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Limited Atonement And Matthew 1:21

Posted by Job on December 25, 2010

The most controversial doctrine of Calvinism, more controversial than predestination, is that of limited atonement. I hold this position because most Christians opposed to predestination are simply unaware of limited atonement, and further most Calvinists – including many prominent evangelical leaders like John Stott, Mark Driscoll and Bill Bright – are actually “four pointers”  because of their rejection of limited atonement.

However, the doctrine of limited atonement is very Biblical. One of its supporting texts is Matthew 1:21. This is somewhat striking because it appears in the address of the angel of the Lord (often presumed to be Gabriel) to Joseph upon his pondering what to about what he rather understandably presumed to be a pregnancy caused by his fiancee’s infidelity. In this address, the angel tells Joseph that Mary’s child would be named Jesus (Yeshua), translated “God saves” or “Jehovah is salvation” because “He shall save his people from their sins.”

Yes, the address of the angel in Luke 2 did pronounce this to be good news, tidings of great joy to all people, pronouncing God’s peace on earth and good will towards men.  Now I do adhere to the text used by the King James Version in Luke 2:14 (“good will towards men”), and not the texts used by other versions that are more Calvinistic (i.e. the NIV’s “peace to men on whom his favor rests”), but that does not introduce a contradiction, for those who reject limited atonement also do not use the statement of the angels to the shepherds in a way that would imply universalism (universal salvation). Instead, that passage should be viewed in the same manner of Philippians 2:8-11 … every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but certainly not everyone will be saved as a result of this confession. So, just as the universal confession of Jesus Christ’s Lordship in Philippians 2:8-11 is not related to salvation, the universal proclamation of good news and good will to the shepherds is not also.

Instead, the statement of the angel to Joseph, Jesus Christ’s earthly adopted father and descendant of  King David, DID deal with salvation, in contrast to the angelic statements to the shepherds and to Mary. While Mary and the shepherds were both told that Jesus would be Messiah and Savior (and keep in mind, at the time most Jews were expecting their Messiah to be a political-military leader and ruler, and to them salvation meant liberation from Roman rule) Joseph alone received an angelic message stating that through Jesus Christ, God would save people from their sins.

As a result, in contrast with the universal message delivered to the shepherds and the somewhat narrower but still wide message delivered to Mary, only Joseph, a legitimate heir to David, received the true message of how Jesus Christ would fulfill the purpose of the Davidic kingdom, and by extension of Israel itself with “He shall save his people from their sins.” This makes the elevation of and emphasis on (to the point of worship!) Mary and neglect of Joseph rather unjustified, doesn’t it? It also makes those who try to contort the message and role of Jesus Christ into being some false gospel of social or political liberation very foolish. So, small wonder that Joseph and his significance has been marginalized by history, for at this time Joseph alone received the truth in its fullness, and few people indeed have legitimate interest in the truth that Jesus Christ brought and is.

And make no mistake: the angel did not tell people that Jesus Christ would save everyone from their sins, or would save everyone who would come and accept or receive Him from their sins. Instead, the angel informed Joseph that Jesus Christ would save HIS PEOPLE from their sins. And we know from elsewhere in the Bible that the identity of HIS PEOPLE has been established from the foundation of the world. God knows His sheep, and God’s sheep respond to the call of God’s voice! And how did Jesus Christ save HIS PEOPLE from their sins in the manner that was foretold to Joseph by the angel? By dying on the cross. Based on the statement of the angel to Joseph, which limited Jesus Christ’s saving role to a certain set of people, to HIS PEOPLE, Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was for HIS PEOPLE, the elect. It WAS NOT universal after the manner of the angelic declaration to the shepherds, because that declaration was not soteriological in nature, but rather had to do with joy and praise, and again Philippians 2:8-11 reveals that there will be a universal confession of Jesus Christ’s Lordship by creation that will fulfill the message to the shepherds. And the message to the angel to Mary to do with Jesus Christ’s rule, which also indeed will be universal. But only the message to Joseph had to do with salvation, and that was the only message limited to a certain, specific set of people. And make no mistake, it was for these people that atonement is limited.

Now one of the common ways to get around what Matthew 1:21 states is the common argument that “Matthew is the gospel that was written for a Jewish audience; its intent was to evangelize Jews, so Matthew 1:21 has the purpose of revealing Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah.” The problem is that there isn’t a bit of internal evidence to justify this position. Quite the contrary, Matthew 12:21 states that Gentiles will trust in the Name of Jesus Christ. Also, the Great Commission, the mandate to evangelize and disciple members of all nations in the Name of Jesus Christ (and not just Jews) is contained within Matthew 28:29-30, and it is clearer and more explicit in the supposed “Jewish gospel” than in the others (including the Gospel of Luke, which was written by a Gentile). That interpretation also sets Matthew 1:21 at odds with the many other texts in the New Testament (in Romans, Galatians and other places) which stated that the atonement was efficacious not for national Israel, but rather spiritual Israel. Therefore, atonement was not universal, but limited to the elect, the church.

This is important because one of the main arguments used against Calvinism is that it is a man-made system, a product of systematic theology, of intermingling the Bible with the deterministic Greek philosophy of Augustine and Calvin, and superimposing pre-existing ideas and doctrines on the Biblical text and interpreting it through that framework. Well, the truth is that possessing this view requires ignoring not only  Matthew 1:21 but also  the significance that the message in Matthew 1:21 was given by angelic revelation to the heir of David! (King David was Mary’s ancestor also, but where Mary descended from David’s son Nathan, Joseph descended from Solomon and as a result was eligible for the throne by heredity.)

Now the so-called “Biblicist” view ignores Matthew 1:21 in favor of claims that John 3:16 declares a universal atonement. Even were this true, it would only mean that limited atonement and universal atonement are equally valid, Bible-based doctrines. The truth is, however, that Matthew 1:21 is in no way in variance with John 3:16. The universal atonement interpretation of “for God so loved the world” requires taking “the world” to be “all the people living on planet earth.” Granted, that is a possible meaning of “kosmos”, but it is a rarely used one. Instead, “kosmos” most often means “order” or “arrangement”, and in this context means “universe as it is currently arranged.” In other words, that phrase should read “For God so loved this creation …” and the verse in context provides the interpretation “God loved this current creation of His enough to send His Son to preserve some of it.”

Though this present creation of God fell into sin, God did not want to totally destroy it, eradicate all of it from existence. Instead, God loved His creation to preserve some of it for eternity. Jesus Christ’s death was only for the portion of creation, the kosmos, that God wished to save.

The irony: even “universal atonement” is limited because those who assert “universal atonement” limit the “kosmos” in John 3:16 to mean the people in the universe only. It is not as if they have a choice, for the book of Revelation tells us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth. “Universal atonement” limits John 3:16 from all the universe to all people, and “limited atonement” merely limits John 3:16 further from all people to some people.

Ultimately, universal atonement based on John 3:16 requires a forced reading of translations of that text. First, it requires you to translate “kosmos” to be “world” as opposed to “created order” (which is the first and the second definition given by Strong) or “universe” (which is the third definition), which is a translation preference for a far lesser usage of the word (and when much better words for “all men” or “all mankind”, such as anthrōpinos, were available for use). Second, it requires for “world” to mean “humankind” as opposed to “planet Earth” or even “all living things on planet Earth.” Now consider that God did indeed destroy all living things on planet Earth during the flood of Noah. (This ark, which was a type of Jesus Christ, only provided salvation for the few that God saved.) So, rather than limited atonement being a man-made doctrine that one arrives at by superimposing human ideas on the text, this instead should be said of universal atonement, which one needs to both contrive a very creative reading of John 3:16 and ignore Matthew 1:21 to arrive at.

I should mention that I grew up in a Wesleyan religious tradition, one that rejected TULIP (including perseverance of the saints). I adopted so-called Calvinism (for these were not Calvin’s doctrines, as Calvin himself was a second-generation reformer) because they they best represent the Biblical evidence. Just as a score of Bible texts confirm total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints, Matthew 1:21 most definitely supports limited atonement.

How do we know for whom Jesus Christ’s death on the cross provides atonement for? When those who hear the message of His death and resurrection repent of their sins and respond in faith. If you have not already, I sincerely urge you to do so now.

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One Response to “Limited Atonement And Matthew 1:21”

  1. wbmoore said

    I think John 3:16 shows that Christ is efficacious ONLY for those who believe in him (“that whoever believes in him”)…

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