TULIP: LIMITED ATONEMENT (Part 4 of 6)
by Rev. Jeffrey D. Hagan, (ThD), MA, MCC
Please keep in mind – this article is in our “TULIP” series so it gives a five point view of Calvinism. It is our opinion that five point or four point Calvinism is an issue where believers can “agree to disagree.” So, although this article presents a case for five point Calvinism, we are in no way questioning the faith or integrity of those who adhere to a four point Calvinist view. We encourage all of those who read this article for interest, devotions, personal knowledge, education, or theological enrichment, to expand their learning by studying all aspects of this doctrine, pro and con.
Limited Atonement is a phrase used to summarize what the Scriptures teach regarding the purpose for Christ’s death on the cross and what His life, death and resurrection accomplished. It represents the third letter of the TULIP acronym, “L,” which is commonly used to explain what are known as the five points of Calvinism, also referred to as the doctrines of grace. The doctrine of limited atonement is the most controversial and perhaps most misunderstood of all the TULIP doctrines. Since the name can confuse people and cause them to have incorrect ideas about what is meant, some people use phrases like “particular redemption,” “definite redemption,” or “actual atonement.” These names rightly focus on the biblical fact that Jesus’ death on the cross was intentional and had a definite purpose and that it succeeded in accomplishing that purpose. However, like all of the doctrines in TULIP, what is important is not the term we use to describe the doctrine but how accurately the doctrine expresses what the Scriptures teach about the nature and purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
The doctrine of limited atonement affirms that the Scriptures teach Christ’s atoning work on the cross was done with a specific purpose in mind – to redeem for God people from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9). Jesus died, according to Matthew 1:21, to “save his people from their sins” (NIV). This truth is seen all throughout the Scriptures. In John 10:15, we see that He lays “down his life for my [his] sheep” (NIV). Who are the sheep? They are the people chosen by God from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). These are the same ones Jesus said were given to Him by the Father in order that He would fulfill the Father’s will by not losing any of them and by raising all of them up in the end (John 6:37-40). The truth that Jesus came for a specific reason is found in both the Old and New Testaments. A significant passage, probably the most significant passage in the Old Testament on the atonement, is Isaiah 53. In this passage alone, we are shown He was stricken for the transgressions of God’s people (Isaiah 53:8); that He would “justify many” because “he will bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11, NIV); and that He “bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12b, NIV). These verses and many others talk about an atonement that was particular in who it covered (God’s people), was substitutionary in nature (He actually took their sins upon Himself at the cross), and actually accomplished what God planned for it to do (justify many). It is clear we have here a picture of an intentional, specific atonement. Christ did not simply make justification a possibility, He actually justified those He died for. He died to save them, not to only make them savable.
The doctrine of limited atonement also recognizes that Scriptures teach Jesus’ death on the cross was a substitutionary atonement for sins. Many theologians use the word “vicarious” to describe the atonement. This word means “acting on behalf of” or “representing another’ and is used to describe “something performed or suffered by one person with the results accruing [being applied] to the benefit or advantage of another.” The substitutionary atonement of Christ means He was acting as a representative for a specific group of people (the elect) who would receive a direct benefit (salvation) as the result of His death. The idea is clearly portrayed in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin [Christ] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV). If Jesus actually took my place and bore my sin on the cross as Scripture teaches, then I can never be punished for that sin. In order for Christ’s atonement to truly be a substitutionary atonement, then it must actually secure a real salvation for all whom He died for. If the atonement only makes salvation a possibility, then it cannot be a substitutionary atonement. If Christ acted as a real and true substitute for those He died for, then all He died for will be saved. To say that Christ died a substitutionary death in the place of all sinners but that not all sinners will be save is contradictory.
Four different words or aspects of the atonement are clearly presented in Scripture, and each one better helps us understand the nature and degree of the atonement. These four words are ransom, reconciliation, propitiation and substitute. These four aspects of Christ’s atonement all speak of Christ as having actually accomplished something in His death. Even a brief study of these four terms in their Scriptural contexts leads to the clear conclusion that one cannot hold to a true universal atonement without also requiring universal salvation. If one holds the unlimited atonement view while denying universal salvation, they end up with a redemption that leaves humanity not completely free or actually redeemed, a reconciliation that leaves humanity still estranged from God, a propitiation that leaves humanity still under God’s wrath, and a substitutionary death that still makes the sinner help pay the debt of their sin. All of these aspects of the atoning work of Christ then become nothing more than a possibility that relies upon humanity to make them a reality.
But this is not what the Scriptures teach. They teach that those who are redeemed by Christ are truly free and their debt has been paid in full. They teach that those who are reconciled to God are actually reconciled and the separation that existed between them and God has been taken away (Colossians 2:14). They teach that Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice that completely satisfied the wrath of God. They also teach that Christ was indeed a substitute who acted in place of, and on behalf of, His people. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30, NIV). The debt was paid in full. Let’s look at Colossians 2:13-14:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God
made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written
code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took
it away, nailing it to the cross (NIV).
A common misunderstanding regarding the doctrine of limited atonement is that this position somehow lessens or limits the value of the atonement of Christ. However, the direct opposite is true. Limited atonement correctly recognizes that Christ’s death was of infinite value and lacked nothing. In fact, it is of such great value that, if God had willed it, Christ’s death could have save every single member of the human race. Christ would not have had to suffer any more or do anything different to save every human who ever lived than what He did do in securing the salvation of the elect. But that was not God’s purpose in sending Christ to the cross. God’s purpose in the atonement was that Jesus would forever secure the salvation of those the Father had given to Him (Hebrews 7:25). So, while Christ’s atonement was limited in its intent or purpose, it was unlimited in its power.
Another common misunderstanding regarding the doctrine of limited atonement is that it somehow lessens or decreases the love of God for humanity. But once again, the exact opposite is true. Of all of the doctrines of grace, the doctrine of limited atonement, when properly understood, amplifies the love of God; it does not decrease it. Limited atonement reinforces the intense love of God that is revealed in the Scriptures. God loves His people with a love that saves them from their sin, as opposed to the love in the unlimited atonement view which portrays God’s love as being more general in nature. In the unlimited atonement view, He loves everyone in a general sense but saves no one in particular and, in fact, leaves the issue of their salvation up to them. Which do you find more loving, a love that actually saves people or a love that makes salvation “possible” to those who are dead in trespasses and sins and are incapable of choosing God?
One of the main arguments used against limited atonement is that, if Christ did not atone for the sins of everybody in the world and only intended to save the elect, how do you explain the numerous Scripture passages that appear to offer the gospel to “whosoever will come?” How can God offer salvation to all, including those He has not elected or foreordained to be saved? How can we understand the paradox that arises because the Scriptures teach God intends that only the elect will be saved, but, on the other hand, Scriptures also declare that God freely and sincerely offers salvation to everyone who will believe (Ezekiel 33:11; Isaiah 45:22; 55:1; Matthew 11:28; 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 22:17)? The answer to this seeming paradox is simply a recognition of all that the Scriptures teach: (1) the call of the gospel is universal in the sense that anybody that hears it and believes in it will be saved; (2) because everyone is dead in trespasses and sin, no one will believe the gospel and respond to it in faith unless God first makes those who are dead in their trespasses and sins alive (Ephesians 2:1-5). The Scriptures teach that “whosoever believes” will have eternal life and then explains why some believe and some do not.
Another argument used against limited atonement points to the Scripture passages that speak of Christ’s atonement in a more general or unlimited sense. For example, in 1 John 2:2 John says that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the “whole world.” Also, in John 4:42 Jesus is called the “Savior of the world” and in John 1:29 is said to “take away the sin of the world.” Other verses that appear to imply an unlimited view of the atonement include 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “He died for all” and 1 Timothy 2:6: “He gave Himself a ransom for all” (although Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 say Christ came to “give His life a ransom for many”). Those who believe in unlimited atonement use these kinds of verses to make the point that, if Christ died for all and takes away the sins of the world, then His atonement cannot be limited to only the elect. However, these verses can be reconciled with the many other verses supporting the doctrine of limited atonement by simply recognizing that Scripture frequently uses the words “world” and “all” in a limited sense. The passages do not automatically mean “every single person in the entire world.” This is clear when just a few verses are looked at. In Luke 2:1 we see that a “decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered,” and Luke 2:3 says, “So all went to be registered everyone to his own city.” But, clearly, that is not talking about every single person in the whole world. Caesar’s decree was not meant for the Japanese, Chinese or numerous other people throughout the world.
Similarly, the Pharisees, being troubled with the growing popularity of Jesus, said, “Look how the whole world has gone after Him!” Did every single person in the world follow Jesus? Or was the “world” limited to a small area of Palestine where Jesus preached?
It should be unquestionably clear that the phrase “all” or “all the world” does not necessarily mean every single person. Understanding that fact allows one to view each of these seemingly universal passages in their proper contexts, and, when that is done, it becomes obvious that they do not present any conflict with the doctrine of limited atonement.
Still another argument against limited atonement is that it is an obstacle to preaching the gospel and to evangelism in particular. Those who use this argument will say that if an evangelist cannot say, “Christ died for you,” then his effectiveness in presenting the gospel will be limited. Or they will say that, if only the elect will be saved, why should the gospel be preached at all? Again, these objections can easily be handled. The gospel is to be preached to everyone because it is the power of God to salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16), and it is the means that God has ordained by which the elect will be saved (Romans 10:14-17). Also, the evangelist does not need to tell the unbeliever that “Christ died for your sins,” specifically. All they need to proclaim is that Christ died to pay the penalty for sin and provide a way for sinners to be reconciled to God. Believe in Him, and you will be saved. Besides, stating “Christ died for your sins” is an issue of semantics in this regard. That phrase can be used in a general sense of “you” just as the Scriptures use “world” in a general sense.
The doctrines of grace, and in particular the doctrine of limited atonement, empower evangelism instead of hindering it. Embracing these incredible biblical truths allows one to boldly and clearly proclaim the good news of the gospel, knowing that the power is not in our presentation or in the ability of the audience to understand it or desire to believe it, but, instead, rests entirely on an all-powerful God who has determined to save people from every tribe, tongue and nation. Belief in unlimited atonement, on the other hand, presents many logical and Scriptural problems. First, if the atonement was truly unlimited, then every person would be saved as all of their sins, including the sin of unbelief, would have been paid for by Christ on the cross. However, such a universalist view is clearly not biblical, as the Scriptures are very clear that not all people are saved or will be saved. Therefore, both the Arminian and Calvinist believe in some sort of limited atonement:
The Arminian limits the effectiveness of the atonement in saying Christ died for all
people but not all people will be saved. This view of the atonement limits its power
as it only makes salvation a possibility and does not actually save anyone. On the
other hand, the Calvinist limits the intent of the atonement by stating that Christ’s
atonement was for specific people (the elect) and that it completely secured salvation
of those whom He died for. So, all Christians believe in some sort of limited atone-
ment. The question, then, is not whether the Bible teaches a limited atonement but
how or in what sense the atonement is limited. Is the power of the atonement limited
in that it only makes salvation a possibility, or is its power to save unlimited and it
actually results in the salvation of those whom God intended to save (the elect, His
sheep)? Does God do the limiting, or does man? Does God’s sovereign grace and
purpose dictate the ultimate success or failure of the redemptive work of Christ, or
does the will of man decided whether God’s intentions and purposes will be realized
(www.gotquestions.org, “Limited Atonement” – is it biblical?).
A serious problem with unlimited atonement is that it makes redemption just a potential or hypothetical act. An unlimited atonement means that Christ’s sacrifice is not effective until the sinner does their part in believing. In this view, the sinner’s faith is the deciding factor as to whether Christ’s atonement actually accomplishes anything. If the doctrine of unlimited atonement is true, then it has Christ dying for people the Father knew would not be saved and it has Christ paying the penalty for the sins of people who would also have to pay the penalty for the same sin. This would make God unjust. Either God punishes people for the sins that Christ atoned for, or Christ’s atonement was somehow insufficient in that it does not aptly cover all the sins of those who He died for. The problem with this view becomes even clearer when one considers that at the time Christ died on the cross there were already sinners that had died who will face the wrath of God in hell for their sin. Logically, it makes no sense for God the Father to have Christ atone for sins of people who were already suffering the wrath of God for their sin. Where is the justice in punishing Christ for the sins of those that were already being punished for their sins? This also shows that an unlimited atonement cannot be a substitutionary atonement.
Another problem with the unlimited atonement viewpoint is that it belittles the righteousness of God and destroys the basis of a believer’s assurance. An important part of a believer’s assurance is that God is righteous and that He will not nor cannot punish sin twice. So, the sin that is covered by Christ’s blood can never be charged to the sinner’s account. Yet that is what a universal atonement inevitably leads to. Christ is punished for the sins of those that are not saved, and then they are also punished in hell for the same sins.
Unlimited atonement says that, while Christ does incredible things to bring salvation to His people, His death on the cross did not actually secure that salvation for anyone. Christ’s death is not enough in and of itself to save lost people, and, in order for His atoning work to be effective there is a requirement that sinners themselves have to meet. That requirement is faith. For humanity to be saved, they must add their faith to Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Therefore, the effectiveness of the atonement is limited by humanity’s faith or their lack thereof. On the other hand, limited atonement believes that Christ’s death and resurrection actually secures the salvation of His people. While God does indeed require faith of His people, Christ’s death even paid for the sin of our unbelief, and, therefore, His death meets all requirements for our salvation and provides everything needed to secure the salvation of God’s people including the faith to believe. In other words, God requires faith of His people, however, he supplies that very thing He requires. That is pure unconditional love, a salvation that is by grace alone through Christ alone. Christ plus absolutely nothing equals salvation – an atonement so thorough and complete that it secures everything required for salvation, including the faith that God gives us in order to believe (Ephesians 2:8).
Limited atonement, like the other doctrines of grace, upholds and glorifies the unity of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit working in unison for the purpose of salvation. These doctrines build upon one another. The doctrine of total depravity defines what the Scriptures teach about the spiritual condition of unregenerate man and leaves one with the question “Who can be saved?” The doctrine of unconditional election answers the question by declaring God’s sovereign choice in choosing to save people in spite of their depravity and based entirely on God’s sovereign choice to redeem for Himself people from every tribe, tongue and nation. Next, the doctrine of limited atonement explains how God can be perfectly just and still redeem those sinful people and reconcile them to Himself. The only solution to the depravity of humanity was for God to provide a Savior who would act as their substitute and suffer the wrath of God for their sins. He did this in the death of Christ, who, having been crucified, completely and totally “canceled the written code, with its regulations,that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14, NIV). That brings us to another question: how can a spiritually dead sinner who is hostile to God have faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross? That question is answered by the doctrine in the TULIP acronym known as irresistible grace, the “I” in the acronym. This will be the topic of the next article in this series.
Copyright 2013 Jeffrey D. Hagan. All rights reserved.