A Definite Atonement: John Murray’s Case for a Disputed Doctrine

jesus saves neon signage

For whom did Christ die? For all nations without distinction? For all persons without exception? For everyone? Or only for the elect?

In any doctrinal exposition of the cross of Christ, the question of the atonement’s extent (or intent) is necessary. And throughout church history, especially since the Protestant Reformation, a great debate has arisen in response to the question. That dispute has divided Calvinist from Arminian, Reformed from Wesleyan, and Particular Baptist from General Baptist—to name only a few. Thus, it is not possible in one blog—let alone in one book—to resolve all the difficulties, but it is possible to lay out some of the issues and a few of the exegetical debates.

To that end, I offer ten points from John Murray. His little book, Redemption Accomplished and Appliedprovides a concise argument for the extent of the atonement that comes from a Reformed position. If I were writing a chapter on the extent atonement, I would do it differently, but I appreciate Murray’s commitment to biblical exegesis in his chapter. Even though he leaves many proof texts unchecked, what he does say sets his readers in the right direction. And for that reason I offer the following points from his chapter as a superb model for entering this debate.

Ten Arguments for Definite Atonement

1. Proof texts are not sufficient to prove the extent of the extent of the atonement.

John Murray begins his chapter highlighting a few verses which appear to support a universal atonement (i.e., that Christ died for all persons without exception). But quickly, he calls us to consider if isolated proof texts can adequately support the doctrine. He writes,

We are not to think, however, that the quotation of a few texts like these [Isa. 53:6; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 2:2] and several others that might be quoted determines the question. From beginning to end the Bible uses expressions that are universal in form but cannot be interpreted as meaning all men distributively and inclusively. Such words as “world” and “all” and such expressions as “every one” and “all men” do not always in Scripture mean every member of the human race. For example, when Paul says with reference to the unbelief of Israel, “For if their trespass is the riches of the world . . . how much more their fulness” (Rom. 11:12), are we to suppose that he meant that the trespass of Israel brought the riches of which he is speaking to every person who had been, is now, and ever will be in the world? Such an interpretation would make nonsense. The word “world” would then have to include Israel which is here contrasted with the world. And it is not true that every member of the human race was enriched by the fall of Israel. (59)

2. Universal language does not mean a universal atonement.

Closely connected to the point that we must read texts in context, Murray goes on to say that universal language does not automatically produce a doctrine of definite atonement.

So it will not do to quote a few texts from the Bible in which such words as “world” and “all” occur in connection with the death of Christ and forthwith conclude that the question is settled in favor of universal atonement. (61)

Proving his point, he appeals to Hebrews 2:9 (“so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone”) and its following context.

We can readily show the fallacy of this procedure in connection with a text like Hebrews 2:9. What provides the denotation of the “every one” in the clause in question? Undoubtedly the context. Of whom is the writer speaking in the context? He is speaking of the many sons to be brought to glory (ver. 10), of the sanctified who with the sanctifier are all of one (ver. 11), of those who are called the brethren of Christ (ver. 12), and of the children which God had given to him (ver. 13). It is this that supplies us with the scope and reference of the “every one” for whom Christ tasted death. Christ did taste death for every son to be brought to glory and for all the children whom God had given to him. But there is not the slightest warrant in this text to extend the reference of the vicarious death of Christ beyond those who are most expressly referred to in the context. This texts shows how plausible off-hand quotation may be and yet how baseless is such an appeal in support of a doctrine of universal atonement. (61)

The point Murray makes in this passage can be made throughout the New Testament, which means that universal language does not automatically result in a doctrine of universal atonement. More on this below.

3. Extent is the wrong question, intent is the right one.

Moving from the language of Scripture to the language of doctrine, he asks if the extent of the atonement is even the right question.

The question is not the relation of the death of Christ to the numerous blessings which those who finally perish may partake of in this life, however important this question is in itself and in its proper place.

The question is precisely the reference of the death of Christ when this death is viewed as vicarious death, that is to say, as vicarious obedience, as substitutionary sacrifice, and expiation, as effective propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. In a word, it is the strict and proper connotation of the expression “died for” that must be kept in mind.

When Paul says that Christ “died for us” (1 Thess. 5:10) or that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), he does not have in mind some blessing that may accrue from the death of Christ but of which we may be deprived in due time and which may thus be forfeited. He is thinking of the stupendous truth that Christ loved him and gave himself up for him (Gal. 2:20), that Christ died in his room and stead, and that therefore we have redemption through the blood of Christ. (62, emphasis mine)

4. Definite atonement does not deny universal, non-saving benefits.

Once we ask the right question, and ascertain the proper relationship between priest and new covenant people (my emphasis, not his), we can begin to see how the cross relates to the whole world, even to those who reject it or never hear about it.

The unbelieving and reprobate in this world enjoy numerous benefits that flow from the fact that Christ died and rose again. The mediatorial dominion of Christ is universal. Christ is head over all things and is given all authority in heaven and in earth. It is within this mediatorial dominion that all the blessings which men enjoy are dispensed. But this dominion Christ exercises on the basis and as the reward of his finished work of redemption. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:8-9).

Consequently, since all benefits and blessings are within the realm of Christ’s dominion and since this dominion rests upon his finished work of atonement, the benefits innumerable which are enjoyed by all men indiscriminately are related to the death of Christ and may be said to accrue from it in one way or another. If they thus flow from the death of Christ they were intended thus to flow. It is proper, therefore, to say that the enjoyment of certain benefits, even by the non-elect and reprobate, falls within the design of the death of Christ. The denial of universal atonement does not carry with it the denial of any such relation that the benefits enjoyed by all men may sustain to Christ’s death and finished work. (61)

To those well-versed in argument for universal atonement, they will not readily accept this universal, non-saving benefit as logically consistent. But it is important to see that those who hold definite atonement do not deny a universal effects of the cross (see Colossians 1:20 and my theological exposition of that passage). What those like Murray deny is a universal procurement of salvation that does not actually save.

5. Christ’s redemption is effective. Glory! Hallelujah!

While advocates of universal atonement stress the greatness of the cross in terms of size and scope, advocates of definite atonement argue for its greatness in terms efficacy and design. All that God intended, he accomplished on the cross. To this point Murray asks the question, “What does redemption mean?” He answers,

[Redemption] does not mean redeemability, that we are placed in a redeemable position. It means that Christ purchased and procured redemption. This is the triumphant note of the New Testament whenever it plays on the redemptive chord. Christ redeemed us to God by his blood (Rev. 5:9). He obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12). “He gave himself for us in order that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify to himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). It is to beggar the concept of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and by power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people. We have the same result when we properly analyse the meaning of expiation, propitiation, and reconciliation. Christ did not come to make sins expiable [or forgivable]. He came to expiate sins — “when he made purification of sins, he sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). Christ did not come to make God reconcilable. He reconciled us to God by his own blood.

This is the chief concern for defenders of definite atonement. If Christ did not actually save people by his death on the cross, but only made them salvable, then it puts the entire project of salvation in jeopardy. Conversely, if Christ redeemed by his blood all those he intended to save (i.e., the elect), then all praise redounds to the name of Christ whose death accomplished our eternal redemption. At the end of the day, the glory of God is at stake in this doctrine.

6. “Limited atonement” is an unfortunate name for a biblical truth.

The question of efficacy is also why many who hold to this doctrine prefer the language of definite atonement and eschew limited atonement. Adding his name to the list of theologians who dislike “limited atonement,” Murray writes,

This doctrine has been called the doctrine of limited atonement. This may or may not be a good or fair denomination. But it is not the term used that is important; it is that which it denotes. It is very easy to raise prejudice against a doctrine by attaching to it an opprobrious and misunderstood epithet. Whether the expression “limited atonement” is good or not we must reckon with the fact that unless we believe in the final restoration of all men we cannot have an unlimited atonement. If we universalize the extent we limit the efficacy. If some of those for whom atonement was made and redemption wrought perish eternally, then the atonement is not itself efficacious. It is this alternative that the proponents of universal atonement must face.

Going further, he notes that both sides of the debate put limitations on the atonement. For unless, someone is a consistent universalist—Christ died for all and all are saved by Christ—then their will be limitations.

[Those who hold to universal atonement] have a “limited” atonement and limited in respect of that which impinges upon its essential character. We shall have none of it. The doctrine of “limited atonement” which we maintain is the doctrine which limits the atonement to those who are heirs of eternal life, to the elect [cf. Acts 13:48]. That limitation insures its efficacy and conserves its essential character as efficient and effective redemption.

Wherever one comes down on this doctrine, it is important to note two things: (1) the doctrine of the atonement will possess limitations and (2) those limitations will either be related to God’s power or God’s purpose. Importantly, one of these limitations does damage to the character of God, the other upholds God’s character and expresses his divine prerogative to have mercy on whom he will have mercy (Exod. 33:19; Rom. 9:15–18)

7. Definite atonement is a biblical doctrine, not just a theological deduction.

Moving from theological articulation to biblical exposition, Murray shows how definite atonement is grounded in Scripture. He writes,

It is proper . . . that the inquirer should ask the question: is there not also more direct evidence provided by the Scripture to show the definite or limited extent of the atonement? There are indeed many biblical arguments. We shall content ourselves with setting forth two of these [Romans 8:31–39; 2 Corinthians 5:14–15), not because there are only two but because these are examples of the evidence which the Scripture itself provides to show the necessity of this doctrine. (65)

8. The security of salvation depends upon a definite atonement (Romans 8:31–39).

With exegetical skill, Murray makes multiple doctrinal points as he walks the reader through Romans 8:31–39 (65–69). First, he identifies the object of Christ’s death (v. 32) as the elect (v. 33), thus limiting the scope of “all” in verse 32 to the scope of all the elect in verse 33. As Romans defines “all” as all the Jews and Gentiles (see e.g., Rom. 3:23; 11:32), we find an exegetical reason for declaring and not assuming that “all” is related to all the elect, and not all people everywhere. Murray writes, “The thought [in Romans 8:32–33] moves strictly within the orbit defined by election and justification, and the reference to election and justification harks back to verses 28–30 where predestination and justification are shown to be coextensive” (67).

Next, Murray shows how Paul connects Christ’s death (v. 32) to Christ’s intercession (v. 34). From this connection, one that stands upon the priestly office of Christ and the covenantal union between priest and people, Murray argues that the security of the salvation described in Romans 8 comes from the fact that all for whom Christ died, Christ also intercedes.”Because of the way in which the death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ are co-ordinated in this passage, it would be quite unwarranted to give to the death of Christ a more inclusive reference than is given to his intercession” (68).

From observations like these, Murray shows how Romans 8 leads to a secure salvation that depends upon definite atonement for the elect of God. He concludes,

We see, therefore, that the security of which Paul here speaks is a security restricted to those who are the objects of the love which was exhibited on Calvary’s accursed tree, and therefore the love exhibited on Calvary is itself a distinguishing love and not a love that is indiscriminately universal. It is a love that insures the eternal security of those who are its objects and Calvary itself is that which secures for them the justifying righteousness through which eternal life reigns. And this is just saying that the atonement which Calvary accomplished is not itself universal. (69)

9. Those for whom Christ died will be raised to life—no exceptions (2 Corinthians 5:14–15).

The second exegetical argument that Murray offers is “drawn from the fact that those for whom Christ died have themselves also died in Christ.” He continues,

In the New Testament the more common way of representing the relation of believers to the death of Christ is to say that Christ died for them. But there is also the strand of teaching to the effect that they died in Christ (cf. Rom. 6:3-11; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Eph. 2:4-7; Col. 3: 3). There can be no doubt respecting the proposition that all for whom Christ died also died in Christ. For Paul says explicitly, “one died for all: therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14) — there is denotative equation. (69)

In other words, it is impossible for Christ to die for someone who has not also died with Christ. And as Romans 6:4–5 says, all those who have died with Christ will be raised with Christ. And if you are following along with this gospel logic, all those who are raised to life must of necessity been the same people for whom Christ died. And because not all people are raised to life, there must also be some limitation in the number for whom Christ died. Or as Murray puts it,

To die with Christ is, therefore, to die to sin and to rise with him to the life of new obedience, to live not to ourselves but to him who died for us and rose again. The inference is inevitable that those for whom Christ died are those and those only who die to sin and live to righteousness. Now it is a plain fact that not all die to sin and live in newness of life. Hence we cannot say that all men distributively died with Christ. And neither can we say that Christ died for all men, for the simple reason that all for whom Christ died also died in Christ. If we cannot say that Christ died for all men, neither can we say that the atonement is universal — it is the death of Christ for men that specifically constitutes the atonement. (70–71)

This connection between Christ’s death and resurrection and his people’s death and resurrection is a strong argument for definite atonement. Yet, ironically, 2 Corinthians 5:14–15, which conjoins death and resurrection for Christ and his people, is often used to argue universal atonement. And to that passage, Murray writes,

When Paul says here, “died for them and rose again” the implication is that those for whom he died are those for whom he rose, and those for whom he rose are those who live in newness of life. In terms of Paul’s teaching then and, specifically, in terms of the import of this passage we cannot interpret the “for all” of 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 as distributively universal. So far from lending support to the doctrine of universal atonement this text does the opposite. (72)

10. The universalism of the New Testament is an ethnic universalism, i.e., one that brings good news of Israel’s messiah to all the nations (1 John 2:2)

Finally, Murray considers 1 John 2:2 (“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”). Here is how he introduces the verse.

It must be said that the language John uses here would fit in perfectly with the doctrine of universal atonement if Scripture elsewhere demonstrated that to be the biblical doctrine. And it must also be said that this expression of itself would not offer any proof of or support to a doctrine of limited atonement. (72)

Here again is an instance where the words of a text offer immediate support for universal atonement, but the meaning of the text requires more consideration of the context. To that end, Murray offers three observations regarding the propitiation of Christ, but it is the first observation that is most important—namely that “it was necessary for John to set forth the scope of Jesus’ propitiation . . . as not limited in its virtue and efficacy to the immediate circle of disciples who had actually seen and heard and handled the Lord in the days of his sojourn upon earth (cf. 1 John 1:1-3), nor to the circle of believers who came directly under the influence of the apostolic witness (cf. 1 John 1:3-4).” No, as John would often contrast Jew and Gentile, with the language of the world in his Gospel (see John 1:29; 3:16; 4:42), so in his first letter, he uses the language of propitiation for the world to indicate salvation for Gentiles (cf. John 10:16). He writes,

The propitiation which Jesus himself is extends in its virtue, efficacy, and intent to all in every nation who through the apostolic witness came to have fellowship with the Father and the Son (cf. 1 John 1:5-7). Every nation and kindred and people and tongue is in this sense embraced in the propitiation. It was highly necessary that John, like the other writers of the New Testament and like the Lord himself, should stress the ethnic universalism of the gospel and therefore of Jesus’ propitiation as the central message of that gospel. John needed to say, in order to proclaim this universalism of gospel grace, “not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (73, emphasis mine)

“Ethnic universalism” is not an observation idiosyncratic to Murray. Rather, it is a careful reading of the New Testament that pays close attention to how the gospel went from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth—i.e., from Jews to Gentiles—and how the Gospel writers both learned to embrace the world and to bring the gospel to the nations. In my estimation, this is the best way to read 1 John 2:2 and many other “world” passages (cf. John 3:16). And with this reading in mind, it makes definite atonement a more plausible and biblical doctrine.

John Murray’s Exegetical Argument for Definite Atonement

There is much more to say about the extent of the atonement. John Murray himself has written at length on the atonement and the free offer of the gospel. And I have taken up to write a chapter and a dissertation defending definite atonement. Someday I might even write a book on the subject. But for now, Murray’s short chapter gives an introduction to the question of the atonement’s extent, and better, as he frames it, God’s intent for the atonement. And most importantly, while not answering every objection or biblical passage, Murray’s introduction sets the reader on a solid course to decide this doctrine on exegetical grounds.

Again, the extent of the atonement should not be decided by isolated words or dictionary definitions of “all” and “world.” The extent of the atonement should be determined by faithful readings of the Bible—thick readings, if you will, as opposed to thin readings of Scripture. Murray does that well, and all those who take up this doctrinal debate should read him and follow his exegetical method. Ultimately, a biblical-theological approach (not a proof-texting approach) to this doctrine is needed. And Murray’s little book helps us get started in that direction.

So take up and read and consider what Scripture says.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Patricia McCarty on Pexels.com