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Can I Tell an Unbeliever ‘Jesus Died for You’?

Some who read this article’s title might wonder why anyone would ask such a question. “Of course you can! How else can you share the gospel?” For Christians who believe in general atonement—the idea that Christ died for every individual in the same way—this question never even comes up.

It only arises for Christians who believe in definite (or limited) atonement. Definite atonement means that when Jesus died, he wasn’t making salvation possible for all but certain for none. He was securing the salvation of a definite (and massive) number of sinners from every nation—those whom the Father had given him (John 6:38–39). In this view, no one for whom Christ died will ultimately be condemned (Rom. 8:34); all those for whom Christ died will ultimately be saved (5:10).

But since God hasn’t given everyone to Christ (John 17:9), this means Christ didn’t die for everyone (such that all will be saved). Jesus died for his sheep, and not everyone is part of his sheep (10:11, 26). Jesus died for his Bride, and not everyone is part of his Bride (Eph. 5:25; Rev. 19:7–8). Since we can’t know who the sheep are apart from the evidence of saving faith, it raises the practical question of whether we can tell a current unbeliever “Jesus died for you!” After all, how can we know for sure?

Thorny Question

Full disclosure: I’m a pastor who holds to definite atonement. I believe the arguments I just summarized. Moreover, I don’t typically say to individuals point-blank “Jesus died for you”—either in my preaching or in personal conversations.

And yet I recognize this is a thorny question requiring great care. We can preach the gospel without directly mentioning election, but we’d be hard-pressed to preach the gospel without talking about Christ dying in the place of unbelieving sinners (1 Cor. 15:1–3; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Pet. 3:18). So it’s not hard to see why the question “Which unbelieving sinners?” would seem relevant. Someone might ask, “What good is an atonement if you can’t be sure it applies to you?”

This is probably why the Reformed theologians I read rarely answer this question with a flat “No” but with something like a “No, but” (or even a “Yes, but”). In that spirit, let me address this practical question by offering counsel to both sides—to those who opt to use the phrase and those who don’t.

If You’re Going to Make ‘Jesus Died for You’ Part of Your Evangelism

First, make sure you’re not making a bigger deal out of this phrase than the Bible does. Recognize, for example, that there are no evangelistic sermons in Acts where this precise language is used. If Peter and Paul could evangelize without saying “Jesus died for you,” then you shouldn’t make it a litmus test for gospel orthodoxy.

Second, make sure your unbelieving hearers know they’re not saved until they repent and believe. Most Christians understand this, but we shouldn’t assume non-Christians do. If hearing “Jesus died for you” makes a person feel secure in his sin and unbelief, then it’s misleading. As Jesus reminded us, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5).

If hearing ‘Jesus died for you’ makes a person feel secure in his sin and unbelief, then it’s actually misleading.

Finally, make sure you help unbelievers feel God’s wrath as well as his love. To my surprise, I once heard an evangelist tell a nonbeliever “God is not angry with you!” He explained that since 1 John 2:2 calls Christ “the propitiation [i.e., wrath-removing sacrifice] . . . for the sins of the whole world,” God mustn’t be angry with anyone anymore. But this flatly contradicts John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Until people believe, God is still angry with them. In fact, it’s only God’s wrath that helps us see his love as more than mere sentimentality.

If You’re Not Going to Make ‘Jesus Died for You’ Part of Your Evangelism

First, don’t flip out when others do. They may not believe in definite atonement, but what they usually mean by those words is something like “Jesus died in such a way that if you believe on him you will be saved”—which you believe too.

Second, don’t be more guarded in your language than the apostles. When you’re more careful than Scripture, it can justify others’ concerns about Calvinism killing evangelism. Peter and Paul may not have told unbelievers “Jesus died for you,” but they did make similar appeals in their evangelism:

“The promise is for you” [i.e., the promise of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins] (Acts 2:39).
“God . . . sent [Jesus] . . . to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (3:26).
“Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you [singular] will be saved” (16:31).

So don’t be afraid to speak like the Bible speaks, even if it sounds “Arminian.” Few preachers were as committed to definite atonement as Charles Spurgeon, and yet he was frequently attacked by hyper-Calvinists for being too free with his language toward unbelievers. That’s because Spurgeon’s goal wasn’t to keep hardcore Calvinists happy with him; he was seeking to honor God and win souls.

Don’t be afraid to speak like the Bible speaks, even if it sounds ‘Arminian.’

Finally, make sure you help unbelievers feel God’s love as well as his wrath. The gospel warns, but it also woos. D. A. Carson once noted that when asked by young, Reformed preachers whether he feels OK telling unbelievers that God loves them, his answer was “Of course I tell the unconverted that God loves them.” Iain Murray put it this way:

[It is true that] . . . the Holy Spirit uses truth to convince us of sin. . . . But conviction of sin is not enough to bring men to Christ. Conviction of sin only speaks of God’s holiness, it tells the sinner nothing of God’s willingness to pardon. . . . For that further truth is needed. It is only the disclosure of love which can persuade the sinner of God’s readiness and willingness to pardon. . . . Love is the great attraction. Love stands foremost in the gospel appeal. . . . And this love is to be proclaimed as ‘good news’ not to men as elect, but to men as sinners.

It’s God’s kindness, not just his power, that leads people to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

Definite atonement doesn’t deny God’s universal love—it deepens it by recognizing God’s special love. Just as a man can (and should) love all women while loving his wife uniquely, so Jesus can love all people (see Mark 10:21) while loving his Bride uniquely. This is the clear message of Ephesians 5:25. The gospel of definite atonement says Jesus died for his Bride in a special way but then turns around and invites people into that relationship. “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’” (Rev. 22:17). If we share the gospel with that kind of passion, I doubt anyone will wonder whether Jesus died for them.


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