Limited Atonement

Part 3 in a 5 part series. View series intro and index.

Limited Atonement is perhaps the most controversial doctrine of Reformed theology.  The atonement is the work of God whereby he gave his Son to cancel the debt of our sin and purchase salvation as well as its benefits for those who believe in him.  The Atonement (Christ’s death) was necessary because, otherwise, God would have simply let sin slide without its due punishment.  God took out his wrath on his Son, Jesus.  As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  This is called substitutionary atonement.

Arminians would say that Calvinists “limit” the atonement because Calvinists say Jesus only died for a select few–limiting Jesus’ power to save everyone.  By contrast, Arminians “limit” the atonement because they say that Jesus did not definitely purchase salvation for a select few, but that he only made it possible, so that people could come to faith in him.  “Particular Redemption” might be a better name for this doctrine because it shows that Jesus died to redeem a “particular” group of people, namely, his elect.

The doctrine of limited atonement asks “Who did Jesus die for.”  Most Evangelicals would answer “Everyone.”  And that would not be wrong in one sense.  In another sense though, Jesus only died for the elect, those who believe in his name for salvation.  Does Jesus’ death mean the same thing for a person who goes to heaven and a person who goes to hell?  Of course not!  For one it means mercy and grace; for the other, judgment and wrath.  First Timothy 4:10 says, “We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially those who believe.”  We can see that there is some kind of saving given to everyone, but not eternal life to everyone.  John Piper helps clear this up: “All of God’s mercy toward unbeliever–from the rising sun (Matthew 5:45) to the worldwide preaching of the gospel (John 3:16)–is made possible because of the cross.”   Though Jesus’ death does bring some kind benefit to non-Christians, he brings an altogether different benefit to Christians–salvation.  We can sum this up with this statement: Christ’s death is sufficient to forgive all, but effective only for those who believe.

There are many passages that plainly show that Christ died to obtain salvation for a certain group of people.  Here’s a few.

John 10:14-16, 26 says, “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…but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.”  Notice how Jesus said that he knows his own sheep and lays down his life for them.  He is bringing his flock together and when addressing the Jews here, he says, “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock.”  Notice that it is not the other way around.  Their disbelief is dependent on their not being part of the flock.  Jesus is making it clear: I am NOT laying my life down for you.

John 17:6, 9 says, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.  Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word…I am praying for them.  I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”  Jesus is about to undergo his painful suffering and death for his church and during this prayer, with his crucifixion in mind, he is praying only for his sheep.

Revelation 5:9-10 says, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests of our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”  Jesus did not die for every person this way because every person is not saved.  Rather, John writes that people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” were ransomed.

With passages like this–that say Jesus atoned for a certain people’s sins and ransomed their souls for God–we can understand harder passages like 1 John 2:2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  If “the whole world” really meant every person, then John would be arguing for universal salvation, which certainly isn’t true.  We would have to say this because the word “propitiation” refers to the removal of sin.  Someone who dies and goes to hell do not have their sins removed, therefore we can say, in one sense (the primary sense) that Jesus did not die for them.

Mark 10:45 shows this as well, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Finally, Hebrews 9:28 says, “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (cf. Is. 53:1; Matt. 20:28).

Here’s a beautiful quote from John Owen explaining this doctrine:

[If Jesus died for all men]…why then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But his unbelief, is it sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be sin, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it; If this is so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then he did not die for all their sins.

There are dozens of other Scriptures showing this wonderful truth.  May this not make you wander in your assurance.  If you confess Christ and hold to faith, your sins were atoned for.  Do not wander in your evangelism either.  Though this is an overwhelmingly clear teaching in Scripture, we must also preach the gospel because we also believe that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).  If you call on Jesus, then most certainly, he died for your sins.

Other reading on Limited Atonement:


One Way You Shouldn’t be Like Jesus

Jesus never wrote anything. He hung out, and talked, and healed. But if his followers had only done that, we wouldn’t know even that about him. Both-And, not Either-Or. And some people more one than the other.

– John Piper


Persevering in Prayer

Here’s the last post about petitioning God in prayer.  As promised, I will have the remainder of the TULIP series in the coming days.  These posts on prayer have seemed more important to me at the moment.

Praying with you,

Definition: Enduring in prayer so that I pray until I get an answer and blessings, not the ones that satisfy my selfishness, but ones that satisfy my longings to see God glorified in the outcome so that I get the most joy.

When we persevere in our prayers (or pray constantly, with endurance, or unceasingly, or always, etc) we are essentially putting our complete trust the Lord. We are going to him helplessly and presenting our requests to God. When we persevere, our faith and hope is in him. In essence, we are not losing heart. We can go to God and persevere because we know he is omniscient and omnipotent. He will not leave us out to dry. We can know, if we are a true child of God that we can say “Praise God” for a prayer request that happens and say “Praise God” for a prayer request that does not happen. Both happen because God wills and he wants to work everything together for our good (Rom. 8:28). If something doesn’t happen that we ask for, something better is in God’s mind. Something greater is on the way. For these reasons, we can persevere in prayer and pray continually.

  • Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob wrestles with God. Just as God said to Moses, “Leave me alone,” he said to Jacob, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” Jacob would not let God go. He was persistent. He persevered. He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob was not going to give up in his pursuit of God’s blessing. He literally wrestled with God physically. How much more should we spiritually wrestle with the Lord when we have requests to ask or sins to deal with? 
  • 1 Kings 18:41-46 is also a great example of perseverance. When Elijah was praying fervently for rain, he sent his servant up the mountain to look over the sea to check if there was any rain coming. Elijah asked his servant to do this seven times! He would not take “no” for an answer. He was persistent and he persevered. This is not to say that God will do everything we want if we just keep asking him, but it does mean that if we do not see an answer (as Elijah’s servant did not regarding the rain) we can, with faith in God’s sovereignty and faithfulness, that he will tell us yes or no or (continue to) wait.
  • Luke 18:1-8 is about the parable of the persistent widow. Verse 1 says: “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”
  • Acts 1:14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.” The apostles and followers of Jesus were getting together to pray for guidance and for boldness. They wanted to be unified and preach the gospel. They were “devoted” to it.
  • Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant (endure) in prayer.” To persevere in prayer simply means to be constant, to not give up, or to be continually in conversation with the Lord about certain issues. Here, in Romans 12, praying is connected to rejoicing in hope and being patient in tribulation. These three are paired up possibly because when we are hoping in the Lord, we rejoice in him and communicate that, in prayer, to him. In tribulations, we must endure patiently, and communicate, in prayer, trust in the Lord that he is in control and has our best good in mind. Those things are mentioned first, as indicators of what we need to pray. “Rejoice! Be patient! Pray about these things all the time.” Hope and tribulation are two opposite things. Paul urges the Romans that even in the most plentiful and most desperate situations we must pray to the Lord and love him despite of the circumstances. 
  • Ephesians 6:18, “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication for all the saints.” Here we are urged to pray for the saints at all times. We should pray specific prayers for believers that we know and are close to. We should also pray sweeping prayers for the world of believer that we will never meet.
  • Colossians 4:2, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Paul urges the Colossians to unwaveringly in pray. “Don’t lose heart! Don’t give up! Be on your guard in prayer by giving thanks always, lest you become selfish and ungrateful.” We must have an attitude of thanksgiving in our prayers. It keeps us humble and the more humble we are, the more we will want to go to God in prayer. There more we will want to go to God in prayer, the more we will pray and persevere.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This verse connects rejoicing and giving thanks with prayer. Again, we express both of these things to God in prayer. We can sing songs, yes, but those are nothing more than prayers set to music. Most of the Psalms are prayers, but when they were written, they may have been temple praise songs.

An Overview of TULIP

Series Index

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Unconditional Election
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

Part 1 in a 5 part series. View series intro and index.

There has been so much literature written about these five precious points of Reformed doctrine, so I will in no way attempt to write exhaustive essays about them.  However, over the next week, I will write overviews of each of the points.  I will try to heed the words of Proverbs 17:27-28 (which I fail at so often), “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.  Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

For the fuller version of what you see here, read Bethlehem Baptist Church’s (John Piper’s church) article on TULIP or Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul.

Total Depravity

Everyone is a rebel.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a person who claims to be perfect in everything he does and has never sinned.  Our rebellion against God is total.  This greatly differs from “utter” depravity.  We are totally depraved but we are not as depraved as we could be.  If we were “utterly depraved,” that would mean we always do the worst thing in every situation.  This is not true.  Even for a non-Christian, God’s common grace extends to some more than others.  This is the reason we are not all murderers, rapists, thieves, etc.  Nevertheless, even the “smallest” sin is worthy of punishment.  Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  In 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Paul writes that it is just for God to punish those “who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”  It is just because God is perfect and we are so very far from perfection.

The word “total” implies that in our natural state, there is no good thing.  God’s grace is the only thing keeping us from the so-called “worst” sins.  Romans 3:9-12 says, “What then?  Are we Jews any better off?  No, not at all.  For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  It is clear here that nobody does good.  King Solomon agrees, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20).

Everything man does apart from Christ is sin.  Romans 14:23b says, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  This shows that if you are not in Christ anything you do is sin.  What pleases God?  Faith in his Son, which is what justifies us (Rom. 3:28; 5:1).  If faith in Christ doesn’t exist, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).  In Romans 7, Paul is talking about dealing with the paradox of being a Christian and still sinning.  In verse 18 he says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.”  This shows the fact that there are two parts in him–an evil, flesh part that sins and a good, spirit part that delights to obey God (7:22).  When a person becomes a Christian, the flesh (a biblical term for the “natural part” of man) is removed in the sense of it has no eternal grip on him anymore.  But in another sense, a remnant still resides (Rom. 7:20).  It won’t be removed completely until Jesus returns (Phil. 3:12-13).

Before one becomes a Christian they are considered spiritually dead.  This means that we are totally (there’s that word again) unable to submit ourselves to God.  Ephesians 2:1-5 says that we were “dead in our trespasses and sins” and that we were “children of wrath.”  Colossians 2:13 says that we were “dead in [our] trespasses and the uncircumcision of [our] flesh.”  Furthermore, a non-Christian’s heart is like a stone (Eph. 4:18; Ezek. 36:26).  Before anyone comes to Christ, their eyes are blinded and incapable of seeing the glory of God in Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-6).

This doctrine should cause us to fall on our faces before God and seek repentance.  It should not cause us to be anxious about our inability to get right with God.  We are all in the same boat, because we cannot do that on our own.  That brings us to the next point of TULIP.


The Joys of Ministering to International Students

Tonight, I was at an international grad student Bible study, filling in for a Crusade staff member who is at a conference.  Toward the end of the evening, I started to instruct the students how they would go through follow up lessons with a new believer.  I prefaced it with, “We’ll go through this pretty quickly, since you three already know Jesus.”  Then, Soo (pronounced “Sue”), who is from China, said, “Uh, I am not Christian.”  I looked at him and said, “Oh, then this will be really good for you!”  I couldn’t tell because his answers to the questions were very “Christian.”  What he said next was shocking and exciting wrapped up in one: “I am trying to become Christian.”

I couldn’t help but smile when I heard this.  At that moment I prayed, “Lord, make him a Christian…and soon!”  I know that God is sovereign and he calls and chooses those who will come to him.  That is first and foremost.  But I also understand that we have a responsibility to place our trust in Jesus.  The Bible says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13).  I fully believe that.  Right now, Soo is wrestling with the truth of the Bible, the claims of Jesus, and the promises God makes in Scripture.  His childlike heart is utterly refreshing to me.  It gives me so much joy because I don’t know if I would have ever heard an American say anything close to that.

There is no doubt in my mind that Soo will soon place his dependency on Jesus and turn from darkness to light, from death to life, and experience the power and joy that comes with knowing Jesus as Lord, Savior, and Treasure.