For whom did Christ die? In this article, we will briefly consider the doctrine of limited atonement. This doctrine denotes a limitation, not in the power but in the design and purpose of the atonement. To do this, we will look at John 10 and break up our study into three questions:
First, who are the sheep?
In John 10, we find Jesus Christ presented to us as the good shepherd. The good shepherd has a flock of sheep that He has come to redeem from the misery of sin and death. Before we consider the atonement, we must first as who are among Christ’s sheep? The Scriptures make a clear distinction between those who are among Christ’s sheep and those who are not among Christ’s sheep. For example, Jesus said in John 10: 26-27, “but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
The sheep of Christ hear and follow their shepherd’s voice. Those who are not his sheep are deaf and reject the shepherd. So, who are the sheep? John 10:26 makes it clear that it is referring to believers in Jesus Christ. This group of people are followers of the good shepherd.
What characterizes the sheep?
- Believers are known explicitly by name (John 10:3): “To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
- The Triune God perfectly knows believers (John 10:14-15): “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
- God effectually and personally calls believers (John 10:26-27): “but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
- Believers have been given to the Son by the Father (John 10:29): “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30I and the Father are one.”
Second, in John 10, we must ask who does the dying? Is it the sheep? Or is it the shepherd?
In John 10:11. Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life….” So, the Bible is clear. The good shepherd will be the one who dies for sinners. He has come to save His people from their sins. He has come to fulfill all righteousness on their behalf. He has come to die under the wrath that is due to their account. The good shepherd will voluntarily “lay down his life.” The Holy son of God, the sinless Savior, will go to Golgotha. He will be nailed to a cross. His blood will be shed. He will be the great substitute who stands in the place of another. He will die under the holy wrath of God for the sins of another, dying under the eternal penalty for the sins that are not his own. God’s wrath must be satisfied. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins.
Third, who does the good shepherd die for?
We find our answer in John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is the most explicit passage of Scripture that defines the scope of the atonement. For whom does Christ die? Does he die for an unknown mass of people? Or does he die for a specific people?
Look again at v.11. The grammar is essential! Look at the preposition “for,” which is found in verse 11. This defines the scope of the atonement. This preposition tells us who Christ died for. The preposition “for” can be translated rightly as “in the place of” or “on behalf of.” It has the language of substitution. The good shepherd is the great substitute. This preposition points us to the penal, substitutionary, atoning death of Christ. As the great substitute, He paid the penalty of sin and death. He atoned for the sins and removed the wrath of another. In v.11, we see that “the good shepherd lays down his life in the place of the sheep.” Jesus Christ died for his sheep, not for an unknown mass of people. Christ died for a vast multitude of perfectly known people. In John 10:26, we see that Christ died for all who would believe in himself. In John 10:29, we see that he died for all that the father had given him to redeem in eternity past.
This is the glorious doctrine of limited atonement! This doctrine speaks of the design and purpose of the atonement. There is a limitation, not in the power of the cross but its design and purpose. The Triune God designed the cross of Christ to save His people, His sheep, all who would believe in Jesus Christ, from their sins. Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ cannot share in the saving benefits of Christ’s death. Christ died to save His people. God the Father chose a people by grace alone for salvation in eternity past (Eph. 1:3). He died to atone for the sins of that particular people (John 10:11). Dr. John Murray writes: “the death of Christ in its specific character as atonement was for those and those only who are in due time the partakers of that new life of which Christ’s resurrection is the pledge and pattern.”
In conclusion, the doctrine of limited atonement is the source of all your assurance. Christian, gaze upon your good shepherd! He did not go to the cross with a blindfold on. He did not go to the cross, not knowing who he would die for. Rather, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you know He went to the cross with you and your sins in mind. Believer, when you look at the cross, you know that your sins have been dealt with. He has born your sins on that tree! He has taken your guilt upon himself. He has received your punishment, your wrath! He was crushed for me! He bled and died for me! Not for unknown people, but for specific people. For me! God is just and righteous. He does not punish the same sin twice over. If He has punished all my sins, past, present, future, in Christ, He will never punish it in me!
John Benton writes: “Rejoice in the glorious certainty of an atonement that saves all for whom it was designed – that is, all those who will receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation, as he is freely offered to them in the gospel.”