Monday, July 20, 2009

What is limited atonement?

Of the five points of Calvinism, the doctrine of Limited Atonement is probably the most debated and least understood.

Limited Atonement, also called Particular Redemption, could be explained this way: “It would have required no more obedience, nor any greater suffering, for Christ to have secured salvation for [all]…But He came into the world to represent and save only those given to Him by the Father. Thus, Christ’s saving work was limited in that it was designed to save some and not others, but it was not limited in value, for it was of infinite worth and would have secured salvation for everyone if this had been God’s intention.” (The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented) As some have put it, Christ’s death was “sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.”

A few salient points:

  • Adam stood as the federal head (representative) of the entire race, and Christ stood as the federal head of the elect: “…So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Rom. 5:12, 17-18)
  • Definite terms in the Bible teach that Christ died for the elect: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11); “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45)
  • General terms in the Bible like “all” and “world,” which are so favored by Arminians, teach that Christ died for all without distinction (e.g. not just for the Jews). These verses do NOT teach that Christ died for all men without exception, i.e. He died to save every lost sinner. If this were true, then we would have to either say Christ failed in His mission, or all people are in fact justified and reconciled, which is universalism. (We Baptists use this terminology as well when we speak of an “all church potluck.” This does not necessarily mean that all will attend, but simply that all are invited.) Biblical examples: "…God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19); “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). These verses show that forgiveness is freely available to every tongue, tribe, and nation; they are not intended to be a commentary on the inner workings of the atonement.
There is much more that could be said. Any discussion of limited atonement must delve into the mysterious harmony of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility and explore the profound nature of the cross. These are things I don't believe we'll ever fully wrap our minds around.

For those who would like to learn more, I would suggest starting with a couple articles on the subject at

Related posts:


David Squyres said...

(We Baptists use this terminology as well when we speak of an “all church potluck.” This does not necessarily mean that all will attend, but simply that all are invited.)

So. . .

1. Question
to clarify: ALL are invited, or only the elect? Is an invitation real if attendance is impossible?

2. Question
If "world" in 1 John 2:2 is Christians, then why does it identify Christians first "not only for our sins. . ." then speak of the "whole world." Who is the world?

“and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world”

I am truly interested and appreciate your gentle approach to difficult theological issues.

Stephen Jones said...

Good questions.

1. I believe there is a general call to ALL people that is genuine. I believe this invitation is real, and that "attendance" by all is possible, while at the same time only God knows and determines who will or will not attend. The error of hyper-Calvinism is to become fatalistic about this. They would say, "it is wrong to call a persons to do what they are unable to do." But the apostles clearly do this over and over. They call people to repent and believe, knowing all the time that God must be the one to open their heart, and only those already chosen will respond (see Acts 13:48).

2. 1 Jn 2:2 certainly is a challenging verse. Wayne Grudem explains it this way: "When John says that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, author’s translation), he may simply be understood to mean that Christ is the atoning sacrifice that the gospel now makes available for the sins of everyone in the world. The preposition “for” (Gk. περί, G4309, plus genitive) is ambiguous with respect to the specific sense in which Christ is the propitiation “for” the sins of the world. Περί (G4309) simply means “concerning” or “with respect to” but is not specific enough to define the exact way in which Christ is the sacrifice with respect to the sins of the world. It would be entirely consistent with the language of the verse to think that John is simply saying that Christ is the atoning sacrifice who is available to pay for the sins of anyone in the world." - Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 598.

John MacArthur takes a similar, though slightly modified view. He sees God's propitiation of the world as a postponement of judgment. "God has mitigated His wrath on sinners temporarily, by letting them live and enjoy earthly life (see note on 1 Tim. 4:10). In that sense, Christ has provided a brief, temporal propitiation for the whole world. But He actually satisfied fully the wrath of God eternally only for the elect who believe. Christ’s death in itself had unlimited and infinite value because He is Holy God. Thus His sacrifice was sufficient to pay the penalty for all the sins of all whom God brings to faith. But the actual satisfaction and atonement was made only for those who believe (cf. John 10:11,15; 17:9,20; Acts 20:28; Rom. 8:32,37; Eph. 5:25). The pardon for sin is offered to the whole world, but received only by those who believe (cf. 4:9,14; John 5:24). There is no other way to be reconciled to God." - John Jr MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, electronic ed. (Nashville: Word Pub., 1997, c1997), 1 Jn 2:2.