by Jeff Hagan
(Tacoma, WA, USA)
Limited Atonement is a phrase used to summarize what the Scriptures teach regarding the purpose for Christ's death on the cross and what His life, death and resurrection accomplished. It represents the third letter of the TULIP acronym, “L.” The doctrine of limited atonement is the most controversial and most misunderstood of the TULIP doctrines.
The doctrine of limited atonement affirms that the Scriptures teach Christ's atoning work on the cross was done with a specific purpose in mind – to redeem for God people from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9). Jesus died, according to Matthew 1:21, to “save his people from their sins” (NIV). In John 10:15, we see that He lays “down his life for my (his) sheep” (NIV). Who are the sheep? They are the people chosen by God from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). The truth that Jesus came for a specific reason is found in both the Old and New Testaments. Probably the most significant passage in the Old Testament on the atonement is Isaiah 53. This chapter talks about an atonement that was particular in who it covered (God's people), was substitutionary in nature (He took their sins upon Himself at the cross), and actually accomplished what God planned (justified many). Christ did not simply make justification a possibility, He actually justified those He died for.
Limited atonement also recognizes that Scriptures teach Jesus' death on the cross was a substitutionary or vicarious atonement for sins. The substitutionary atonement of Christ means He was acting as a representative for a specific group of people (the elect) who would receive a direct benefit (salvation) as the result of His death. The idea is clearly portrayed in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin Christ to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV).
Four different words in relation to the atonement are clearly presented in Scripture: ransom, reconciliation, propitiation and substitute. These speak of Christ as having actually accomplished something in His death. One cannot hold to a universal atonement without also requiring universal salvation. If that were true, these aspects of the atonement become nothing more than a possibility relying on humanity to make them a reality.
Those who are redeemed by Christ are truly free and their debt has been paid in full. Those who are reconciled to God are actually reconciled and the separation that existed has been removed (Colossians 2:14). Christ's death on the cross was a sacrifice that completely satisfied the wrath of God. When Jesus died on the cross He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30, NIV). The debt was paid in full. Colossians 2:13-14.
Misunderstandings regarding this Doctrine:
1. Some claim this position somehow lessens the value of the atonement of Christ. False. Limited atonement recognizes that Christ's death was of infinite value and lacked nothing. God's purpose in the atonement was that Jesus would forever secure the salvation of those the Father had given to Him (Hebrews 7:25).
2. Some say this position lessens the love of God for humanity. False. Limited atonement amplifies the love of God. It reinforces the intense love of God that is revealed in the Scriptures. God loves His people with a love that saves them from their sin as opposed to the love in the unlimited atonement view which portrays God's love as being more general in nature.
3. One of the main arguments used against limited atonement is that if Christ did not atone for the sins of everybody in the world and only intended to save the elect, how do you explain the numerous Scripture passages that appear to offer the gospel to “whosoever will come?” How can God offer salvation to all, including those He has not elected or foreordained to be saved? How can we understand the paradox that arises because the Scriptures teach God intends that only the elect will be saved, but, on the other hand, Scriptures also declare that God offers salvation to everyone who will believe (Ezekiel 33:11; Isaiah 45:22; 55:1; Matthew 11:28; 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 22:17)? The answer is simply a recognition of ALL that the Scriptures teach: (1) the call of the gospel is universal in the sense that anybody that hears it and believes in it will be saved; (2) because everyone is dead in trespasses and sin, no one will believe the gospel and respond to it in faith unless God first makes those who are dead in their trespasses and sins alive (Ephesians 2:1-5). The Scriptures teach that “whosoever believes” will have eternal life and then explains why some believe and some do not.
4. Another argument used points to the Scripture passages that speak of Christ's atonement in a more general or unlimited sense. For example, 1 John 2:2 John says that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the “whole world.” In John 4:42 Jesus is called the “Savior of the world” and in John 1:29 is said to “take away the sin of the world.” Other verses appear to imply an unlimited view of the atonement as well. Those who believe in unlimited atonement use these verses to make the point that, if Christ died for all and takes away the sins of the world, then His atonement cannot be limited to only the elect. However, this can be explained by recognizing that Scripture frequently uses the words “world” and “all” in a limited sense. The passages do not automatically mean “every single person in the entire world." In Luke 2:1 we see that a “decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered,” and Luke 2:3 says, “So all went to be registered everyone to his own city.” Clearly, this is not talking about every single person in the whole world. The decree was not meant for all in the world.
Similarly, the Pharisees, being troubled with the growing popularity of Jesus, said, “Look how the whole world has gone after Him!” Did every single person in the world follow Jesus? Or was the “world” limited to a small area of Palestine where Jesus preached?
5. Still another argument against limited atonement is that it is an obstacle to preaching the gospel and to evangelism in particular. This idea is foolish. The gospel is to be preached to everyone because it is the power of God to salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). It is the means God has ordained by which the elect will be saved (Romans 10:14-17). The evangelist only needs to proclaim that Christ died to pay the penalty for sin and provide a way for sinners to be reconciled to God.
The doctrines of grace empower evangelism instead of hindering it. Embracing these incredible biblical truths allows one to boldly and clearly proclaim the good news of the gospel knowing that the power is not in our presentation or in some ability of the audience. Instead, it rests entirely on an all-powerful God who has determined to save people from every tribe, tongue and nation.
Problems with Unlimited Atonement:
1. It makes redemption just a potential or hypothetical act. An unlimited atonement means that Christ's sacrifice is not effective until the sinner does their part in believing. In this view, the sinner's faith is the deciding factor as to whether Christ's atonement actually accomplishes anything. The problem with this view becomes even clearer when one considers that at the time Christ died on the cross there were already sinners that had died who will face the wrath of God in hell for their sin. Logically, it makes no sense for God the Father to have Christ atone for sins of people who were already suffering His wrath. Where is the justice in punishing Christ for the sins of those that were already being punished for their sins? This also shows that an unlimited atonement cannot be a substitutionary atonement.
2. It belittles the righteousness of God and destroys the basis of a believer's assurance. An important part of a believer's assurance is that God is righteous and that He will not nor cannot punish sin twice. So, the sin that is covered by Christ's blood can never be charged to the sinner's account. Yet that is what a universal atonement inevitably leads to. Christ is punished for the sins of those that are not saved, and then they are also punished in hell for the same sins.
3. Unlimited atonement says that Christ's death on the cross did not actually secure salvation for anyone. Christ's death is not enough in and of itself to save lost people, and, in order for His atoning work to be effective there is a requirement that sinners themselves have to meet. Therefore, the effectiveness of the atonement is limited by humanity's faith or their lack thereof. On the other hand, limited atonement shows that Christ's death and resurrection actually secures the salvation of His people. While God does indeed require faith of His people, Christ's death even paid for the sin of our unbelief, and, therefore, His death meets all requirements for our salvation and provides everything needed to secure the salvation of God's people including the faith to believe. Christ plus absolutely nothing equals salvation – an atonement so thorough and complete that it secures everything required for salvation, including the faith that God gives us in order to believe (Ephesians 2:8).
Limited atonement, like the other doctrines of grace, upholds and glorifies the unity of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit working in unison for the purpose of salvation. These doctrines build upon one another. The only solution to the depravity of humanity was for God to provide a Savior who would act as their substitute and suffer the wrath of God for their sins. He did this in the death of Christ who “canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14, NIV).
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