Understanding Hebrews 2:9

Pastor John, I am studying the Doctrines of Grace, but am struggling with the concept of the “L” in the TULIP, namely “Limited Atonement” because Hebrews 2:9 says that Jesus tasted death for everyone. Does this not refute the idea or you able to explain this verse?

Thanks for your question. I can understand your struggle as I also found the “L” doctrine the most difficult one to grasp. That is not because the Bible is unclear. I don’t believe that is the case at all. My problem was that I was reading the Bible with a traditional lens, so to speak. Thankfully, what was once fuzzy to me is now extremely clear. Christ is a powerful and perfect Savior!

The whole issue revolves around what exactly was in the mind of God from all eternity in the cross of Christ. In sending His Son to die on the cross, what was God’s intention? Was He merely trying to save as many people as He could, hoping that somone would take Him up on the offer, or was He actually securing salvation for those He chose to redeem?

The answer, I believe, is that God intended to save all His elect people and achieved this through the death of Christ. Rather than being sad for all eternity that so many refused Him, God accomplished everything He set out to do. It is a mistaken idea to think that those who will make up the numbers in hell were every bit redeemed as the occupants of heaven, but their sin of unbelief prevented them from enjoying eternity with God. Such would make Christ a dejected Savior for all eternity, for if His blood truly purchased their redemption, and He removed God’s wrath from them (propitiation) it is indeed scandalous that wrath be poured out on these same people again in hell. That would be double jeopardy, a double payment for sin.

When we look at what Scripture says that Jesus actually achieved by His death, Revelation 5:9 tells us that the heavenly host sing to the Lamb, “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

This gives us great insight. Notice that the text does not say that He ransomed everyone IN every tribe and language and people and nation but specific people in each tribe, tongue, people group and nation. This speaks of an actual atonement; one without distinction rather than one without exception.

Christ died not merely to make a potential or hypotethical atonement that would only be made effective by man’s response, but He actually removed God’s wrath forever (full propitiation) and provided an actual or definite atonement for the people of God. In doing this He fulfilled the prophecy that He would “save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

When someone describes themselves as a four point Calvinist it is almost always “Limited Atonement” where they have an issue. Reformed people often refer to these folk as “Christmas Calvinists.” Why?

No “L.” (Noel, Noel!! – ha ha)

Well, much more could be said but to answer your question, we can isolate the phrase “taste death for everyone,” taking it out of its setting (which many do without even realising it, which is of course, the very essence of tradition), OR we can allow the greater context to explain the meaning.

Actually, as I have explained elsewhere, whenever we find words such as “all” “every” or “everyone” in Scripture, the correct meaning is understood by the context. Sometimes it means each and everyone on earth, all in human history, past, present and future, but actually that is an extremely rare use of these terms.

This is true in all language use. In English, for example, when a teacher in a classroom asks “are we all here?” he/she is not asking if everyone on planet earth is in the room, but the students signed up for the class. Similarly, if a mother with seven kids gets in the car and before setting off for the grocery store looks behind her drivers’ seat at her children and asks “is everyone in?” we immediately understand she is enquiring about the location of all her children (asking to make sure none of them are missing) rather than everyone in this world.

So regarding Hebrews 2:9, the very next verses (v. 10, 11) explain who the “everyone” is. Here’s the text:

Hebrews 2:9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing MANY SONS TO GLORY, should make the founder of THEIR SALVATION perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and THOSE WHO ARE SANCTIFIED all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call THEM BROTHERS.

The “everyone” are ‘everyone’ of the many sons Christ brings to glory (notice He does not merely try to bring them to glory, He actually does so), whom He sanctifies by tasting death for them and whom He calls brothers. He is the founder of their salvation. His death for everyone of these many sons, brought them all the way to glory, He sanctified them (set them apart as holy) by this death and rather than merely calling them potential brothers, He actually secured their membership in the family of God. Because of His death on their behalf, He is not ashamed to call these many sanctified sons, brothers.

This once again illustrates the value of context in determining the correct meaning of a verse or passage. Whenever we come across words such as “all,” “every” or “everyone,” we should make it a rule to carefully examine the immediate context where these phrases are found. When we take time to do so, the meaning will become clear.

10 thoughts on “Understanding Hebrews 2:9

  1. When you link that with what Jesus prayed, John 17, you can see clearly Jesus is not praying for “all” in the world, but He is being very specific “who” He is praying for.

    That was a crisp clear response to a question many have struggled with after getting an unlimited answer!

    Thanks John!!

  2. Is John ‘able to explain this verse?’ I think the verse is quite capable of explaining itself. Some people feel the need to explain it away, using verses after it to provide a ‘context’ to shape it to their ‘tradition’. If ‘everyone’ here doesn’t mean everyone, perhaps ‘God, for whom and through whom EVERYTHING exists’ doesn’t really mean _everything_. How about verse 3: ‘how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?’ You can’t possibly ignore it if it’s ‘Irresistible’, right? So John has his work cut out for him ‘explaining’ that one, as well as Romans 5 & 6 and much of the rest of scripture. Maybe the Christmas Calvinists and those that believe in true human free will, have a little trouble imagining being offered an irresistible gift.

    No thanks, John.

  3. Dave,

    You obviously didn’t like my article and its clear that you disagree strongly but disagreement is not an argument. I would politely point out that you provided no refutation of the interpretation given in my article and fail to show why the very next sentence in the text should be discarded or disregarded in terms of context. May I therefore ask, what is your basis for dismissing the next verses in the text?

    You don’t like what they reveal, but may I ask “so what?” We are required to believe what the Scriptures teach and say, not what we want them to say. So what are your grounds (exegetically) for dismissing the immediate context (the next two sentences) as having anything to do with providing insight?

    Concerning your quotation of Hebrews 2:3, you assume there is no explanation for the “how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” verse, saying “You can’t possibly ignore it if it’s ‘Irresistible’, right?”

    Its actually very easy to provide an explanation. The word of God does not contradict itself.

    God will accomplish all He sets out to do. The God of the Bible says, “remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isaiah 46:9-11). God will not fail in even one thing He determines to do. He will do whatever He says He will do.

    ENDS AND MEANS – God has His ends (that which He seeks to do) and He uses means to achieve them. God will certainly bring in all His elect (Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” John 6:37; and Luke recorded, “and all who were ordained to eternal life believed” – Acts 13:48) and He does so through the use of means (prayer, the preaching of the gospel.. and yes, even the warning passages in Hebrews). The severe warnings are means God will use to stop any professing Christian in the visible Church (and those who would read or hear the message of Hebrews) stay on the fence and He will use these warnings to cause His elect people to cast of all procrastination and flee to and embrace Christ and His gospel. Again, God uses means to achieve His ends.

    How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The obvious answer is that no one whatsoever will escape if they neglect this amazing rescue and salvation through Christ. All will ignore or neglect this salvation whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life. On the other hand, the elect are marked out from eternity past, chosen to be in Christ from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) but they are not justified by election, but faith in Christ. The elect have to come to faith, and Scripture is clear in telling us that they will (John 6:37). So the elect will come to Christ and the elect will not neglect salvation in Christ, and will heed the means God uses to do exactly that – the means being the preaching of the Gospel (and the severe warning passages of Hebrews).

    I am not sure what your Romans 5 and 6 comment was meant to signify so I can’t really provide an answer without knowing something more of the question.

    The “No thanks, John” comment would indicate you are not interested in an answer, but I have provided this brief one anyway.

    God bless,


  4. I believe that the answer to the question “what was in the mind of God from all eternity” is actually the GLORY OF CHRIST.

    Christ is glorified both in the effectual work of the cross in saving the elect, AND in the sufficiency of the cross to save everyone – i.e. the fact that some go to hell is in no way reflecting any inadequacy in the work of Christ.

    We don’t have to choose between these two truths, any more than we choose between the humanity and divinity of Christ.

    I believe that “Jesus Christ is the saviour of all men and especially of those who believe”.

  5. David, I understand your position, having held it myself for many years, but I believe Scripture teaches a real atonement and propitiation for sin rather than a hypothetical one that only becomes effective by the actions of men. Wrath was really removed by the sacrifice of Christ. Regarding the final scripture you quote, I have put an article together on that here – Jesus is not a mere potential Savior but the actual Savior of all men (in some sense)… how exactly? see http://effectualgrace.com/2010/12/06/understanding-1-timothy-410/

  6. John, thanks for your courteous reply. I don’t think the gap in our positions is that great, its more a matter of emphasis – you are particularly keen to emphasise the soveriegnty of God, and whilst I hold fully to God’s sovereignty, I am keen to emphasise alongside it the genuine love of God for all men.

    And I certainly don’t believe that the cross becomes effective through the actions of men. Salvation is all of grace.

    My concern is that firstly the view you express can seem to display an apparent lack of charity in God towards the unregenerate, and secondly and more importantly, it doesn’t really seem to do justice to those scriptures which focus an the universality of the cross. Thus Jesus in John 3:16 does not say “God so loved the elect that he gave his one and only son that those who were predestined to believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Your approach means that you continually have to dial down these verses and find ingenious ways to restrict them to the elect.

    I fully believe in the particularity of the cross towards the elect, which is also confirmed by scripture, but also that the cross works in a different way towards those who are not saved in demonstrating God’s love towards all men, even though they are not saved, and even though they are not saved ultimately because of the sovereign will of God.

    Mark Driscoll expressed this tension well in his series on the cross – I imagine you have listened to this and would be interested to hear what you think of his views?

  7. David,

    I have never taught that the words of John 3:16 mean “for God so loved the elect…” I believe John 3:16 teaches that God’s love for the world (Jews and Gentiles) is seen in this way – by the giving of His Son – for what purpose? – (not for saving all people but) so that all those who believe in Him will not in any way perish but have everlasting life.

    As Devin Maddox explains, “If you think John 3:16 communicates God’s love for the world, you are exactly right. But if you think the verse intends to communicate how much God loves the world, you have missed the meaning of the original Greek text. Although many translations say, “For God so love the world,” the intended meaning of the original language of John 3:16 really focuses on how God loves the world. That’s why when you read John 3:16 in the HCSB, it states, “For God loved the world in this way…””

    “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” -John 3:16

    David – you say that “the view you express can seem to display an apparent lack of charity in God towards the unregenerate.” Let me say that God is very merciful to the non-elect but just as God calls upon a husband to have a different measure of love for his wife than for everyone else’s wife, so God is also capable of a different measure of love for one person than another. God has a different measure of love for His Son than say, the arch-angel Gabriel, right?

    God is personal and is personal in the love He has, and just as He had a love for Israel (Deut 7:6-8) that was different in measure than His love for the Canaanites or Hittites, so He has decided to set His eternal redemptive love on those he has chosen from all eternity. Why did He do so? We are never told, except we know it was not because of something desirable in them, but because God sets the agenda regarding His mercy and He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and had mercy on Israel in a way He did not for the other nations. Speaking of Israel God says in Amos 3:2 “You only have I known (or chosen as the NASB puts it) amongst all the nations.” God had a redemptive love for Israel that was vastly different in measure to His love for the Babylonians.

    Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her – why? what was His intention? Well we are told “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph 5:25-27)

    He laid down His life for the sheep (and the sheep is not everyone on the planet as John 10:26 makes clear).

    God “hates all evildoers” (Psalm 5:5). That’s not a popular verse, to be sure, but its there in our Bibles. Whatever the word hate means there, it is clear that God has a different measure of love for His bride, His elect, than all the rest of humanity.

    When we read Scriptures such as “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated” (Romans 9:13) how else can we understand the phrase but that there was a different measure of love for the one twin in comparison to the other? All the mental gymnastics in the world cannot negate this logical conclusion….. and what should amaze us about this is not His hatred for a rebellious sinner like Esau, but His love for an equally rebellious sinner named Jacob. But we cannot avoid the fact that His love for Jacob was vastly different in measure than His love for Esau.

    Would you agree?

  8. The biggest problem I have with Limited Atonement is not God doesn’t have the right to purchase only the elect…but that 5-pointers presuppose that provision = application. They ask questions like: “Did Christ actually save anyone on the cross?”
    That’s such a loaded question because, what does it mean to save? We are saved by grace through faith. Faith wasn’t exercised by any of the elect when Jesus died. Faith had been exercised by the OT elect and the provision on the cross was imputed to them for righteousness. The OT unbeliever in hell don’t have their sins paid for by Christ, because the never exercised faith. There is no double jeopardy. Same is true in the NT. Christ made the provision, and salvation and propitiation are accomplished when the gift of faith is granted to the elect. The atonement is applied to the believer at the time of faith and not before:
    Romans 3:25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins …

    If Christ actually “saved” the elect on the cross, then the elect are born already justified and there is no need to exercise faith.

    • William,

      With due respect, I believe you have failed to grasp the full measure of what is being taught in Reformed theology here. Obviously, the effects of God’s choice in eternity are WORKED OUT IN TIME. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me” (John 6:37). The elect are a love gift from the Father to the Son (in eternity past) but this does not negate the fact that these same people will IN THE REALM OF TIME come to the Son. It is not the coming to the Son that CAUSES the Father to give them to the Son – just the opposite is true – it is the Father’s giving which results in the elect’s coming.

      Just as it would be true to say that Christ was the Lamb slain BEFORE the foundation of the world (as the Scripture says) that did not mean that Christ did not need to be slain in the realm of time… it is true to say that all the elect were purchased/redeemed at the cross, even though these elect would still need to come to the Son in the realm of time. Can you see the point here? It is not man who author’s the faith that saves. Repentance and faith are GIFTS from God, given to the elect (in time). Jesus secured everything necessary for the salvation of the elect at the cross, including these precious gifts. Not all have faith. The elect will come to Christ in faith (John 6:37, Acts 13:48).

      Was Christ the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world? Yes.

      Were the elect saved in eternity past? Yes.

      Does this negate the need for events to be carried out in time? By no means. The choice in eternity past determined events that would undoubtedly take place in time.

      Christ redeemed His people by His blood, and secured their salvation there, even though the effects of His death would be carried out in time (past, present and future), as His people come to Him in saving faith – this being the gift of God, not as a result of works, lest no one should boast.

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