Today’s blog continues a short series on the doctrines of grace. The purpose of this blog series is to give a brief primer on reformed theology, though not as brief as in the article “Is Veritas Church Reformed?” Ultimately, we believe that right thinking and right affections lead to right living. In order for us to live faithfully for Christ, we need to think rightly about God, and we need to use our affections for God. We want to view everything (and we do mean everything) through the lens of scripture.
In Calvinistic thought, it’s often useful to use an acrostic to remember the “five points” of Calvinism: TULIP
T– Total Depravity
U– Unconditional Election
L– Limited Atonement
I– Irresistible Grace
P– Perseverance of the Saints
Today we look at the third point of the acrostic, Limited Atonement.
Limited Atonement is the doctrine that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he made atonement for the sins of the elect, and only for the sins of the elect. Jesus’ death justifies the elect.
Stating it positively, there is no sin that Christ died for that was not atoned for by his death. Every person who is forgiven by Christ is completely forgiven. Jesus didn’t miss a single black spot.
Stating it negatively, Christ did not die for the sins of those who are ultimately sent to hell.
Limited Atonement from Scripture
John 10:14-15 – Jesus lays down his life for the sheep he knows, and those sheep know him.
Implication: Jesus does not lay down his life for sheep he does not know.
Ephesians 1:4 – Jesus chooses to redeem the church, and this choice happens before the creation of the earth.
Implication: Jesus doesn’t choose to redeem every human being.
John 6:37-40 – Everyone that the Father gives to the Son will come to him and he will lose none of those who come.
Implication: Everyone that the Father does not give to the Son will not come to him.
Jesus always speaks of his sheep being those the Father has given him; not those that choose him. And he always brings them to redemption.
Other Ways To Say It
If Total Depravity can be formulated by answering the question “Can people choose Jesus?” and Unconditional Election “Who does Jesus choose?”, Limited Atonement can be stated by asking, “Who did Jesus die for?”
The word “Limited” here applies to the scope of the atonement, not the extent or power of the atonement. Since “Limited” can be misunderstood as limiting the power of the atonement, many well-known theologians prefer to refer to this doctrine as “definite atonement” (as in, Jesus died for people who fall under a particular definition [elect]), or “particular redemption” (as in, Jesus’ death redeemed a particular people [the elect]).
Atonement deals with justification, which is the major reason that the Protestant Reformation ever occurred. Therefore, it is extremely important to preserve biblical doctrine. If Unconditional Election is a contentious doctrine, Limited Atonement may take the battle cake.
Limited Atonement vs. Universal Atonement
Contrasting limited atonement in most circles is the “universal atonement” view (the mainstream view of the American church), that God made justification possible for all men through the death of Jesus, but that the justification is hinged on those choosing Jesus. In other words, understanding limited atonement is contingent on understanding unconditional election. Limited atonement is a logical conclusion to unconditional election, which is why it comes third in TULIP. If we know who Jesus chooses (the elect), then we infer who Jesus died for (the elect).
Apart from “no atonement”, we are left with an atonement that either justifies all or justifies some. Most Arminian theologians see the issue with “justifying all” (universal salvation) and make an attempt at explaining it away like so:
“Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for all sin, but did not justify any. Justification occurs when a man puts his faith in Jesus, and the work of the atonement can then be applied to him. God made justification possible but did not accomplish it on the cross.”
While this sounds nuanced, Arminians are hard-pressed to find scripture which would support this view. We are told in Hebrews 10:15-18 that “where there is forgiveness, there is no longer any offering for sin“. In other words, forgiven sin needs no more offering because Jesus already paid the price. But an atoned sin means a forgiven sin. If the Arminian system is true, then people who are sent to hell are sent there for sin that Jesus already died for. After all, an Arminian says the sin was atoned for even if the sinner doesn’t believe. If this were the case, God would be unjust to punish the sinner. The atonement was already made! If this is the case, then the death of Jesus on the cross was not enough to save that sinner. This has the disturbing effect of robbing Jesus’ atonement for sin of all saving power by leaving justification in the hands of sinners. God is thwarted by sinful men. If even God’s impossible death can’t save men, why should we believe we can make our own saving decisions?
This is why John Piper says:
“Therefore, it becomes evident that it is not the Calvinist who limits the atonement. It is those who deny that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately need — namely, salvation from the condition of deadness and hardness and blindness under the wrath of God. They limit the power and effectiveness of the atonement so that they can say that it was accomplished even for those who die in unbelief and are condemned. In order to say that Christ died for all men in the same way, they must limit the atonement to a possibility or an opportunity for salvation if fallen humans can escape from their deadness and rebellion and obtain faith by an effectual means not provided by the cross.” (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-we-believe-about-the-five-points-of-calvinism#Atonement)
Letting John 3:16 deal with us
What makes Limited Atonement so troubling for some are all of the “world”, “all people”, “all men” clauses in scripture, specifically those which deal with the atonement. A very common objection to the idea of particular redemption is usually put forth with John 3:16 supporting it:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The conversation about election focuses on the “whoever“, and the conversation about particular redemption focuses on “the world.”
When somebody reads “the world,” they may be inclined to read “all men without exception.” The Greek here is actually κόσμος (KOSMOS, where we get the word “cosmos” from). Among John’s contemporaries, this word would mean something closer to “the ordered system” or “the universe.” So whoever and whatever the gospel of John is referring to here is on the scale of superlative, the largest unit of creation we have (which is “universe”). One can easily conclude (even wrongly) that “the world” means “all men without exception”. So we ought to come to a dissenter of this doctrine with understanding.
Did Jesus atone for the sins of all men without exception?
1 John 2:2 – He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Revelation 5:9 – … your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,
1 Peter 3:18 – For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,
These verses make it very clear that Christ died to save sinners, and that those sinners are in the world. 1 John 2:2 even says “for the sins of the whole world.” These verses seem to imply that Jesus died for every single person in the whole world. Let’s follow this to its logical conclusion: If God loves κόσμος (the whole creation), does this include Satan, demons, and the sins of all individuals in the world? These all fall under the term κόσμος. Did Jesus die for Satan and demons? Of course not! John 3:16 can’t be referring to the entire creation. John may be referring to specific people.
In John 17, during his high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed specifically for the disciples and those who would come to believe in him:
John 17:6 “…to the people whom you gave me out of the world”
John 17:9 “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours”
John 17:11 “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world”
John 17:20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word”
John 17:24 “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am”
This all occurred shortly before Jesus died on the cross and atoned for sin. Jesus’ prayer was specifically for the disciples and those who would come to believe in him. We are also told in 1 John 2:1-2 that Jesus is our advocate, and is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but the sins of the “whole world.” So Jesus prayed, died, and atoned for the disciples and those who would believe in Jesus, and we are told that Jesus did the same for the “whole world.” Now we need to ask:
Who or what is “the world”?
Have you ever heard “All of Roseville was there?” or “All of California is in a drought?”, or “the whole world was spinning”? These are examples of idioms. For example, had you gone to the Placer County Fair and it was packed full of people, one would not blame you for saying something like “Everybody and their mother was there.” They would even understand what you were actually saying. Now, was EVERYBODY and their MOTHER actually at the county fair? Or is the point you’re making actually “There was a great multitude of people in that midst”? Idiomatic expressions are as common today as they were then. Therefore, “the world” need not refer to “all men without exception.”
Could “the world” actually refer to “the elect”? This is a common argument in Reformed circles, but one that I personally don’t think makes sense. Every other reference in John’s writings contrasts God with “the world.” So “the world” can’t mean “the elect” in this way.
A better way to look at this is the beginning factor in the whole equation: “For God so loved the world.” God’s love in John 3:16 is contrasted with “the world”. We know that this verse is referring to fallen humanity. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the atonement (God’s giving of his only Son). God’s love plans for the atonement and accomplishes it. This means that John 3:16 doesn’t refer to the bigness of the world but the sinfulness of the world. The sinfulness of the world is great like the city of Assyria was great in its sinfulness (Jonah 3:2). God so loves the world even in its great sinfulness that He gives his only begotten son to take it from its great sinfulness to Himself. Jesus bridges the divide between the sinfulness of the world and the love of God.
How wide is the atonement?
One last thing to discuss before we conclude is the idea of an atonement that is so “limited” as to prevent many men from becoming sons of God. We must not be pessimistic about the atonement, because while the atonement is “limited” as far as for who receive the atonement, it would be a stretch to assume that doctrine precludes the possibility of salvation of the majority of mankind.
BB Warfield had this to say about John 3:16-17 :
“It is the world that God has loved with his deathless love, this sinful world of ours. And it is the world, this sinful world of ours, that he has given his Son to die for. And it is the world that through the sacrifice of his dear Son, he has saved, this very sinful world of ours. “God sent not the Son into the world,” we read, “to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:17). That is to say, God did not send his Son into the world for the purpose of judging the world, but for the purpose of saving the world—a declaration which could not be true if, despite his coming, the world were lost and only a select few saved out of it. The purposes of God do not fail.
You must not fancy, then, that God sits helplessly by while the world, which he has created for himself, hurtles hopelessly to destruction, and he is able only to snatch with difficulty here and there a brand from the universal burning. The world does not govern him in a single one of his acts. He governs it and leads it steadily onward to the end which, from the beginning, or before a beam of it had been laid, he had determined for it. As it was created for his glory, so shall it show forth his praise. And this human race on which he has impressed his image shall reflect that image in the beauty of the holiness which is its supreme trait.
The elect—they are not the residuum of the great conflagration, the ashes, so to speak, of the burnt-up world, gathered sadly together by the Creator, after the catastrophe is over, that he may make a new and perhaps better beginning with them and build from them, perchance, a new structure, to replace that which has been lost. Nay, they are themselves “the world”—not the world as it is in its sin, lying in the evil one, but the world in its promise and potency of renewed life.” (http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=160)
The “yes” in Limited Atonement
While “limited atonement” sounds like another “no” in Calvinism, we need to peer at the huge “yes“. God has not just made atonement possible; yes, he has accomplished the atonement. God has not only begun to save you; yes, he will continue to save you. God has not only forgiven your sins up to the day you confessed Christ as Lord; yes, he has forgiven you for all. All of these yes and amen’s come due to the atonement being complete and finished. Any person who has received justification from their sin will continue to receive it, because God is faithful and has atoned for the whole of the man so he could restore the whole of the man. The atonement is not piecemeal for the Christian, but entirely complete.
Oh, the height and depth of mercy!
Oh, the length and breadth of love!
Oh, the fullness of redemption,
Pledge of endless life above!
– Fanny Crosby