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“The Utmost Farthing Paid”: The Doctrine of the Atonement

Category Articles
Date January 17, 2006

Theology suffers from neglect in our age. Liberals want social progress. Pietists want “practical holiness.” Church-growth gurus want proper atmosphere. And the doctrine of the atonement has been one of the chief casualties in this war against dogma.

But wait a second. What could be more practical, more fit for (biblical) church growth, and more able to shape our approach to culture than the saving work of the Son of God? What is the Gospel without it? As James Montgomery Boice pointed out, “The life of Christ is no Gospel. Even the resurrection, important as it is in the total scheme of things, is no Gospel by itself. For the good news is not just that God became man, nor that God has spoken to reveal a proper way of life for us, or even that death, the great enemy, has been conquered.”1

The good news is that the King has come, and that He has given Himself for His rebel subjects in order to redeem them and the creation itself. But what does this redemption entail?

Pitfalls to Avoid

The place to begin our study is with some major misconceptions of the atonement. These errors have served as historical and theological swamps, bogging down the passers-by who didn’t notice the marshy odor in time. False theories are numerous, but most of them contend that Christ died merely as an example, or in order to exercise some kind of moral influence on us. The death of Christ, then, is supposed to draw us to love God more, to impress some truth upon us, or simply to cause us to lead better lives. It’s not actually the atonement, then, that saves us, but our response to it.

What gives these errors even a shot, of course, is that they contain some truth-wooden nickels and all that. Christ really did die as an example. “Now Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps” (1 Pt. 2:21). “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (Jn.13:15). But making Christ’s death no more than an example raises several problems.

First, we can’t account for all the biblical data. We’ll look at more texts later, but take two for now. We’re told that “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 Cor. 5:21) and that He “in his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pt. 2:24). These passages declare a substitutionary transfer of sin. Christ’s death, furthermore, is said to be a “sacrifice” (Heb. 10:12) and an “offering” (Heb. 10:14).

Second, the atonement, according to Scripture, accomplished a specific purpose. We’re “saved from wrath through him” (Rom. 5:9). How can we be saved from wrath through Christ’s death if He died merely as an example for us? An example can’t save from anything. Paul demolishes the example theory, almost unconsciously, in Romans 8 by asserting the purpose of the atonement. He asks, “Who is he that condemneth?” and then answers, “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again” (Rom. 8:34). He clearly means that Christ’s death has made all condemnation of believers impossible. Thus Charles Hodge, commenting on this verse, says, “The death of Christ could not be a proof that the believer cannot be condemned unless His death removed the grounds of condemnation; and it could not remove the grounds of condemnation unless it satisfied the demands of justice. His death, therefore, was a satisfaction.”2

Third, any attempt to distance Christ’s death from an idea of atonement always skitters away from the holiness and justice of God. God’s holiness requires that He be separate from sin, and His justice requires that He punish sin. Edwards said that sinners “deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way….Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.”3 Robert Haldane saw the same thing:

In answer to the question, “Who is he that condemneth?” the apostle replies that Christ died. By this he intimates the impossibility of our being absolved from sin without satisfaction for the injury done to the rights of God’s justice and the sacred majesty of His eternal laws which had been violated; for the just God could not set aside His justice by His mercy, and justify sinners without an atonement.4

The Substitutionary Sacrifice

The orthodox view of the atonement states that the just God did require a payment for sin, and that Christ actually paid it by dying in our place. This has also been called the Anselmian view after St. Anselm, the eleventh-century archbishop of Canterbury.

The orthodox view makes use of three key terms. The atonement may be called vicarious, or it may be described as penal substitution. Each of these terms has a purpose.

Vicarious indicates federal representation. That is, Christ represented us as our Vicar. This has also been called federal headship. It’s important because federal headship was the way we fell. “By the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation” (Rom. 5:18). To borrow the words of the New England Primer, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all”-not physically, nor through some preexistence of souls, but because Adam was the federal head of the human race. His sin was judicially imputed to us. Christ is the “last Adam.” So while “the judgment was by one to condemnation,” the free gift “is of many offences unto justification” (Rom. 5:16).

When we say penal, we’re talking about judicial punishment. This logically follows from what we learned above. If Christ represented us as our Vicar, and we deserve punishment, Christ must bear our punishment. God must punish sin. But some say that’s pushing it. How can the Father pour out His wrath upon the Son?

Scripture answers that “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). “For the transgression of my people was he stricken” (Isa. 53:8). “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief” (Isa. 53:10). God was “wroth with [His] anointed” (Ps. 89:38). When Christ cried “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:47), the surrounding crowd caught a glimpse of hell.

Finally, substitution means a transfer of guilt. Again, we’re building on what came before. If Christ is to be our vicar and bear our punishment, He must bear our sin. Christ stood in our place; our sins were laid upon, or imputed to, Him. Spurgeon called substitution “the sum and substance of the Gospel…Christ standing in the place of man….I deserve to be lost forever; the only reason why I am not damned is that Christ was punished in my place, and there is no need to execute a sentence twice for sin.”5 This doctrine appears in both the Old and the New Testaments; in the law, the psalms, the prophets, and the epistles.

The Day of Atonement is one indication of substitution, foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness (Lev. 16:7-10, 21, 22).

The Mosaic sin offering also symbolized or typified the idea of substitution. Moses in describing it said that “God hath given it to you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord” (Lev. 10:17). Like the scapegoat, the sin offering is specifically stated to bear the sin of Israel.

Isaiah 53 declares that “the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all…by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.…he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:6, 11-12).

We also find this doctrine proclaimed unabashedly in the epistles: “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 Cor. 5:21). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth upon a tree” (Gal. 3:13). “Who in his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, might live through him: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pt. 2:24).

The Extent of the Atonement

All this leads to an important question: for whom did Christ die? For all men, or for the elect only? The extent of the atonement is a vital issue, since it determines the precise relationship between Christ’s death and our sins. “Far from being mere items for scholarly debate,” writes Michael Horton, “the questions ‘For whom did Christ die?’ and ‘For what did Christ die?’ form the basis of Christian hope.”6

Unfortunately, we often go wrong right from the start. We line up the two sides and label them “universal redemption”-the view that Christ died for everyone without exception or distinction-and “limited atonement”-the L in the Calvinistic TULIP. But the Calvinist isn’t the only one to “limit” the atonement. Again, Horton:

Every orthodox Christian places limits on the work of Christ. If Jesus died for every person, but not every person is saved, His death did not actually save anybody. Thus, the work of Christ is limited in power. If, however, the atonement, though sufficient for each and every person, was made on behalf of the chosen people, the church, that atonement is limited in its scope or purpose.7

Thus the question becomes, which limited atonement is correct? And here is where universal redemption fails us. Apart from contradicting several important texts, this doctrine is built on a false premise: the idea that the atonement does not save. That is, if Christ died for all, but not all are saved, then the objective or purpose of the atonement could not actually be the salvation of men. Rather, we’re looking at the removal of all obstacles to salvation.

Horton quotes Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer as summing this view up thus: “Christ’s death does not save either actually or potentially; rather, it makes all men savable.”8 But reconciling Chafer’s comments with the vicarious, penal, substitutionary atonement we saw above is not too easy. How can Christ bear our sin as our Substitute and at the same time die merely to make salvation possible?

A further discomfiting fact is that Jesus came to “save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21)-not to make their salvation possible. “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10). Peter identifies Christ’s death as the immediate cause of regeneration: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh” (1 Pt. 3:18).

Christ’s death “obtained eternal redemption” for all its beneficiaries (Heb. 9:12), because He “died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him”-not that we might have a chance at living with Him. He “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:13).9 Christ’s death saves. It accomplishes its intended purpose. Clearly, if Christ died for all, then all would be saved. But not all are saved (Jn. 17:12). Therefore, Christ didn’t die for all.

As far as it goes, the debate should be over here. Christ died for a purpose, and cannot fail in that purpose. But several secondary reasons also offer support for a definite, saving atonement. First, the benefits of Christ’s death are limited by Christ Himself. “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). The sheep are elsewhere identified as those who “hear my voice” (Jn. 10:27), which clearly isn’t everyone. Acts 20:28 speaks of “the church of God” which “he hath purchased with his own blood.” Jesus came and died “to save His people from their sin” (Mt. 1:21).

Second, Christ made it clear that He doesn’t intercede for all. Christ, in His high priestly prayer, specifically states, “I pray for them [the ones given to Him]: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou gavest me; for they are thine” (Jn. 17:9). Christ didn’t intercede for all, and since His intercession is coextensive with His atonement (Rom. 8:34), He didn’t die for all.10

Fine, you might say. But what about the texts that say Christ died for “all,” “every man,” “the world,” and “the whole world.” These texts must be taken in their “plain sense,” right? But as far as “plain sense” goes, isn’t it clear that Christ died to save His people from their sins, to bring them to God, to bring many sons to glory, that they may live with Him? We want to have our cake and eat it too by choosing when to take the “plain sense” of texts.

The foundation laid above provides a sound guide for interpreting the “all” texts. And these texts do not always require a universal interpretation (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5, Lk. 2:1). Capable Reformed scholars have dealt with these texts for hundreds of years. John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (available from Banner of Truth) is a great exegetical help.


I said above that “limited atonement” isn’t the best word for the Calvinistic view, since both sides “limit” the atonement. But the term is also unfortunate because the point of definite atonement or particular redemption (better names for the Calvinistic view) isn’t limitation at all. It’s perfection-perfect atonement, perfect application, and perfect final salvation.

This, in fact, is what our entire study has been aiming at. Jesus died for sinners, in their stead, bearing their punishment, so that He could secure their salvation. Toplady put it well:

Complete atonement Thou hast made
And to the utmost farthing paid
Whate’er Thy people owed.
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness
And sprinkled with Thy blood?

In the words of the Savior, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:27-28).


James M. Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p. 105

Charles Hodge, Romans (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 264

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” from The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press, 1999), p. 51

Robert Haldane, Commentary on Romans, from Biblical Study Collection: Volumes One and Two, CD-ROM (Simpsonville, SC: Christian Classics Foundation, 1996), chapter 8.

C. H. Spurgeon, My Conversion (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1996) p. 54

Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000 [1991]), p. 129

Ibid., p. 128


See also Jn. 17:19; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 5:25-27; Col. 1:21-22; I Tim. 1:15; Heb. 2:10, 2:14-15, 9:14.

John Owen proves this at length in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Banner of Truth, 1959, reprinted 1999), pp. 69-88.

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