Well, if you believe in a limited atonement, the answer is easy: Jesus didn’t die for the world’s sins, he only died for the elect.
However, if you have followed my writing, you’ll know that I am not a Calvinist and believe in an unlimited atonement, as even John Calvin did!
Consider the following verses:
For in this way God loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.John 3:16 | Lexham English Bible
And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.1 John 2:2 | Lexham English Bible
I believe these verses, among others, clearly teach that Jesus died for the sins of the world. I’m skipping the exegesis of these verses because that isn’t the focus of this article. I’m aware that people will disagree. We can discuss that another time.
So, here is the question: If Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for everyone’s sins, why isn’t everyone saved?
If you trace the story of the Bible from cover to cover what you will find is a similar pattern: God makes something good, people sin and mess it up, and God saves the day. I may have skipped a few things.
Take the story of King David, to join in the cliche.
David is a long shot from the type of person you would expect to become King. He is the youngest of his brothers and nothing about him shouts “King!”
However, he is exactly the sort of person that God seems to like to use for his purposes. By the way, this should give us comfort. God likes to use “nobodies” so that he can get all the glory.
David clearly didn’t become king because of himself. God gets all the glory.
Anyway, David has an amazing story that leads to him, against all odds, becoming king. “Yay! God is amazing!”
What happens? David does something horrible. In fact, he does something unimaginable. He sleeps with one of his loyal soldiers’ wife and she becomes pregnant. To cover up his sin, David tells the soldier to go home from battle and lay with his wife. The soldier, out of service, refuses, and so David has him sent to the front lines where he will surely die. Effectively, David commits adultery (rape?) and murder.
Yeah, it’s awful.
David loses his child because of this. He cries out to God in repentance, and after all of this David is still called “a man after God’s own heart.”
Yes, God still accepts David as his own.
Though David had personal failures, to say the least, God still forgave David and accepted him.
What this reveals to me is that what God really wants is believing loyalty.
David never chased after foreign gods, or rejected his God. In a sense, he turned his back on God, yes. But his sin did not keep him from God. He repented and turned back.
I quoted John 3:16 above. The next verse says:
For God did not send his Son into the world in order that he should judge the world, but in order that the world should be saved through him. The one who believes in him is not judged, but the one who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, in order that his deeds may be revealed, that they are done in God.John 3:17-21 | Lexham English Bible
These verses reveal that “judgment” does not come upon someone for moral wrong doing, but rather unfaithfulness, or disloyalty. The one who does not believe is judged.
People go to hell not because they have made immoral choices, but because they have made a disloyal choice. Okay, that was a pretty good one-liner.
This understanding helps us to answer the original question. While Jesus died for the whole world’s sins, individuals still have to place their faith in Him for salvation.
Just like in the Old Testament, so in the New Testament. What God is after is believing loyalty.
The Sin of Unbelief
Isn’t unbelief a sin? If Jesus died for all sins, then didn’t he die for the sin of unbelief? If so, then everyone should be saved.
Unbelief is a sin. Rejecting God is a sin. And yes, Jesus died for this sin as well. The problem with the question, or objection, is that it assumes the benefits of Christ’s atoning death are immediately applied to everyone.
They aren’t. The benefits of Christ’s death–forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, etc.–are applied when a person believes, at the moment of faith (Ephesians 1:13).
In this way, Jesus’ death is sufficient for everyone. If everyone chose to believe, everyone’s sins would be forgive.
However, Jesus’ death is only efficient for those who believe. Anyone who does not believe is still in sin and under judgment. They are still guilty.
So, the key to answering this question does not have to do with the sufficiency or efficiency of Christ’s death, but the moment of application of the benefits of Christ’s death.
I would argue this also helps us answer another question. Why is the punishment for sin eternal?
Look back to the verses in John three quoted above. They are being judged for unbelief, not individual moral sin.
So, you might have a case if you were to say, “It doesn’t seem fair that God would send me to hell for cheating on my math test. Sure, it was wrong, but eternal damnation? Really?”
To be sure, I still don’t think you would have a case. However, this question is based on a miss understanding.
- It is unbelief that “sends someone to hell.”
- If that^ is true, then people send themselves to hell, not God.
God is essentially giving unbelievers what they want. If you reject God, God will give you an eternity away from him (a.k.a. hell).
As C.S. Lewis said: In the end, everyone gets what they want, except God. Unbelievers get an eternity away from him. Believers get an eternity with him. But God desires that everyone spend eternity with him, so he does not get what he wants.
Your sins have been paid, do you believe?