Thomas Ralston on the Extent of the Atonement Part 1: Arguments I-III

I. Our first argument on this subject is founded upon those passages of Scripture in which, in speaking of the death or the atonement of Christ, terms of universality are used ; such as, ” the world,” the whole world,” all men,” &c.

This class of texts is so numerous, that we need only select a few of many. John i. 29. ” Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” John iii. 16, 17. ” For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” John iv. 42. ” This is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” John vi. 51. “And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” 2 Cor. v. 14. ” For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead.” Heb. ii. 9. ” That he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” 1 John ii. 2. “And he is the propitiation for our sins ; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 Tim. iv. 10. ” Who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe.” 2 Cor. v. 19. ” God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.” 1 Tim. ii. 6. ” Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” It has already been shown, in the discussion of the nature of the atonement, what is implied in Christ’s dying ” for us,” or ” for the world.” With Calvinists, at least, there can be no evasion on this point J for none have more success? fully than they, when contending against the Socinians, demonstrated that the phrase ” to die for,” as used in application to the death of Christ, means to die instead of, as a vicarious and expiatory sacrifice. This point, then, being settled, which Calvinists will cheerfully admit, we may ask, how is it possible for language more clearly and forcibly to teach that Christ died for all men, so as to make salvation possible for them, than it is taught in the passages adduced ? He is said to have died ” for all,” ” for the world,” ” for every man,” and, as if expressly to preclude all possibility for cavil, either in reference to the nature or the extent of his atonement, he is said to have given himself a ” ransom for all” to be ” reconciling the world unto himself,” and to be the “propitiation for the sins of the whole world.”

The reply of the Calvinists to this argument is, that the terms ” all men,” “the world,” Sec., are sometimes used, in Scripture, in a limited sense. In reference to this, we may observe, that it cannot be admitted as a principle in criticism, that because a term is sometimes used in an unusual sense, and one different from the most obvious and general meaning, therefore it must so be understood in other places, even when there is nothing in the context to justify or require that unusual sense. Although we may admit that the terms ” world” and ” all men” may sometimes be used in a restricted sense, the conclusion which the Calvinists would draw from this admission is a non sequitur;—it does not follow that the terms are to be restricted in the passages above quoted. So far from the context requiring this restriction, which would be necessary to the validity of the Calvinistic plea in question, we may confidently affirm that the entire connection and scope of the passages forbid the possibility of the terms being restricted. When our Saviour says, ” God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him,” &c., it is clear that the world for whom the Saviour was given cannot be restricted to the elect; for the restriction which immediately follows, and promises ” eternal life,” not to the world, but to such of the world as should believe, is positive evidence that the world for whom the Saviour was given would not all be saved. When St. Paul says, ” We thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead” he proves the universality of spiritual death, or, (as Macknight paraphrases the passage,) of ” condemnation to death,” from the fact that Christ ” died for all.” Now if Christ only died for the elect, the apostle’s argument could only prove that the elect were spiritually dead, or condemned to death, which would be a violent perversion of the sense of the passage. When the apostle calls Christ the ” Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe,” believers are evidently specified as onlv a part of the “all men” of whom Christ is said to be “the Saviour.” When St. John declares that Christ is ” the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world,” believers are first specified, as identified with the apostle, by the phrase “our sins;” and hence, when it is added, ” not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world,” it is evident that the term should be taken in the widest sense as embracing all mankind.

The Scriptures are their own best interpreter; and, where it can be done, one passage should be explained by another. If, therefore, it could be shown, that the same writers have, in other places, used these general terms to designate the elect, or believers, as such, there would be more plausibility in the restricted construction of Calvinists; bat this is so far from being the case, that the elect or believers, as such, are constantly, in the Scriptures, contradistinguished from ” the world.” The terms of universality, in the passages quoted, are never, in Scripture, applied to the elect or believers, as such. When St. John says that Christ is ” the propitiation for the sins of the wltole world,” the sense in which he uses the term may be learned from that other expression of his, where he saith, ” the whole world lieth in wickedness.” When St. Paul says that Christ ” tasted death for every man,” he uses the phrase ” every man ” in as wide a sense as when he informs us that ” every man” is to be raised from the dead ” in his own order.” When the Saviour informs us that he came ” not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved,” he refers to the same world of which he speaks when he says to his disciples, ” If ye were of the world, the world would love his own ; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” We may, therefore, arrive at the conclusion, from those passages of Scripture in which, in speaking of the death of Christ, terms of universality are used, that the atonement of Christ so extends to all mankind as to make salvation possible for them.

II. Our second argument is founded upon those passages which contrast the death of Christ with the fall of our first parents. 1 Cor. xv. 22. ” For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” It is admitted that in this passage the resurrection of the body is the principal topic of discussion; nevertheless, there is here a clear inferential proof that Christ died for all men, so as to make salvation attainable by them. For if, by virtue of his death and resurrection, all men are to be redeemed from the grave, then it will follow that all men were represented by Christ in the covenant of redemption ; and if so, he must have died as an expiation for their sins; and how he could do this, without intending to make salvation attainable by them, will be difficult to reconcile with reason and Scripture.

Bom. v. 15, &c. ” But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. Therefore, as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Here the ” free gift” is represented as transcending or going beyond the ” offence,” which it could not do if it is only designed to make salvation possible to a part of those who fell by the ” offence.” Again ; as ” all men” are here represented as being brought into condemnation by ” the offence of one,” even so the ” free gift” is said to come ” upon all men unto ([Gk.] in order to) justification of life.” This implies a possibility of salvation ; and, from this passage, it is just as plain that all may be saved through Christ, as that all are condemned in Adam.

III. Our third argument is founded upon those passages which teach that Christ died for such as do or may perish. 2 Pet. ii. 1. ” But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” 1 Cor. viii. 11. “And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” Rom. xiv. 15. ” Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.” Other passages of this class might be adduced, but we think these are sufficient to show that some of those who have been bought by Christ, and for whom he died, do or may perish. Now, as they were bought by Christ, and as he died for them, according to what has already been shown, their salvation was once possible; and if the salvation of some who perish was possible, the reasonable inference is that the salvation of all mankind is made possible through the atonement of Christ.

Taken from Elements of Divinity pp. 179-182

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2 Responses

  1. Great post. I am grateful that the grace of God extends to even me!

  2. Spurgeons comments in a sermon on 1st timothy…..

    What then? Shall we try to put another meaning into the text than that which it fairly bears? I trow not. You must, most of you, be acquainted with the general method in which our older Calvinistic friends deal with this text. “All men,” say they,—”that is, some men”: as if the Holy Ghost could not have said “some men” if he had meant some men. “All men,” say they; “that is, some of all sorts of men”: as if the Lord could not have said “all sorts of men” if he had meant that. The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written “all men,” and unquestionably he means all men. I know how to get rid of the force of the “alls” according to that critical method which some time ago was very current, but I do not see how it can be applied here with due regard to truth. I was reading just now the exposition of a very able doctor who explains the text so as to explain it away; he applies grammatical gunpowder to it, and explodes it by way of expounding it. I thought when I read his exposition that it would have been a very capital comment upon the text if it had read, “Who will not have all men to be saved, nor come to a knowledge of the truth.” Had such been the inspired language every remark of the learned doctor would have been exactly in keeping, but as it happens to say, “Who will have all men to be saved,” his observations are more than a little out of place. My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God. I never thought it to be any very great crime to seem to be inconsistent with myself; for who am I that I should everlastingly be consistent? But I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture. God forbid that I should cut or shape, even in the least degree, any divine expression. So runs the text, and so we must read it, “God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

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