You often hear me quote this precious text, and much of its context (and as long as I live I shall never be weary quoting it), but it is a long, long while since we meditated upon it in all its bearings. Two circumstances during the last week have pressed this text and its context upon my mind, and now I humbly pray God to bless me in my elaboration of it. I have so much to say upon the text and context that I will at once hasten to discuss these two questions,
I. For whom did Christ lay down His life?
II. What was His purpose in so doing?
I. For whom did Christ lay down His life? The text and context are clear and explicit upon the point: they answer unmistakably, "For the sheep." It is a curious fact that there are only two sorts of people mentioned in the Scriptures--sheep and goats. You will never meet with such terms as "Churchmen" or "Baptists" or "Congregationalists" or "Methodists" in the Bible. They are all either sheep or goats, and I think it is very clear that it is not believing in Christ that makes a man a sheep, for a sheep is a sheep before he believes, and consequently a goat must be a goat to the end of the chapter; a sheep can never be made into a goat, nor a goat into a sheep. "How do you prove that?" you say. I answer, By ver. 16: "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd." Now here are positively unbelieving parties called sheep. Christ is here evidently speaking of certain parties who had never yet heard His voice or His word, yet whom He calls "sheep." Dear hearers, mark this well. It is not believing that makes a man a sheep, it is election. Many have very erroneous views upon this point. They think that a man is a goat whilst he is in unbelief, and a sheep when he believes. Nothing of the sort. A sheep of Christ's is a sheep before he believes, and it was for him as well as for others who do believe Christ laid down His life. But some one says, "Though Christ declares He laid down His life for the sheep, He does not say He laid down His life only for the sheep; so that He may have laid it down for others as well." This is contemptible quibbling. By the same fallacious mode of reasoning it might be said, "Though it is written there is one Mediator between God and man, it does not follow that there is only one; there may be others." What would you think of the individual who would thus argue? Surely you would regard him as a blasphemer. It is objected, "But it is written, Christ tasted death for 'every man,' and 'He died for all.'" This and similar objections have such flimsy ground to stand upon that it is perfectly ridiculous to keep urging them. Every scholar knows that the words every and all and world bear such various meanings in Scripture that nothing logical in the way of argument can be extracted from them. We put them aside as worthless in this controversy.
There is another proof as to the limit of the atonement. It is derivable from the Lord's prayer in John 17. Christ there prayed for the nucleus of His Church, or body of sheep, and also for all that in after-ages should believe in Him. Now what was the prayer about? That each and every one of such should be kept from the evil, and that they might be one, as the Father and Christ are one. Now we argue thus: If Christ in His prayer meant every man, woman, and child of the family of Adam, His prayer has been a singular failure. But Christ's prayer cannot fail. Therefore, He could not have prayed for all mankind. If He could not have prayed, then, for all mankind, He could not have laid down His life for all mankind; for it is incredible that He should have died for those for whom He would not pray.
In short, it may be demonstrated that the atonement is limited to Christ's "sheep" whoever they are, to Christ's "Church," whatever it is; and the notion that Christ died for every man, woman, and child of Adam's race is at once illogical, absurd, and blasphemous.
II. What was the purport of Christ's death?--What a momentous question! If we could but realize the greatness, the dignity, the power, the might and majesty of Christ, we should be sure to give a correct answer at once. It could not have been a mere experiment, a mere haphazard effort, which might or might not succeed. Oh, no! But, as the text and context inform us, He laid down His life in the stead of His sheep; He died that they might live; He died that He might undergo their penalty and punishment; He died that His people given to Him by the Father from all eternity might be rescued from death, hell, and sin, and be glorified with Him in eternity. The poor sheep of Christ had fallen--miserably fallen--as well as others. Nothing that they could do could possibly restore them to their lost position. Rivers of tears could not do it; multitudes of sighs and prayers could not do it; countless sacrifices could not do it. A gulf had been created between their sin and God's holiness, that neither men nor angels could span--a chasm had been made that no creature's efforts could bridge over or diminish. The mighty God Himself, in Christ Jesus, had to do it, and thus open a way for the sheep to pass over and into the glorious kingdom of heaven. None but sheep, I can tell you, can ever pass over that highway, and none that set foot upon it can ever miss walking right into the kingdom of glory. There is no doubt about it; there is no chance in it; there is no if or perhaps or peradventure, along the whole line of road. The sheep are put upon it, and on they must go, in defiance of all opposition from men or devils. Here you have the answer to the question: "For what purpose did Christ lay down His life?" Oh, how different is this tale, this orthodox report, this sure word of revelation, to the miserable, confused, and garbled statement so commonly made about Christ's death and Christ's design and Christ's work in His life! I declare to you this gladdens my heart, and makes me ready to leap for joy. This draws out and draws up my affections, my thankfulness, my best services to God. Whilst I think upon the fact, I can lay my very life at His feet. But, when I listen to the other theory, namely, that Christ laid down His life that He might be enabled to help them that help themselves, who after all may tumble headlong into the pit, my very heart sickens, and I am overwhelmed in despair. O sheep of the Lord Jesus, look up, for you can never perish, neither can any power pluck you out of your Saviour's hand! What is more, your Saviour knows you. (John 10:27) That word came home to my soul with great power on Wednesday night last: "He that believeth in ME, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." (John 11:25,26) If there be not another text in all the Bible but that, it suffices to assure me of final perseverance. Glory be to God!