I recently had to write a research paper on the extent of the atonement for my class. So i thought i should edit it and share it here in parts. So this is the first part.
When discussing the extent of the atonement where you begin from is of great essence. It is therefore very important that you deal with the atonement in the entire scope of the scriptures and the entire framework of the doctrines it espouses. No single doctrine should be viewed and treated in isolation. When discussing the atonement we cannot afford not to begin from the author of salvation.
It is for this reason that a discussion of Theology Proper is inevitable before you actually get to the atonement. This is so because understanding the nature and character of God will explain the nature of salvation, that He is able to work out and how he does it. For instance it is important to know that he is a loving, gracious, merciful, holy, righteous God etc.
One attribute I want to focus on is that of the sovereignty of God. Salvation is an act of a sovereign God and that has colossal implications on the entire work of salvation including the atonement and its extent. The Bible teaches that God is sovereign. He is in total control of all that happens in the entire universe and ordains everything that comes to pass. The best passage that explains the sovereignty of God is Daniel 4: 34- 35 where we find the words of Nebuchadnezzar who confesses by saying:
“At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is about the kingship of God. Nebuchadnezzar said, “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). It is about the reign of God, hence sovereignty of God (1 Timothy 6:15). Just as a king rules his subjects, so also God is in total control of the whole universe forever. He planned its details (divine decree) and he carries out those plans (divine providence).
You have not truly acknowledged divine sovereignty until you contrast it with human sovereignty. Nebuchadnezzar said, “All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing” (Daniel 4:35). This is what Job had to learn the hard way (Job 38). This is what the Israelites needed to know for their comfort while in captivity (Isaiah 40:1-31). God’s rule includes control over even human affairs. We are as clay in the hands of a potter. God’s sovereignty leaves us in the dust. It is totally incomparable to any other authority!
The sovereignty of God, when properly understood, must include the concept of total or absolute power. Nebuchadnezzar said, “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth”. It includes the fact that God had no advisor in his planning, needs no helper in carrying out his plans, and makes no external considerations in the final fulfillment of those plans (Romans 11:33-36). Hence, all things are to God’s glory alone.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect to accept about the sovereignty of God is that it is totally irresistible. Nebuchadnezzar said, “No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35). This is a constant theme in Scripture (Job 23:13-17, Isaiah 14:24-27). This is true religion as was portrayed by old Eli (1 Samuel 3:18) and learnt by Job (Job 42:2). When people think they have successfully opposed God’s revealed will, all they have done is fulfill his secret will (Acts 4:28).
A.W. Pink rightly summarizes the sovereignty of God in his classical book the Attributes of God when he says:
He is the Most High, Lord of heaven and earth. Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases always as He pleases. None can thwart Him, none can hinder Him. So His own Word expressly declares: "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure" (Isa. 46:10); "He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand" (Dan. 4:35). Divine sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that He is on the Throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things "after the counsel of His own will" (Eph. 1:11).
God as supreme king does what he pleases, how he pleases, where he pleases and when he pleases. He has planned salvation, worked out the means of salvation and determined the methods of salvation and equally determines the recipients of salvation.