61. What does the term “limited atonement” mean, and does the bible teach it?

Does the Bible Teach it?

Here is a concise exegetical defense of "particular redemption" in the Gospel of John.

Lets notice how, in a few places, Jesus makes clear statements regarding those the Father has "given him" and join them together. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me" (John 6:37) - From this text we understand that all that the Father gives to the Son will believe in him. It does not read "some" of those given by the Father will believe but reads "all" of those the Father has given the Son will believe. Note that it also teaches that the giving to the Son precedes their believing in Him. Lets make some other connections here ....

Please notice how this text relates directly to a passage by the same author in John 17, the High Priestly prayer. Jesus uses the same language of "those the Father has given me" when he says "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 17:9) So He makes a clear distinction of those He prays for and those He does not before going to the cross for them .... and of these same people in verse 19 Jesus prays "And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth." That is incredible ... He sanctifies Himself so "those the Father has given Him" will also be sanctified ... and in verse 24 he establishes that he further is speaking not only of the immediate disciples but of others who the Father has "given him" who hear their word. This exegetically demonstrates the truth of particular redemption, especially since Jesus is praying for all those the Father has given him just prior to going to the cross to sanctify them.


What Does it Mean?

The term “limited atonement,” in its broadest sense, simply means the view that the atonement Christ provided for sins is in some way limited from the greatest possible extent it could have in theory; however, virtually every theologian believes in an atonement which is limited in some manner – all except those who believe that every person who ever lived will be finally saved and glorified. So in reality, it is an unhelpful and misleading term. In common parlance, however, it is a term used to describe the Calvinistic belief that Christ's atonement was fully effective to accomplish its design of redemption for all those for whom it was intended; but its intention was limited to the elect. This point of view is in opposition to what is commonly called “unlimited atonement,” which teaches that the intention of Christ's death was to provide redemption for everyone in the same way without exception; but the efficacy of his redemptive act is limited in its power to ensure everyone's final salvation. Christ's death, in other words, provided everything necessary for anyone's salvation besides the one conditional element of faith; but this faith was not provided by his death for anyone at all.

More Scriptural Support

The scriptural passages in support of the Calvinistic variety of limited atonement are numerous and varied: from the beginning, the bible teaches that God has always had a definite intention to redeem a certain people and not to redeem others (e.g. 1Ch 17:20-21; Mat 22:14; 1Pe 2:8-9: Ezek 36); and consistently, the bible portrays Jesus as offering himself up and likewise interceding for these people in particular, whom the Father has chosen and given to him ( Isa 53:10-11; Mat 1:21; Joh 6:35-40; 10:3-4, 11, 14-15, 17; Acts 20:28; Eph 5:25; Joh 17:1-2; 6-12; 20-21; 24-26; Rom 8:34). So the question "For whom did Christ die?" is answered by "the ones whom He represented" in his high priestly prayer in John chapter 17. Furthermore, the bible speaks of Christ's death as fully effective in securing justification ( Isa 53:11; Rom. 8:34), redemption and cleansing ( Eph 5:25-27; Tit 2:14), propitiation (that is, the complete satisfaction of the Father's wrath; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10), and resurrection to new life ( 2Co 5:14-15). The bible does not teach that Jesus' death made these things possible, but that it actually secured these things. The bible also teaches quite clearly that the death of Jesus provided the very faith necessary to apprehend the eternal blessings of the covenant. Jesus died in order to establish the New Covenant (Mt. 26:26-29, etc.); the New Covenant in Christ promised faith, repentance and knowledge of God (Jer. 31:33-34, Ez. 36:26-27, etc.); therefore, Jesus died in order to provide faith, repentance, and knowledge of God, as the fulfillment of a unilateral promise. In other words, the internal call and the atonement are coextensive, but the external call and the atonement are not. The command to repent and believe is extended, but not the internal grace to comply. They are left to their own natures, and, as a result,, do not believe, because they comply with the decree to reprobate from their own natures. This means that Christ's death had a definite purpose which was intended for some and not others. His death effectively purchased faith; not all have faith; and so his death had an effective intent that was limited to certain persons. That faith itself is provided as a covenant gift is also taught in many other passages, such as Deu 30:6; Eze 11:19-20; 36:26-27; Joh 3:27; Phi 1:29; 2Pe 1:1; Act 16:14; 18:27; Eph 2:8-10; Act 5:31; 11:18; 2Ti 2:25-26; 1Co 4:7.

A survey of all these biblical teachings makes it clear that the death of Jesus had a redemptive intent limited to the elect, and that it was fully sufficient to provide them with all things necessary for their eternal salvation, including faith and repentance. Although certain blessings may have been purchased for the non-elect at the cross, blessings of temporal forbearance, common grace, a free gospel offer, and so on, the redemptive blessings were intended only for the elect, and they were powerful enough to be fully accomplished in all of their intended subjects.

Therefore, we affirm that Christians are joined to Christ by the sovereign, merciful work of God Himself and all redemptive benefits come to us only because of our union with Christ. All these spiritual blessings flow from Christ (Eph 1:3) including regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification --- and these benefits cannot be separated from the Benefactor.

What does union with Christ have to with limited atonement?

Everything. Because if regeneration itself is a redemptive benefit given only to the elect, then Christ died in a way for the elect (redemptively, to procure the benefit of regeneration), that he did not for the non-elect. Faith presupposes the existence of spiritual life in the same way that heat presupposes the existence of fire. The redemptive benefit of regeneration gives rise to faith.

There is an economy of the Trinity behind each step of salvation. In this the Trinity works harmoniously. The Father elects a particular people in Christ, the Son redeems then and the Holy Spirit regenerates and unites the same to Christ. Think about this: Unconditional election is in Christ (eph 1:3,4). Perseverance is IN CHRIST (1 Thess 5:23, 34) and Irresistible grace is IN CHRIST (John 6:63-65; John17). In other words, the Trinity works in harmony in saving His people. The intent the Father has for electing his people is the same the Son has in redeeming them and the Spirit has in regenerating them. To reject limited atonement, by definition therefore, is to believe that the intention of the Persons of the Trinity are at odds with one another. It also makes the doctrines of grace into an abstraction for if irresistible grace (a benefit given to the elect only) does not come from the work of Christ, then where does the grace come from? If you believe it does it does then you just embraced limited atonement.

The REDEMPTIVE INTENT of God in the atonement is what is at issue in this debate. This means God not only justifies the elect for Christ's sake when people come to faith, but also raises them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith. This raising from spiritual death (Eph 2:5) is also a redemptive benefit of being joined to Christ - and benefit which Christ died to procure for His people. This means the REDEMPTIVE benefits of the atonement are particular, that is, given only to the elect. That is why we oftentimes (perhaps more properly) call this the doctrine of "particular redemption" rather than limited atonement. While there may very well may have been some non-redemptive benefits for the non-elect but this doctrine is only interested in to whom God grants the redemptive benefits. Taking the "L" out" of the TULIP is therefore like taking "Solus Christus" out of the Five Solas. It effectually removes all the redemptive benefits of the doctrines of grace from the work of Christ.

In his monumental work on the atonement, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen made the following assessment, which has yet to be satisfactorily answered by any proponent of so-called unlimited atonement:

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for either:

1) All the sins of all men;

2) All the sins of some men; or

3) Some of the sins of all men.

In which case it may be said:

1) If the last be true all men have some sins to answer for, and so none are saved;

2) That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth;

3) But if the first is the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins? You answer, Because of unbelief. I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!

Related Resources
Universal Redemption Must be Denied by Jonathan Edwards outstanding!
Understanding 1 John 2:2 by Pastor John Samson
For Whom Did Christ Die? by John Piper
Clearing Up Some Misconceptions of Limited Atonement
1 John 2:2 and Limited Atonement

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