It is patently obvious that we have gotten the atonement wrong this whole time. We keep saying things like Christ died for all but the fact is that this is completely unscriptural and dangerous. Scripture is clear about the extent of the atonement: one man.
Note that Paul explicitly points out the particularity of the atonement (Gal 2:20):
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Now, after thousands of years of Church History (in this post-enlightenment era influenced by the individualism of people like Schleiermacher) we wind up getting this exceedingly unbiblical idea that Christ died for Me since I am part of the world. But that’s just wrongheaded. The fact is that Christ died for one man alone and that was Paul.
Now, I can hear the responses like John saying that Christ gave himself as a propitiation for us and the entire world—yes, I hear the simple proof texting already. But in context, John is referring to several things. Propitiation is the sating of God’s wrath in regard to a specific problem. That specific problem is made evident by understanding that John was Jewish and the Us being mentioned is Israel. The term “the whole world” then refers to breaking the boundary of Israel and expanding the proclamation of the Gospel (that it is for one person) to the entire wicked system espoused by the Gentiles.
At this point the proof-texters will point out that how can Paul be both an Israelite and a Gentile—I admit, there is a fair amount of tension and mystery here but we can’t throw out other parts of Scripture just because a doctrine isn’t palatable!
First, note what Paul outright says in Romans 9:6—it’s not like all Israel is Israel! This is an important point in his entire treatise. He argues that Israel was hardened but only a remnant was saved—who are the elect, who have been covered by the definite atoning work of Christ. He then makes this important statement in Rom 11:1: I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. You see, Paul knew that the rest of Israel was not saved because God chose that they were not to be saved. His wishing is hypothetical (I wish I could be cut off and accursed for them) but he knew that was an impossibility. Christ’s death was sufficient for all but definitely applied to only one: Paul, who was chosen before he was born (Gal 1:15).
Secondly, note that Paul’s Israeliteness was able to be subsumed in Gentile-ness. After all, Gentiles (Pharaoh) and Israel (Jews) were both of the same lump of clay. In that same way, Paul argues that he became a Jew for the Jews and a Gentile for the Gentiles—he became all things to all men so that he might save a few. Of course, he knew that they wouldn’t be saved (just like he knew the rest of Israel wouldn’t be saved) but he was speaking hypothetically because his mission was to preach the good news that he was saved!
Of course, the proof-texters will point out passages like John 3:16 but in all honesty, this has nothing to do with the atoning work of Christ with every individual. The way some people read it is that God loved everyone in this way: that he gave his son to die for them—but that’s just wrong. Calvinists do better by offering that the World there is limited to all believers. And that is true in some cases (for example, Romans 5 is referring to the Many and All but it is in fact speaking about Paul who is a representative of every nation, tongue or tribe by his malleability in the proclamation and the fact that he speaks more tongues than any (1 Cor 14:18).
The fact is that John 3:16 supports my point. The passage is saying that God loved the Antithetical System of Sin which persists under the heading of World (remember, in 1 John he says that the World and Satan are enemies!). As God is light and good the World has the qualities of being dark and sinful. The fact is that Christ Himself says that men loved darkness rather than light so God just left them in their situation while the Elect One (Paul) was Chosen. Indeed, Paul underscores this point when he says he is the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15)!
Yes, I know there are some tensions and mystery since Paul uses sinners plural or the fact that Peter says that Christ purchased the reprobate false teachers (2 Pet 2:1) or places where Christ mentions many members in one body (and frankly, he’s just speaking about all of the parts of his body and the way people confess Christ as Lord with no hope of being saved) but that’s just the nature of God: he’s above our understanding and some of these things are hard to understand. One thing we can’t do is expand the boundaries of the atonement to cover everyone—even in the Church—because that will deny the particularity of the atonement (that it was for Paul), overturn total depravity and unconditional election, and ultimately prove that sinful man just wants to rebel.
So prayerfully, consider this an invitation to Paulinism whereby all of us hear the message, understand the message, believe in some sense, can hope to be saved, but really are rejecting God in our rebellious sinful nature because the truth is Christ died for Paul. And, if you’re going to complain, realize that this questioning came up to Paul and his response was “who art thou o’ man to respond to God?” If he chose one lump (the entire world) for dishonor and another lump (Paul) for glory, who has the right to question the Potter?
Not I. I humbly, prayerfully, acknowledge my worthlessness and God’s right to send Christ to die only for Paul.