Limited Atonement

What is atonement?

Atonement is the removal of guilt.  This happens by way of punishment.  When the guilty undergo their punishment, we say that their sin is atoned for or removed; they are no longer guilty.  A man who steals a woman’s purse might be sentenced to a five year prison term and 100 hours of community service.  When he has completed this sentence, we say that he has made atonement for his sin, and he is set free.  The law has nothing against him; justice has been satisfied.  Sometimes the word “expiate” is used as a synonym with atonement.  Both words refer to the removal of guilt.


What is atonement in the Bible?

In the Bible, atonement is almost always referring to the removal of man’s sin against God.


How is man’s sin against God atoned for?

Man’s sin against God can only be atoned for by death which is what God told Adam and Eve when He placed them in the garden. (Genesis 2:17)  The only possible exception to this is if God Himself provides another way for the atonement of our sin.


Has God provided another way by which our sin can be atoned for?

He has, and this is the good news or the gospel.  This way of atonement is laid out in the first chapters of Leviticus where God promises to forgive sin when the Israelites repent and bring the prescribed sacrifice.  These animal sacrifices then serve as the basis for our understanding of what Jesus has done in the place of His people.


How so?

Because the innocent animal is struck dead in the place of the guilty person.  At the heart of this is a substitution of the innocent for the guilty.  God accepts the death of the animal in the place of the death of the guilty person.  In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us that He is the Lamb from God who takes away (or atones for) the sin of the world. (John 1:36)  Edersheim says: “the fundamental idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament is that of substitution.”  source


What then is the precise point at issue in the discussion of limited atonement?

The issue here is where to place the limitation on the work of Christ in atoning for our sin; hence, the term limited atonement.


Why must a limitation be placed on what Jesus did?

Because Scripture is clear that not everyone is saved.  Hence, we must either limit:

  1. the number of people saved by Jesus, or
  2. the saving work of Jesus itself.

Those who adopt option #1 mean that Jesus actually and really saves all His people.  This is the Reformed position.  Those who adopt option #2 mean that Jesus made an atonement for all people but that this atonement in and of itself is not actually saving.  It makes people savable or makes the salvation of all people possible but not actual.  More is required for the actual salvation of any particular person.  This is the Arminian position.


If we deny both of these options, then we would be forced to conclude that Jesus died for everyone and that everyone is finally saved?

That is correct.


Where does Scripture lead us on this point?

Scripture clearly leads us to place the limitation on the number of those saved by Jesus’ atoning work.  We dare not place any limitation on the work of Jesus itself.


Why should we tremble to place the limitation on the work of Jesus itself?

Because the authors of Scripture rejoice in the death of Jesus as one of their assurances that we will never be lost.  If we limit the power of Jesus’ atonement to save, then this assurance is deceptive.


Where do we find this in Scripture?

Consider Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 8:  “who is he that condemns?  It is Christ Jesus that died…” (Romans 8:34)  Clearly, the reason why Paul can rejoice in the assurance that he will never be condemned for his sin is because he knows that Jesus died for him.  But if Jesus’ atonement applies as much to Paul as it does to everyone else, including many who will one day be condemned, then his assurance here is a deceit.  Paul could still very well be condemned for his sin even if Jesus did die for him.  In fact, on the Arminian position, thousands will be condemned even though Christ died for them.


Where else do we find this way of thinking?

Jesus Himself teaches us to think this way when He speaks of His tender care over His sheep even to the point of laying down His life for them. (John 10:11)  But if Jesus laying down His life applies as much to Herod as it does to Peter, James, & John, then there is no comfort in this for the sheep.


How then are we to understand a text like 1 John 2:2 which teaches us that Jesus is a propitiation for the sins of the entire world?

This is another text where the author is rejoicing in the saving power of the death of Christ.  Here the specific kind of people given this assurance are those believers who have slipped back into sinful behavior.  Now John writes to these people:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)


Why then does John say that Jesus’ death is a propitiation for the sins of the entire world?

To show that Jesus saving work is not limited to Jewish people or to people who have proselyted to the Jewish religion.  It is for Gentiles as well and for people of whatever ethnicity or social class.


Many Christians believe that this verse shows that Christ died for every person in the world without exception.

First, if this text is talking about what the death of Jesus is in itself sufficient to perform, then there is no problem with this interpretation, but that is not the meaning of this text.  This must be true because this text is providing assurance for those believers who have fallen into sin.  John tells these people, who have reason to believe that God would be angry with them and bring them under judgment, that there is a propitiation which can take away their sins and reconcile them to God again.  Again, what possible assurance could there be in this propitiation if it did as much for the believer as the non-believer?

Second, we must remember that the burning issue in the Christian church at this time was how the Gentiles were to be brought into the church.  Was salvation conditioned on faith in Christ alone or were Christian converts also required to perform some of the rituals of the Jewish religion?  Consider the people mentioned in Acts 15:1.  John clearly rejects the Judaizing theology in this verse and throws the door wide open to all people regardless of their ethnicity and regardless of their adherence to Jewish ceremonies.

Third, we know that “all people” or “every man” in Scripture rarely means every person head for head who has ever lived.


If Jesus’ atoning work is infinitely sufficient, then why are not all people saved by it?

First, we answer this by saying that God does not choose to apply it to every person.  To use a financial allegory, if a wealthy person offers to pay the debts of 100 people and has plenty of money in his account to cover all their debts, still the only persons who will actually have their debts paid are those who come and have a check written to them for the amount of their debt.  The wealthy man could have paid all their debts; but perhaps, only 25 people came forward to take advantage of this offer.  Only these 25 will actually have their debts paid.  We could say that it was sufficient for all 100 but efficient only for the 25.

Second, even though all people are not saved by the atoning work of Jesus, they do receive many valuable gifts as a result of it.


What sort of gifts do those receive who are not in the number of God’s chosen people?

Just the fact that they are not already in hell is a gift of God’s grace.  Furthermore, Jesus says that God causes His sun to shine on both His friends and His enemies.  Same thing with the rain which God sends upon both the righteous and unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)  These are often called the gifts of God’s common grace.  Paul talks about the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience which are meant to lead sinners to repentance. (Romans 2:4)  In short, we can say that any favor of God, that comes to any person, regardless of whether they are elect or not, comes from what Jesus did in His atoning work.


What does Scripture say about this?

Consider Paul’s teaching in Titus 2.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:11-14)

Here we have the same idea.  God’s grace has come to every person who hears the gospel in that God has brought salvation to all men.  Clearly, Paul is not saying that everyone receives salvation and is actually saved.  Paul is saying that the opportunity to be saved comes to all and the gospel invitation is extended to all who hear.  Nevertheless, Paul goes on to say that Jesus gave Himself with the intent to redeem us and to purify for Himself a people.  Jesus did not intend to redeem all people.  Elsewhere, Jesus says that He came to give His life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45)


Paul says that Jesus gave His life a ransom for all.

This is true; Paul writes:  “…who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:6)  Rarely, however, does the word “all” in Scripture mean every single person who has ever lived.  Only the context can tell us how we are to understand the “all” or ὑπὲρ πάντων.  πας is similar to the demonstrative pronoun where a word is supplied consistent with the context, this man or this student, etc. cf BBG 13.7.


What then is Paul teaching in 1 Timothy 2:6?

This could be understood two ways.

First, Paul may be teaching here what we have said above; i.e. that Jesus is a ransom for all in the sense that His atonement is sufficient to save any and all who will come to Him for salvation.

Second, Paul could be understood to be teaching that Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all kinds of different people, not all people individually in the same way as John did above in 1 John 2:2.

This latter option fits better with the idea of Jesus being a ransom which, as such, does not seem to be a reference to the sufficiency of the atonement.  We know as well that Paul labored hard to teach the universality of the gospel and the fact that Jesus’s atoning work was for Jews and gentiles alike. (Acts 15:9; Romans 1:16; 2:10; 3:22; 10:12 Colossians 3:11)  Thus Paul may well be saying here that Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all kinds of different people without regard to their ethnicity or any other such characteristic.  Thus the elect of God, for whom Jesus died, are not made up only of Jewish people.


How are we to understand Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 4:10?

Here again we see the distinction between what Jesus’ atonement is, in and of itself, sufficient to do and what it actually does by the application of the Spirit of God.  Paul writes:  For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. (1 Timothy 4:10)  Here, God is the Savior of all men in the sense that He has given His only-begotten Son to be an atonement (John 3:16) which is sufficient to expiate the sins of the entire world.  However, it is only believers who actually receive the benefit of the atonement; i.e. the forgiveness of sin and being reconciled to God.  This verse assumes the truth of the expression given above, sufficient for all; efficient for the elect.


Explain the position of those who choose to limit the work of Christ instead of the number of those who are saved by it.

Grant Osborne is an Arminian theologian who defends this idea.  He states the question this way:

[D]oes the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross focus on the possible salvation of all humankind or on the effective salvation of the elect? Is atonement universal or particular in its purpose?  Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement, p85

His position is that Jesus came to this earth with the intention to provide an atonement for all people without exception; and in this, He was successful.  This, however, does not actually save anyone.  Only those are saved who exercise faith in Christ and apply to themselves what Christ has done on their behalf.  Perspectives, p7


What is wrong with this?

First, it is impossible to understand how the apostle could have rejoiced in the death of Christ as the basis for his hope that he would never be condemned.  If what Jesus did on the cross had the same value for Paul as it did for Caesar, then Paul is deceived.  The death of Christ, for the Arminians, is not the deciding factor in anyone’s salvation.  There own faith is the deciding factor.

Second, Paul teaches that God is the Savior of all men but especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)  How is God especially the Savior of those who believe if what He did in the atoning work of Jesus applies to every person and doesn’t actually save anyone?  It is clear from this verse that Paul believes that God did something for believers that He did not do for all persons.


But is it not correct to teach that only those who believe in Jesus are going to receive the benefits of Jesus’ atoning work?

Yes, this is certainly correct, but the Arminians and Reformed understand the origin of faith differently.  The Arminian system teaches that faith is something which believers add to the atonement to make it effective for them.  The Reformed vigorously deny this and teach that faith is itself something which is included in the atoning work of Jesus and is given only to those whom God has chosen to save.  In the Arminian system, the person’s choice is what, in the final analysis, saves them.  In the Reformed understanding, the death of Jesus is what makes the difference between the lost and the saved.  Grant Obsorne disagrees.  He claims that J. I. Packer has misunderstood Arminian theology when Packer said, “For Arminianism, salvation rests neither on God’s election nor on Christ’s cross, but on each person’s own cooperation with grace, which is something that God cannot guarantee.”  Osborne responds:

Faith does not replace the cross in this system; Arminianism has not replicated the Galatian heresy. The cross is the only basis for salvation, and faith is a surrender to the Holy Spirit, who produces salvation in the believer.  I agree with Packer that “we do not become Christians without creative prevenient grace” but define this grace as the universal convicting presence of the Holy Spirit rather than as divine election.  Perspectives, p83-84.

But the objection still stands.  If the Holy Spirit’s work is universal, then certainly it is not the Holy Spirit that originates faith in the believer but the person’s own choice to cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work.  How else are we to understand this?  If the Spirit of God does no more for God’s elect than He does for anyone else, then it is not the Spirit’s work which finally makes the difference.


Does this not imply that all God’s elect people were completely saved when Jesus cried out It is finished! and brought His atoning work to completion?

No, because a person is not saved until the Spirit of God applies to them what Jesus has already earned for them in His life, death, and resurrection.


Doesn’t Peter teach that Jesus “bought” those who will one day perish?

Peter writes in his second letter:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.  Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

In understanding the teaching of this text, we should first make clear that Master here refers to Jesus and bought refers to redemption from sin.  Some Calvinists have tried to explain this text by denying either or both of these, but this exegesis is not correct.  Osborne says that this verse shows that “the atonement is not just for the elect.” (Perspectives p118), and He is certainly correct in this.  Peter here asserts the truth that Jesus purchased these false prophets in the sense that He provided for them and offered to them an atonement which was more than sufficient to take away their guilt.  That is the only sense in which it was for them.  The meaning here is the same as Paul’s who taught that God’s grace is “bringing salvation to all men…” (Titus 2:11)  Calvin makes a similar comment on Romans 5:18 where he says that Paul makes grace common to all because it is proposed and declared to all but it is not actually applied to all in the sense that they are actually saved by it. source


How does this differ from Osborne’s understanding of this text?

Our understanding of this text is not so different.  Our understanding of the atonement of Christ, however, is very different because Osborne teaches that this is all that Christ did and all that He intended to do.  The Reformed agree that the salvation of all men is possible, but they go on to say that Jesus atoning work also includes the very gift of saving faith which God bestows on His people to bring them to accept the benefits of what Christ has purchased for them.


If what Jesus did, He did for everyone, then what does it mean to say that Jesus saves?

It means nothing; Jesus actually saves no one.  He merely makes the salvation of every person possible.  The actual saving depends on the individual’s choice to believe.  Consider the teaching of Hebrews:

The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently.  Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.  For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.  For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:23-28)

How can the certainty and assurance that the author here bases on the One who offered Himself up as the sacrifice for our sins be real if Jesus did as much for the lost as He did for His people?


The author of Hebrews says that some Christians trample under foot the Son of God and regard as unclean the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified?  How can they trample underfoot the Son of God if His atoning work was not done for them?

This is true; this author writes:

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:28-29)

Certainly, we would agree that the atoning work of Jesus is for all men in the sense that it is sufficient for their salvation.  The call to take refuge in the atoning work of Jesus comes to all who are under the gospel.  In this sense, both the elect and non-elect are sanctified or set apart by this gospel offer; being sanctified here does not mean having ones sins forgiven.  When any person rejects this gospel call, they are said to tread under their feet the blood of Jesus; i.e. they regard the atoning work of Jesus as useless.  They have no need for it; and thus, they dismiss it.


It seems then that the Reformed have no disagreement with the Arminians in terms of the atonement’s universal and infinite sufficiency to save all men.

Yes, this is true.  In fact, this glorious truth is the reason why the gospel call is a sincere offer of salvation.  It could not be sincere if Christ’s work was only sufficient for a limited number.  On the contrary, every preacher can stand and tell every sinner that no matter what they may have done in their life, their sin does not place them beyond the power of Jesus to save, and the reason for this is because Jesus atonement is of infinite sufficiency.  Suppose that a man offered to pay the debts of 100 people, but this man only has enough money in his account to pay the debts of eighty of these people.  His offer would not be sincere but a lie.  Many Arminians misunderstand the Reformed position on this point.


Which Arminians misunderstand the Reformed position on this point?

Consider Summers’ sixteen proofs, which he says are conclusive for the truth of universal atonement.  His tenth is this:

It is asked, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” The question is impertinent in the case of the reprobate, for whom no salvation is provided. (Heb. 2:3.) source

The Reformed answer this by asserting that Jesus’ death is sufficient to atone for the sins of the entire world.  Salvation is provided for all.








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