Particular Redemption

"All" and "World" in Reference to the Elect in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21


by James M. Harrison

"For whom did Christ die?" How many hours of intellectual toil and pleading prayer have been expended by the saints of God in their struggle to answer this question.

The case for Particular Redemption seems to be strong, and the logic unassailable. If Christ actually accomplished redemption at the cross, and did not simply make it possible, then He must have died only and specifically for those who are elect and actually respond to the call of the gospel. For how can Christ be said to have died for those who will not be saved? Christ dying for those who will not be redeemed forces one into the position of saying that for those people, Christ died in vain.

On the other hand, the exegetical case seems to be on the side of those who would hold to Universal Redemption. The New Testament is full of references to Godís love for the "world" and of Christ laying down His life for "all."

Many of those who would hold to the sovereignty of God in all things, and the great doctrines of Total Depravity, Predestination and Perseverance, balk at the doctrine of Particular Redemption for just this reason. They cannot find scriptural justification for applying the terms "world" and "all" to only the elect.

Yet, everyone would agree that the term "world" does not always mean "every individual." In fact, in the majority of cases that is not what it means. When the Pharisees said to one another, "Look, the world has gone after Him" (John 12:19), surely they did not mean that every single individual had done so.

Likewise, it is unarguable that the word "all" does not always mean every single one, not even in the realm of redemption, as is clearly seen in John 12:32-33, "'And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.' But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die." Unless one wishes to hold to a universalist position, the only other course is to view "all men" as meaning something other than every individual person.

And so the question remains: Is there a passage of Scripture which clearly defines "all" and "world," in the context of redemption, as referring specifically to the elect? The answer is "yes," and it can be found in the fifth chapter of Paulís second epistle to the Corinthians.

Paul begins this chapter by contrasting the current state of the believer with the future state of the believer. We now live in earthly tents, he tells us, but we will have a building from God, eternal in the heavens. As a result of this, we are to be of good courage, looking forward to that day when we will be with the Lord. And yet it must not be forgotten that we will also appear before the judgment seat of Christ which should motivate us to be pleasing to Him while we yet live.

This idea of accountability turns Paulís thoughts to his own ministry. He says that there are two things that spur Him on to proclaim the gospel. a) the prospect of the judgment seat of Christ, and b) the love of Christ.

The love of Christ is seen in His redemptive work, which Paul goes on to describe. It is here that we find evidence crucial to the subject at hand.

Who is "All"?

Having examined the issue of redemption, the apostle Paul has come to this conclusion:

"that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf."

"One died for all, therefore all died" -- Inescapably, this must refer to Adam. Paul is making the same connection here that he does in Romans 5:12, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned" As a result of the sin of Adam, not only Adam died, but all of his progeny as well.

Paulís next statement is a little trickier.

"and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

Several exegetical issues must be raised:

  1. Who is "He" who died for all? Surely, it is not Adam, since we find that the result of this "he" is that all live. If we are to follow up on Paulís discussions in Romans 5 of the two Adams, then we must conclude that this "he" of v. 15 can be none other than Christ.

  2. Who is "all?" Here we come to the crux of the matter. Is this "all" being used as a universal, to denote every single individual, or can it and should it be seen in a narrower sense? As we examine the passage I believe the answer becomes clear.

    1. Why did He die for all? The answer Paul gives is, "so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf." So he died for "all" so that a particular group might no longer live for themselves, but for Christ. Does this not limit the group for which He died? What would be the necessity of dying for every single person, if the purpose for that death applies only to who no longer live for themselves?

    2. Is Christ said to have died only for a specific group? Paul says that Christ died "on behalf of " a particular group of people. Namely, those who would no longer live for themselves, but for Him.

What we see, then, is Paul stating that Christ died for "all" and then going on to define the "all" that he is speaking of. That is, not every single individual, but rather, He died "on behalf of" those who would no longer live for themselves, but for Christ -- the elect.

Who is "World"?

In this same passage Paul deals with the other term of interest in this discussion, "world."

In verses 18-19 Paul discusses the concept of reconciliation. In this discussion, he says several things which should be of interest to us. First, God reconciled "us" to Himself through Jesus Christ. Who is "us?" It should be obvious from the context of the epistle, and from Paulís usage of this terminology elsewhere, that he is speaking here of believers, as opposed to unbelievers.

He also says that Christ gave "us" the ministry of reconciliation. Surely this supports the understanding of "us" as believers. God does not give unbelievers any such ministry. Unbelievers are those who need to be reconciled.

Verse 19 brings this all into even clearer focus for us. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself ..." Could such a statement truthfully be said if Paul were speaking of every single individual? Consider the very next phrase, which qualifies the term "world." "... not counting their trespasses against them, ..." How could this be true of every individual in the world? It cannot be. The trespasses of unbelievers are held against them. The only other alternative is full-blown universalism.

There are many who have understood the logic of particular redemption but have been unable to get over the hurdle of biblical terminology. I believe that 2 Corinthians 5:14-19 demonstrates that this terminology, properly understood, is fully compatible with particular redemption and fully supportive of that doctrine.

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