The extent of the atonement continues to be one of those doctrinal discussions that tends to evoke more heat than light. I’ve always found it to be a shame that there is such widespread disagreement in the body of Christ concerning an aspect of theology that is so central to the Gospel itself: the atonement. While differences on the extent of the atonement may be less central than differences on the nature of the atonement, the question, “For whom did Christ atone?” is nevertheless a question that needs to be answered with biblical conviction.
Among the many texts that do get mentioned in these discussions, one text that I’ve very rarely seen discussed in personal conversation is Romans 8:28-39. And yet this text has very significant implications with respect to the particularity or universality of Christ’s redemption. Because, it seems, Romans 8 tends to get lost in the shuffle of exegetical and theological debate related to the L of TULIP, I thought I would reproduce a selection from John Murray’s classic, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, in which he demonstrates the role that Romans 8 plays in this discussion.
He asks the question, “Is there not also more direct evidence provided by the Scripture to show the definite or limited extent of the atonement?” and answers, “There are indeed many biblical arguments.” The first he addresses is Romans 8:31–39.
There is no question but that on two occasions in this passage, explicit reference is made to the death of Christ—“he that spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all” (ver. 32) and “Christ Jesus is the one who died, yea rather is raised up” (ver. 34). Hence, any indication given in this passage respecting extent would be pertinent to the question of the extent of the atonement.
Verses 31–32: The “us” is conditioned by vv. 28–30
In verse 31 Paul asks the question: “What shall we then say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” We are compelled to ask the question: of whom is Paul speaking? In other words, what is the denotation of the expressions “for us” and “against us”?
The answer is that the denotation cannot be other than that provided by the preceding context, namely, those spoken of in verses 28–30. It would be impossible to universalize the denotation of verse 31 if we are to think biblically, and it would be exegetically monstrous to break the continuity of Paul’s thought and extend the reference of verse 31 beyond the scope of those spoken of in verse 30. This means therefore that the denotation in view in the words “for us” and “against us” in verse 31 is restricted, and restricted in terms of verse 30.
When we proceed to verse 32 we find that Paul again uses this expression “for us” and adds the word “all”—“he that spared not his own Son but delivered Him up for us all.” Here he is dealing expressly with those on whose behalf the Father delivered up the Son. And the question is: what is the scope of the expression, “for us all”?
It would be absurd to insist that the presence of the word “all” has the effect of universalizing the scope. The “all” is not broader than the “us.” Paul is saying that the action of the Father in view was on behalf of “all of us” and the question is simply the scope of the “us.”