This is a companion piece to our podcast episode titled, “Limited Atonement is Biblical: A Response to Austin Brown”
Covenant theology is crucial to the understanding of the doctrine of limited atonement. God’s redemptive plan for humanity is laid out by means of covenant. There is no instance in Scripture where God does not interact in some way with His creation based on covenant. This means to ignore covenantal categories in the discussion of the atonement is to ignore a foundational aspect of redemptive history and to leave out a piece of the puzzle that puts this controversy to rest. Let us start in Hebrews chapter 2 in our discussion of the atonement and covenant theology.
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.Hebrews 2:8b-9 ESV
As we move on through chapter 2, the writer clarifies what is meant by “everyone” in verse 9. In verses 11 and 12 we see the discussion around “brothers” distinguishing those whom are from the generic human race to those who are “many sons to glory” found in verse 10. This is then tied directly to the “children” laid out in verses 13 through 15:
And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.Hebrews 2:13-15 ESV
The subjects in the above passage are none other than the “brothers” that are mentioned in verse 12! The “children” are the ones to whom have been given to Christ by the Father (verse 13). Verse 16 is then key: For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.
And this connecting word “for” is used here to show that what is now being said is tied directly to what came before. In other words, why did He take death for these “children”? Because He helps the children of Abraham and not angels. Christ partook of the same things His children did and destroyed the power of death for them, delivering them from slavery. He’s not helping everybody without exception through His death, and certainly not angels, but the children of Abraham. Who are these children?
How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.Romans 4:10-12 ESV
Abraham is the father of those who believe by faith. Yes, there was a physical offspring of Abraham which would be the nation of Israel who would have to follow the circumcision requirement into the Mosaic covenant, however the spiritual children of Abraham are those who believe by faith, meaning the Abrahamic covenant had a two-fold membership: the physical offspring by circumcision and the spiritual offspring by faith, and sometimes these would overlap, yet they are never conflated. So, the writer of Hebrews is saying that Jesus’ death was for “the people” (i.e. the New Covenant community, those who believe by faith). This is not all, as we will see in chapter 8.
“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.””Hebrews 8:1-5 ESV
After laying out the Melchizedek priesthood as applied to Christ in chapter 7, the author moves on to apply this principle to the New Covenant here in chapter 8. Jesus is our high priest, ministering in the true tent, of which the Mosaic Covenant temple was merely a “copy” and “shadow”. What is the role of the priest? It is to represent the covenant community before God as it relates to worship. They didn’t represent pagan nations, they didn’t represent everyone without distinction, but only the covenant community. And since the Mosaic Covenant priesthood is merely a type or a shadow of Christ’s priestly ministry, and the earthly temple was a copy and shadow of the reality in heaven, we can parallel the functions of Christ’s priestly role with the Mosaic Covenant’s priestly role and functions.
Apart from union with Christ, the federal head of the New Covenant of grace, there is no participation in the blessings and benefits of Christ’s covenant…The membership of a given covenant is always determined by the federal head of that covenant. In this case, Jesus Christ is the federal head of the New Covenant, the One through whom its blessings flow.The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, And His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan pages 171 and 177
Now the text in Chapter 8 expressly says that New Covenant is for those who “know the Lord” as seen in verse 11. This is for those who are saved, who Jesus intercedes as mediator for. Verse 13 makes the substantial distinction between the Mosaic Covenant and New Covenant, preventing conflation of them.
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”Hebrews 9:11-15 ESV
Jesus’ role as high priest of this covenant is going into those “holy places” that were represented in the Mosaic Covenant by means of His own blood and actually cleansing those “who are called”. And given Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, He is the federal head or representative of the New Covenant for His people (i.e. the mediator of the “better covenant” as described in chapter 8 of Hebrews). Now those who are united to Christ by faith receive those benefits which are due theirs by virtue of the work of the covenant head, that is Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”Hebrews 10:11-14 ESV
Jesus’ work as high priest took care of the sin of those whom He represents via covenant. Those who are being sanctified are the same that have been washed by Christ’s blood. If the blood of bulls and goats sanctifies the flesh how much more does the blood of Christ sanctify our consciences! Immediately after verse 14 of chapter 10, the writer of Hebrews quotes part of Jeremiah 31:
“And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”Hebrews 10:15-18 ESV
In other words, the work Jesus did as high priest was specifically for the purpose of atoning for a covenant people, not all men without exception. The writer here is offering Scriptural proof of his assertion: that Jesus perfected those who are being sanctified. In other words, don’t take my word for it, the Holy Spirit agrees with me. He also testifies. Attempting to read apparent “universalistic” passages into this redemptive framework that has been provided in Scripture will not reap consistency. We must look at God’s redemptive plan for His people before we begin assuming a universal atonement for all men. Limited atonement is biblical.