Sovereign Grace - Part 5

Theme: Sealed by Sovereign Grace

This week’s lessons explain the importance of God’s sovereignty for a biblical

understanding of the doctrine of grace.

Scripture: Ephesians 1:3-8

But here is a question for you: For whom did Jesus Christ die? Most people will respond, “For everyone, of course; Jesus died for the whole world.” Now there is a sense in which that is true. Jesus died for all kinds of people and for people scattered throughout the whole world. Also, his death has infinite value, being adequate to atone not only for the sins of all the people of this world but for all the sins of all the people of a billion worlds like this and more besides, if there are any. But that is not the question I am asking. I am asking, “For whom did Jesus specifically die?” That is, “Whose sins did he actually atone for by his suffering?”

Again, most people say that Jesus died for the sins of all persons and explain that all are not saved only because all will not believe on him. But the proper biblical answer is that Jesus died for the sins of his elect people only, the Father sending him to make specific atonement for the sins of those whom he had already elected to salvation. That is what Ephesians 1 is saying, of course. For the “we” who have been redeemed (v. 7) are the “us” who have been described earlier as being “chosen” and “predestined” to be saved (vv. 4, 5).

Does it sound reasonable to say that Jesus died for all persons but that many are not saved only because they refuse to believe on Jesus? It may, at least until you think about the nature of that unbelief. Is their unbelief a morally neutral choice, just believing or not believing? Or is unbelief a sin? The obvious answer is that unbelief is a sin, in fact, the most damning of all sins. But this means that if we really believe that Jesus died for all sins, then he must have died for this sin too, and the result of this line of reasoning is that even the sin of unbelief will not keep a person out of heaven. This ends in universalism.

The greatest of all Puritan theologians was a scholar named John Owen. Few people read him today, because his mind was so keen that most of today's sloppy thinkers cannot easily follow him. Owen was very sharp in this area of the atonement. In a book titled The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Owen argued that there are only three possible options where Christ's death is concerned:

  1. Christ died for all the sins of all men, so that all are saved.
  2. Christ died for all of the sins of some men, so that these but not all are saved.
  3. Christ died for some of the sins of all men.

If it is the third option, then all are lost. They must perish for the sins for which Jesus did not die. The first option is universalism, which Scripture rejects. The second is the correct and only biblical position.

To those who would argue that Jesus died for all the sins of all men but that all are not saved because all do not believe, Owen asked shrewdly, “This unbelief of theirs, is it a sin or is it not?” If it is not a sin, why should it keep them from salvation, since they cannot be condemned for an act that is not sinful? If we admit it is a sin, the question then becomes: Is it a sin for which Christ died, or is it not? If he did not die for it, then he did not die for all the sins of all men. If he did die for it, why should this more than any other sin for which he died keep an unbelieving person from salvation? Such clear thinking forces us back either to universalism, which we know to be wrong, or to the second or Calvinistic position.

The sovereign God has exercised his grace in salvation by sending Jesus to make specific atonement for his people's sins. In other words, grace expresses God's choice by what theologians call particular redemption.

The final expression of the sovereign grace of God emphasized in this study is the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the salvation thus planned by God the Father and achieved by God the Son to the individual (vv. 11-14). At first glance the word “chosen” in verse 11 seems to be saying the same thing as Paul's words about the Father's choice in verse 4. But the idea is actually different. In verse 4 the predestinating choice of the Father stands before everything. Here the choice made by the Holy Spirit follows predestination since the verse says that “having been predestinated according to [God's] plan,” the Holy Spirit now makes God's electing choice effective in individual cases by choosing those individuals or leading them to faith. In other words, in verse 11, “chooses” refers to what theologians term the Holy Spirit's effectual call. This is also because of sovereign grace.

The greatest picture of the grace of God calling a dead sinner to life in all the Bible is Jesus's raising of Lazarus, recorded in John 11. When Jesus got back to Bethany at the request of the dead man's sisters, he was told that Lazarus had been dead for three days and that he was already putrefying: “But Lord,” said Martha, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days” (v. 39). What a graphic description of the state of our moral and spiritual decay because of sin! There was no hope that anything could be done for Lazarus in this condition. His situation was not serious or grim, it was hopeless.

But only to man. Not to God. “With God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). Therefore, having prayed, Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come out!” (v.43), and the call of Jesus brought life to the dead man, just as the voice of God brought the entire universe into being from nothing at the beginning of the world.

That is what the Holy Spirit does today. The Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the Word of God to call to faith those whom God has previously elected to salvation and for whom Jesus Christ specifically died. Apart from those three actions—the act of God in electing, the work of Christ in dying, and the power of the Holy Spirit in calling—there would be no hope for anyone. No one could be saved. But because of those actions—because of God’s sovereign grace—even the worst of blaspheming rebels may be turned from his or her folly and find the Savior.

Study Questions:

  1. Review the three options of the extent of Christ’s death given by John Owen in the lesson. Why is the second option the one consistent with the Bible?
  2. What is the work of God the Holy Spirit in salvation?
  3. What does the term “effectual call” mean?

Application: Take time now to rejoice in the blessings of sovereign grace.

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Thinking and Acting Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Thinking and Acting Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.