Parents-to-be may struggle to find a name to fit their child. Mary and Joseph did not do that, because an angel of the Lord had told Joseph what to name the baby that Mary was carrying. The English name, Jesus, and the Greek on which it is based, look back to the Hebrew name, Joshua, meaning “Jahweh saves.” And that is the reason the angel adds to the instruction about the choice of the name for the baby. How did that name work out in the life of Jesus as he went about his public ministry? In particular, for whom did the Lord Jesus Christ die? What did his death actually accomplish? Those questions have occasioned debate. There are Scriptures which indicate that Christ died for his own people: Matthew 1:21; John 10:15. But other passages at least seem to indicate that Christ died for all men: John 3:16; 1 John 2:2, and our text, 1 Timothy 2:5. Lets look at it closely!
For whom did Christ die? Focus the question properly. The question is not: whether there are any benefits, short of salvation, from Christ’s death, benefits which flow to all men; whether the atonement is sufficient for all. (Christ suffered infinite punishment when he died for me. His suffering would not be greater if one more sinner were to be saved); whether this atonement is applicable to all. (No sin is too great for Christ to cover); or whether the gospel is offered to all—it is! The question is: for whom did Christ die, whose sins did he expiate, whom did he reconcile and redeem? Arminius and the Remonstrants in the 17th century (and their followers today) answer with a universal atonement. They believe that Christ paid the penalty for any and every person who ever lived in the world. Some commentators point to our text as evidence of a universal atonement (Meyer’s Commentary states that salvation was purchased “for the benefit not of some, but of all,” p. 99).
Is Christ’s ransom something that was or can be given on behalf of every single individual in the world? The biblical answer, even in this text, is “no.” Christ died as a substitute. The basic noun “ransom” (lutron) involves payment, or substitute of money for something, see Matthew 20:28. It is a specific payment for a specific purpose. A payment in a grocery store is not for food in general, but for the specific items which the checker has scanned. A slave who purchased his freedom made a specific, not a general payment. To this noun Paul adds the prefix anti, which stresses the idea of “in place of.” `uper, the preposition following “ransom” brings out the concept of “in behalf of.” The idea of substitution is emphasized, then strengthened and re-emphasized, by the language Paul uses. If Christ gave himself fully as a ransom for his people, then he actually took their place. Thus the substitution is “limited” or is specifically for, those who are actually saved. Consider the option. The alternative might be that all are actually saved (clearly an unbiblical universalism). Or, alternatively, Christ work was not a full substitution. That would mean that Christ’s death merely made possible the salvation of all men. It actually saved no one. The crucial action rests with someone else than God. The term “limited” may fit the TULIP acronym, but it is the Arminian, not the Calvinist, whose view of the atonement is limited, at least in terms of what it accomplishes. “Definite atonement” is a better description than “limited atonement.” The question of the extent of the atonement is important, for it has implications for you view of the meaning and effectiveness of Christ’s death.
“The office of Redeemer was laid upon him that he might be our Savior. Still, our redemption would be imperfect if he did not lead us ever onward to the final goal of salvation. Accordingly, the moment we turn away even slightly from him, our salvation, which rests firmly in him, gradually vanishes away.”John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.1
Perhaps the thing to do is to ask, what does the death of Christ mean for you? Christ’s ransom actually saves you. ‘Antilutron is used only here in the New Testament, but the noun lutron is used, not in “universalistic” passages, but in passages where the context makes clear that the redeemed are God’s covenant people, the elect, those who are actually saved: Romans 8:23; Ephesians 1:14; 4:30; 1 Peter 1:18–20. These passages make clear that your salvation is not your work, the result of your efforts, but is rather the gracious work of God in Jesus Christ on behalf of his people. Ask yourself what the death of Christ means for you. Does it merely make your salvation possible, or does it actually save you? Is Christ’s work parallel to a football coach, whose activity may be essential to the team, who trains, instructs, and helps his players, but, when the player actually goes into the game all the coach can do is give him an encouraging swat and say, “Go for it!”? Or did Christ actually take the guilt and the punishment of your sins upon himself, thus declaring you righteous before God?
“It is to beggar the concept of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and by power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people.”John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 63
Understand that redemption is an effective securement of release by price and power. It actually accomplishes your salvation. Scripture teaches throughout that Christ died for his people, actually redeeming them, Ephesians 5:25-27; Isaiah 53:5; Matthew 1:21; John 17:9; and Romans 8:32. As you (and each believer) look at yourself, you have to confess with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst,” 1 Timothy 1:15. Christ, by his death and resurrection, actually saved you.
But perhaps you are asking, “what about the ‘universalistic’ language in our text?” Christ did give himself as a ransom for all men. Christ died for all kinds of people. Out text is in the context of urging prayers for all kinds of people, including unpopular rulers. Christ died to save people like this, not merely the “good.” Appreciate God’s well-meant offer of the gospel. Recognize the need to emphasize the breadth of Christ’s work against the background of the Old Testament focus on Israel as the covenant people and the subsequent Jewish exclusivism. (Israel tended not to really hear the references to the sweeping character of God’s saving work in Psalm 65 and other passages.) Remember the breadth of God’s promise to Abraham. Recognize that Timothy may have needed to counteract an elitism growing out of early gnostic tendencies and mystery religions. Trust in Christ as the exclusive Savior. Verse 5 describes him as the unique mediator. Verse 6 shuts you up to him as the exclusive Savior. He is the only mediator. Of all the vast host of those who are saved, every single one is saved by the ransom paid by Jesus Christ. The nine-sided temple of the B’ahai, the “we honor your path of spirituality as long as it is sincere” of much contemporary religion, are lies. The one way to the Father, the way for all mankind, the way for you is nothing else than the ransom of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a gospel worth proclaiming! This is the gospel of which Paul was a herald and apostle. This is a gospel worth praying for, a gospel worth living. For this is a gospel that provides salvation, full and complete, for all who trust in the Mediator God has provided.
For whom did Christ die? The Scriptures answer, for those whom the Father has given to Jesus, for you, his covenant people. For whom did Jesus enter this world and die? By the grace of the Holy Spirit may you answer, “Jesus died for me, the worst of sinners, so that I might receive eternal life.”