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 bulls…sanctify 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 you. And 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 day. The 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.