I was browsing my twitter account and saw a reference to the following article titled, “The Only String Attached to the Gospel” published at The Gospel Coalition’s web site.
The article began, “Over the past decade, youth ministry has benefited from insightful analysis about the church’s inability to raise lasting disciples of Christ. Amid the many factors contributing to teenage wandering from the faith, none is more critical than the absence of the full gospel in youth ministry. Simply put, too often our youth hear a gospel with strings attached.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, students hear: “God loves you, but you need to do x, y, and z.” “Yes, Jesus died for your sins, but you must _____.” In other words, “God loves you, but there’s still work left to do to merit or maintain his full acceptance.” This message undermines the complete work of Christ on the cross and ramps up the performance treadmill for young Christians naturally bent toward legalism in the early stages of their faith.”
Cole then explains his position with the following statement: What exactly do I mean when I say we should anchor our ministries in grace? I mean we should teach and operate as if Jesus’ accomplishment on the cross is entirely sufficient for God’s acceptance and redemption of sinners. In Christ, God has rescued sinners from wrath, imputed to them Christ’s righteousness, and adopted them as sons and daughters. There’s nothing a follower of Jesus can do to nullify this reality. “It is finished,” the dying Savior said.
About the only thing Cole has right is the last sentence I referenced, Jesus’ final words on the cross, “It is finished.” The question is, what was Jesus referring too when He cried out this final statement on the cross? Cole seems to suggest Jesus’ death on the cross “has rescued sinners from wrath, imputed to them Christ’s righteousness and adopted them as sons and daughters.” This is a strong claim that the Bible itself does not support.
What Cole is referring to is the atonement. Atonement is reconciliation completed. Atonement is “at-one-ment” or right standing with God conferred. If Christ’s righteousness is imputed to someone and they are adopted as sons and daughters, then right standing has been granted. Now the reality of these for the believer is not what is in question; what is in question is when does atonement take place: at the cross or when one believes. Cole says that Christ’s righteousness is imputed at the cross; he writes that adoption as sons and daughters takes place at the cross. If this is true, then there is no need for the sinner to repent. This simply is not an acceptable theological position.
If atonement is completed at the cross for the elect or anyone for that matter, then a couple things MUST be true. First of all, the elect are never in danger of God’s wrath and are never children of wrath because God’s wrath has been appeased at Calvary and the sins of the elect are paid for in full and so there is nothing for the elect to repent of. Of course Ephesians 4 and I Peter 1 indicate that there is a former life of sin that has been put away so it is obvious that even for the elect, the atonement is not completed until it is applied to the individual and he is “born from above” or converted.
There is a profound difference in looking at the reality of the provisions of the atonement being completed at the cross and the atonement itself being completed at the cross. The problem with the latter is that it simply is not a sustainable argument. The atonement is not complete until it is applied to the individual so it cannot be complete at the cross or there is no need for its application. It cannot be completed at the cross and then applied at some point in a person’s life. Complete is just that, complete.
What is accurate is that the provisions of the atonement were completed at the cross. When Jesus cried out “It is finished” what He was saying was everything necessary for the salvation of believers has been completed. God’s wrath has been satisfied because provision for sin has been paid for in full for those who have already looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises to provide the suitable sacrifice for sin and for those who will believe in the sacrifice given.
One of the questions raised often about whose sin did Jesus actually die for is another interesting question. If Jesus died for the sins of all men, then the price has been paid for sin and men cannot be cast into hell for sins that have already been paid for. This argument that makes atonement important at the cross for the elect. For if the provisions of the atonement are what was finished at the cross and atonement itself is completed at application, then it removes the double jeopardy argument of being punished twice for sins that have been paid for on the cross. If the atonement is completed at conversion, which is the Scriptural position, then it is being “born again” that brings spiritual adoption and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit into the heart of an individual and right standing is established at that time and the benefits of the provisions of the atonement become a reality. In this case, it is the application of the provisions of the atonement that brings conversion to the ones who believe and not a blanket condition as suggested by a theory of atonement accomplished and completed on the cross for a select group of people.
In conclusion, even for the proponents of Calvinism, atonement is not completed at the cross but at conversion or regeneration. For until regeneration takes place even for the elect, they are dead in their trespass and sin and have dead hearts an deaf ears and are enemies of the cross. Even for the strictest Calvinist, atonement is not completed at the cross but when God effectually moves in their heart to bring new life. It is at that point that atonement is completed and not before.