J.I. Packer on Evangelism and the Extent of the Atonement
[The following post is a section from J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. I cannot overly stress enough how much I would like to recommend this little book to everyone reading this post. I highlight the following portion of the text due to its relevance to my last post.]
We must not present the saving work of Christ apart from His Person. [Note: This admonition follows a section in which Packer made the point that, “We must not present the Person of Christ apart from His saving work.”]
Evangelistic preachers and personal workers have sometimes been known to make this mistake. In their concern to focus attention on the atoning death of Christ, as the sole sufficient ground on which sinners may be accepted with God, they have expounded the summons to saving faith in these terms: ‘Believe that Christ died for your sins.’ The effect of this exposition is to represent the saving work of Christ in the past, dissociated from His Person in the present, as the whole object of our trust. But it is not biblical to thus isolate the work from the Worker. Nowhere in the New Testament is the call to believe expressed in such terms. What the New Testament calls for is faith in (en) or into (eis) or upon (epi) Christ Himself- the placing of our trust in the living Saviour, who died for sins. The object of saving faith is not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who made the atonement. We must not in presenting the gospel isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ whose cross it was. For the persons to whom the benefits of Christ’ death belong are just those who trust His Person, and believe, not upon His saving death simply, but upon Him, the living Saviour. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,’ said Paul. ‘Come unto me… and I will give you rest,’ said our Lord.
This being so, one thing becomes clear straight away: namely, that the question of the extent of the atonement, which is being much agitated in some quarters, has no bearing on the content of the evangelistic message at this particular point. I do not propose to discuss this question now; I have done that elsewhere. I am not at present asking you whether you think it is true to say that Christ died in order to save every single human being, past, present, and future, or not. Nor am I at present inviting you to make up your mind on this question, if you have not done so already. All I want to say here is that even if you think the above assertion is true, your presentation of Christ in evangelism ought not to differ from that of the man who thinks it false.
What I mean is this. It is obvious that if a preacher thought that the statement, ‘Christ died for every one of you,’ made to any congregation, would be unverifiable, and probably not true, he would take care not to make it in his preaching. You do not find such statements in the sermons of, for instance, George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon. But now, my point is that, even if a man thinks that this statement would be true if he made it, it is not a thing that he ever needs to say, or ever has reason to say, when preaching the gospel. For preaching the gospel, as we have just seen, means inviting sinners to come to Jesus Christ, the living Saviour, who, by virtue of His atoning death, is able to forgive and save all who put their trust in Him. What has to be said about the cross when preaching the gospel is simply that Christ’s death is the ground on which Christ’s forgiveness is given. And this is all that has to be said. The question of the designed extent of the atonement does not come into the story at all.
The fact is that the New Testament never calls on any man to repent on the ground that Christ died specifically and particularly for him. The basis on which the New Testament invites sinners to put faith in Christ is simply that they need Him, and that He offers Himself to them, and that those who receive Him are promised all the benefits that His death secured for His people. What is universal and all-inclusive in the New Testament is the invitation to faith, and the promise of salvation to all who believe.
Our task in evangelism is to reproduce as faithfully as possible the New Testament emphasis. To go beyond the New Testament, or to distort its viewpoint or shift its stress, is always wrong. And therefore- if we may at this point speak in the words of James Denney- ‘we do not think of separating (Christ’s) work from Him who achieved it. The New Testament knows only of a living Christ, and all apostolic preaching of the gospel holds up the living Christ to men. But the living Christ is Christ who died, and He is never preached apart from His death, and from its reconciling power. It is the living Christ, with the virtue of His reconciling death in Him, who is the burden of the apostolic message… The task of the evangelist is to preach Christ… in His character as the Crucified. The gospel is not, ‘believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,’ any more than it is ‘believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours.’ The gospel is, ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for sins, and now offers Himself as your Saviour.’ This is the message which we are to take to the world. We have no business to ask them to put faith in any view of the extent of the atonement; our job is to point them to the living Christ, and summon them to trust in Him.
It was because they had both grasped this that John Wesley and George Whitefield could regard each other as brothers in evangelism, though they differed on the extent of the atonement. For their views on this subject did not enter into their gospel preaching. Both were content to preach the gospel just as it stands in Scripture: that is, to proclaim ‘the living Christ, with the virtue of His reconciling death in Him,’ to offer Him to sinners, and to invite the lost to come to Him and so find life.