Doctrines of Grace: Limited atonement

Probably the most controversial teaching of the Doctrines of Grace is limited atonement. So much so that many have chosen to adhere to ‘four-point Calvinism’, otherwise known as Amyraldism. But I argue that this doctrine, which says that Christ died specifically for his elect, is an indispensable tenet of Reformed theology. The first question opponents will ask is: doesn’t the Bible say that Christ died for all men?

And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15 ESV)

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2 ESV)

These verses at face value might indeed indicate that Christ died for all men. Yet this hermeneutic is flawed because it would lead us down the road of a universalist theology wherein all people are ultimately saved regardless of their state at death. Perhaps we’ll be cleansed in purgatory, perhaps we’ll have another chance to accept God when he meets us in person and we are unable to deny him? But no! Such a doctrine is false and leads only to apathy, the wide path to destruction which many tread. If we pull these verses out of context, we are also doing an injustice to God’s Word, since we are ignoring the principle of interpreting scripture with scripture and instead inserting our own ideas into the text. It is clear biblical teaching that there exist two categories of people, the righteous (those repentant sinners who are clothed in Christ’s righteousness) and the unrighteous (those who die in their sins, are condemned and sent to hell). I have also defended the doctrine previously that God sovereignly chooses the elect for salvation and hardens the reprobate.

See the word ‘world’ again in John 1:29 and compare it with another teaching in John’s gospel which demonstrates that there is an allocation, the elect, given by the Father to Christ, none of whom he will lose and all of whom he will raise up:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 ESV)

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:39 ESV)

How then are we to understand the word ‘world’ based on the whole of God’s Word? Those who believe in limited atonement face the accusation that they limit the power of Christ’s sacrifice. But I argue the opposite: if Christ’s death is truly for all men, then it is powerless! It would mean that people for whom Christ has died are nevertheless still reprobate, still being condemned and sent to hell. It would mean, effectively, a double punishment for sins, since the reprobate would have their sins not only punished in Christ – supposedly once and for all – but also in themselves, in eternal hell fire. Will we make God the violator of his own covenant? Will we deny God’s sovereignty by affirming that his decrees may fail? By no means!

When we consider the word ‘all’, we can take into account the following factors: the Greek word for ‘all’ can have the sense ‘of all kinds’; Christ is indeed the Redeemer of the world in the sense that his salvation is not limited to the tribes of Israel, but is applied to Jew and Gentile, men from every nation, tribe, people and language (Revelation 7:9). He died for all in the sense that the temple curtain is torn down, the fundamental divide between humanity and God is repaired, because Christ, fully man and fully God, is now a Mediator between us and the Father. This means that all who are in Christ have full access to God, the privilege of being a royal priesthood and restoration to a proper relationship with him.

Christ’s sacrifice is indeed sufficient for every person, sufficient to cover every single sin. Limited atonement does not deny this. If it were not for our total depravity, if every person could, and did, choose to accept the offer of salvation, hypothetically every person would be saved. This, however, is not the case: sufficient though it be, the atonement is not efficient for every person. God ‘chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him’ (Ephesians 1:4). Those whom he chose and predestined to eternal life before he even created the world are those for whom Christ explicitly died on the cross. He died for each and every one of us, who are in him, personally. We were given to him by the Father and he, our Good Shepherd, will not allow us to be lost, but has made perfect atonement and will raise us up on the last day! God’s atonement never fails. What an unmerited privilege! What a reassurance!

A note to those troubled by limited atonement

To those of you who do not believe and are inwardly troubled by the possibility that you are excluded from Christ’s atonement, then I exhort you to put your faith in Christ. If you truly believe in him, you will find that you indeed are one of those people for whom Christ made atonement.

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