The Unity of the Godhead: The Chief Cornerstone of Definite Atonement

GDJT 1 (2022): 1–13
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The atoning death of Jesus Christ stands at the very heart of the gospel message. Christ and him crucified is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. His sovereign lordship and saving work are the alpha and omega of what we believe and proclaim. Solus Christus—Latin for Christ alone—is the power of God unto salvation and the wisdom of God unto eternal life. Jesus is the only Savior of the world, the sole Redeemer of those held in the bondage of their sins. He is the only hope for rebels against the rule of God to have a right standing before him and the only basis for admission into heaven. In short, there is no other hope for the sinner to find acceptance with God except in Jesus Christ.

Certain questions concerning the cross must be raised by thoughtful students of Scripture. We must ask the hard questions: For whom did Jesus die? Did he die for the entire world? Did he redeem every single person without exception? Did he die for people who were already condemned and suffering in hell? If so, what was the purpose of such a sacrificial death for damned souls enduring eternal torment? Did he die in vain for those who perished in unbelief?

In this article, we will explore a key argument in favor of answering these questions by affirming that Jesus dies only for the elect —a doctrine often referred to as definite atonement, particular redemption, or limited atonement. This is the biblical truth that Jesus died a definite death for a definite number of people that secured a definite result. It means that when Jesus Christ died, he exclusively bore the sins of the elect of God. He shed his blood for only those who would believe in him. This position understands the Bible to teach that Jesus did not die for those who were already in hell—or for those who would eventually suffer in the lake of fire and brimstone. Neither was he made to be sin upon the cross for those who would die in their sin. Instead, Jesus laid down his life for his sheep, his chosen bride—the church.

Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof rightly defines the issues at hand when he states,

The Reformed position is that Christ died for the purpose of actually and certainly saving the elect, and the elect only. This is equivalent to saying that he died for the purpose of saving only those to whom he actually applies the benefits of his redemptive work. . . . The designs of God are always surely efficacious and cannot be frustrated by the actions of man. This applies also to the purpose of saving men through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

Pinpointing the crucial question, Berkhof presses the issue further:

Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that only is the question.[2]

An alternative understanding of the cross is that Jesus Christ died for everyone in the world. But consider the illogical presuppositions of this position. The argument maintains that each Person of the Trinity works to save an entirely different group of people. Within this thinking, God the Father merely looked down the tunnel of time to see who would choose him. Upon obtaining that knowledge, he, in turn, reciprocated and chose them back to be his elect. The Son then died for a distinctly different group of people—the entire world. The Holy Spirit then works upon a yet different group of people, only those who hear the gospel. All of this latter group are wooed, but only some believe.

By this confused understanding, there is utter disunity within the Godhead. Here, the Father works to save the elect, a divine choice merely based upon his foresight. The Son works to save every single person, dying for all mankind. The Spirit works to save all who hear the gospel, succeeding with some who believe, while failing with those who reject the message. By this hypothetical setup, each Person of the Godhead is working in contrary realms of endeavor. This position is the complete opposite from the words of Jesus, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

What I will suggest in this article is that the principle reason to believe that Jesus died for the elect is the oneness of the divine will in the saving purpose of the Trinity. A perfect solidarity exists between the Father, Son, and Spirit in their mission of salvation. They are intent upon saving these same chosen ones. Only this understanding preserves the integrity of the Godhead. Only this doctrinal position unites the saving enterprise of each Person of the Godhead toward the same individuals. The ones whom the Father has chosen are those whom the Son has redeemed and the Spirit regenerates—no more, no less.[3]

The Indivisible Nature of God

The most strategic place to begin our study of the extent of the death of Christ is by affirming the indivisible nature of God himself. A right view of the cross starts with rightly understanding the essential being and inner working of the three Persons of the Trinity. We must know how God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in perfect oneness. Grasping the extent of the atonement begins with seeing how all three Persons of the Trinity are united in one saving purpose.

Historically, orthodox Christians firmly hold to the doctrine of the Trinity. The biblically consistent position is that there is one God who exists in three Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. Each divine Person is co-equal and co-eternal. Each one is of the same divine essence and is absolutely perfect in the same attributes. All three Persons are equally holy, equally righteous, and equally omnipotent. Likewise, they possess the same mind, affections, and will. All that the Father knows, the Son and the Spirit know. All that the Father chooses to do, the Son and the Spirit choose to accomplish. This solidarity was true in the creation of the universe. It is true, moment by moment, in God’s governance over the affairs of providence. And it is true in God’s singular saving will.

This oneness in their saving mission is why Jesus said we must baptize “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). This three-fold emphasis in baptism recognizes that all three Persons are involved in saving the same lost sinners. God the Father is a Savior, choosing his elect and entrusting them to the care of the Son. God the Son is a Savior, dying in the place of these elect sinners. God the Spirit is a Savior, regenerating these elect souls and granting them repentance and faith. Therefore, Christians do not baptize in the name of Jesus only, because he is not the only saving Person in the Godhead. Rather, we baptize in the name of all three Persons, because all three are directly involved in saving sinners—the same sinners, namely the elect of God.

The Trinitarian Mission of Salvation

At the most foundational level, the trinitarian mission of redemption is the chief cornerstone of our understanding of the saving mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus was sent into the world to do the will and work of the triune Godhead. He came on a specific mission of salvation to accomplish the eternal will of the Father. The design of Christ’s incarnation was not arbitrary, nor vaguely focused. Instead, Jesus was entrusted with a narrowly-aimed and tightly-defined assignment. Jesus principally came to die for the sinners he was commissioned to save.

Concerning this definite purpose, Jesus said, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Jesus was consciously aware that his primary mission was for rescuing sinners from divine wrath. He had not come for their judgment and eternal condemnation. The world was already in such a state. John the Baptist identified Jesus as “he whom God has sent” (John 3:34). Jesus himself affirmed, “the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). He stated that being saved requires that one “believe in him whom he sent” (John 6:29). At the same time, unbelievers “do not believe that the Father has sent me” (John 6:38).

The Unity of Their Divine Purpose

Regarding his coming into the world, Jesus proclaimed, “the living Father sent me” (John 6:57). Jesus claimed, “I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me” (John 7:29). In this sending, the Son remained one in purpose with the Father. Jesus said, “He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone” (John 8:29). As Jesus carried out his saving mission, the Father would abide in the Son and the Son in the Father. This speaks to the perfect unity of their divine being and will during Jesus’s earthly life and ministry. Here is the unbroken solidarity of their eternal purpose during Jesus’s incarnation.

As Jesus came into the world, he stressed that he came from the Father. He said,  “I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but he sent me” (John 8:42). Jesus said he is the One whom “the Father sanctified and sent into the world” (John 10:36). This mission was to do the will of the Father and to accomplish the works the Father gave him to do. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he said the miracle was “so that they may believe that you sent me (John 11:42). A critical aspect of saving faith is believing that Jesus was sent by the Father to save sinners.

In his high priestly prayer, Jesus intercedes with the Father, saying that those given to him (John 17:2) will know “Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (v. 3). Jesus acknowledged that one distinguishing mark of a true believer is, “they believed that you sent me” (v. 8). Of one mind with the Father, Jesus agreed, “You sent me into the world” (v. 18). Again, “You sent me” (v. 21). Once more, “You sent me” (v. 23). Concerning the elect, Jesus stated, “These have known that you sent me (v. 25).”

The Solidarity of Their Sovereign Will

It is agreed by all believers that the Father sent Jesus into this world to save. But for whom did God send his Son to die upon the cross? Jesus spoke emphatically that he was sent to accomplish a specific work. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). In his saving work, Jesus would never act contrary to the will of the Father.

In taking the role of a servant, Jesus always acted in perfect harmony with the will of the Father. He said, “the Son can do nothing of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19). This perfect oneness of their divine will arises from the perfect oneness of their divine essence. The unity of their divine being and attributes caused Jesus to do only the will of the Godhead. He could not do the contrary. In humble subordination to the Father, Jesus proclaimed, “I do not seek My own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). It was this oneness of purpose that was evidenced at the cross.

Nowhere was there a tighter solidarity of purpose within the Godhead than when Jesus hung upon the cross. In Jesus’s death, the Father and he were working together with one mind and one purpose, collaborating on one saving mission.

Regarding this unified intent, Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38).” The context of these words concerns the coming of Jesus to redeem “all that the Father gives me” (v. 37). This is an unmistakable reference to his intention to save the elect. About “all that he has given me,” Jesus states, he will “lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day (v. 39).” At the cross, Christ specifically chose to save this same group of sinners who were given to him by the Father. This refers to the elect of God. At the end of the age, Jesus will resurrect unto life these same ones for whom he died.

The Eternal Nature of Their Love

In the discourse on the Good Shepherd, Jesus speaks with unmistakable clarity about the limited extent of his death. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). Being the good shepherd, Jesus states that the scope of his death will be exclusively for his sheep. Jesus will lay down his life for his sheep and lose not one of them. He loves his sheep, even as the Father loves him and he loves the Father. Because of this special love he has for them, he will sacrifice his own life unto death on their behalf.

These sheep were given to Jesus by the Father before he came into the world. Because they were chosen by the Father and entrusted to him as his flock, they are the particular object of his special, redeeming love. Not all people are his sheep (v. 26). Those who die in unbelief were never given to him. But Jesus intimately knows his own sheep and calls them individually by name (v. 3). He has foreknown each one of them from long ago, even from eternity past. He risks his own life despite threatening dangers in order to save them. All for whom he lays down his life will be saved. None for whom he dies will ever perish. This truth can only teach definite atonement.

The Oneness of Their Redemptive Plan

Precise and profound are the words Jesus spoke on another occasion. He once again addressed the subject of those who “the Father . . . has given . . . to me” (John 10:29). In this context, Jesus taught that the Father and he work together in perfect unity to save forever the same sinners. Jesus said, “no one will snatch them out of my hand” (v. 28)—referring to these given ones, the elect of God. He then said, “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (v. 29). Clearly, the Father and the Son are holding the same group of sinners in their hands. They are preserving the same ones from eternal destruction. The Son is not holding one group, while the Father is holding a different group. Rather, the Father and the Son are securely holding the same group—the elect of God. This was true at the cross in their saving purpose of redemption.

In the next verse, Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (v. 30). Here, he establishes the oneness of their saving mission. When Jesus says that he and the Father are “one,” he does not refer to Them being one person. According to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, they are two distinct Persons. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. Rather, this means they are “one” in their saving purpose, “one” in their sovereign will, and “one” in their redemptive mission. Nowhere would this unity of purpose be more clearly evident than in the cross upon which Jesus died. Jesus came to redeem those whom the Father gave to him in eternity past to be his chosen bride. It was for these the Father commanded him to lay down his life (John 10:18).

Christ’s Priestly Intercession to the Father

As the life of Christ unfolds, so does the clarity of his words on definite atonement. The night before his death, Jesus prayed to the Father, “even as you gave him authority over all flesh, that to all whom you have given him, he may give eternal life” (John 17:2). By his “authority over all flesh,” Jesus claimed absolute sovereignty over the destiny of every human life. In his saving death, he pledged to the Father to give eternal life to “all whom you have given him.” Those who were given to him are the elect. For these alone he will die, and to these alone he will give “eternal life.”

Jesus then prayed, “I glorified you on the earth, having accomplished the work which you have given me to do” (v. 4). In fulfilling the Father’s saving plan, Jesus came to save those whom the Father had given to him. This “work” assigned to him by the Father looks ahead to what he will accomplish upon the cross. This “work” refers to the atonement he will make the next day. These verses define the extent of his saving work upon the cross. As Jesus died, he did so exclusively for “all you have given him” (v. 2), the elect of God.

In this same prayer, Jesus made it clear that he was interceding for the elect, not for the non-elect. He prayed, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom you gave me; for they are yours” (v. 9). In like manner, he would die specifically for these same chosen ones. Jesus further prayed, “for all things that are mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them” (v. 10). Here he explained why his saving efforts would be so narrowly-aimed. It is because he jointly shares together the elect in the Trinity’s saving purposes.

Finished Transaction Between Father and Son

As Jesus hung upon the cross, he completed his mission of salvation. He cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word “finished” (teleō) means to bring something to a completed end. It carries the idea of succeeding in a task. This was an emphatic shout of victory, the declaration of a victor. By this proclamation, he declared that he was successful in fulfilling the mission that had been entrusted to him by the Father. At the cross, the sins of the elect were laid upon him, and he paid in full the sin debt of all for whom he died. He was the Lamb of God, who took away their sins (John 1:29, 35).

There was only resounding victory in the death of Christ. There was no defeat in his death. He did not suffer loss for any who would die in unbelief. None for whom he died will ever pay the price for the wages of their sins. “The certificate of debt” for everyone chosen by the Godhead was “nailed . . . to the cross,” “canceled out,” and “taken . . . out of the way” (Col 2:14). This cry of triumph from the cross proclaimed the finished transaction between the Father and the Son on behalf of all for whom he died. The debt had been paid in full. The mission was successfully completed.

The Predetermined Plan of God

As the apostles carried forward the ministry and message of Jesus, they proclaimed this same truth. In Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost, he connected Christ’s atoning death to the Father’s eternal plan in electing individual sinners. He announced, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge, you nailed to the cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death” (Acts 2:23). These two saving acts—Christ’s redeeming death and the Father’s eternal decree—are united here and cannot be separated. These two divine acts are singularly directed to the same people, the elect of God.

In this same sermon, Peter announced that it was the Father’s sovereign purpose to save “as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (v. 39). Here, the doctrine of election stands behind and directs the effectual call of the Spirit. The Father will bring to himself “as many as” he will sovereignly summon—not one person more, not one person less. All those chosen by the Father will be called to himself. Likewise, it is exactly these chosen ones who were given to Christ to die for their sins. Only by this understanding is the unity of the Trinity preserved. Otherwise, the Godhead would be fractured in their eternal purpose and divided in their saving will.

The United Efforts of the Godhead

In Romans, the apostle Paul teaches the singularity of purpose between the Father’s sovereign choice to love his elect before time began and the extent of the Son’s atonement. He writes, “those whom he [the Father] foreknew, he also predestined” unto salvation (v. 29). Foreknowledge does not refer to divine foresight, as if God looked into the future to discover who would believe in Christ. Rather, foreknowledge refers to his sovereign choice of whom he would choose to love with distinguishing, redeeming love (Rom 9:13). These are the elect whom he “predestined” to be “called,” “justified,” and “glorified” (v. 30).

As Paul clarifies his teaching, he states that these chosen ones are those for whom Christ died. He writes, “He [the Father] . . . did not spare his own Son, but delivered him for us all (v. 32).” Those for whom God gave his Son are identified as “us” and “all,” referring to all the elect. Lest there be any misunderstanding, these for whom God did not spare his Son are specifically identified as “God’s elect (v. 33).” Paul further comments, “Christ Jesus is he who died, yes, rather was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us (v. 34).” Those for whom Jesus interceded upon the cross in his death are those for whom he presently intercedes in heaven, that is, the elect of God.

Here again, we see the unbreakable unity of the Trinity in the sovereign will of the Father and the saving intent of the Son. Those whom the Father chose in eternity past are the same ones for whom the Son died two thousand years ago. Likewise, these are the very ones whom the Spirit regenerates and grants repentance and faith. Only by this proper understanding of the operations of the Godhead can we accurately view the cross.

Christ’s Ransom Paid to the Father

In Ephesians, the apostle Paul shows the inseparable connection between the Father’s eternal will in election and the Son’s definite atonement. He gives praise to God the Father for “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3). These blessings of salvation were initiated by the Father in eternity past through his sovereign choice of his elect “before the foundation of the world (v. 4).” In turn, the Father guaranteed these blessings would come to these chosen ones whose salvation was “predestined (v. 5).” At the cross, God’s Son secured “redemption through his blood” and “the forgiveness of our trespasses” for these same chosen ones (v. 7). Here, the extent of the atonement is defined by the truth of sovereign election.

The word “redemption” (apolytrōsis) means the payment of a ransom to secure the release of one who is enslaved.[4] It conveys the deliverance of one who is held captive in bondage. This passage states that an actual redemption price was paid by the Son “through his blood” (v. 7) that successfully secured the freedom of imprisoned slaves to sin. This was a real transaction that took place at the cross between the Son and the Father. In the death of Christ, he bore the sins of the elect and paid the ransom price to purchase their release from its penalty, which is death and condemnation.

In the death of Christ, the ransom was not paid to the devil, as some have erroneously speculated. The purchase price was paid to the Father. It was the holiness of God that had been offended. It was the Law of God that had been broken. It was the wrath of God that needed to be appeased. The blood of Christ was offered to God the Father to appease his righteous anger. The ransom was paid by Christ to the Father in an actual transaction that secured the forgiveness of the elect.

Later in Ephesians, Paul explicitly specifies that Christ died for the elect when he writes, “Christ . . . loved you and gave himself up for us (Eph 5:2). The extent of Christ’s atonement is restricted to “you” and “us,” referring exclusively to believers. Paul reinforces this when he adds, “Christ . . . loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25).” He stresses that Jesus died for the church, the universal body of believers, which is composed of the elect only. In both of these passages, Paul maintains that Jesus died exclusively for the elect.

The Sovereign Will of Election

The apostle Peter likewise shows the unbreakable link between the sovereign will of the Father in election with the death of Christ. Peter addresses those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood” (1 Pet 1:1–2). We see here again the tight solidarity between each Person of the Godhead. Those whom the Father chose for salvation (v. 1) are the same ones that the Spirit has sanctified (v. 2). These, in turn, are those who obey Jesus Christ and have been sprinkled by his blood (v. 2).

The clear implication of these verses is that Jesus Christ shed his blood exclusively for those who will be sprinkled with his blood at the time of their conversion. These who would believe are the same ones who the Father chose in eternity past. Likewise, these are the same ones the Holy Spirit is sanctifying. This Trinitarian teaching in relationship to the salvation of sinners is consistent with the rest of Scripture.

Peter makes further clarification that Jesus “redeemed” these ones “with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18–19). As seen in Ephesians, the word “redeemed” (lytroō) means to buy back someone who is held in bondage by the payment of a price. It means to obtain the release of a captive by the payment of a ransom. In this verse, it means to pay the price for the freedom of a soul that has been taken captive by sin. At the cross Jesus died in the place of the elect who were being held in the bondage of their sin. The purchase price paid to God to secure the salvation of the elect was the shedding of his own blood.

The Triumphant Extent of the Cross

The purpose of this article has not been to address every argument in favor of definite atonement or answer all objections. Rather, I have explored the doctrine through the lens of one fundamental biblical truth: the unity of the triune God. When we determine what God purposed to accomplish, then we know for whom Christ died. The extent of the atonement is determined by its intent. The objective of the cross was determined by the unconditional election of the Father, and Jesus died in oneness of saving purpose with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Because Jesus died exclusively for the elect, not one drop of his blood was shed in vain. Not an ounce of his life’s blood was wasted. All for whom Jesus Christ died will be saved. This is the glorious message of the cross. Because of the victory of his death, Christ is building his church and the gates of Hades cannot—and will not—prevail against it. This is the truth that Jesus successfully redeemed all he came to save.

The doctrine of the Trinity is foundational to any understanding of the extent of the atonement. A right belief about the doctrine of God should always be the lens through which this crucial subject is seen and rightly apprehended. The study of Theology Proper is the best interpretive grid through which to view this truth. May this reality be sounded from every pulpit. May it be shared by every Christian. May it be held firmly by every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1958), 394.

[2] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 394.

[3] The limitations of this article do not allow us to address every aspect of this profound subject. Many important aspects of this issue could be explored. Many more verses will beg to be exegeted, but cannot be given the attention they deserve due to the shortage of the present space. For further study, consider reading John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished, and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), and David and Jonathan Gibson’s From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

[4] See Leon L. Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984), Chapter 5.

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Steven Lawson

Steven J. Lawson is founder and president of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip and energize a new generation of Bible expositors. Dr. Lawson is a Teaching Fellow with Ligonier Ministries, Professor of  Preaching and Dean of the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, and Executive Editor for Expositor magazine. He is also on the board of The Master’s University and Seminary, Ligonier Ministries, and Reformation Bible College.