A couple of months ago, we started looking at The Five Points of Calvinism, also called TULIP—Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. If you would like a review of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election, you can find the Link Articles on my website (rogermccay.org/link-articles/). This month we are looking at the doctrine of Limited Atonement.
In a nutshell, the doctrine of Limited Atonement can be stated as “Christ died only to save the elect.”[i] If one believes the Scripture’s teaching on election (cf. the September 2018 Link article on Unconditional Election), then one believes that only the elect are saved. If only the elect are saved, then Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross is, logically, only effectual for the elect. In other words, Christ’s atoning sacrifice is limited in its action, in that it atones for the sins of only a certain people.
The doctrine can be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (VIII.5):
The Lord Jesus by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself which He through the eternal spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father and purchased not only reconciliation but an everlasting inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.
Here, the limitation is expressed as “for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him” (i.e. the elect). The Canons of Dort (II.8) expressed this same limitation as being for “only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation.”
The term “Limited” in the doctrine’s name seems to throw some people off in their understanding. So, various folks prefer to use the substitute terms Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption rather than Limited Atonement. These substitute terms help to avoid the misunderstanding that the doctrine teaches that Christ’s atoning death was somehow limited in its sufficiency to save everyone. This is not what the doctrine is saying. The doctrine holds that the atonement is sufficient for the sins of the whole world (cf. The Canons of Dort II.3), but that God, according to his will, only effectively applies it to the redemption of those whom he chosen to save. The atoning sacrifice of Christ is only applied to redeem a definite and particular people.
The doctrine rejects two counter views: 1) that Christ accomplished a universal atonement where it is applied only if someone decides to believe in Jesus (the Arminian view); and 2) universalism (i.e. everyone ends up in Heaven in the end). The first view is a denial of the clear Biblical teachings of God’s sovereignty in salvation expressed in the doctrine of Unconditional Election. It also, ironically, is a statement of limited atonement, as they limit the atonement to only those “who choose to believe”—in distinction from those “God choses to believe.” The second view denies every passage of Scripture that speaks to hell, eternal punishment, and so forth, and is condemned by all theologically orthodox Christians as heresy.
There is plenty of Biblical evidence for the doctrine of Limited Atonement. For example, in Jn 10:11, Jesus says the good shepherd lays down his life specifically for the sheep. Then in Jn 10:26-29 Jesus tells us that his father gives the sheep to him (cf. Jn 6:37, 65). Further, Jesus tells those to whom he is speaking that do not believe, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” If they were of his sheep (i.e. the elect) they would believe. In Mt 1:21 it is made clear that Jesus would save his people. And, with what we see from John, his people are his sheep. He won’t save those who are not his people. The apostle Paul then clarifies that “the flock” is “the church of God, which he obtained with his blood” (cf. Eph 5:25). The church of God is made up of the chosen (Eph 1:4), chosen before the foundation of the world, the elect (Rom 8:33), whom the Father gives to the son (Jn 17:2), and who are his sheep. Outside the flock, there is no atonement for sins.
This doctrine is encouraging to our evangelistic efforts, as we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, making disciples (sheep) who come from all the nations (Mt 28:19). When we share Jesus with the lost, we will be successful. We make the offer to all people, and those whom the Father has given to the Son will believe as the result of hearing the Gospel (Rom 10:17). They will believe because they are his sheep, chosen before the foundation of the world. The atoning blood of Christ effectually atones for their sins because Christ died for each and every one of them in order to redeem them. Hence, Christ’s atonement for sin is 100% successful in accomplishing God’s plan of salvation, as everyone who is elect will be saved (Rom 11:25-26). This is why after the Lord’s return, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will stand before the throne of God and the Lamb who was slain to atone for our sins, and proclaim the glory of God in his salvation (Rv 7:9-12).