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.

Continue reading

Sermon Notes: The Priest’s Particular Work (NT)

Moving from Old Testament to New, the particularity of the priestly office continues.  In fact, just as the high priest represents the 12 tribes whose names are engraved on his heart; Christ lays down his life for his church, the New Israel, those who are made new in Christ (cf. Gal 6:16; 1 Pet 2:5, 9).

Jesus Priesthood in John’s Gospel

For instance, in John, Jesus describes his atoning work as accomplishing salvation for those who believe (3:16), for all his sheep (10:14), for all his friends (15:13), and for all those God the Father has “given to him” —Jew or Gentile.  Consider Jesus high priestly prayer,

Since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him… I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (John 17:2, 6-9).

As John records it, Jesus does not reveal himself or pray uniformly to all people.  He prays for those whom the father has given him.  In priestly vernacular, he mediates only for those whose names are written on his ephod and breastpiece.

Maybe you are thinking, can we really connect Exodus 28-29 with John 17? That is a legitimate question, so it is important to see that there do seem to be some linguistic and conceptual links between the two passages.  This is most evident in verses 16-19.

They [i. e. those whom God has given to Jesus] are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world… For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth

In this brief prayer, there are at least two words/ideas that were used in Exodus 28–sanctify/sanctified and consecrate.  Apparently, as Jesus anticipates his atoning death, he prays to the Father for his own.  He stakes the fact that he will consecrate himself for them, which has explicit reference to his priestly work of sacrifice, so that they might be sanctified for access into God’s holy dwelling (cf. Heb 10:19ff).  This was obviously the purpose of Exodus 25-40; and so it is with Jesus, who makes atonement not in an earthly tabernacle, but in God’s heavenly temple.  And who does he make atonement for?  According to John 17, it is those people whom the father has given.  This is not a universal group; it is God’s particular covenant people.

Jesus’s Priestly Work in John’s Apocalypse

Finally, the list of names for whom Jesus represents as priest is also given in Revelation.  For instance, in Revelation 13:8, John declares that judgment is coming upon “Everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”  In other words, God in eternity past purposed whose names would be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  Here, John is warning earth-dwellers of their impending demise, but by contrast, those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will be saved.  Clearly, it would be inappropriate to say that this passage refers to the ephod or the breastpiece.  However, the principle is analogous.  In both the Lamb’s Book of Life and on his priestly garments are the names of those for whom Christ died.  Again, the names indicate a particular representation for a particular people.

Likewise, in Revelation 17:8, John records, “And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.” Like the earlier verse in chapter 13, John is describing those whose names are left out of the book; but that has to imply that their are others–a countless multitude in Revelation 7–whose names are recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Thus in both positive (the ephod and breastpiece) and negative (the book of life) terms, God distinguishes those whom the Lamb dies for, and those whom he does not.  As God’s appointed priest and sacrifice, God sends him to earth to be slain, so that by his blood he would ransom people for God “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9-10).  In this way, God’s particular means of salvation are made known to all the earth; and the promise that the gospel will be universally effective is found in the fact that in every tribe, language, people, and nation, God has his chosen ones.  In this way, God’s offer of salvation can be offered to all people indiscriminately; and it has the promise of absolute efficacy, because of Christ’s perfect, priestly atonement and intercession (see Hebrews 9-10).

The Good News of Christ’s Priestly Work

This is the Good News!  Christ’s salvation cannot be revoked.  It cannot be overturned.  It will not fail.  While the Levitical priests were weak, and unable to cleanse human guilt, they did preserve the flesh.  Yet, they could never save the soul.

Not so with Jesus.  His priestly ministry is infinitely better.  For all whom he died, he effectively saved.  He is a glorious and beautiful priest!  He perfectly intercedes for all those whose name are on his vestments; he does not forget us.  We are close to his heart.  As John records, He has lost not one!  And all those who have trusted in him and repented of sin, can have glad-hearted confidence that their name is written across his heart.

May we proclaim that word all over the earth, until the priestly-king returns to reign on the earth!

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Sermon Notes: The Priest’s Particular Work (OT)

In typological fashion, the names of Israel engraved on the breastpiece & ephod show how the priest represents God’s people before YHWH.  In other words, in Exodus 28 we learn that the priestly duty was to represent Israel before God in the holy of holies (cf Heb 5:1).  Specifically, verses 12 and 29 say that Israel was to remember them as they were kept on Aaron’s heart as he entered the holy of holies.  In this way, he made atonement for Israel.  Notice, in the OT, he didn’t make atonement for Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon.  He only represented those who were redeemed from Egypt, who passed through the sea, who were in covenant with God at Sinai.  It tells us that the priestly service was for those who are in covenant with God.  In fact, the Exodus 28 is a very strong typological argument for definite atonement.  Let’s consider.

To start, the priestly garments are made “for glory and for beauty” (28:2), but they are not simply for aesthetics; they are highly symbolic and even instructive for discerning what the priest did behind the veil.[1]  As Carol Meyers puts it, “priestly office and priestly garb are inextricably related.”[2]  G.K. Beale has developed the connection between the priestly garments, the temple and the universe,[3] but there is also good reason to examine the relationship between the priest and the covenant people.

In this regard, the priestly attire ‘visualizes’ the particular nature of the atonement.[4]  It does so in this way: From head to foot, the priest is to wear the holy attire designed and decorated to teach Israel and later generations what the priest is doing as he enters into the holy of holies.[5]  Of greatest interest (and illumination) are the “shoulder pieces” and the “breastpiece of judgment.”   Concerning the former, YHWH instructs,

And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked. It shall have two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together… You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel… And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance (Exod 28:6-12; cf. 39:2-7).

The purpose of the shoulder pieces is far more than ancient Near Eastern fashion or utilitarian function.  The names of the twelve tribes were “deeply and permanently cut into the onyx,”[6] signifying the priest’s intimate connection with the people of Israel. As the priest of the covenant, he mediated for the people of the covenant.  Of this “corporate solidarity” that the priest shared with Israel, it was a necessary function of his office to be in communicative relation with those whom he represents. In other words, the priest does not mediate for an unspecified group or number, the “stones of remembrance” were designated to represent “the sons of Israel”—one stone for each tribe.  So that, when the priest entered the tabernacle, and later the temple he did so with Israel on his heart and mind.[7]

In the same way, the high priest’s breastpiece of judgment functioned as a symbol of the high priest’s covenantal representation.[8]  Moses records,

You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work… It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes… So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD (Exod 28:15-30; cf. 39:8-21).

Like the shoulder pieces, the breastpiece is designed to bring the sons of Israel into “regular remembrance before the Lord” (v. 29).  Again, as a priest chosen from his brothers for his brothers and their families, he does not generally atone, intercede, or minister.  Rather, God has appointed the high priest to make atonement for God’s particular people, people who knew they had a priest.  Rightly, D.K. Stuart says, “the high priest symbolized Israel” and “that whatever he did, he did as the people’s representative, and his actions would have the same essential effect that they would have if all of them, one by one, had done the same thing.”[9]  This, by itself doesn’t prove definite atonement, but it does show the exact representation of his priestly office.  It is not general, but particular.[10]

In fact, this notion of personal relationship between priest and people has been forcefully argued by Hugh Martin as evidence against indefinite atonement. Unpacking Hebrews 5:1, which develops the Levitical priesthood, Martin argues that the law of the office of the priest “rests on personal relation,” and this relation is not abstract.  Rather, the priest represents “individual men, particular persons.”[11]  Moving from textual observation to dogmatic assertion, he concludes,

If the atonement of Christ falls under the category of His Priesthood, it is impossible it can be impersonal, indefinite, unlimited; for the priesthood is not.  In order to its very constitution, it pre-requires personal relation; and the same must be true of the Atonement, unless the Atonement transpires outside the limits and actings and conditions of the priesthood…The pre-requisite of personal relation to particular persons is so indispensable in all real priesthood whatsoever.  It is true of “every” priest that is taken from among men [Heb 5:1].  Any “general reference” contradictory to this, or in addition to this—except simply community nature, secured by his being taken from among men—violates the very first principles of the office.[12]

While the priestly garments do not give conclusive evidence for Christ’s particular work on the cross; they are very suggestive.  Moreover, the fact that Christ, as the antitype of Israel’s high priest, wears the golden plate on his head declaring ‘Holy to the Lord’ and the names of his covenant people on his chest; there is great reason to see in his attire the inseparable union of Christ and his elect from every nation.

What do you think? Would love to hear how you think Christ’s priestly garments typify the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

[1]They also connote a strong sense of authority.  See Douglas Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 604.

[2]Carol Meyers, Exodus, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 240.

[3]G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 39-45.

[4]For instance, speaking of the priest in his vestments, Alec Motyer writes, “he is the visual display of the Lord’s ‘judgment,’ his opinion regarding his people” (J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus, The Bible Speaks Today, ed. J.A. Motyer [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005], 279.

[6]Stuart, Exodus, 609.  Stuart’s offhand comment about the engraving does not in itself signify anything about the definite nature of the atonement, but it does add to the mounting evidence that the priestly work was for a people whom he would not forget (cf. Isa 49:16).

[7]“This feature [the names engraved on the priestly attire] has commemorative symbolic value, bringing all Israel into the tabernacle with Aaron as he carries out the rituals thought to help secure the well-being of the people or adjudicate their conflicts” (Meyers, Exodus, 241).

[8]“The breastpiece was not merely a patch on his ephod but a square frontal vest, a very prominent, central, expansive, symbolic display of the covenant relation of God to his people” (Stuart, Exodus, 610).

[9]Stuart, Exodus, 611.

[10]On this point, it should be noted that the priests served the covenant people only, and they stood against those who were outside the people of God (David Williams, The Office of Christ and Its Expression in the Church, 13-14).

[11]All these quotes are taken from Hugh Martin’s discussion of the nature of Christ’s priestly office in The Atonement, 58.  Martin ties this particular relationship to the definite nature of the atonement.  Speaking of the Levitical priests, he says, “The priests of Levi were chosen for, or in lieu of, the first-born [Num 3]; and they were ordained for [Lev 8-9], or in room and on behalf of men, even for the Israel of God collectively and individually.  They acted for individuals; and besides such action, they had no priestly action whatsoever, no official duty to discharge.  The introduction of a ‘general reference’ into the theory of their office is an absurdity” (The Atonement, 65).

[12]The Atonement, 63-65.