Calvinism: Limited Atonement – Part 1

Now we move to the third and possibly the most controversial of the five points of Calvinism. Many Christians who believe in the doctrine of election would still deny this point. We are taking a look at the third letter in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. and the doctrine of Limited Atonement. I will spend the next few posts giving a defense of the doctrine. In this post I will specifically deal with the overall theological reasons to hold to Limited Atonement. The next few posts I will deal with the exegetical proofs where I’ll detail a number of passages supporting the doctrine. Then I will end with answering some of the objections to it, as well as dealing with so-called “problem passages.”

Limited Atonement is a doctrine that refers to the purpose of God in sending the Son
to take on flesh and die on the cross. It is centered around this central question; did the Father send the Son to the cross to simply make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a sovereign plan of salvation that He purposed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people?

I would answer this question by first, rejecting the notion that the atonement of Jesus on the cross only making salvation a possibility for all mankind. Secondly, I would answer by affirming that God from all eternity had a sovereign plan and His purpose in the atonement was to truly save His people, the elect from their sin (Matthew 1:21). I do not have a problem with the term Limited Atonement, but for clarity sake to the answer above, myself and other reformed theologians usually prefer to the doctrine as Particular Redemption (that Redemption was particularly for God’s people) or Definite Atonement (that the effects of the atonement are definite, they don’t simply make salvation possible but declare mission accomplished).

One major reason I have no problem with the term Limited Atonement is because both the Arminian (or anyone else who denies the doctrine of Limited Atonement) and the Calvinist limit the atonement in some way. The difference is how we limit it. The Calvinist limits the scope or the design of the atonement, realizing that the atonement was meant to secure salvation for the elect. The Calvinist understands that the atonement was sufficient for every man, woman and child who ever lived, because Christ is God. But what limits the atonement to only by applied to the elect is the sovereign design and purpose of God. As one theologian has stated, “Jesus’ death is directed to and actually saves particular persons; not an indefinite mass of people or a hypothetical humanity.” It is a definite atonement. It is a personal atonement. Jesus knows His own by name. John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”

The Arminian, on the other hand, limits the power of the atonement. Since the Calvinist says the atonement of Christ is so powerful that it actually accomplishes what it set out to do (secure salvation for the elect), the Arminian limits the power of the atonement denying or at best limiting it’s power to only make salvation possible to a broader people.

Theologian Lorraine Boettner says it well,

The Calvinist limits the extent of [the atonement] in that he says it does not apply to all persons . . . while the Arminian limits the power of it, for he says that in itself it does not actually save anybody.

The Calvinist limits it quantitatively, but not qualitatively; the Arminian limits it qualitatively, but not quantitatively.

For the Calvinist it is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge which goes only half-way across.

If you deny a definite atonement, you believe that Christ’s death does not guarantee the actual salvation of even one person. You believe in a extremely limited atonement: an atonement that is weak and unable to save. God sits by helpless and has to wait for the sinner to save himself by choosing Jesus. Charles Spurgeon the famous Baptist Preacher from England said it well, “If it were Christ’s intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed!” Think about it, God’s plan has been defeated, because broad is the path that leads to destruction and there are many who find it (Matthew 7:13). Jesus shed His blood and suffered horribly completely in vain for those who reject Him. The Holy Spirit’s been overpowered by the majority of people throughout history. If the Arminian is right, then God’s plan is a colossal failure. The Atonement simply didn’t get the job done. Thankfully, the atonement did not fail, it gloriously succeeded and accomplished God’s design and purpose to actually save His people.

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