ABSTRACT: The aim of biblical preaching is joining God in his ultimate purpose in all things — to display the fullness of his glory. The apex of God’s glory is the splendor of his grace as it reaches its climax in the glory of the cross. And the glory of the cross is the fullness of its definite achievement. Therefore, we diminish the glory of the cross and the glory of grace and the glory of God when we diminish definite atonement. But when it is preached and embraced in its biblical fullness, the glory of the work of Christ, the glory of the freedom and power of grace, and the glory of the being of God himself are wonderfully magnified.
If the ultimate end for which God created the world is the display of his glory, and if the apex of his glory is the splendor of his grace, and if the achievement of Christ on the cross is the climactic display of this splendid grace, and if “the glory of the cross is bound up with the effectiveness of its accomplishment,”1 then how we preach the achievement of the cross is a weightier matter than most of what we preach.2 When we do not preach the full atoning effect of the cross, we diminish the glory of the cross and fall short of God’s ultimate purpose in creation.
I do not mean that this diminishment necessarily cancels a person’s Christian faith, or even removes God’s blessing from someone’s ministry. God is merciful to use us in spite of many failings. I am sure that in many ways I fall short of God’s purpose to glorify himself in the cross. The point is not to nullify or undermine anyone’s faith or ministry. The point is to summon all of us to move toward magnifying more fully the majesty of the glory of the grace of God in the cross of Christ — and to do that by believing and proclaiming the full glory of Christ’s death in effectively purchasing his elect, expiating their guilt, and propitiating God’s wrath against them. Murray is right: “The glory of the cross is bound up with the effectiveness of its accomplishment.”
End for Which God Created the World
Reading the Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards was a worldview-transforming experience for me when I was in my twenties. I found the book — with its unparalleled saturation with Scripture — totally compelling, and I have spent most of my life trying to herald its main message.3 That message is clear: “All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God’s works is included in that one phrase, ‘the glory of God’; which is the name by which the last end of God’s works is most commonly called in Scripture.”4 God does nothing without this as his chief end. The words of God in Isaiah 48:11 fly like a banner over every divine deed: “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
The glory of God is at the heart of the gospel. Faith sees and savors “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). That is a remarkable phrase: “the gospel of the glory of Christ” — or as Paul says again two verses later, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Whether he speaks of “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” or “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” the reality is the same. God’s glory revealed in Christ and his work is essential to what the gospel is. When we are dealing with the glory of God, we are dealing with a reality that is not only ultimate in the aim of history, but central to the gospel.
Central Task of Ministry and Aim of Preaching
All of this means that the central task of Christian ministry is the magnifying of the glory of God. The aim is that the fullness of the revelation of the glory of God be displayed for God’s people, and that they be helped to respond joyfully with the fullest admiration possible.
This means that preaching, which is essential to the life of the church, aims in every sermon to magnify the glory of God in Jesus, and to satisfy the deepest need of people to know and admire God. The fullness of what we need to know about God is found with clarity and surety in only one place, the Bible. Therefore, every sermon will be expository in the sense that it will try to bring the revelation of God’s glory to light through the meaning of biblical texts. And at the heart of all those texts is the supreme revelation of the glory of God through the manifestation of his grace in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Which brings us to the great reality of the atonement in relation to the glory of God in preaching.
Christ’s Death as the Climax of the Glory of God’s Grace
Now I can be more specific than I have been so far. I have said that God does all that he does to uphold and magnify and display his glory. Now I can go further and say that all his works exist to display the glory of his grace, and the cross of Christ is the climactic revelation of the glory of his grace, which is the apex of the glory of God.
“The central task of Christian ministry is the magnifying of the glory of God.”
What we are about to see from Scripture is that the revelation of the glory of God’s grace was planned before creation and came to its climax in the death of Christ for sinners. In conceiving a universe in which to display the glory of his grace, God did not choose “Plan B.” The death of Christ was not an afterthought or adjustment. For this the universe was planned. Everything leading to it, and everything flowing from it, is explained by it.
In Ephesians 1:4–6, Paul says,
[God] chose us in him [that is, in Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
From eternity to eternity, the goal of God in the history of redemption is to bring about the praise of the glory of his grace. But what is most relevant at this point is to notice that this plan happened “in Christ” (v. 4) or “through Jesus Christ” (v. 5) before the foundation of the world.
What does it mean that “in Christ” we were chosen and that our adoption was to happen “through Jesus Christ”? We know that in Paul’s mind Christ suffered and died as a Redeemer so that we might be adopted as children of God (Galatians 4:5). Our adoption could not happen apart from the death of Christ. Therefore, Paul means that to choose us “in Christ” and to plan to adopt us “through Jesus Christ” was to plan (before the foundation of the world) the suffering and death of his Son for sinners. And this was for the purpose of the praise of the glory of the grace of God (see Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Which means that the death of Jesus for sinners is the climax of the revelation of the glory of God’s grace.
Definite Atonement as a Significant Part of the Glory of Christ’s Achievement
The question before us in this article is whether definite atonement is a significant part of the glory of God’s grace that he intends to display in the atoning work of his Son. And if so, how does it affect our preaching for building up the body of Christ for the glory of God?
My answer is yes, the definite atoning work of Christ is a significant part of the glory of God’s grace. And to know this, by the working of God’s Spirit, enables us to preach in such a way that our people experience deeper gratitude, greater assurance, sweeter fellowship with God, stronger affections in worship, more love for people, and greater courage and sacrifice in witness and service. Preaching, which aims at these things to the glory of God, will speak of the cross in its fullness, not denying any of its universal implications, but also not denying its precious, definite, effective, invincible power to save God’s elect.
We have already seen Ephesians 1:4–6 point in this direction — that a significant part of the glory of Christ’s achievement is that it secures not the potential but the actual, total, and eternal salvation of God’s elect. We saw that God’s ultimate goal to glorify himself in creation reached its high point in the display of his grace “through Jesus Christ” (v. 5), that is, “in the Beloved” (v. 6). Now let us follow Paul’s thought a little further into the definiteness of Christ’s saving work that displays the glory of God’s grace.
From Ephesians 1:5, we see that God predestined sinners to adoption as sons: “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.” I showed above that the words “through Jesus Christ” mean through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:7). This is how we know that God had sinners in view when he predestined his chosen ones for adoption. They needed redeeming. This means, then, that the redeeming work of Christ on the cross is what secures the passage of a person from lost sinner to adopted son — from being a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) to being a child of God. Thus, the glory of God’s grace, displayed in the achievement of the cross, is also displayed in the blood-bought passage of a lost person from death to life.
What is involved in that passage is explained by Paul in Ephesians 2:4–5. We see there that it is God’s grace that makes the dead live. “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved.” Paul breaks into the flow of his sentence (signified in English with a parenthetical dash) to make sure that we realize that the act of making the spiritually dead to live is the work of God’s grace. This is what is involved in the transition from being a child of wrath to being a child of God. One must be made alive spiritually. And Paul says that this is the work of God’s grace. This is why it is often called sovereign grace: it raises the dead. The dead do not raise themselves. God does by his grace. And it is this “glorious grace” that will be praised for all eternity.
What makes this so relevant for definite atonement is that God does not raise everyone from spiritual death. He raises those whom “he predestined . . . for adoption to himself as sons” (Ephesians 1:5). And since the grace by which he does this is “through Jesus Christ” (that is, through his atoning work), the quickening they experience is secured for them by the death of Christ on their behalf. This means that in the atonement God designed and secured spiritual life, and its resulting faith, for those whom he predestined to sonship.5 The atonement does not make possible the spiritual quickening of all people; it makes certain and effective the spiritual quickening of the elect. That is the conclusion of Paul’s teaching on grace in Ephesians 1:4–6 and 2:4–5.
So, in answer to the question, “Is definite atonement a significant part of the glory of God’s grace that he intends to display in the atoning work of his Son?” we may say yes. And our first reason for this answer is that the way God planned to magnify the glory of his grace is by predestining sinners to sonship through that blood-bought grace (Ephesians 1:5–6). And the way he planned to bring sinners to sonship was by the power of this grace in raising them spiritually from the dead and making them alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5).
“The glory of Christ’s achievement is that it secures not the potential but the actual salvation of God’s elect.”
Thus, “the glory of his grace,” which has been God’s aim from all eternity, includes the glorious design and power of the atonement to secure the faith and salvation of his elect. The blood-bought grace of God makes alive the dead, brings them into union with Christ, awakens faith, and saves his own to the uttermost. In other words, it is not just redemption accomplished at the cross that brings glory to God, but redemption accomplished and applied to the believer that is “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).
God’s Love and Definite Atonement
Ephesians 2:4–5 says that God’s making us alive is owing to his “great love”: “God . . . because of the great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive together with Christ.” Paul’s understanding of the unique love of God for his elect, expressed in the effective work of the atonement for them in particular, shows how essential definite atonement is in the glory of the cross, which is the greatest act of divine love (Romans 5:8).
In a sense, I have been talking about the love of God from the very beginning of this article, because the grace of God is an expression of his love. It is the form love takes when it meets guilty people. But here in Ephesians 2:4, Paul makes explicit that the working of grace to make spiritually dead people alive is an expression of God’s “great love.” This is a unique expression in the Bible. God’s great love “with which he loved us” prompted him to make us alive when we were dead.
This means that there is a unique love of God for his elect that accounts for the unique effect of definite atonement in saving them. We have already seen that the sovereign grace that makes the dead live is a blood-bought grace flowing to the elect from the divine purpose of the cross. We are made alive because the atonement secures it. Now we add this insight: this divine purpose of the cross is an expression of God’s “great love” for his elect. Others are not made alive. Therefore, this love is a distinguishing love. It is not given to all. It is given to sinners who are predestined for sonship.
Christ So Loved His Bride
We see this again in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” A husband loves his wife in a way that is different from the way he loves other women. And Christ loves his bride, the church, in a way that is different from the way he loves other people. He “gave himself up for her.” In my preaching, this has been one of the most effective ways to help my people feel the preciousness of definite atonement as an expression of God’s distinguishing love for them. What would it be like for a wife, I ask them, to think that her husband loves her only the way he loves all other women? It would be disheartening. He chose her. He wooed her. He took the initiative because he set his favor on her from all the others. He has a distinguishing love for her — a great love — that is unique. She is his own loved treasure like no other woman. And so, God’s elect are his own loved and blood-bought people as none others are.
I tell my people, you will never know how much God loves you if you continue to think of his love for you as only one instance of his love for all the world. To be sure, God loves the world (John 3:16), but there is a “great love” for his children that he does not have for the world. Nor should anyone say (changing the metaphor from bride to children) that he has this special love for his children because they believe in him. That is backward. Rather, spiritually dead children of wrath were made alive and brought to faith because he had this special love for them (Ephesians 2:4). This is the wonder of it. God set his electing, atoning love on us before we were able to do anything to commend ourselves to him.
When we preach, we long for our people to feel loved with the fullness of God’s love for them. The Arminian and Amyraldian6 ways of thinking make this experience difficult, if not impossible. They obscure the truth that it was precisely the distinguishing “great love” of God (Ephesians 2:4), expressed in the death of Christ, by which God brings his elect to life and gives them faith.
“God loves the world, but there is a ‘great love’ for his children that he does not have for the world.”
Both views make it harder for the children of God to read Galatians 2:20 with the personal sweetness God intended: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” He loved me. He gave himself for me. The preciousness of this personal love is muted where it is seen as an instance of the same love that Christ has for those who finally perish. It is not the same.
His Sheep, His Friends, His Own
When John said of Jesus, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1), he did not mean that this personal love for “his own” was the same as the love he had for everyone. He had a “great love” for his own. There was none greater. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Whatever blessings flow to the world from the cross of Christ, and they are many, there was in its design a “great love” specifically intended to rescue “his own.”
The Father had chosen his own out of the world and given them to the Son. “Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:6). He loved them to the end and kept them, so that none was lost. “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (John 6:39). To that end, he consecrated himself the night before his death: “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). And then he prayed for them — only for them, not for the world — since this was part of the “great love” he had for “his own”: “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). And then he died for them. “I know my own and my own know me . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). He “[laid] down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is what it means that “having loved his own . . . he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
And in the mind of Christ, this achievement for “his own” was no small part of the glory he was bringing to the Father in his saving work. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). It was the perfect and complete salvation of “his own” that caused him to say to the Father, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them” (John 17:10). This glory was not the glory of a salvation made available, but a salvation made real and effective in the lives of “his own.” The love of God for his elect is greater than the love he has for the world. As Geerhardus Vos comments, “The divine love for the elect is different not only in degree but specifically from all other forms of love, because it involves a purpose to save, of which all the other forms fall short.”7 Therefore, the greatness of this special love — expressed in the definite effectiveness of the atonement — is a great part of God’s glory in saving his people through the death of Christ.
Preaching Definite Atonement for the Body of Christ
That Christ died and rose again to accomplish this definite, full, and irreversible atonement for his people is the glory of his cross, which is the climax of the glory of grace, which is the apex of the glory of God. This is how I began this article. And I said there that this vision of the atoning work of Christ enables us to preach in such a way that our people experience deeper gratitude, greater assurance, sweeter fellowship with God, stronger affections in worship, more love for people, and greater courage and sacrifice in witness and service. Let me flesh this out briefly.
“The love of God for his elect is greater than the love he has for the world.”
With this vision of Christ’s achievement, we will aim in all our preaching to magnify the glory of Christ by helping our people realize the unspeakably great benefits that come to them because of this achievement. Our aim will be to help our people know and experience the reality of a definite, full, and irreversible atonement. If God gives us success, here is some of what it will mean for us and our people.
Knowing and experiencing the reality of definite atonement affects us with deeper gratitude. We feel more thankfulness for a gift given to us in particular, rather than feeling like it was given to no specific people and we happened to pick it up. The world should be thankful that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes may not perish but have eternal life. But those who belong to Christ should be far more thankful because the very faith that unites us to Christ was purchased and secured by his blood.
Knowing and experiencing the reality of definite atonement affects us with greater assurance. We feel more secure in God’s hands when we know that, before we believed or even existed, God had us in view when he planned to pay with his blood, not only for a free offer of salvation but also for our actual regeneration and calling and faith and justification and sanctification and glorification — that it was all secured forever for us in particular. The rock-solid assurance of Romans 8:32–39 (“Who shall bring any charge against [us]! . . . Who shall separate us! . . .”) is rooted in the unbreakable link between the definite atonement that Christ made (“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all . . .”) and the promises purchased for those for whom he died (“. . . how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? ”).
Knowing and experiencing the reality of definite atonement affects us with sweeter fellowship with God. A pastor may love all the women in his church. But his wife feels a sweeter affection for him because he chose her particularly out of all the other women, and made great sacrifices to make sure he would have her — not because he offered himself to all women and she accepted, but because he sought her in particular and sacrificed for her. If we do not know that God chose us as his Son’s “wife” and made great sacrifices for us in particular and wooed us and wanted us in a special way, our experience of the personal sweetness of his love will not be the same.
Knowing and experiencing the reality of definite atonement affects us with stronger affections in worship. To be loved with everlasting love, before creation and into the future ages, is to have our affections awakened for God that will intensify worship and make it more personal than if we thought we were loved only with the same love as God has for those who will never come. To look at the cross and know that this love was not only for the sake of an offer of salvation to all (which it is), but more, was the length to which God would go so that I, in particular, would be drawn into this salvation — that is the bedrock of joy in worship.
When the psalmist says in Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” he makes it clear that the worship of God — the glorification of God — springs from a vital sense of his steadfast love and faithfulness. When a church is faithfully and regularly taught that they are the definite and particular objects of God’s “great love” (Ephesians 2:4), owing to nothing in them, the intensity of their worship will grow ever deeper.
Knowing and experiencing the reality of definite atonement affects us with more love for people and greater courage and sacrifice in witness and service. When a profound sense of undeserved, particular, atoning love from God combines with the unshakable security of being purchased — from eternity, for eternity — then we are more deeply freed from the selfish greed and fear that hinder love. Love is laying down one’s conveniences, and even one’s life, for the good of others, especially their eternal good. The more undeservingly secure we are, the more we will be humbled to count others more significant than ourselves, and the more fearless we will be to risk our lives for their greatest good. Definite atonement is a massively strengthening truth for the humble security and bold fearlessness of the believer. In that way, it releases and empowers love.
Preach the Fullness of Definite Atonement
The list of benefits could go on, but the implication for preaching is clear. Preaching, which aims to strengthen the people of God in the ways we have seen, should speak of the achievement of the cross in its fullness. The aim of this preaching is to join God in his ultimate purpose in all things — to display the fullness of his glory. We have seen that the apex of God’s glory is the splendor of his grace as it reaches its climax in the glory of the cross. And the glory of the cross is the fullness of its definite achievement. Therefore, we diminish the glory of the cross and the glory of grace and the glory of God when we diminish definite atonement. But when it is preached and embraced in its biblical fullness, the glory of the work of Christ, the glory of the freedom and power of grace, and the glory of the being of God himself are wonderfully magnified.