The following is a written response to a brother with the following question about limited atonement (that Christ died only for the elect):
Could you please clarify the extent of the atonement, limited versus unlimited? Isn't limited atonement wrong and doesn't the Bible plainly teach unlimited atonement (that Christ died for the sins of all people in the world)?
This is a very good question and has remained an issue between believers through many centuries.
Many people popularly call themselves "four-point" Calvinists
because they find the idea of a limited atonement loathsome, or believe
somehow that the Bible does not teach it. What is meant by a four-point
Calvinist? It is generally understood to mean that an individual claims
to believe in total depravity, unconditional election,
irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints but
not limited atonement (dropping the "L" in limited atonement)
in TULIP (TU-IP). What is interesting about this, however, is that everyone
involved actually believes in a limited atonement since we can all agree
that Christ did not actually redeem everyone who ever lived. There will
be some who end up in the lake of fire according to both positions.
The question, therefore, is not whether there is a "limit"
to the extent of the atonement, but rather, what is the nature of the
limit and who limits it? Is it limited by God's choice and design or
by free human choices? Did God, from eternity, sovereignly determine
to whom He would apply the benefits of the atonement, or did God leave
it to man's will? This is why I generally like to call my position "particular
redemption" rather than limited atonement since both sides ultimately
limit the application of the atonement.
If you ask one of these brothers or sisters, "for whom did Christ die?" they will generally answer something like this: "the Bible plainly teaches that Christs death and His work of redemption was not only sufficient for the entire world, but that He actually died for the sins of all the world." They will back their position with this verse from 1 John 2:2 - "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." ...as well as John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (And leave it there as if this settles the argument).
Unfortunately this view leaves an island of righteousness in man to be able to believe the Gospel without the aid of the regenerating grace which Christ purchased on the cross. It follows that those who hold to an general atonement believe the one sin for which Christ did not die is rejection of His person and work (they will cite John 3:18,36). [Some readers have claimed that I am setting up a straw man here but this is actually the position (word for word) currently being taught by such institutions as Dallas Theological Seminary. Anyone wishing to take issue with me here I have evidence of this and will gladly provide it upon request.] So if, as they claim, that Christ did not die for our unbelief, then who did?
What many are, in fact, teaching is that Christ did not die for ALL THE SINS of the whole world, since they have excluded the sin of unbelief. In other words they claim that Christ died for our breaking of the 2nd through 10th commandments in the decalogue but not the first commandment. So, the obvious question to answer here is "who, then, dies for our sin of unbelief?" Do we atone for it ourselves? Does God overlook our former unbelief because the sincerity of our newly found faith makes up for our previous unbelief? Does the atonement for sins of unbelief kick in only after we unlock the door by "accepting Jesus into our hearts?" It is my contention that Christ died for all our sins including the sin of unbelief. If you agree with me yet believe in a universal atonement then why are there still people in hell? If all men's unbelief has been paid for then then all sin has been forgiven - there is nothing left to forgive and we would then have universalism. But 1 John 3:23 teaches "And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ." To disobey this command is a sin, and the greatest sin of all I might add. A question to ask yourself is did Christ pay for this sin or not?
It is not quite apparent to me why the text of John 3:16 should be
an argument against limited atonement. The passage does not say Jesus
died for everyone, but only that the Father gave his Son for ALL
THOSE WHO WOULD BELIEVE. It says, "WHOEVER BELIEVES
in HIM shall not perish but have eternal life." Right? Don't
we all believe this? That is why the consistent biblical Calvinists,
when presenting the gospel to unbelievers, simply teach that Christ
died for "all who would believe", which is actually
closer to the meaning of this text than the erroneous position that
He died for all in a general kind of way, and yet for no individual
in particular. Instead, we believe that the benefits of the atonement
will apply only to who will be believers, so he did not die for any
person who would remain steadfast in their unbelief. So I would argue
that John 3:16 actually supports the definite atonement position better
than the indefinite position. They are reading into the text that Christ's
death only potentially will save someone if they believe without the
help and grace of the cross to do so. So in actuality, Christ died for
no one in particular this scheme. His affection was only cast forth
in a general impersonal kind of way rather then actually coming for
His people who He set his affection on from eternity.
In fact, this teaching comes full circle and devastates all of the other doctrines of grace. Although claiming to believe in Total Depravity, the teaching of the so-called four-point Calvinists is really that man still has the moral ability to turn to God on his own without regenerating grace (a grace purchased on the cross) effectively destroying total depravity, even though the Bible plainly teaches that no one seeks God unless first born again (1 John 5:1; John 6:37, 39, 44, 63-65; Rom 3:11. 1 Cor 2:14, John 1:13; John 3). That is to say, natural fallen man has the ability and desire (in some cases) to believe in Christ without regenerating grace. It is teaching a "conditional" election since it depends completely on God's foreknowledge of whether or not we will have faith, even though the Bible plainly teaches that election is not conditioned on something God sees in us and that faith is a divine gift (Eph 2:5-8). So in effect WE end up choosing God with our autonomous free will in this scheme, not the other way around. Those who deny limited atonement are also surreptitiously semi-pelagian in all the other doctrines of grace as well. Salvation becomes the work of man, rather than a monergistic divine work of grace. Some may argue that God's grace works together with man, but the problem with this is that it still leaves the final decision for salvation in the hands of man. Faith, apart from Christ's work on the cross, precedes saving grace in this view, contrary to everything the Bible teaches (ROM 9:16; John 1:13). God's grace would take us part of the way to salvation leaving man's will to make the final decision. So, according to those who claim that the atonement is unlimited (indefinite) there is no divine election in the final analysis, but only humans electing God even though we all know that it is God that chooses us (John 15:16).
The biblical teaching is that God, before the foundation of the world in His eternal counsels, knew and determined to whom He would apply the benefits of the atonement? (2 Timothy 1 9, Titus 1:2; Eph 1:4,5)
What does "that of all He has given Me I lose nothing" mean except that God, in His eternal councils had already determined who would be written in the book of life and that Jesus Christ came to earth in time to carry out their eternal redemption. Is Jesus' purpose not in sync with God the Fathers' and God the Holy Spirits'? God the Father elects certain individuals and the Holy Spirit regenerates them. Does the Son have a different redemptive agenda? No, the three Persons of the Trinity are always consistent with one another. If you believe in election, which you do unless you have torn out almost every page of your Bible, then you must believe that that Christ came to redeem His elect, and the Holy Spirit applied the benefits of the atonement only on those the Father had "given" Christ. It means that He will infallibly bring His own into His eternal kingdom. I hear someone say "but that's not fair" ... does God owe you anything my friend? Is He your debtor? The only debt He owes you is His just wrath. His choosing of you is an act of His mercy, an act of His divine good pleasure (Eph 1:4,5).
Before we get to 1 John 2:2 lets familiarize ourselves with some other biblical texts on this crucial issue:
First Take a look at these passages of Scripture:
"Worthy are You to take the book and to
break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your
blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."
Revelation 5:9 (emphasis mine)
"...and not through the blood of goats and
calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for
all, having obtained eternal redemption." Heb 9:12
"...who gave Himself for us to redeem us
from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His
own possession, zealous for good deeds." Titus 2:14
v.5 "...But He was pierced through for our
transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for
our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed....
v. 8 He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression
of my people, to whom the stroke was due? v.11... By His knowledge the
Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their
iniquities. v.12 ...Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded
for the transgressors." Isaiah 53:5,8,11-12
Now we come to the famous text that our "four-point" brothers put all their weight upon as teaching an unlimited atonement:
At first glance I must admit that this appears to be a pretty good text to back up their argument but upon closer examination, it falls apart. The problem is that if the four-pointers read this verse the way they intend to then we must also conclude that the whole world's sins have already been atoned for (believers and unbelievers) and thus all will be saved (universalism). If Christ is a propitiation or atonement for all men's sins, paying for all sins ever committed, then why isn't everyone in the whole world saved???? So the verse actually proves to much. The verse simply means, (and there is no doubt this is what Paul meant), Christ did not die for every person without exception but every person without distinction. . All kinds of people everywhere, is what is meant. We see this elsewhere when the Scriptures say, Christ "purchased for God with [His] blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9). Many will argue that He didn't die for our unbelief, which I believe I thoroughly discredited in my argument above. John is speaking, rather, of sins for people throughout the whole world, not each and every person's sins. There are too many problems with saying that the text includes all men (believers and unbelievers) and, as I have shown, this leads to an unbiblical universalism. Saying Christ died for the sins of the whole world is similar in the use of language in many other passages in Scripture such as Mark 1:5 which says, "And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem." If you think the "all in this passage means every single person without exception, you have missed the point, it means large numbers of people; all persons without distinction, but not all persons without exception.
Christ died for all of the sins of His elect, including their previous sin of unbelief. Belief in the Gospel does not make up for our previous sin of unbelief. Belief (faith) is the witness that God has already wrought grace in our hearts, the inevitable response to His work of regeneration in our souls. (John 3:21) Christ clearly came to lay down His life for His sheep (John 10:11) and some people are not his sheep: "...but you do not believe because you are not my sheep." (John 10:26) Jesus prayed for His own but he would not pray for those the Father had NOT given him: "I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours." Emphasis mine (John 17:9).
This teaching does have great practical value; specifically that our prayers for the lost will be effectual. As we go out to do missions, to reach the lost, we can have confidence that we go not in vain but that we carry with us the Word of God which has the power to raise the dead to life. We don't just go in the hope that maybe someone will be saved; or that Christ died for no one in particular. But rather that He died for a particular people to make them His own. If my hope was based solely on whether someone would respond to the Gospel message by their own free will then I would despair because no one would respond (ROM 3:11. 1 Cor 2:14)... but because God has an eternal plan, a bride he has chosen for His Son, I can rejoice in the knowledge that God's word proclaimed will effectually bring home those whom he delivers the inward call. (ROM 8:28-30)
Finally, remember that it is not a question of whether or not Christ's redemption was able to cleanse the sins of all men, as we know it clearly could have if this is what He so desired. The question is what does the Bible teach about the divine intent with regard to the atonement, which I hope this short paper has answered.
Soli Deo Gloria
P.S. Historically many of the greatest minds the church has produced
were 5 pointers, not four. Some of the more well known ones were Jonathan
Edwards, C.H. Spurgeon, A.A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, John Owen, John Calvin,
George Whitfield, Thomas Goodwin and more recently, J.I. Packer, R.C
Sproul, John Piper, Iain Murray, Michael Horton, James Boice and John
The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by John Owen (Book)