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: