For No One in Particular?- What Atonement Reveals about Itself (Part 2)

November 21, 2008

Last time we made two points in regards to the actual execution of atonement as revealed in Scripture. First, we showed that it is not enough to generally propitiate God’s wrath, but for true propitiation to take place that propitiation must occur on the level of individuals. Second, we argued from Leviticus 16 that the Old Testament institution of atonement, practiced in the Day of Atonement, had its broadest application in providing atonement for the people of Israel, not for the whole world.

We will pick this up today in Hebrews 9 and 10 in which I will argue that we would be wrong to construe the extent of the atonement any broader than it was originally given in Leviticus. The objection has/will be made by some in interpreting Hebrews 9 and 10 that, since the new covenant is open to both Greek and Jew, then so also is the atonement provided being provided for “both Greek and Jew” (i.e. everyone) as well. However this is an argument being made without actually consulting the text of these chapters. If we were to do so we would find things slightly different.

To find the audience for Hebrews 9 and 10 and thus to find the people for whom Christ is “securing an eternal redemption,” the place to look is chapter 9 verse 15. This verse says that

Therefore [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

Now, I believe there are three ways to read this, and none of them is advantageous towards a traditional Unlimited Atonement position. One way of reading it is that Christ is the mediator of a new covenant unto salvation for those who are called, in which case this would logically be to the exclusion of those who are not called, with Christ not being a mediator for them, and therefore not offering the atoning sacrifice on their behalf.

A second way is that Christ is the mediator for all so that those who are called may receive the atonement offered for them, and not those who are not called, in which case the offer of the atonement is not made to everyone, since this call is the same call which in Romans 8.30 leads to justification and we are not trying to argue for universalism. But if the offer of atonement is not made to everyone, then even if Christ atoned for everyone the atonement is still limited to an extent which goes beyond that argued by traditional Unlimited Atonement.

Of course the third, and what I believe is the correct way to understand this, is by recognizing that “those who are called” now stand in the place of Israel from the original process in Leviticus 16. I would argue this by connecting “those who are called” with Romans 8.28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”) and 1 Peter 2.9-10 (“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”), both pitting “the called” as being God’s chosen people, a role that has long been reserved for Israel (cf. Exodus 19.5-6, Deuteronomy 7.6). Therefore, since originally the atonement was made for God’s people (the assembly of Israel) and not the whole world, so now also the atonement has been made for God’s people (the called out elect) and not the whole world.

Going further, I think that we can view Hebrews 9.15 in light of Hebrews 10.15-17 and further establish our claim. Hebrews 10.15-17 says

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Hebrews 9.15 says that Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, a covenant which Hebrews 10.16 says “put[s God's] laws on [the] hearts” of those under it, and “writes them on their minds.”  God then adds that for those under the covenant he “will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (v.17).  Thus, the expiation of the burden of sins is granted to those who are under the covenant, who are converted in the sense of verse 16.  But, the ones who are converted in view of Hebrews 9.15 are “those who are called,” and therefore, Christ could only possibly be said to be mediating for those who are called, which once more limits the atonement to God’s people, the called out elect.

In conclusion, I believe that we have been able to argue from Leviticus 16 and 17 and Hebrews 9 and 10 that the atonement is Scripturally portrayed as limited simply by appealing to its execution and without having to turn to the disputed and often times messy extent verses.  Please interact with this and raise objections as necessary and I will do my best to respond to them.