Limited Atonement

revised from original article printed in PCC Bulletin vol. 2, no. 19 dated 5 Nov 2000

This third point of Calvinism (2nd Head of the Canons of Dort), is perhaps the most debated point on the doctrine of salvation in the modern church. But interestingly, the Arminian article on this point is the most explicit of the 5 articles of the Remonstrance:

That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (Remonstrance, Art. II).

Understandably, this article,—that Christ died for the world without exception,—would be affirmed by almost all professedly evangelical churches around the world since the majority of such churches (esp. in America) are Arminian. But to complicate the matter, there are those who profess to be Calvinistic and fundamental who would also defend the Arminian doctrine on this point. This is particularly true of churches that are professedly Dispensational (see PCC Bulletin, vol. 1, issue 51). And to further complicate the matter, there are also churches that claim to be Reformed and Calvinistic which would either agree to this statement wholesale or adopt an Amyraldian position (see PCC Bulletin, vol. 1, issue 7). Often this capitulation to Arminianism is through the influence and infiltration of Dispensationalism into the churches. But be that as it may be, the doctrine of Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption is often so abhorred in various fundamental churches that members who hold to them find it impossible to continue in fellowship and membership.

But all these are really not that important. What is important is whether the doctrine is biblical. If it is we must hold on to it tenaciously and preach it unashamedly. If it is not, then we must reject it and denounce it.

It is my contention that the Canons is right: Christ did not die for the world to save the world without exception (Universalism), neither did He die for the world to make man saveable (Arminianism), nor did He die hypothetically for the world, though actually for the elect (Amyraldism).

Note that when we speak of Limited Atonement, we are not saying that the Atonement is limited in power, we are saying that the purpose of Christ’s atonement is specifically for the salvation of His elect alone. It is not intended for the reprobates. To put it in another way, we are saying that Christ suffered and died in the place of His elect (i.e. a substitutionary death; cf. Heb 9:28) to pay the penalty of their sin, to satisfy the justice and wrath of God and to reconcile them to God (i.e a propitiatory death, cf. Rom 1:18). This is achieved by a double imputation on the Cross, for there the sin of the elect throughout the ages was imputed to Christ who paid the penalty due by His suffering and death (Isa 53:4, 6, 11; 1 Pet 2:24; Col 2:14; Heb 9:28); and there the righteousness of Christ merited throughout His perfectly righteous life was imputed to the elect (cf. Rom 3:22, 5:17).

The intent of His death was the salvation of His elect alone, and therefore the extent (i.e. for whom) of His atonement is the elect alone. There is no real difference between the intent and extent of the atonement as some have of late promoted. Calvinists may differ on the doctrine of the Well-Meant offer of the Gospel, but that should be treated as a different, though related subject. 

We shall proceed to demonstrate that the doctrine of Limited Atonement is Scriptural in a few steps. First, we must show that logically only Limited Atonement makes sense. Second, we must show that the Scripture clearly teaches that Christ did not die for everyone without exception, and thirdly, we must answer some objections to the doctrine.

1. Logical Derivation of the Doctrine

In the first place, arguing from the integrity of the 5 points of Calvinism, we note that (1) all men are totally depraved and will die in sin unless God intervenes; and (2) God has unconditionally elected some to salvation. Putting these two points together, we must infer that God wills and desires the salvation only of the elect, and therefore, it stands to reason that Christ who is God, died only to save the elect.

In the second place, we note that God is perfectly just and will punish all sins. Either they are punished in Christ (for those whom He represents) or they will be punished in the sinners themselves (for the reprobate). This being the case, if Christ died for all the sins of all men, all men will be saved. On the other hand, if He did not die for any one sin of any individual, that individual will have to pay for the sin himself with eternal death: for every sin against an infinite God is worthy of eternal death. The great puritan John Owen put the argument across beautifully:

God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either [1] all the sins of all men, or [2] all the sins of some men, or [3] some sins of all men. If the last [3], some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved… If the second [2], that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first [1], why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief, they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died from partaking of the fruit of His death? If He did not, then did He not die for all their sins (The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [BOT, reprinted 1959], 61-2).

The Arminian concept of the death of Christ that it simply makes salvation possible, really means that Christ’s death is not sufficient for the salvation of anyone. This is “Limited Atonement” where the limit is not on whom Christ died for, but on the power and value of the death of Christ!

In Arminianism, the atonement of Christ is like a great wide bridge that reaches half-way across, but for the Calvinist, the atonement is like a narrow bridge that reaches all the way across.

2. Biblical Evidence for the Doctrine

The Biblical evidence for Limited Atonement can be classed under two categories:

a. Passages Showing that Christ
Did Not Die for Everyone

We have an indication in the Old Testament that the Lord would die only for a limited number of people. In particular, the Prophet Isaiah in speaking about the substitutionary death of Christ tell us that Christ shall “justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa 53:11). In other words, Christ will justify many by bearing their iniquities, which also means He would not bear the iniquity of everyone.

Thus, the Lord Jesus himself, taught His disciples: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). He did not give His life a ransom for all, but for many. Then when instituting the Lord’s Supper He declares: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt 26:28).

Who is the ‘many’ that the Lord refers to? The Lord leaves us without doubt that it is His sheep or His elect: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15). It is clear that by “the sheep”, the Lord is referring to His sheep, for He goes on to rebuke those who are not His: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep” (Jn 10:14-15). Christ, by His own testimony died for His sheep, His people, the elect. Those who are not His sheep are not the elect, and will not believe.

The same thought of particularlism in the redemption purchased by Christ is echoed by the apostles. Paul declares: “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:31b-32). Who is this ‘us’? Paul does not leave us to guess: It is the elect of God, for he continues: Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth” (Rom 8:33).

In another passage, Paul seeking to encourage husbands to love their wives to the point of being willing to die for them, urges: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph 5:25). Christ did not lay down His life for the world, but for His bride, the Church.

This explains why the Lord specifically indicates in His High Priestly Prayer that He does not pray for everyone, but for as many as have been given to Him, i.e. His elect:

2 As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.… 9 I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. … 20 Neither pray I for these [i.e. those who have already believed] alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word” (Jn 17:2, 9, 20)

It would be absurd to think of Christ dying an agonising death for everyone in the world and then refusing to pray for them. It has to be that He is not concerned to save the world, but to save His elect whom He died for, and so continues to intercede for them and them alone (cf. Heb 7:14-15).

b. Passages Showing Christ Died to Save,
Not to Make Salvation Possible

The Lord Jesus Christ affirms emphatically that His mission was to save the lost: “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (Mt 18:11; Lk 19:10). Never does He say that He came to make sinners saveable. The apostles, accordingly, refers to the work of Christ in definite terms.

Thus, the apostle Paul declares: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15); and “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10).

Thus, the apostle Peter affirms: “[Christ Himself] bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1Pet 2:24; cf. 1 Pet 3:18).

Thus, the writer of Hebrews is emphatic that Christ had already obtained salvation for us with the completion of His sacrifice of Himself: “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb 9:12).

Notice how the apostles use the past tense in these verses to indicate that the work of redemption is complete and our salvation depends on nothing else.

Someone may object: “But if Christ came to make salvation possible, it would also be right to say that he came to save sinners, just as a man who throws a life-buoy to a drowning person is said to be his saving his life.”

But one thing must be borne in mind: There is a colossal difference between a drowning man and a man dead in sin. A man dead in sin cannot help himself. If Christ merely made salvation possible, he would never be saved. 

If Christ came to save, and the salvation of the sinner depends on nothing else but what Christ has done in suffering and dying for them, then it follows that Christ must have died only for a limited number of sinners, for, obviously, not every sinner is saved. Indeed, if Christ died for everyone without exception, then God would be unjust to punish any sinner for their sin, for it would mean that He would be punishing them twice: once in Christ, and another time in themselves. Moreover, the idea would make God self-contradictory, for in Christ “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col 2:9).

3. ‘Problem’ Passages

We have seen how the Scriptures clearly, consistently and logically show that the atonement of Christ is limited by design. However, there are admittedly, several texts in the Scripture, which appear to speak of the death of Christ in universalistic terms. In this section, we must briefly deal with some of these passages. In the interest of space, we shall not quote the verses, but do request our readers to looks them up in the Bible.

a.  John 1:29, 3:16, 4:42;
1 John 2:2, 4:14

Arminians and those with Arminian tendencies will often cite these verses and simply declare that “God loves the world and Christ died for the world”—by which they mean every person who ever lived. But these verses are easily explained by the fact that the word ‘world’ (kovsmo") has at least 8 different meanings in the New Testament. For example, in Luke 2:1, “the world” obviously referred to the Roman world under the rulership of Caesar Augustus; in Acts 17:24 it refers to the entire created order; and in John 15:18, it obviously refer to the unbelieving world. In fact, one need only to examine the 187 times the word kovsmo" occur in the New Testament to realise that it very seldom refers to “every single human being who ever live” (such as in Rom 3:19). Anyone who tries to use the word ‘world’ or kovsmo" to speak about Christ dying for everyone without exception, is simply grasping at straws.

What is the meaning of the word ‘world’ as used by the apostle John in all the passages? Well, it cannot be “world without exception.”  If this is the meaning in John 1:29 or 1 John 2:2, then God would be guilty of injustice if He punishes anyone in Hell, for Christ would have made them in the sight of God not-guilty by taking away their sin. If John 3:16 refers to the world without exception, then we must conclude that God loves all who are in hell being punished for their sin, and that passages such as Romans 9:13 and Psalm 11:5 are wrong. Again, if John 4:42 and 1 Jn 4:14 refers to the world without exception, then we must conclude that Christ failed in His mission because it is evident that not the whole world is saved.

Some very good sound Calvinistic theologians such as John Owen, John Gill, A.W. Pink, George Gillespie, Samuel Rutherford, Herman Hanko, etc, hold that ‘the world’ in these passages refers to the “world of the elect.” This view has merits and fits very well with the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Personally, however, I prefer to see it as “world without distinction organically considered.” That is to say that God loves the world which comprises Jews and Gentiles because of the Jewish and Gentile elect in her.

As an illustration, I may say: “I love Aunty Amy’s bakes” even though when it comes down to the details, some of her cakes and bread are awful to me. You see, I can say I love her bakes and will go out of the way to get them because she makes my favourite cakes and breads, so that overall, she is my favourite baker. In other words, I am really using the term bakes to encompass cakes and bread. I don’t want to say: “I love Aunty Amy’s cakes” because I really love some of her bread too. And as my emphasis is on the fact that I really enjoy those of her cakes and bread apart from those I dread, I speak of all her bakes collectively or organically.

The same is true, I believe, with the Lord’s use of the word ‘world’ that we are considering. The point is that God has a great love for the elect both amongst the Jews as well as the Gentiles. God does not love every Jew or Gentile, but because He has His elect amongst the Jews and Gentiles, He speaks of loving the world or more specifically, the world without distinction, organically considered. This interpretation  appears to me to fit better into the contexts of the passages. 

For example, John 4:42 is a statement made by the Samaritans to indicate that Christ is the Saviour not only of the Jews, but Samaritans and Gentiles as well (contrast with Jn 4:42). Moreover, if John 3:16 refers to the “world of the elect” then it seems superfluous for the Lord to say: “whosoever believeth in him should not perish,” for all the elect will certainly believe. The fact is that the statement makes no direct mention of the elect, but only that God’s love is not confined to the Jews. It is true that God’s love ultimately rests only upon the elect, but this is a proposition that must be found in other passages. And again, note how 1 John 2:2 parallels the prophetic statement of Caiaphas that: “Jesus should die for that nation [Israel]; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad [i.e. the elect of God in the other nations in the world]” (Jn 11:51-52). Caiaphas was prophetically saying that Christ would be the propitiation for sins of the elect in Israel: and not for only for them, but also for the sins of the elect of God in other nations.

b. 1 Timothy 2:4, 4:10

In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul intimates that “[God] will have all men to be saved.” Likewise in 1 Timothy 4:10, he speaks of the “living God” as “the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.”

As such, these two verses are also commonly used to mean that God desires to save all men, and that the only reason why not all men are saved is because God has left the final decision to man.

We must understand, however, that “all men” in 1 Timothy 2:4 does not refer to all men without exception. We can be sure of this, for in the immediate context, Paul makes it clear that “all men” refers to all classes of men. He says in the first 2 verses—

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1 Tim 2:1-2).

On the other hand, the context of 1 Timothy 4:10 suggests that Paul is not there referring to salvation from sin and Satan, else the verse would suggest that “all men” are in a certain sense saved. We agree with Calvin that:

…the word swth;r is here a general term, and denotes one who defends and preserves. He means that the kindness of God extends to all men. And if there is no man who does not feel the goodness of God towards him, and who is not a partaker of it, how much more shall it be experienced by the godly, who hope in Him? (in loc).

c. 2 Peter 3:9

This well-known verse reads: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

It is not difficult to see how this would often be cited by Arminians to prove that Christ died for all men. For if, as it appears, God desires for all without exception come to repentance, then Christ must surely have Christ died for all.

However, if that is the case, then the verse would either imply universal salvation since God can and does carry out His will, or it would imply that Christ will never return! If the Lord has delayed His return because He is not willing that anyone in the world should perish, then wouldn’t He never return. After all, if Christ should return at any point, then every unbeliever at that moment will perish regardless of whether they have already been given sufficient time to repent or not.

What then? Well, the fact is that the words ‘all’ and ‘any’ in the verse is clearly restricted by the pronoun ‘us.’ Peter is clearly referring to believers (and by extension all the elect) when he says “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise… but is longsuffering to us-ward” (cf. 2 Pet. 1:1-4; Acts 2:39). Indeed, what Peter is saying is that the Lord is not willing that any of the elect should perish, and therefore, He will return only after the full number of the elect has been effectually called.

d. Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22;
2 Corinthians 5:14-15

The surface reading of 1 Corinthians 15:22 and Romans 5:18 does suggest that Christ died for all. But we need not take much effort to discover that the ‘all’ in the context of both verses mean “all the elect” as contrasted with all who are represented by Adam. Likewise in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Paul is writing to encourage the believers that Christ died for them and therefore, they “should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them.” The verse would not make sense if ‘all’ refers to everyone in the world.


e. 2 Peter 2:1

This verse reads—“But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.”

On the surface, this verse appears to suggest that Christ died to purchase redemption even for the false teachers and prophets.

But again, it cannot be that anyone purchased by Christ could perish (Rom 8:34-35). Scripture must interpret Scripture, and no interpretation must contradict another interpretation, for all Scripture is given by inspiration of God. Therefore, it is imperative that we find an interpretation that is consistent with whatever else has been established as true. With this in mind, one compelling interpretation for 2 Peter 2:1 is that Peter is actually using an ad hominem  argument rather than stating a doctrinal proposition. By this argument, he is suggesting that the false teachers actually claim that Christ bought them too.

Conclusion

We have shown that Limited Atonement is a biblical doctrine. The Arminian, rather than having an atonement that is unlimited, is really propounding an atonement of Christ that is weak and powerless to save. Worse than that, it makes God a failure because He desires to save all mankind, but His plan has largely been frustrated because the greater part of all mankind is currently suffering eternal damnation because of unbelief. In fact, if it is true that it is God’s will or desire that all mankind be saved, then He would not only be a failure, but would also be contradictory, for it is surely by the appointment of God that the greater part of all nations in Old Testament times was in darkness, and a large number of people in the world today are without any opportunity to hear the Gospel. It is no wonder that Arminianism leads so easily to liberalism. After all, the god pictured in Arminianism is an impotent god who is helpless to save. How could anyone of us knowing this fact, be apathetic as to whether Calvinism or Arminianism is right?

It has often been objected that the doctrine of Limited Atonement makes it impossible to preach the Gospel. And so it has been said that anyone who believes in Limited Atonement and cannot tell an unbelieving sinner that Christ died for him is a hyper-Calvinist. This strange definition of a hyper-Calvinist, however, rather than proving that Limited Atonement is wrong shows how far removed from the Scripture is the modern conception of Gospel preaching, for as John Owen has astutely observed:

When God calleth upon men to believe, he doth not, in the first place, call upon them to believe that Christ died for them, but that there is no name under heaven given unto men whereby they might be saved but only of Jesus Christ, through whom salvation is preached;… this one thing… is a sufficient basis and ground for all those general precepts of preaching the gospel unto all men… (The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [BOT, reprinted 1989], 186).

Having said this, it should be noted that we are not saying that Christ’s death is not sufficient, or powerful enough to save everyone if God intents to save everyone. Certainly it is. The apostle Paul said to the Ephesians: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Notice how he speaks of the blood shed as God’s blood. If this is so, then surely it is infinitely powerful.

However, since Christ did not intend for the atonement to be for anyone else other than the elect, it is superfluous and misleading to use the phrase “sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect.” Generally, those who use this phrase use it either to tone down the perceived harshness of the doctrine of Limited Atonement, or to give a pseudo-theological basis for preaching an Arminian gospel which appeals to sinners by stating that Christ died for them,—rather than simply presenting the gospel and issuing a call to repent and believe.

But really, to use the phrase would be like a personnel manager of a large company saying to all its job applicants that the company is large enough to take everyone, but only a predetermined number will be given the job. How does that help the applicants? How does it tone down the ‘harshness’ of rejection? How does it give basis for telling every applicant that they are wanted?

The fact is that in discussing Limited Atonement we are dealing with the design, extent and intent of the atonement. The question of sufficiency adds nothing to the understanding of the doctrine, but tends rather to confuse and to encourage practices that are inconsistent with it. W