Opinions on faith and life

The Widow’s Mite and the Atonement

2009-09-07

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” —Luke 21:1-4
It was impossible for anyone to put money into the treasury that was less than what the poor widow did. Yet it was a greater gift than all the others. What Jesus was saying is that it isn’t the quantity but the quality that God values, the purpose and intent of the gift. So when people argue about the extent of the Atonement, they are missing the point: it isn’t how much blood Jesus shed that saves, but the quality of that blood. The writer of Hebrews elaborates:
He is not like the former ruling priests, who had to offer up sacrifices for their own failures as well as those of the people. Instead, he did this once and for all, sacrificing himself.

But the Anointed One came along as the Ruling Priest of better things through a greater and more complete “tent of meeting”— one not made by hands (that is to say, one not of this creation). And it was not the blood of goats and calves but his very own blood that he carried into the Holiest Place, once for all eternity, obtaining our redemption.

In that case he would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now, once at the completion of the ages, he appeared in order to annul failures by means of the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for people to die once and then face judgment, so also the Anointed One was offered once to take upon himself the failures of many.—Heb. 7:27, 9:11-12, 25-26

There can be neither limit nor waste in the sacrifice of Jesus; such notions expose a faulty understanding and appreciation of what it is that Jesus accomplished in this act. To say that Jesus did not die for all is to call His blood inadequate. But to say that if this is not the case then the only alternative is universal salvation presumes that Jesus’ sacrificial act was what saves, rather than faith in both His death and His resurrection (Rom. 4:24, 10:9, 1 Cor. 15:15, Eph. 2:8-9, 2 Tim. 2:8). So the problem is over-simplification and false dilemma. The gospel is indeed simple: salvation by faith; but the Atonement did much more than people realize. Let’s list some of the scriptures that tell us more about what Jesus’ sacrifice accomplished:
Mt. 5:17 - to fulfill the law and the prophets Mt. 10:34 - to divide between saved and lost Mt. 15:21-28 - to save the lost sheep of Israel

Luke 1:68 - to redeem his people Luke 19:10 - to search for and save the lost

John 1:12 - to give us the right to be adopted children of God John 1:29 - to take away the sins of the world John 10:7 - to save and nurture the lost sheep of Israel John 10:16 - to gather other sheep too (gentiles)

Rom. 8:15-21 - to be adopted heirs, not mere slaves Rom. 8:23 - to redeem our bodies

Gal. 1:3-5 - to sacrifice for our sins in order to lift us up out of this evil age Gal. 2:15-16 - to justify us apart from the law Gal. 3:10-14 - to redeem us from the curse of the law Gal. 4:1-7 - to buy back those under the law and adopt us as children

Col 1:15-20 - to reconcile all things in heaven and earth

1 Thes. 1:6-2:1 - to rescue us from the wrath to come 1 Thes. 5:1-11 - to acquire salvation

1 Tim. 2.4-5 - to mediate between God and mankind

Titus 2:14 - to redeem us from all wickedness and purify us

Heb. 1:2:11-15 - to free us from the fear of death Heb. 2:16-18 - to be the sacrifice that takes away our sins Heb. 5:9 - to become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him Heb. 9:12-14 - to obtain our redemption, to cleanse our conscience from dead works Heb. 9:15-22 - to mediate a new contract and secure our inheritance Heb. 13:9-15 - to make people holy by his blood

1 Peter 1:13-19 - to ransom us from futility 1 Peter 1:20-22 - to bring us to faith in God, to purify our souls 1 Peter 1:23-2:3 - to regenerate us 1 Peter 2:18-3:12 - to heal us from our sins

1 John 2:1-6 - to pay in full for all the world’s sins 1 John 3:2-6 - to take away our sins 1 John 3:7-9 - to nullify slanderer’s works 1 John 4:7-11 - to pay in full for our sins 1 John 5:19-21 - to give us understanding

Rev. 5:9 - to purchase people

Now let’s focus more on a passage in Hebrews, a letter that goes into great detail about the Atonement.
For this reason, he is the mediator of a new contract. By means of his death he released us from our failures under the first contract, so that those who were invited could receive their eternal inheritance. For where there is a legal will, there must be the death of the one who made it. A will is not in force until the one who made it dies; it is powerless while they live. This is why the first contract had to be dedicated with blood... In fact, pretty much everything had to be cleansed with blood according to the law; without shed blood there is no pardon.

So it was necessary for these patterns of the things in heaven to be cleansed in this way, but the actual heavenly things required better sacrifices. It was not a Holy Place made by hands that the Anointed One went into— those were models of the real thing— but in heaven itself, to be presented to God on our behalf. Not that he should have to offer himself often, as did the ruling priests who had to enter the Holiest Place each year with the blood of others. In that case he would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now, once at the completion of the ages, he appeared in order to annul failures by means of the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for people to die once and then face judgment, so also the Anointed One was offered once to take upon himself the failures of many. And he will be seen again by those who wait for him, not to deal with failures, but for deliverance. —Heb. 9:15-28

Do you see it? Jesus had to shed His blood in order for the promised inheritance to happen, because it is like a “last will and testament” which cannot take effect until after the testator has died. Now if we understand the atonement this way, we can make better sense of passages like Rom. 5:10 and 2 Cor. 5:18-21 . And as that last verse says, the Atonement made it possible for us to “become the righteousness of God” in Jesus, because the legal requirement was executed so to speak.

After all that, I rather liken the arguments over the extent of the Atonement to be on the same level as debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. It’s irrelevant! The simple fact is that Jesus had to die in order to secure our redemption and adoption, and we must accept Him by faith alone in order to be saved. This does away with both Calvinism and Universalism, the false dilemma that Jesus either saved everyone against their will or only saved some against their will.*


* I mentioned this before, but to force someone’s will or nature to change such that they “willingly” accept the gospel is nothing but a theological shell game.

8 Comments

Rob Reid

To be fair, I wanted you to know, I have used a portion of your "Statement of Faith" to start a dialogue, I would love it if you would join in the fun.

Paula Fether

Hi Rob,

Thanks, I’ll be over soon. Of course, I personally haven’t counted and listed them all, but will at least provide a sampling.

Paula Fether

Here’s a question for anyone who’d like to comment:

If, as many believe, the Atonement is what saves, then does it not follow that everyone born after that time who would eventually accept the gospel was really born saved? If so, what need is there for the gospel?

Lin

When I was reading your post I could not help but think of Cornelius in Acts 10. That story fascinates me in many ways but to apply it to your post I would have to say that Atonement made it possible for Cornelius to be saved. But, and here is my big thing...he was seeking God. And because of that, God sent him Peter to tell him about Christ.

We know that God opened Lydia’s heart to believe.

Repentance and belief are a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit.

The atonement makes that possible.

clear as mud? :o)

Paula Fether

I think that’s mostly compatible with my view that while God draws everyone, not everyone follows. As you noted, Cornelius was seeking, and so was Lydia who was worshiping at the time.

But then there’s Isaiah 65:1-- "I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ’Here am I, here am I.’"

I still maintain that God does not force anyone to repent or believe, but that He will give gifts to those who ask Him (Mt. 7:11).

Ken

I think that’s a helpful distinction Paula, thanks! It does seem to address the issue of atonement well which is one of the sticking points between Calvinism and Arminianism.

I’m not sure that it "does away with...calvinism..." as you suggest though, as I don’t think that a distinction between Christ’s sacrifice making atonement possible and saving faith precludes the calling of believers by God. After all, faith required for salvation is itself a gift of God (Eph 2:8). Nor do I think that this means that God saves against people’s will, but rather that he works in their heart through the spirit to change their will towards his. My calvinist and arminian friends will both pray for God to work in the hearts of their friends and draw them to salvation :)

Paula Fether

Hi Ken, and welcome! :-)

Grammatically, "faith" and "gift" do not match, such that "it" refers not to faith but to salvation (Clinton Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation, Delight, AR: Gospel Light, n.d., p. 86; Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once For All, Joplin, MO: College Press, 2002, p. 200). Even Calvin saw it that way (The Epistle to the Ephesians, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965, p. 144). And as I said, I don’t see any difference between directly forcing a change of will and indirectly forcing it. But the point is, that if salvation was obtained at the cross, then all born after the cross were already saved, making regeneration and faith unnecessary. And if such salvation were limited to the elect because otherwise Jesus’ sacrifice would have been "wasted", I see that as cheapening the blood of Christ.

But as you said, we should be united in our efforts to preach the gospel to everyone. I’ve often said that as long as both sides do so, and since neither can claim more holy lives evident in its adherents, then what is the big deal about Calvin/Arminian anyway? Why argue over theories about who is saved when we agree on the gospel and the teachings in the NT for Christian living?

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