Saved or Savable? The Purpose, Aim, and Intent of the Cross

When I initially sat down to pen a response to David Allen’s article, “Whosoever Will: The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” which appeared in an issue of The Banner, a key publication promoting Southern Baptist conservative causes which was published from 1988–2015 by T.C. Pinckney, I intended to critique Allen’s article and then give a positive statement concerning the doctrine of definite atonement. However, as I read and reread the article, there were just too many assertions that needed to be addressed—too many for the brief space I was allotted. Therefore, my purpose became to simply give a brief biblical and theological defense of definite atonement.

Edwin Palmer, in his book The Five Points of Calvinism, writes, “The question that needs a precise answer is this: Did He or didn’t He? Did Christ actually make a substitutionary sacrifice for sins or didn’t He? If He did, then it was not for all the world, for then all the world would be saved.” If one takes the position of “universal atonement,” which says that Christ died as a substitutionary sacrifice in the place of every single person in all the world, then one must believe that (1) everyone will be saved, or (2) Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is insufficient to save without additional works. And since Southern Baptists are not Universalists (believing everyone will be saved), those who hold to a “universal atonement” must believe that Christ’s atonement, if it is made for all men, is limited in its effect. In other words, Christ can die in someone’s place and yet that person may still be lost for eternity. They limit the effect and power of the atonement; I limit the scope of the atonement, while saying that its effect and power is unlimited. In fact, we are actually presenting a far greater view of the cross when we say that Christ’s death actually accomplishes atonement in reality rather than only in theory. The atonement was an actual, real, substitution; not a possible, theoretical one that is dependent upon the actions of men for its efficacy.

The Atonement’s Intent

Did Christ come simply to make salvation possible, or did He come to actually “obtain eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12)? 1 Tim. 1:15 says, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” Paul states that the purpose of Christ’s coming into the world was to actually save sinners. There is nothing in these words that leads us to the conclusion that is so fashionable today—that the cross simply makes salvation a possibility rather than a reality. Christ came to save sinners. So, did He? And how did He? By His death. Christ’s atoning death provides forgiveness of sins for all those for whom it is made. That was the purpose of the cross.

Lk. 19:10 says, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” The Lord Himself speaks of the reason for His coming. He came to seek and to save the lost. Many have no problem with His seeking, but they do have a problem with the truth that He actually accomplished all of His mission. Jesus made it clear that He came to actually save the lost, which He did by His death.

For Whom Did Christ Die?

Here are just a few of the Scriptures that teach us that Christ’s death was limited to the elect: Matt. 20:28: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The “many” for whom Christ died are the Father’s elect. Isa. 53:11: “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.”

Jesus made it clear that His death was for His people when He spoke of the Shepherd and the sheep in Jn. 10:11,15: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” The good Shepherd lays down His life in behalf of the sheep. Are all people the sheep of Christ? No, for most people do not know Christ, and Christ says that His sheep know Him (Jn. 10:14).

Eph. 5:2, 25-27 says, “…just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” Christ gave Himself in behalf of His Church and for the purpose of cleansing her and making her holy. If this was His intent for the Church, why would He die for those who are not of the Church? Would He not intend to sanctify and cleanse these “others” as well? Yet, if Christ died for all people, there are a vast number who will remain impure for all eternity. Was the death of Christ insufficient to cleanse them? Absolutely not. Was His purpose in dying for them different? No. Christ’s atoning death in behalf of His Church results in her sanctification, cleansing, holiness, and blamelessness, and this is what He intended for all for whom He died. There are many, many more passages that could be surveyed concerning the scope of Christ’s atonement on the cross.

Sanctified through the Death of Christ

Heb. 10:10-14 states, “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”

I believe this one passage, above all others, makes the doctrine of definite atonement a must. First, v. 10 tells us what is the one-time effect of the death of Christ: “We have been sanctified.” In the original Greek, this is in the perfect tense, indicating a past and completed action. The death of Christ actually sets us apart unto God. Do we believe this? Did Christ’s death actually sanctify those for whom it was made? Or did it simply make it possible for them to become holy? These are questions with which we must wrestle.

The writer goes on to tell of how this perfect priest, Jesus, sat down at the right hand of God, unlike the old priests who kept offering sacrifices continually. On the contrary, Christ’s priestly work is complete and perfect. He rests because by His one sacrifice, He has made perfect those who are experiencing in their lives the sanctifying work of the Spirit. He made them complete. Do we believe that Christ’s death does this? Are we willing to alter our beliefs and our methods of proclaiming the gospel to fit the truth that is plainly revealed in Scripture?

John Owen, in his work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, writes: “God imposed His wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either (1) all the sins of all men, or (2) all the sins of some men, or (3) some sins of all men. In which case it may be said: If the last, some sins of all men, then all men have some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved. If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. But if the first be true, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins? You answer, ‘Because of their unbelief.’ I ask, ‘Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not?’ If it is, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!”


When the Apostles preached the gospel, they did not say, “Christ died for all men everywhere. It is now up to you to make His death effective.” Instead, they taught that Christ died for sinners; therefore, it was the duty of every man to repent and believe. They knew that only the amazing, saving grace of God could bring about repentance and faith in the heart. Instead of that being some kind of hindrance to their gospel proclamation, it was the power behind it! They proclaimed a powerful Savior whose cross-work is all sufficient, and who saves men completely and totally! Now that is solid ground for evangelism!

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