Limited Atonement: Is it Necessary?

Of all the controversy surrounding Reformed theology, there is no doctrine that has caused more dispute, even within the Reformed circle, than the view of limited atonement. The very phrase limited atonement comes across as something negative, as if the view had any intent to degrade the power of Christ’s atonement. The view of limited atonement, which was taught by John Owen and several other reformers, was not one that diminished the sufficiency of the atonement. On the contrary, it is so obvious in the Scriptures that Christ’s death on the cross was nothing short of an all sufficient sacrifice, and that it was complete in every way to cleanse any man from sin.

The issue is not whether the blood of Jesus had limitless power. If this were the issue, then we could easily dismiss limited atonement. In Hebrews 9:13-14 (ESV) it says, “For if the blood of goats and bullssanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Christ’s death was perfect and was without any blemish. The Spirit has empowered His sacrifice to complete the great work of purification of the flesh, and even more so than all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.

William Cowper penned these words when writing the classic hymn There is a Fountain Filled with Blood saying, “Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its pow’r, till all the ransomed Church of God be saved, to sin no more.” There is no question that Christ’s death has an amazing power to cleanse all sin as well as purify our hearts. Not only that, but it was also enough for salvation. When Jesus Christ cried out, “It is finished,” this meant that Christ’s work of atonement was complete. So, what makes limited atonement divisive?

Limited atonement essentially boils down to this: who did Christ die for? Did Christ die for all people? Or did Christ die solely for the elect? I believe that since Good Friday is approaching, it is an appropriate time to address this issue. It is no secret that this blog is Reformed (ergo the name Reformed Alliance) and that I hold to a Calvinist view of soteriology, so it should come as no surprise when I say that I firmly believe in the doctrine of limited atonement. I believe that the atonement is suffecient for all, but it is only efficient for some. Not only do I hold to those things, but I also believe that it is necessary to believe in the limited atonement in order for Christ’s death to make sense.

The Bible is very clear on the view of predestination and that God had preordained people of His choosing to salvation. However, the only way for the elect to truly have salvation, a price was to be paid for their sins. Christ was substituted in our place, and He bore the wrath of God and His curse. He did this, so that His people could be saved. This is why I prefer Dr. RC Sproul’s term definite atonement more because that is exactly what Christ’s death was. The cross was meant only for those who would come to believe in Him. In John 10:14-15 (ESV) Jesus says the following, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.” It doesn’t say that Christ lays His life down for everyone, but His own.

If Christ’s work on the cross was for all people, then that means that all were predestined and that all are His sheep. There’s no other way of seeing it. The only way for unlimited atonement to work is if one believes that everyone is predestined and their is no value in Christ’s atonement as it ultimately comes down to a person’s free will. This means that when Jesus cries, “It is finished,” it actually isn’t finished. We still have to convince the person’s mind to accept Christ’s death, and if they don’t then Christ failed. How can Christ confidently say that His work is done and yet have room for failure? That doesn’t sound like God.

When we look at the story of Noah’s Ark, we see that God gave very simple instructions to Noah: build an ark, wait for the animals, and enter the ark. God even told Noah in Genesis 6:18-19 (ESV) about what His plan was concerning who was allowed to have salvation from the flood, “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with youAnd of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female.” Notice that God didn’t say this: Build an ark and see how many people can be convinced to come on the boat with you. Did Noah still prophecy to the people? Of course and so should we, but it’s still important to know that only those who are ordained by God will actually receive the benefits of the atonement and the effectual call.

Some might think this: this doesn’t make sense! Or this: I thought God loved everyone! In Romans 9:13 (ESV) it says this phrase, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Is God capable of separating groups of people? It seems that way. What made Abraham better than all the other men at the time? The Bible says he was a man of God because He was faithful to God’s call, but it still required God’s effectual call. God can, and does, choose who will receive the full benefit of the atonement and who will not.

Even the most popular verse of Evangelical Christianity, John 3:16, is not able to escape the doctrine of limited atonement saying, “…Gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish…” God gave His son for those who would believe in Him. The very concept of marriage and its sacredness is held together by the limited atonement in Ephesians 5:25 (ESV) saying, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.” Just as Christ’s death was for His bride alone, so must men be dedicated to only one woman.

The doctrine of limited atonement is definitely controversial, and it always will be. However, I can’t help, but agree with this quote from John Owen, “I cannot conceive an intention in God that Christ should satisfy his justice for the sin of them that were in Hell some thousands of years before, and yet be still resolved to continue their punishment on them to all eternity.” If Christ died for all, then shouldn’t He have died for the people in Hell too? It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not even Scriptural.

Most people would point to 2 Peter 3:8-9 (ESV) which says, “ But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one dayThe Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Arminians and maybe even some “Calvinists” (inconsistent ones, if I may say so) would say that this proves Christ died for all, but it’s very clear that the context is about Christ’s continuing work of divine election among the Church of God. Why else would Peter use a word such as “beloved”. God doesn’t desire that any person who has been predestined to come to perish, and He will fulfill His promise on that.

Though this may be too pushy for some, I strongly desire that if you don’t hold to the view of the limited atonement to reconsider. I also would like to point out that Christ’s death was not in vain. If we believe that Christ died for all, even for those God knew would never come to salvation, then we have to recognize that God would be a failure. However, the Scriptures are clear that Christ’s sacrifice was for His sheep, His loved ones. This just goes to show that no matter how impossible something might seem, especially the justification of sinner, will be made possible with God in order for Him to be faithful to His promises.

Soli Deo Gloria.

8 Comments

  1. Jesus finished the work which was the demonstration of God’s love in action in perfecting created man (Jesus) which then had to be accepted as a reality in the believers life. Retribution and wrath are simple cause and effect on sinners who refuse to accept the life provided and choose to remain in death, they are collateral damage rather than wilful destruction. The destruction is the result of the interaction between righteousness and unrighteousness, which is what occurred within Jesus body, the conflict of Spirit and flesh.

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    1. The fundamentals of Christianity include that it is by grace we are saved. Grace comes from the Greek word “karis” & “karin”, which is defined as “unmerited favor”. If God’s love only goes to those who accept Him (which in this case, every theist is saved because they all accept God), how can God’s favor be unmerited? If God only loves those who would accept Him first, then isn’t He no better than the tax collector? Jesus asked on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:46 this question: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

      I believe that God saves us by grace, which means that He had to love us first before we even RECEIVED Him (Lordship salvation). Likewise, God would have to choose who He wouldn’t save to show His mercy and wrath at the same time. This belief is reinforced in Romans 9. Read for yourself Romans 9:19-24.

      “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will? But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

      If God saves by grace, then it has nothing to do with choice. If God is sovereign, then He has every right to freely choose who He should save, not based on any prior merit. Effectual call happens only for the elect of God, and same with the sacrifice of Christ. As for those who are not elect, they are not given the privilege. We are to understand that God does what He pleases, I can’t judge who is not elect. Rather I preach the gospel to whomever I can, and God will do the rest according to His ordained will.

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  2. “Effectual call” “happens”…seems rather ambiguous? “Vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” does not necessarily mean that God did the preparing, it says that “you are storing up for yourself…”. God does not choose “on prior merit” but on the righteousness that comes by faith exercised by individuals on the basis of the choice of the salvation put before them. Grace, unmerited favour, are processes of God’s love which is towards all men without discrimination, he wants all men to be saved, but knowing this not will be the case, then speaks of those whose preparation is towards destruction and those whose preparation is towards salvation. God advertises his love to all through the cross, it is on the basis of acceptance or rejection of that love (righteousness) that an individual’s destiny depends. Man has been given the right to decide for himself whether or not love is worth sacrifice.

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    1. I think that your understanding of faith isn’t correct. Faith is not a choice or something you exercise because it is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Corinthians 13:9). Also, if people can choose salvation then people are not saved by grace. Choosing something is a work, and for salvation to come after a person’s choice means that God merits the choice. That means salvation would no longer be under grace, but under works.
      Also, God gives common grace, but He doesn’t offer saving grace to all men. He only gives grace to those He will save, and that is His elect (John 3:16-18, Ephesians 1:4-12). It seems to me that we are just gliding over each other in this discussion. You are not addressing what grace actually is. You understand what the definition of grace is, but you change it to fit your theological understanding. You either change your theology to match the Bible, or you can simply admit you believe a false understanding of the Gospel.

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    1. No it doesn’t! That’s an entirely different context. Firstly, John was talking about why believers love God (referring to election since God had to love us first in order to love Him). Second, what I was addressing was your notion that God loves those who love Him. However, the Scripture you just quoted states clearly that it is God who brings someone to love Him, not the other way around. By quoting that passage, you are already admitting that you have an inconsistent view of Scripture and a poor interpretation.

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      1. It certainly was never my intention to convey a notion that God simply loves those who love him. I think you have got this all wrong but I understand you are caught up in this particular theology so will have to leave it with you, thanks James.

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