18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
15 And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
Both Particular and Universal—
The opening verses of John 3 set forth the particularism of God's saving activity in rebirth by the Holy Spirit and faith in the Son of God, which each of us needs. Then in John 3:16-17 there is the revelation that God so loved the world as to give His Son, that the world through Him might be saved. Those who reject the light of Christ are lost (vss. 19-20, 36).
Again in 1 John 2:1-2 we meet the particularism of God's dealing with the sinner through the gracious intercession of Christ his Advocate. Then in the next line there is the fact that Christ made propitiation for the sins of the whole world. No wonder that, in commenting on this passage, John Calvin quotes the scholastic idiom that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect. He thus taught both the universal and the particular.
Likewise, the Canons of the Synod of Dort, in the chapter on redemption, teach that the work of Christ is sufficient for all, fully adapted for all and to be offered to all. And, of course, that Synod teaches the particularism of God's saving activities. But when the message of Dort is condensed into an abbreviation of "The Five Points of Calvinism" and one of these is "limited atonement" or "efficacious redemption," the universal element in Dort and in Calvin has fallen out.
Luther's emphasis was no doubt on the universal element. But as I remember his The Bondage of the Will, he there teaches how Christ intercedes and secures the gift of the Spirit to work faith in the man whose will is otherwise enslaved by sin; and as Luther teaches the children the meaning of the third article of the Creed, it seems to me that he has not forgotten the element of particularism in the gospel.
Most of all, Paul strove more than anyone else to carry Christ from one end to the other of the known world. His missionary work was universalistic. Yet he saw God's plan for himself reaching from before he left his mother's womb, through the confrontation on the road to Damascus when he alone of the company understood the words addressed by the Lord Jesus in the Hebrew tongue, and until he confessed, "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me." So that he is also a great example of the particularism of God's saving activities.
Why may the two not find a place in our thinking and preaching? I have known of those who reasoned from John 17:9 (where Christ said He prayed, not for the world, but for those God had given Him out of the world) thus: Would Christ die for those for whom He did not pray? The rhetorical question implies a negative answer. But is that not setting human reason counter to God's Word that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, that Christ is the Saviour of the world, that He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world? I doubt whether we are able to dovetail the two thoughts into a thoroughly integrated, logically perfect system. But since both are taught, let us teach both.
In other matters, such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility, admitting that we cannot perfectly show how the two fit together, we have had to use double-line thinking and affirm both. Perhaps we need to admit here also that we cannot perfectly fit together Christ as the propitiation for the sins of the whole world with His praying, not for the world, but for those the Father has given Him. Yet we affirm that the Good Book teaches both.
May these two paradoxical statements be reconciled by noting that the universal relates the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ to turning the wrath of God away from the whole wicked world, while the particular relates the intercession of Christ to those whom the Father has given Him, and in answer to His intercessions, the Holy Spirit, using the Word, turns each in faith to God in Christ, to God our Saviour?
William C. Robinson
Dr. Robinson is professor emeritus of church history at Columbia Theological Seminary. —Ed.