The Universal Benefit of the Cross
There is a sense in which all men, believers and unbelievers, have a benefit in the death of Christ. This is quite different from the universalism of the Arminian. For the unbeliever this benefit is not a saving one, and is only temporal. It is not a benefit that is based on merit. God is not showing kindness in hopes that all men might be persuaded to become Christians. Rather, it is a temporal benefit that comes to all men due to God’s love for His elect people.
We have seen how this took place in the case of Joseph and the Egyptians. Gen. 39:5 says, “So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had in the house and in the field.” (See also Gen. 30:27.) The benefits of having Joseph around were obvious, yet it did not result in the eternal salvation of the Egyptians.
In Acts 14:17 we see that God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. While this may appear as a blessing to the unbeliever, it will ultimately be added to his curse since he will have to admit on the day of judgment that he used none of these gifts to glorify God. See Matt. 16:27; 25:24-46; Rom. 14:10-12; II Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12. The believer also receives these blessings and praises God for them.
For the sake of God’s blessings to His people, the unbeliever may appear to prosper for a time. We may see this clearly in Psalm 73 (especially vv. 3, 12, 17-19, 27). In the end, the blessing for the believer is far greater – it is the nearness that he has with God (v. 28). For the sake of His elect and so that the gospel may go forth, God has ordained a certain stability and peace in the world which even the unbeliever partakes of. He may even receive some benefits from associations with the Lord’s people. If sin were allowed to have free reign in this world, believers and unbelievers would be engaged in a full-blown physical battle as long as this world endures. There is enough persecution present already, but the true sinful heart of the unbeliever is not given free and total reign. Presently, the unbeliever is under restraint and even must obey some of God’s commandments as the civil government may require or because it is acceptable behavior in a temporal society.
We should not confuse what is often called “common grace” to all men with the special “saving grace” of God shown only to his elect people. The benefits of Christ’s work for His Church will be cut off for the reprobate and made even greater for the elect at the glorious return of Christ. John Calvin even speaks of grace before the Fall, in the sense that God was “gracious” to not place man in an unfinished creation, but had everything prepared as a Paradise before man was created. Man was placed into a creation that God had declared “very good.”
Some have objected to the term used in theology of “common grace,” because the non-elect should not be seen as receiving any grace at all. While he does not receive any grace that results in salvation or an easing of the wrath of God for his sin, yet what else would we call the gifts or talents that unbelievers possess? We use the term “grace” so as to distinguish this from the “work” of man. We are loath to give unregenerate man the credit for works which are his apart from God. If a heathen is able to develop some medicine that is of benefit to ease the pain or cure the disease of men, we should see this as a gift from God, rather than of man himself. God commonly uses the unbeliever to benefit His covenant people. Notice how Cyrus, an unbeliever, was used by God in the return of the Israelites to their land.
We likewise understand that these abilities or contributions of the unregenerate are not to be considered “good works” in the sight of God. Since they are works which do not proceed from true faith, are not done according to the Law of God, and are not done for God’s glory, they are not good works. As a matter of fact all men will have to stand in judgment before God for how they have used the things God has given them – whether they are to His glory or not. See Romans 2:4-10.
There is then a benefit to all men as a result of the cross, yet it is not to be confused with saving grace or with a universal atonement for sin.
“Universalist” Passages in Scripture
We should look briefly at those Scripture texts which have been claimed by the Arminian to teach a universal “possibility” of salvation. In order to support a universal atonement, the Arminian usually relies on those verses of Scripture which appear to speak of Christ’s dying for “all” men, or of the benefits of Christ’s death for the “world.”
We know that the Bible is God’s Word – inspired (II Tim. 3:16 and II Pet. 1:21), true (Prov. 22:21; 30:5-6; I Thess. 2:13; James 1:18; I Jn. 2:21), and unchanging and unchangeable (Is. 40:8; Mark 13:31; Heb. 6:13-18; James 1:17; I Pet. 1: 23-25). Scripture does not lie or contradict itself because God, its author, does not lie or contradict Himself. When there are difficult passages that seem to say two different things, we must understand that only one doctrine can be true. We discover this by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
In the matter before us now, either Christ died for the sins of every single man in the world or He died for His people alone. Either He died to make salvation possible for all, or he died to make salvation a reality to some. But both teachings cannot be taught in the Bible since they contradict each other.
If we take a closer look at the passages that Arminians use to support their position, we must be sure to view them in their proper context. We must be careful not to “read another person’s mail.” There are words spoken and letters written in the Bible that cannot be used to apply universally to all men. For example, if we use Paul’s letters, we must remember who he is writing to and what he is writing about. It is dangerous exegesis (or “isogesis”) to just pull a verse out of a passage and build on it in isolation without realizing what the context is (ie. what the words around this passage are saying).
In the book of Ephesians, we cannot apply the passages of this book to all men universally. In 1:4 we cannot assume that “he hath chosen us” applies to all men. In 2:1 we cannot say that “you hath he quickened who were dead” applies to all men who may read these words. In 2:14, “he (Jesus Christ) is our peace…” does not refer to all men. And the list goes on and on. The basic clue to the proper interpretation of these and other passages is the fact that Eph. 1:1 states that this whole letter is written to “the saints (believers) who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus.”
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.