The Christian Fundamentalist movement sought to define the minimum of what a Christian must believe to still be considered a Christian. They typically recognized five doctrinal pillars that comprise the essence of true Christianity. One of these pillars was the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. We are redeemed when Christ set our sin aside by “nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree… By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). In his death Jesus accomplished the great exchange: his righteousness for our sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21). “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).
Modernist theologians called substitution “one theory among others.” The Fundamentalists stood up and said, “No. Substitution is the heartbeat of the Gospel! Without it there is no Christianity.”
Like most Evangelicals today, the Fundamentalists were largely Arminian. That is, they believed the death that Jesus died was general: Jesus died for every individual who ever lived or who ever will live. The Arminian therefore denies that the atonement secured anyone’s redemption. It simply made salvation possible for those who choose to accept it. But is the view of a general Atonement consistent with the substitutionary theory?
A substitutionary atonement requires that Jesus suffered the penalty for sins that his people deserve. As a result they stand acquitted before God. God cannot accuse them for their crimes. An illustration may help. Citizens of the United States have the constitutional right of Double Jeopardy, whereby a defendant cannot stand trial twice for the same crime. This was the premise for a movie a while back by the same name. A man fakes his death and frames his wife for the murder so that he can run off and begin a new life. She is convicted and serves her time. Later she learns that he is still living and begins to plot her revenge. According to the law, she can assassinate him in broad daylight because she has already paid the price for his murder. This is a sordid example, but it makes the point. The hymn writer Augustus Toplady understood substitution correctly when he penned these words: “Payment God cannot twice demand; once at my bleeding surety’s hand, and then again at mine.”
Because of this difficulty many Arminian theologians opt for the Moral Governmental theory of the atonement. According to the Governmental theory Jesus didn’t die for anybody. He was an example. God punished Jesus as a sinner merely to show us the sinfulness of sin. Therefore, Clark Pinnock argues that the death of Jesus was not necessary for God to forgive sin; it is an aid to our accepting forgiveness (Unbounded Love, 103). Charles Finney ridiculed the substitutionary atonement calling it a “theological fiction” (Memoirs, 58-61). The death of Christ is not the grounds of our Justification, Finney argued. We are acquitted before God only on the “ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law (Systematic Theology, 362).
I want to clarify that the question is not, “for whom is the death of Christ sufficient?” We all agree that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover the sins of the entire world. The question is rather, “for whom was Jesus’ death a substitute?” Logically there are only thee possible ways to understand substitution. Either Jesus died for all of the sins for all of the people (everyone is saved regardless of faith = universalism), or he died for some of the sins of all of the people, or he died for all of the sins for some of the people – his elect (Eph. 1:4).
It is the latter view that the Bible teaches. Jesus said plainly, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15) and warned the Pharisees “you are not part of my flock” (v. 26). The design and purpose of the atonement was always to redeem God’s elect. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). Romans 8 stresses that the grounds of our justification before God is secured solely in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This alone places his people beyond condemnation (vv 31-35). For this reason before the crucifixion Jesus prayed for those whom he was going to die to redeem saying, “I pray not for the world but for those whom you have given me” (John 17:9).
The Apostles preached frequently on the death and resurrection of Jesus. They called sinners to repentance and faith. But they never preached in their evangelistic sermons, “Jesus died for you.” Never once!
The reason is that Jesus’ atoning death was not for the purpose of making the salvation of all men possible. Rather, by his death he secured the salvation of all whom God ordained to eternal life (John 6:38-39; 1 Cor 15:3; 1 Thess 5:10; Tit 2:14; Heb 1:3, 9:5; Rev 5:9). The uniform testimony of Scripture is that those for whom Christ died have themselves also died (and been raised!) in Christ (Cf. 2 Cor 5:14-15; see also Rom 6:3-11; Eph 2:4-7; Col 3:3). For Paul writes plainly, “one died for all: therefore all died” (2 Cor 5:14).
In the preceding verse we also have an answer to those who allege Biblical support for universal atonement. For Paul continues, “for he died for all in order that those who live should no longer live to themselves…” (v. 15). The “all” that died to sin and “live” to God constitute the same class as the “all” for whom Christ died. The Bible illustrates this point in many places (e.g. John 1:29; Rom 5:18; 11:12; 2 Cor 5:19; Heb 2:9-13). Moreover, “all” and “the world” are frequently taken as general terms and clearly not interpreted as “inclusive of every individual” (e.g. Luke 2:1; Acts 11:28; John12:19; Rom 1:8, 1 Cor 1:21). This is how we ought to understand passages such as John 3:16, 1 John 2:2 and others. The meaning is that Jesus died for all classes of persons: Jew/Gentile, past, present and future.
This teaching is not new or novel. It is the teaching of the Protestant Reformation – particularly the Reformed (Calvinist) branch. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) says, “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him” (8.5).
If you find this teaching strange or abhorrent, I encourage you to read the Puritan John Owen’s work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, which deals with this subject exhaustively and is, frankly, the final word on the issue.
I trust that most Arminian Christians are evangelical and affirm the substitutionary atonement of Christ. But this they can only affirm inconsistently. The wave of Arminianism crashes upon the shore of Pelagianism and the Moral Governmental theory, and those who ride this wave all the way in (Like Finney or Pinnock) wind up denying the Gospel.