Limited Atonement, sometimes called Particular Redemption or Definite Atonement, is a term used for one of the main tenets of Calvinistic doctrine. If you’ve ever come across Calvinism, you might have seen the acrostic “TULIP” which stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. So, the ‘L’ in TULIP refers to Limited Atonement. This point is usually the most difficult point of Calvinism for people to accept. But I want to, in a few blogs, put forward its basic idea, and also try to resolve some difficulties people have with it; particularly by dealing with some ‘difficult’ texts.
One thing I want to emphasize before I go on is that there are many Christians who don’t accept this teaching, and that does not mean they are heretics or false believers. I accept 4-point Calvinists and Arminians of many kinds as brothers and sisters in Christ. If they love Christ, preach the same gospel, and they bear the fruit of the Spirit, I will gladly fellowship with them. Nevertheless, I do believe this teaching to be biblical, and I want people to understand and accept it if possible.
So what is the basic idea of Limited Atonement? The idea here is that Jesus died for a limited amount of people in the world. Let me break this down into two points for this first post: (1) The Logic of Limited Atonement, and (2) Some Verses for Limited Atonement.
The Logic of Limited Atonement
There is a logic to this doctrine, when we connect it with other biblical truths.
First of all is the truth of God’s sovereignty. Since God is sovereign, meaning he is the Supreme King of the Universe, and he exercises all-powerful government and control over all things, including salvation, it would make sense that he would effectively bring to pass the salvation of those people he intended to save.
Second is the truth of election. Since God has an elect people, chosen in love before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-5; Col 3:12; Rom 9:23; 1 Peter 1:1), it makes sense that it is these people that he sent his Son to die for on the cross to secure their eternal redemption.
Third is the sad truth that not all people will be saved. Historical, orthodox Christianity has always taught that not all people will be saved, but many will be punished for eternity. We teach this truth because it is clear in Scripture (Matt 7:13-14; 18:8-9; 2 Thess 1:8-9; Rev 20:15; 21:8). And since it is true that not all people will be saved, it makes sense that Jesus did not die for all people. If his atoning work was effective, and if it was performed for all people, then all people would be saved. But not all people are saved, therefore, Christ only died for those who are and will be saved.
These are three truths that connect to limited atonement logically. But sometimes our logic can be flawed (feeble-minded creatures we are!). There may be mystery in between doctrines. We cannot always understand how certain truths fit together since our knowledge is so limited. This is not to say that God’s Word is ever illogical, but it is to say that sometimes God does not give us enough information for us to understand how things fit together. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” as Deuteronomy 29:29 says. At the end of the day, we have to ask, “what do the Scriptures say?” And “does Scripture accord with what I think to be logical?”
Some Verses for Limited Atonement
In many clear verses, Jesus is said to have died for a certain, particular group of people. They are described in various ways.
The church and bride of Christ. Ephesians 5:25-27: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Here in these verses, we see that Jesus “gave himself up” (more literally “delivered himself up,” a sure reference to his death on the cross) for his bride, the church. The church does not include every single individual on the planet throughout history, nor does it include every person who attends a church on Sundays. The universal church is his people throughout all places and all times. Christ died for his church, and further sanctifies and purifies the church he died for.
His sheep. John 10:11, 14-16, 24-30: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”…So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Clearly in this passage, Jesus says that he is laying his life down for his sheep (again a reference to his death on the cross). His sheep are described as those who truly know him, believe in him, listen to him, and follow him. Jesus says that he lays down his life for them, gives them eternal life, and that they will never perish and no one will snatch them out of his or his Father’s hand. In other words, Jesus died for those who would become true believers and who would be eternally saved.
His friends. John 15:12-17: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” Jesus here says that he is laying his life down for his “friends.” These friends are further described as those who do what he commands (which includes loving one another). He is speaking to his 12 disciples in this context, one who would not do what he commanded and so was not his friend (Judas Iscariot). But the other 11 disciples did obey him and love one another, and so were truly his friends whom he died for. We may extend this truth to all those true believers who bear the fruit of faith and live according to God’s commands (Matt 7:21-27). These are his friends, whom he died for.
Many. Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This text is a bit more ambiguous, but it does tell us that Jesus died for many. There are many who will be saved because of Christ’s finished work on the cross. In fact, there will be a “great multitude that no one can number” praising God around his throne because they were washed in the blood of Christ (Rev 7:9-14). Though this “many” or “multitude” is a great number, it comes short of every single individual in the world. Jesus died for the many.
Me. Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The Apostle Paul could say confidently, “Jesus loved me and gave himself for me.” He was assured that Jesus died for him, personally. For every true believer, this is a precious truth: Jesus died for me! When he went to the cross, he did not only have me in mind, but praise be to God, I was one of those that he had in mind! I did not deserve this, I did not earn it, I do not even understand it! But I know this one thing: Jesus died for me. And this is my whole hope, my confidence, my motivation, and my glory! As the hymn says: “Why should I gain from his reward? I cannot give an answer. But this I know with all my heart: his wounds have paid my ransom.”
From these clear texts, we get a clear picture of who Jesus set his sights on when he died upon the cross: his church, his bride, his sheep, his friends, the many who will stand around his throne and worship him forever because they know this: Jesus died for me!
In the next blog I hope to explain some texts often used to argue against limited atonement. But for now, go worship and serve your King who died for you!