To many, the topics of common grace and atonement would seem to be mutually exclusive, as if we should either hold to common grace or to definite atonement, but not to both. There are, however, good biblical and theological reasons for holding both the Reformed doctrines of common grace and definite atonement.
By common grace I do not mean that God has endowed all humans with a universal gift whereby, if they will, they may do what is necessary to obtain salvation. Rather, using the formula adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924, “common grace” means three things: First, God has a sort of general benevolence toward humanity that is not saving; second, God providentially restrains evil; third, unregenerate persons are able to do “civic” but not “saving” good. In short, it is really a way of speaking about what we traditionally have called “providence.”
By atonement, we mean that Christ lived and died as the substitute for His people, putting away their sin and turning away God’s wrath from them, that is, all those whom God chose, in Christ, from eternity out of pure grace.
Creation and Redemption
How do we reconcile the notion of a limited, personal, substitutionary atonement with a universal non-saving favor? If God is favorably inclined toward all, how can one say that Christ did not die for them? And if Christ did not die for all, how can God be favorable toward them in any way?
We say this because creation and redemption are distinct. In creation, God made all that is. In His providence, He sustains and orders all that He made. In redemption, however, He saves His elect image bearers from sin and judgment. Redemption presupposes creation, since there must be a creation (that is, humans) for whom Christ died and whom He redeemed.
God’s Saving Favor in Christ
When Christ said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16), He was not speaking of His providential gifts to His creatures but about His saving work for His people.
The term world here is synonymous with the word sinners. In view is not the extent of the atonement, but the degree of God’s love and the quality of those for whom Christ died. How much did God love us? He loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son. What sort of people did He love? He loved the “world,” or those who, because of their sin and sinfulness, are opposed to God (John 1:10; 15:18; 17:14). This is how John 3:19 defines “world.” The light has come to the “world,” but men loved darkness rather than light.
The difference between creation and redemption is evident in the way Scripture describes God’s general favor and the way it speaks of the atonement. The atonement is for particular persons. Christ died “for us” (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3). The Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep, whom He knows (John 10:14–16).
In contrast, regarding God’s general providence, Jesus taught that the Father “makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Common grace is general and benefits all people, but the same is not true of the atonement.
The Nature of the Atonement
Just as there are two parts to common grace (creation and providence) so there are two parts to the atonement, expiation and propitiation. To expiate means to cover sins, which Jesus accomplished in His obedience and death (Heb. 9:22). By His obedience and death, Jesus also turned away God’s wrath from all His people. This is propitiation.
Moses’ intercession for Israel (Ex. 32) is a good illustration of propitiation. Having come down from the mountain, Moses said upon seeing their sins, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make propitiation for your sin.” This turning away of God’s wrath from His people becomes even clearer later (vv.14–16) when Moses prayed and Yahweh, “appeased,” became favorable towards His people. All that Moses illustrated, Christ fulfilled in His obedience and death.
In Luke18:9–14, the Pharisee congratulated himself for his righteousness. The tax-collector, however, cried out to God saying, “God be propitious to me, I am a sinner.” The apostle Paul spoke clearly about Christ’s propitiating work in Romans 3:25–26: “God presented Him [Jesus] as the place of propitiation, through faith in His blood, for a demonstration of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins committed beforehand in the forbearance of God, for a demonstration of His righteousness now in this season in order that He might be righteous, and the one declaring righteous him who has faith in Jesus.”
In this passage, Paul is explaining how we are declared righteous by God. (vv. 21–22). In the past, God “overlooked” the sins of the Israelites. It was not that He did not “see” them in His omniscience, or that He is morally sloppy, but He suspended execution of His justice in view of the coming of Christ. In other words, His general providence served His plan of definite atonement.
Paul says that now, in Christ’s death, God’s justice is demonstrated and satisfied by Christ’s becoming our place of propitiation (see Heb. 9:5). In His death as our sin-bearer (2 Cor. 5:21), Jesus has become our propitiation and the place and means of propitiation, that we might become “the righteousness of God.”
When He died, Jesus actually accomplished expiation and propitiation for sins, but for whom? If Jesus propitiated God for the sins of all, then all are saved. Clearly, however, not all are saved. This is because it was never our Savior’s intention to propitiate God’s wrath for everyone who ever lived. Rather, it was His intention to redeem all of His people completely.
What then do we do with passages such as 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world”? It is good to remember the context of this verse. John is encouraging Christians to obedience based on Christ’s atoning work for believers. In context, it makes little sense to read this passage to mean “Christ turned away God’s wrath for all who ever lived.” In this context it makes more sense to read “world” in a qualitative sense (sinners) or to mean “many more folk beyond Asia Minor.”
We have a similar case in 2 Corinthians 5:15 where Scripture says that Christ died “for all.” If we stopped there, we might conclude that the Arminians are correct, but if we continue, we see that Scripture says Christ died so that the Christians “might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (emphasis added). The “all” of the first part of verse 15 is qualified by the second clause, “for their sake,” to refer to believers who are united to Christ. What seemed at first glance like a universalistic passage actually teaches definite atonement.
The usefulness of the doctrine of common grace for our understanding of the atonement becomes clearer in 1 Timothy 4:10 where Paul wrote, “For to this end we labor and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe” (ASV).
Critics ask how we can continue to hold to a definite atonement in the face of such language. The answer is that Paul was not speaking of the atonement here. The Greek noun for “Savior” here is soter. As my colleague Steven M. Baugh has pointed out, in Ephesus there was a statue dedicated to Caesar that proclaimed him a “god” and “the universal soter of the life of men,” referring to Caesar’s gifts to the city. Against this background, Paul is best read to say, “It is not some presumptuous king who is the provider for humanity, but the living God is the provider, and especially to those who believe.” Here, general providence illumines particular grace.
In His providence, God gives many wonderful gifts to humanity. We rejoice in the colors of autumn and the joy of music. These gifts are good in themselves, but they are universal and distinct from His particular gift of redemption in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24). All humans know God as Creator and Judge (Rom. 1:18–21), but believers know Him as Redeemer. We know that in His love, He sent His Son not merely to make salvation possible, since in that case none would be saved. Rather, Jesus came to earn it for us (Phil. 2:8) by turning away God’s wrath so that, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).