He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? (Rom 8:32)
Many believers find it easier to believe the first four points of Calvinism than the fifth. It seems to them that the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ died for all men, absolutely all, without any exceptions. My aim is not to answer all the objections of such; but only to remove one obstacle that is troubling to many.
The use of Romans 8:32 to prove a universal design for the atonement is easily refuted; but only if two important principles of interpretation are kept in mind. The first is, we must distinguish between the sound of Scripture and its sense. The second is that the meaning of an ambiguous term is determined by the context.
It must be admitted that, on a surface reading, it sounds as if Paul is saying that God gave His Son for all of us human beings. But that is not what it says, and that is not its sense. If we are used to reading it that way, it is understandable that the impression remains; even after we have learned about God’s eternal love for His chosen.
But the truth is, the expression “us all” is ambiguous, deriving its meaning from the context in which we find it. If I am going on an outing with some friends, and someone asks, “Do you think we can all fit in the car?” I might answer, “I think I can fit us all in.” Now who would think that I meant all humanity? Clearly, “us all” means “everyone who wants to go with us”. Context determines the scope of the term.
The context of this verse (the whole chapter) is particularistic, rather than universalistic. From the beginning, Paul makes it clear that he is talking about “them which are in Christ Jesus”; and the phrase “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” draws a distinction between the two groups. In verse 4, we find the pronoun “us” for the first time, and it is qualified by the phrase, “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Verses 5-9 declare with emphasis that the two classes of men are diametrically opposed to each other. In verse 12, he refers to the godly as “brethren”, and in verse 14 “sons of God”, in 16 “children of God”, and in 17, joint heirs with Christ”. All these references are to the same persons, as distinguished from the sinful world. There is not a single reference to the whole world of mankind, saints and sinners included, in the entire chapter.
In verse 18, the pronoun “us” refers to the same persons. In 19, we are called “the sons of God” and in 21 “children of God”. In verse 23, the same persons are referred to as “ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit” as distinguished from the physical, non-human world that suffers because of Adam’s fall. In verses 23-26 , “we” is used 5 times, and then “us” to refer to the same persons. In verse 27, we see the same persons called “the saints”.
Verses 28-30 are often called “the golden chain” of salvation. In these verses, the same persons that have been spoken of all through the chapter are set forth as the “foreknown”, the “predestinated”, the sovereignly “called” and “justified” people of God, who will certainly be “glorified”. In this place, the saints are contemplated from the viewpoint of God’s eternal plan for us who are now believers — chosen and loved from the foundation of the world, predestinated to eternal glory.
The “foreknowledge” referred to is not the foreknowledge of some action or event, but of persons. It reads “whom He did foreknow” — not “whom He did foreknow would believe”. In chapter 11, Paul uses the word in the same way with respect to the people of Israel, opening with these words: “I say then, Hath God cast away his people?” which he answers “God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew.”
The meaning is that God has sovereignly set His love upon Israel, so that they will never be wholly cast away, even though, at present, most of them are enemies and aliens with respect to the kingdom of God. So when he makes us the objects of Divine foreknowledge, he does not mean that God foreknew that we would believe. He means that God makes all things work for our salvation because of His eternal love.
Romans 8:31 reads “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” and there can be no doubt that “us” refers to the same persons. In verse 33, they are called “God’s elect”. In verse 34, they are assured that Christ “maketh intercession for “us”. For the remainder of the chapter, we find only “us” and “we”; and they obviously refer to the same persons.
So that it is illegitimate to claim that in one verse, among all these others, the pronoun “us” refers to the entire world of men, simply because of the presence of the word “all”. “All” in this context obviously refers to all of the persons spoken of throughout. Paul may simply be emphasizing the fact that the death of Christ was for the humblest, the poorest, the most sinful believer, no matter how unworthy he may feel. There is no reason at all to import into this particularistic context the idea of the whole world of men; besides, to do so would destroy the unity of the passage.
Furthermore, the logic which Paul uses in verse 32 would be invalidated. For if the universality of the atonement were to be granted, there would be no assurance at all in the fact that Christ was crucified for us; since in that case, many for whom Christ died would have nevertheless perished. What could be more contrary to Paul’s purpose; which is to give us believers the strongest possible assurance that we can never be separated from the love of God?
Paul, in this verse, uses an argument from the greater to the less, sometimes called the a fortiori argument. If God was willing to give us the greatest gift of all, His own Son, to be our Substitute and Redeemer; how much more will He give us the lesser gifts that are the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice? The gift of His Son cost Him something. It costs him nothing to apply His redemption to us. We should read the “all things” in light of the context as well. “All things” means all the things which Paul has just enumerated: predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. Paul is emphatic: since God spared not His own Son, how shall he not freely give us all the things we need to be brought home to glory?
Some will argue, nonetheless, that whether we believe or not is up to us, because we have free will. Once we believe, then Christ and all His benefits are ours, and we can be sure of heaven. This misses an important fact: that calling (mentioned in verses 28 and 30) is one of the gifts that He gives us. Calling is what makes the difference between us and the unbelieving world; for it is by God’s call that we are made believers. There is a general call of the gospel that falls upon the ear; and there is a special call that reaches the heart of every elect person, which he cannot but obey. This “effectual call” is closely related to the new birth, and results in repentance and faith. We do not receive this special call, and the other gifts that flow from Christ’s sacrifice because we choose to; but we choose to, because of the electing love of God, because of which His dear Son was sacrificed for us all.
Howard Douglas King, September 8, 2018
Revised June 8, 2019