The doctrines of grace: Limited atonement
The doctrine of limited atonement is perhaps the most misunderstood and maligned of the doctrines of grace. There are those who call themselves “four-point Calvinists” who reject this doctrine. At the same time, while it is the central point of the five, it is also in many ways the central point of the gospel, for it details Christ’s purpose on the cross.
The doctrines of grace thus far have determined who needs to be saved: man, who, totally depraved, is entirely unable to contribute any good thing to his salvation. They have also determined who has done the saving: God, by virtue of his unconditional election, has purposed to save a people. The question that naturally follows is, how is salvation accomplished? Enter the doctrine of limited atonement.
Once again, it is necessary to carefully define our terms here. The complaint levelled against limited atonement has to do with the word “limited.” It is suggested by critics that Calvinism somehow limits the power of God to save people. But that is not at all what the doctrine of limited atonement highlights. While Calvinism teaches that the atonement was limited to a particular group, it was not any inadequacy in God’s ability to save that determined that limit. Rather, it was God’s specific design to save only a limited number of people.
Every Christian believes that Christ died to bear sins and procure salvation. The question is, whose sins did he bear, and whose salvation did he procure? There are three possible answers to this question.
- Jesus died to save all men without distinction.
- Jesus died to save no one in particular.
- Jesus died to save a particular people.
The first view is that of universalism. Universalists teach that Jesus died to save everyone and that, ultimately, everyone will be save. To be sure, some will need to be given post-mortem opportunity to receive Christ, but ultimately all will do so and eternity will be populated by everyone who ever lived.
The second view is that propounded by the Arminianists. They hold that Jesus died to make salvation possible for all, but that he did not die for a particular people. Though they would balk at the suggestion, they really believe that he died to save no one in particular. Salvation is available to all, and everyone is therefore a potential recipient of God’s grace, but until a person believes the gospel is ineffectual for him. Technically, then, there was the possibility that everyone would reject the gospel, but of course (according to Arminianism) that wouldn’t happen because God foresaw that many would believe.
The third view is the Calvinistic one. Calvinists hold that God elected a particular group of people and that Jesus died for that particular people. The atonement was limited by God’s election. Jesus died not to make salvation possible for all, but to make it certain for God’s elect. He paid their debt, satisfied the Father’s justice on their behalf, and imputed his righteousness to them so that they are complete in him.
Once again, because of the misunderstanding surrounding the word “limited,” many Calvinists prefer to speak of “particular redemption” rather than “limited atonement.” Christ died to save a particular number of sinners: those chosen in him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4); those whom the Father had given to him (John 17:9); the “many” for whom he had shed his blood (Matthew 26:28).
Limited atonement alone does justice to the purpose of Christ on earth. God promised that Jesus would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Jesus loved the church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). Paul said that he “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The “our” in this verse—whoever they are—will certainly be the recipients of justification, for Christ will not fail in the purpose that he came to accomplish.
Isaiah 53:11 prophesies that the Servant of the Lord would “justify many” by bearing “their iniquities.” And he would be “satisfied” seeing this work accomplished.
The usual objection to this doctrine is that the Bible sometimes speaks of salvation in terms of “the world.” For example, the famed John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Does that not mean that he died for the whole world? If that is the case, then you must necessarily take the same meaning for “the world” in v. 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” If “the world” means every single person who has ever lived, then we must conclude from v. 17 that the universalists are correct, and the entire world will be saved through him.
However, if we understand that the use of the term “the world” in the Bible does not usually mean every single person who has ever lived, it begins to make sense. For example, at the triumphal entry Jesus was met by a throng of Jews, leading the Pharisees to conclude, “Look, the world has gone after him” (John 12:19). Did they mean that every single individual in the world was following him? Hardly! More often than not, “the world” speaks of all kinds of people: Jews and Gentiles alike.
The overriding question must always be one of divine intention. Did God intend to save all people without distinction? If he did, then the work of Christ on the cross was only a partial success, for many have died without receiving him. But if God only intended to save a limited number of people, then the work of Christ on the cross achieved what it was intended to achieve. As Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
Jesus certainly died to pay a debt. The question is, whose debt: the world’s, or the elect’s? Calvinism teaches that he died to save a limited number (the elect), and his work on the cross will secure the salvation of those for whom he died.