Limited Atonement: Are We Limiting God?

Many people think that unconditional election (the U of the TULIP acronym) is the hardest pill to swallow of the “five points of calvinism.”  I actually believe that the “L,” or limited atonement, is the toughtest.  Why?  Because it challenges the general belief that Jesus Christ died for every single person on earth, and that just doesn’t sound right to us.  

The doctrine of limited atonement (or “particular redemption,” which is the term I prefer) defined is that Christ’s atonement was intended by God to secure the redemption of the elect alone.  To say it an even simpler way: Jesus came to save those the Father had given Him.  This makes sense when we consider three aspects of the atonement that are inseparably connected to one another:

Intent: “What was Jesus’ death designed to accomplish?”

Extent: “For whom exactly did Jesus die?”

Nature: “What kind of atonement was it?”

Let’s consider three main understandings of the atonement and how they relate to the intent, nature and extent.

Universalism: Jesus’ death was designed for all to be saved.  The atonement was a full atonement.  The extent of Jesus’ death was full, therefore, everyone will go to heaven.  The problem with this view is that it goes against Scripture.  Where?  Anywhere you see someone being judged in the OT and killed; anywhere hell is mentioned, etc.  Think about the rich man and Lazaurs.  Where was the rich man?  Hell.  But how could he be in hell if universalism is correct?  

Arminianism: This view holds to the belief that God sends Jesus to die with the intention of redeeming all.  Because that was the intent of God, Christ then died for all (this is the extent).  The difference between this view and universalism is that arminianism looks at the nature of Jesus’ atonement as a partial or potential atonement.  That is to say, the atonement is condition in some sense (that condition being, believing in Jesus as Savior).  So the outcome of for this view of atonement is that some will go to heaven, biut this is not something God knows in advance or could know.

Calvinism: This view holds to the belief that the intent of Jesus’ death was only for some, specifically the elect.  For whom did Christ die?  Christ atoned for the sins of some, namely the elect.  This matches up with the intent.  What kind of atonement then is this?  It is a full atonement for all sins of the elect, and it was an actual atonement (meaning that the price for sins was actually paid).  The outcome?  Some are saved, the elect, and full atonement is made for them.

The basic point: The extent of the atonement depends on the intent of the atonement. The answer to the question “For whom did Jesus die?” depends on the answer to the question, “For what purpose did jesus die?”

Scriptural Support of Limited Atonement:

Leviticus 16: This chapter is all about teh day of atonement for the people of Israel.  The day of atonement is a type of atonement, Christ’s atonement, as He bore the punishment in our place.  Note that atonement is made for the people of Israel, not for the pagan nations, but for Gods people.  If this is a type of Christ’s atonement, then we should conclude that Jesus made a specific atonement, for His people who belong in covenant with God.

John 10:11, 15: This is a passage where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  The understanding of this text is that these statements occur in a passage where distinction is made between sheep and non sheep

Acts 20:28: This instruction given in Acts for the church is based on the fact that Jesus obtained the church with His blood.  Christ died for the church.  If his blood was for everyone, then the church would not be special in that way.

Misunderstandings of Limited Atonement:

This doctrine means that Jesus did not love everyone.  This goes against John 3:16.

When you closely examine John’s use of “world,” you see that it rarely means every single human being.  It certainly never carries that case in John’s gospel or letters. In John, it commonly means the fallen universe.  In John 1:9-10 it talks about true light was coming into the world.  This certainly was not implying that the light was coming into every human that existed, but the fallen world. The same  can be said for John 3:17.  The fact is that the term “world” can also carry the connotation of all the nations of the world.  In fact, what John wants to show is that Jesus came not only to save the Jews but also the Gentiles. John 11:13 (parable of the samritan woman) is an example of this, where Jesus is described as the Savior of the world, and not just Israel. The emphasis is either on depth and magnitude of God’s love (3:16), or the global reach of salvation.

This doctrine then implies that the Gospel offer of salvation to all who believe in Jesus is not sincere.

The implication some take away is that if Jesus did not die for every single person, the he is not sincere when offering it to everyone.  This shows  a confusion on what the gospel offer actually is, which is simply this: if you repent in your sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved.  This offer is made multiple times throughout the Bible, Acts 2:38 being a great proof text, showing that this offer is valid whether or not you believe in limited atonement or not.  The important point about the atonement is that Jesus’ death has made a provision for everyone who believes.  Why would it need to do anymore than that?

What does this doctrine do to evangelism?

The same type of question is asked about unconditional election, and the answer is similar: It should make you more bold in your evangelism.  This doctrine of grace provides you with more encouragement that God is the one in control of someone’s soul and not yourself.  It takes the pressure of having to save a soul away, and instead throws you upon the mercy of God.

Implications of Limited Atonement:

-Limited atonement points us both to God’s great mercy (because christ died for us) and to God’s perfect justice (every sin is only punished once and fully).

-Limited atonement implies then that the Savior whom we proclaim to sinners to believe in the Gospel is a Savior who actually saves.  The atonement is real, actual, and fully effective.

-Limited atonement forces the believer to trust in the promises of God, and that they are never failing.  

Further Scripture on this doctrine:

Leviticus 16 (esp. vv. 16, 21, 24, 33-34); Matthew 1:21; Mark 10:45; John 10:11, 15; John 17:1-26 (esp. vv. 9, 20); Acts 20:28; Romans 3:25-26; Romans 5:6-11;Romans 8:28-39; 2 Corinthians 5:2; Ephesians 5:25;1 Thessalonians 5:9-10

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