I know some will disagree with the contention in this post. That’s fine. Christians may disagree agreeably over lots of things. I wish to simply lay out the basics of why I believe the sacrifice of our Lord was not only universal in extent but also specific in intent. My focus is not on the universal but on the specific. It is for me a cause for great wonder and gratitude that God not only loved the world of rebellious humanity but in a specific sense the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me.
In this snapshot of the atonement then the universal aspects of Christ’s sacrifice are assumed. The Bible is clear that the sacrifice of Christ had a cleansing effect in heaven itself. I have no doubt that Christ loved the world -the whole world – and gave himself for it. My focus is not on these, nor Is it to deny or diminish these, but to demonstrate that there is a specific focus in the atonement that is more than merely a subset of the whole but is tied in some way to purpose and intent. In a word, there is clearly a sense in which the atonement is because God loves the world but there is just as clearly a sense in which it is because he loves his own. If we as humans are capable of such different kinds of love it would be strange if God were not. If we are capable of making sacrifices that have the potential to benefit many while having a definite intention to benefit our own, why not God.
So where is specificity taught? The best place to begin is with the idea of covenant. In OT times covenants were made between specific parties. Major covenants were often ratified by a covenant blood sacrifice and covenant meal. Both sacrifice and meal were exclusive to those bound in covenant relationship. The specificity of the sacrifice was underlined by its blood being sprinkled on the covenant people. In the OT these features can be seen in various significant covenants between God and those with whom he chooses to enter into covenant. When we come to the NT we see the same covenantal features in the New Covenant. The covenant sacrifice of the NC is the death of Christ. In the Upper Room as Jesus eats the Passover Meal (associated with an old people and an old redemption and an old covenant) with his disciples, he introduces a new meal commemorating a new redemption associated with a new covenant with a new (or renewed) people. We read,
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
Specificity is stamped on the sacrifice. It is for the covenant people guaranteeing the covenant promises to them. The covenant people are not indeterminate. They are not nebulous and undefined, a mere potentiality. They are specific and concrete, those who have faith in Christ. It is specifically for them the sacrifice is made, upon them it’s blood is sprinkled (1 Peter 1:2), and it is they who participate in the covenant meal. They are ‘the many’ of Isaiah 52, 53. Those who shall be astonished and understand. Those with whom he shall share a portion and divide the spoil; his offspring (53:10).
In Hebrews this specificity is enhanced.
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins commiintted under the first
Notice the new covenant sacrifice guarantees salvation blessings for the covenant people. Those in covenant relationship will receive the promised eternal inheritance, the mediator will ensure it and the certainty rests on what his sacrifice achieved. It didn’t merely potentially ransom them, it actually ransomed them; it set them free from sins. The sacrifice effected the salvation of the covenant people.
While it is true that the new covenant people are those who believe, in Hebrews it is not their belief that is the focus it God’s call. The NC people are ‘the called’. This is of course consistent with how the main covenants work. It is God (the greater covenant partner) who is sovereign. The covenant and the covenant partner is always his initiative. He chooses those with whom he will enter covenant and he decides the terms. In the NC the divine initiative could not be clearer. The covenant is monergistic; its his will and power that accomplishes it. It is a covenant of ‘I will’ (Jer 31:33,34; Ezek 36:22-32). In this covenant faith, as with all else, is itself a covenant gift (Eph 2:8,9; Roms 12:3; 1 Tim 1:14,14; Phil 1:29; 2Thess 1:3; Luke 22:31,32; Mark 9:24; Luke 17:5). In the NC God meets its obligations. Thus those ‘called’ will receive the ‘promised inheritance’ – the death of Christ secures it.
This specificity in the death of Christ is seen elsewhere too. We see it in John 10 where the shepherd’s death is specifically for the sheep.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
The death of the shepherd arises from his love for his sheep. The sheep are a defined flock. They are those known by the Shepherd and who know him. They are those the Father has given (10:29). They are his ‘own’ (10:3, 14). It is for these sheep he dies. He cares about them in a unique way. They are the focus of his death.
Special love also lies at the heart of the next example; Christ’s love for his bride, the church.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
It is impossible to view this love is just part of the general love that God has for the world. The whole image demands a discriminating, choosing, and bestowing love. It is the wonder of an inexplicable love for a moral Cinderella; a purposeful love that intends to transform her into something more wonderful than any fairy tale ending. It would be perverse to muddy this image with injecting the bride’s choice of her lover. The whole focus is the love of the lover. It is his delight in someone who is now ‘bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh’. In a patriarchal culture the selecting love is the initiative of the male. In this unique, undivided, exclusive love the bride is called to luxuriate and delight. In it she finds security and dignity.
And this exclusive love is the reason Christ dies. Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Hallelujah.
The high priest, Caiaphas, declared (albeit unwittingly) the targeted nature of the atonement when he said ,
50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
Likewise the redeemed in heaven understand that the blood ransom of the cross was designed not to ransom every tribe and language and people and nation but to ransom from among every tribe and language and people and nation.
9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Thus as one writer well says, ‘though Christ died for all men in some sense, he didn’t die for all men in the same sense’. While the atonement is designed to be sufficient for all it is intended to be efficient for the many.
In the words of Romans 3,
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all (universal) and upon all them that believe (specific).