Christ’s Particular Love Shown by His Atoning Death

Forty years ago the Christian Reformed Church deemed it necessary to exercise discipline against two of its ministers1 whose public writings denied the teachings of Scripture that God displays a favorable attitude, or 000redemptive grace, towards all of mankind. Today it is wrestling with the theological pronouncements of a Calvin Seminary professor who has gone to the opposite extreme by denying that God’s love is qualitatively differentiated.

The historical Reformed position distinguishes sharply between God’s saving love toward the elect and his disposition of lovingkindness extended to all men. Professor Harold Dekker attacks this distinction by posing such rhetorical questions as: “Can an unrestricted love be restricted in those whom it loves? Can the infinite love of the incarnation have as its object only a part of mankind.”2 In the course of the article he confronts his readers with several bold assertions such as: “By no strain of exegesis can God’s redemptive love be confined to any special group…It is regrettable that some theologians, for the sake of a limited election, place limitation on the love of God….The doctrine of limited atonement as commonly understood and observed in the Christian Reformed Church impairs the principle of the universal love of God and tends to inhibit missionary spirit and activity. God so loved all men that He gave His only begotten Son!”3

Against the background of the foregoing declarations it was quite consistent for Dekker to tell us in his latest article that “God loves all men, that He loves all men with a redemptive love, and that this principle of universal redemptive love is basic to missions”4 In his comments upon II Corinthians 5:14 we are told that Paul’s missionary motive, whereby he was willing to endure many things, was the love of Christ that controlled, or constrained him. Dekker asks: “To what love does this refer? Man’s love for Christ or Christ’s love for man?” He then concludes: “Clearly the latter. The entire context indicates this, especially the words that immediately follow: ‘because we are convinced that one died for all’…There is a love that embraces and impels Paul’s own poor love. The love of Christ, he cries, controls me—the love of Christ for all men!”5 It is apparent that Dekker could not resist the temptation to make that word “all” mean “all men” in an effort to establish Scriptural proof for his theological predilections.

It is the burden of this article to show that Dekker has misused the Scriptures to support his premise that God loves all men redemptively. The most prominent instance of this misuse is his contention that the expression “one died for all” (II Cor. 5:14) is to be interpreted as meaning that Jesus Christ redemptively loves all men. We shall further attempt to show that inherent in his premise is the virtual denial of the vicarious nature of the atonement. We shall also point out that the failure of Dekker to recognize a differentiation in God’s love will lead to a ministry that is dependent upon the doctrine of the free will of man.


The question engaging our immediate attention is: Does the appearance of the word “all” in II Corinthians 5:14 establish the claim that God loves “all men” redemptively? We must look at vs. 14 in the light of the context where Paul elucidates the purpose and effect of Christ’s love. We shall make use of the Revised Standard Version, not because of any particular fondness for it, but only because Dekker has made use of this translation in his latest article.

II Corinthians 5 reads: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (vs. 14–15). Here we are taught by the divinely inspired apostle that the death of Christ was an event that actually brought with it the death of others. When we say that we believe in the vicarious or substitutionary death of Christ we mean that he died as the representative of all those whom God purposed to save. All those whom Christ represented on the cross did die. They died in him! (cf. Galatians 2:20)

It would be grossly inaccurate for us to conceive of Paul as advocating, to use Warfield’s language, “…an inoperative universalism of redemption which does not actually save. That men could perish for whom Christ died, Paul never imagined that human minds could conceive. The very nerve of his great declaration that ‘Christ died for all; therefore all died’ is that participation in the death of Christ is salvation”.6 We believe that Paul’s usc of the word “all” cannot be interpreted to convey the idea that he taught a gospel of universalism whereby God exercises no distinction in his dealings with sinners of the human race. Throughout his epistles he reveals himself to be the opponent of those who held to the exclusiveness of Jewish nationalism. Paul is the great personage of the New Testament who was concerned to show that God is not the God of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles. God has given his Son to die not for the Jews only but also for Gentiles of the whole wide world!

In order that no one would misconceive and misrepresent his universal emphasis Paul qualifies it in these words: “And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (vs. 15). His introductory declaration that “one died for all, therefore all have died” (vs. 14 ) is to teach us that participation in the death of Christ is salvation. When Dekker expands the word “all” to include “all men” he is misusing the Scriptures to support an erroneous premise. For if Christ did redemptively die for “all men” then why have not “all men” equally died and as a consequence been equally raised to newness of life? Consistency would seem to demand that Dekker apply his premise through the entire length of vs. 14 and 15!

The note of particularism is sounded by Paul in vs. 15 when he tells us that those who spiritually live have a great motive for living. They are not to live for themselves “but for him who for their sake died. and was raised”. The context continues: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation” (vs. 17–18, RSV). In the light of this we must ask Dekker: Why are not “all men” made into “new creatures” if God’s unlimited love is demonstrated by the fact that “one died for all”? In asking this question we do so for the sake of facing up to Biblical realism and not primarily to maintain logical structure.

If we are to accept Dekker’s argument that God loves “all men” redemptively because “one died for all” we encounter great difficulty when we reach vs. 19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation” (RSV). To reconcile means to bring into agreement those who are separated. God and man were estranged because of the guilt of man’s sin. Acting in his role as Mediator on behalf of the elect to whom God purposed to show mercy. Christ removed the cause of the estrangement by suffering God’s righteous wrath in his own person. The “world” mentioned by the apostle in vs. 19 is related to the word Mall” he used in vs. 14. It cannot possibly mean “all men” but it clearly refers to those who have been reconciled! They are the totality of the saved out of the whole human race whom God has reconciled to himself by the death of his Son! “All men” are not in Christ but only those whom the Father loved with a predestinating love (Eph. 1:5). Here and in similar passages we are confronted with the teaching that there is a particular, distinctive love of God which is not bestowed upon humanity in general.

This is the ministry of reconciliation that was entrusted to Paul. Reconciliation is an accomplished fact. All those for whom Christ died were reconciled to God and made righteous. The heart of the gospel is the good news of this redemptive accomplishment. The context is concluded: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through tis. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (Vs. 20–21, RSV). Warfield comments on this as follows: “The exhortation” is not that we should ‘reconcile ourselves’ to God, but that we should assume an attitude consonant with the reconciliation which God has wrought with respect to us.”7


What disturbed Paul, according to Warfield, is “that God is at enmity with man: that His wrath is revealed from heaven against their abounding unrighteousness. And what fills his heart with joy—the joy that made him the zealous missionary he was,—is the assurance that this enmity has been removed, that this wrath has been appeased and that by God Himself, who has reconciled us with Himself through Christ, by making Him who knew no sin to be sin for us,—and so enabling Himself not to impute our trespasses to us. The proclamation of this great transaction seemed to Paul so glorious that he joyfully made the ministry of reconciliation his life-work: the word of reconciliation his Gospel”.8


Whenever men by to ascertain the contents of such statements as “one died for all” they should do so in the light of the whole Biblical revelation. The real question is: For whom did Christ obey unto death, for whom did he expiate guilt, propitiate wrath, satisfy justice, make reconciliation and accomplish redemption? In wrestling with Dekker’s writings the Christian Reformed Church must answer this question unequivocally. Dekker has construed the atonement as being universal with respect to its sufficiency, availability and desire, It is limited only with respect to its efficacy. Such an explanation does not really define the nature of the atonement with respect to its meaning, purpose and effect. Dekker’s construction, in our judgment, only confuses and evades the issue. Again, the real question facing us is: What is the extent of the atonement as defined in the categories of the questions previously mentioned?

We believe it is erroneous for a Reformed theologian to define God’s love for all men in reference to redemption. For redemption concerns the perfect sacrifice that Christ offered upon the cross to satisfy justice. When Dekker contends that Christ died for “all men” as an expression of God’s redemptive, universal love is it not logical and perfectly proper to ask: Was Christ’s death in any sense a failure? Was a redemptive minded Christ only a partially successful Redeemer? An Arminian would answer that Christ died to make salvation available for all men but that his atonement is effectual only for those who are willing to believe. The efficacy of the atonement is determined by the decision of the sinner.

Either Christ’s death is atoning so that it actually is the satisfaction of God’s justice against our sins, so that all for whom he died and was raised are certainly justified and saved; or, by the death of Christ all for whom he supposedly died are not actually justified and saved. Then the atonement did not really atone! To advocate that Christ died for all men redemptively to demonstrate the universal, unrestricted nature of the Father’s love in the face of the spiritual reality that “all men” were not actually redeemed is to deny the vicarious nature of the atonement.


To expound the atonement as being universal in its availability and desire while acknowledging its limited efficacy is to prepare the way for the entrance of the doctrine of free will. This is why it is perfectly consistent for an Arminian to preach a free will gospel in the hope that the effect will correspond to the intention of the atonement! The Synod of Dort was evidently aware of this when it rejected the errors of those: “Who use the difference between meriting and appropriating, to the end that they may instill into the minds of the imprudent and inexperienced this teaching that God, as for as He is concerned, has been minded to apply to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ; but that. while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life. and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception, and that it is not dependent upon the special gift of mercy, which powerfully works in them, that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace. For these, while they feign that they present this distinction in a sound sense, seek to instill into the people the destructive poison of the Pelagian errors”9 (Italics supplied).

If we are to understand properly why Dekker’s emphasis is in contrast to a sound, Reformed conception we must illuminate it against the background of our history. In the year 1610 the Remonstrants (disciples of Arminius) offered five propositions as the expression of their beliefs. They were known as the Remonstrance. The second proposition of theirs reads: “That agreeably thereto Jesus Christ. the Saviour of the world. died for all men and for every man, so that He has obtained for them all, by His death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet so, that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the gospel in John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begot. ten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life; and in the first epistle of John 2:2: “And be is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world”. On the surface it appears that this proposition properly restricts the actual fruit of the death of Christ to believers but it also maintains the subtle heresy that it is the intention of the Father and the Son that the suffering of the cross is for “all men”. In doing so it makes the cross of Christ ineffectual for many, for it is the teaching of the Remonstrants and their present day followers that the determining cause of the effect or non-effect of the atonement is the will of man.

We earnestly wish that the occupant of the Chair of Missions at Calvin Seminary would vigorously expound the truly Reformed doctrine of the atonement that provides a sound basis for mission work. The ingathering of the Church, chosen unto everlasting life, from among all nations and peoples of the earth is the task of missions. The doctrine of a limited, but nevertheless definite atonement is the proper antidote to the cold universalism of the Arminians. Let us turn “with a new thankfulness to the warm and tender individualism of our Reformed Faith, which we beJieve to be in accord with God’s holy Word. Thank God we can say to every one, as we contemplate Christ upon the Cross, not just: ‘He died for the mass of humanity, and how glad I am that I am amid that mass,’ but: ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me; my name was written from all eternity upon His heart, and when He hung and suffered there on the Cross He thought of men. even me, as one for whom in His grace He was willing to die’”.10

1. Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema.

2. Harold Dekker in The Reformed Journal, Dec. 1962, page 5.

3. Ibid., pages 5, 6,and 7.

4. Harold Dekker in The Reformed Journal, Dec. 1963, page 12.

5. Ibid., page 11.

6. Benjamin B. Warfield in The Saviour of the World. New York, page 141.

7. Ibid., page 146.

8. Ibid, pages 148f.

9. Canons of Dort, Chap. II, Rej. of Errors,. Paragraph 6.

10. J. Gresham Machen in God Transcendent, Grand Rapids. 1949, page 136.