilty) sinners by faith in Christ. In Romans 3:24-30, Paul connects justification by faith with Jesus’ blood. He asserts that God justifies sinners by faith because he offered Jesus to die for their sins. In 3:23-24, Paul states all sinners must be freely justified by God’s redemption provided by Jesus because all have sinned (1:18-3:20, 23). Justification is God’s gracious gift and comes to all sinners freely through the redemption accomplished by means of Jesus’ blood (3:24-25) and resurrection (4:25).

Paul connects justification by faith in 3:21-22 with “redemption” (3:24) and with the idea of bloody sacrifice (3:25). This connection suggests that Jesus’ blood accomplished liberation for those for whom he died. In light of Paul’s remarks in 3:20, that the law justifies no one, and in 3:24, that all people must be graciously justified through redemption in Jesus Christ, Paul explains in 3:25-26 how God justifies sinners through Jesus’ redemption. He states that God “offered Jesus to be an atoning sacrifice,” that this sacrifice is received “by faith,” and that Jesus’ “blood” accomplished justification for the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:25-26).

Yes, this redemption is inclusively for “all” who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (3:23). This is why Paul boldly affirms that God is the justifying God of both Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Jesus (3:29-30). Yet, this redemption is exclusively “only” for those who have been justified freely by faith by God’s grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus (3:21-22, 24-25; 5:1). And God upheld the integrity of his justice by satisfying his wrath in the cross of Jesus on behalf of the Jewish and Gentile sinners who are justified, reconciled, and saved by Jesus’ blood and resurrection (4:25; 5:6-10; 2 Cor. 5:20).

In Rom. 3:28-30, Paul expresses that God justifies Jews and Gentiles by faith. Jew and Gentile are ethnic/racial categories. Jesus’ death and resurrection provide universal salvation for all races of people who are justified by faith in Christ and his blood reconciles them to God (Rom. 4:25; 5:8-10; 2 Cor. 5:20) and to each other (Eph. 2:13, 14-16). Paul’s comments in Rom. 3:21-31 are embedded between earlier comments in 1:18-3:20 about God’s universal condemnation of both Jews and Gentiles due to their inability to meet Torah’s demands to the fullest. His comments are also embedded between later remarks in 4:25 that Jesus “was handed over for our sins and was raised for our justification.”

Those for whom Jesus died, those who are justified by faith, and those whom God predestines to be in Christ (Rom. 8:29-30) are the same group. Paul makes this point especially clear in Eph. 1:4-5 and 1:7 when he connects election, predestination (Eph. 1:4-5), redemption, and forgiveness of sins with the blood of Christ (Eph. 1:7).

A straightforward reading of Eph. 1:4-7 suggests God chose some Jews and Gentiles to be in Christ before the foundation of the world (1:4), predestined them in love to be in God’s family (1:5), and Jesus redeemed those whom God chose and predestined by accomplishing their forgiveness of sins (1:7).

Romans 5:6-11: Jesus’ Death, Reconciliation, Justification, and Salvation 

Justification on the basis of Jesus’ death is the foundation of the hope that Paul mentions in Rom. 5:1-5 (5:1-8:39). In 5:6, he states that Jesus died for the weak. In 5:7, he states that someone would scarcely die “for a righteous person” and that someone would perhaps die “for a good person.” Then, in 5:8, Paul clarifies by stating that Christ died “for us.” Christ’s death “for us” is a death for sinners since Paul states in 5:8 that Christ’s death “for us” occurred “while we were sinners.” In 5:9-10, Paul declares that Jesus’ blood accomplished justification, salvation, and reconciliation for those sinners for whom he died.

In 5:9, Paul connects Jesus’ death mentioned in 5:8 with salvation: “Therefore, how much more we will be saved through him from wrath, because we were justified by his blood.” Jesus’ death for sinners—and his resurrection—is the basis underneath justification by faith and the other benefits of salvation accomplished by his blood in 5:8-10. Paul states that Jesus died for sinners in 5:8 and in 5:9-10 that Jesus’ blood justifies, saves the ungodly from God’s wrath, and reconciles the ungodly to God with the result that the ungodly are no longer enemies of God. Paul further emphasizes this latter point in 5:11 when he expresses that those whom God has justified, saves, and reconciles by Jesus’ blood have received reconciliation. In light of his remarks in 8:29-30 and 9:6-29, those who receive the benefits of salvation mentioned in 5:6-11 are those whom God predestined to be in Christ. And this predestined group is a group of Jews and Gentiles for whom Jesus shed his blood and to whom he extended the blessing of Abraham by faith (Gal. 1:4; 2:11-3:29; esp. 3:13-14). Here’s a point that should not be missed: everyone for whom Jesus died will certainly be saved by his resurrection from God’s wrath by faith.

Therefore, Paul again applies Jesus’ blood exclusively to Jews and Gentiles within the believing community. He affirms Jesus’ death has accomplished salvation only for those who identify with the believing community. He does not in this text give any indication that Jesus’ death hypothetically accomplished salvation for all people without exception, but for all people without distinction. That is, all Jews and Gentiles who believe in and who are united to Christ by faith will receive the gift of eternal life because he died for their sins (Rom. 3:21-5:21).

Again, Paul affirms this very point in Eph. 1:4-5 and in 1:7 when he says that God provides redemption and forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ blood for those whom he chose in love to be in Christ and predestined for adoption before the foundation of the world. Those whom God chose and predestined in Christ are the ones whom Paul believed would hear the word of truth, the gospel of their salvation, believe it, and be sealed with the Spirit for the praise of God’s glorious grace (Eph. 1:13).

But how does limited atonement intersect with reconciliation on the cross?

6 Practical Applications

Paul’s presentation of Jesus’ death as a death for all elect Jews and Gentiles without distinction should encourage all Christians to pursue reconciliation with all kinds of Jewish and Gentile people. I offer six specific reasons that Christians should be encouraged by the doctrine that Jesus died to save the elect from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

First, Christians can be confident that Jesus’ blood conquers the power of sin and death for every tongue, tribe, people, and nation found in him. Everyone for whom Jesus died will receive the saving benefits of his death by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death victoriously liberates sinners from sin and disarms the power of the devil. Both of these truths become apparent when those for whom Jesus died respond to his saving work with faith and obedience.

Second, Jesus’ death for elect Jews and Gentiles creates a reconciled community and serves as the foundational reason why the Spirit can enable Christians from every racial stripe to pursue reconciliation with diverse people (see Gal. 5:16-21).

Third, Jesus’ blood guarantees his elect will be saved when the Spirit awakens them after they hear the gospel. Jesus came from heaven to seek, find, and purchase his elect sheep (John 3:16; 10:1ff). The blood of Jesus secures a place in the sheepfold for some from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9). Christians should, therefore, cling to the blood of Jesus Christ as our only hope in life and death, along with his victorious resurrection. And we should pursue reconciliation with the “other” with the kind of intensity that Jesus came to earth to seek and to save his church to redeem her.

Fourth, Christians can evangelize anyone from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation with God’s help in the power of the Spirit. It is God’s redemptive plan to redeem everyone for whom Jesus died to redeem. The verbal proclamation of the gospel makes known to the elect the salvation accomplished by Christ for them, and the Spirit—when he’s willing—will create faith in the hearts of all of the elect (John 3; 6:44; Eph. 2:1-10).

Evangelism, then, is simply the Christian act of announcing to all sinners what God has done in Christ to save sinners. And Christians should proclaim this message to anyone who will listen regardless of the differences. And pray for and watch the Spirit create life in the hearts of the elect and apply the benefits of Jesus’ death to them when he’s willing.

Fifth, Jesus’ death for the elect should assure Christians of their salvation. Many Christians doubt their salvation. However, since Jesus’ blood was shed specifically for elect Jews and Gentiles, we can be confident that the blood of Christ will cover all of our sins. We can also be certain that Jesus’ blood alone is sufficient to plead for us before the throne of God above. By faith, the elect become God’s friends through the blood of Jesus.

Sixth, Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, shed his blood for all kinds of elect people. Therefore, the church of Jesus Christ should relentlessly pursue gospel racial reconciliation in such a way that the death of Jesus (and the resurrection) is at the very center of all calls for racial harmony and justice. Jesus’ shed blood for the elect from every tongue, tribe, and nation creates the necessary motivation for Christians from every ethnic and social stripe to strive toward gospel unity with all people in the church.

[1]I realize that any exhaustive defense of limited atonement requires a detailed analysis of multiple biblical texts—an exercise outside of the purview of this post.

 

Much of the information in this article comes from Jarvis J. Williams, For Whom Did Christ Die? The Extent of the Atonement in Paul’s Theology, Paternoster Biblical Monographs Series (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2012) and Jarvis J. Williams, Christ Died For Our Sins (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2015). Used here with permissions. A version of this post originally appeared on the Desiring God website. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/for-whom-did-christ-die. I’ve produced material here with permission.

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