Limited Atonement

Many I speak to on these subjects agree that we are totally depraved, that God elects sinners for salvation, and that He is the Good Shepherd who will finish the work he began in us.

We are, therefore, relatively “reformed” in our theology together…which is an interesting label considering that, from our perspective, should probably be labeled “recovered” theology as this teaching was changed by the institutional church early on in Church history and was reaffirmed during the Synod of Dordt as the common, ancient, and Biblical doctrine of salvation.

However, debate continues amongst reformed theologians and we lowly lay people about atonement. Did Christ die for everyone or for the elect and why do we care?

Some Background
First, the “Five Points of Calvinism” includes the third of five points commonly called “Limited Atonement.” Many people call themselves “four-point Calvinists” because they believe in all of it except this very controversial third point.

I used to be what most call an “Arminian.” The vast majority of American Christians are. I’ll reiterate again that I hate the labels, the simplicity of “five points” of Arminianism or Calvinism but they are what they are…let’s move on…

Everyone Limits Atonement
With the context of the other four points in mind (we’ll get to four and five soon!), let’s consider the third point – Limited Atonement.

I believe that everyone limits atonement. Most churches in Western Christendom teach that Jesus died for “ALL” men – that Christ’s work made it possible for all to come to Him. They would say that “Christ died to save all men if…” and follow this with any number of qualifications, actions, or reactions to the Gospel.

I would throw this out for thought: everyone limits atonement. You either limit it in extent/scope (Christ died for the elect) or in effectiveness (Christ died for all but redemption needs you to…). I also would throw out that Christ’s death was obviously capable of saving every person who ever lived…but He didn’t choose to die for that purpose.

“Jesus Actually Saves”
There is a GREAT book that articulates the concept of election and atonement very well. In The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented (a classic and a great resource I’m borrowing from quite a bit to write these posts); David N. Steele articulates in the latest version of the book on pages 41 and 42 my feelings on this subject. Under a section titled “Jesus Actually Saves” he writes:

“The Scriptures describe the end intended and accomplished by Christ’s work as the full salvation (actual reconciliation, justification, and sanctification) of His people.

The Scriptures state that Christ came, not to enable men to save themselves, but to save sinners.

Matthew 1:21: ‘She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

The book goes on to list a number of other verses that seem to suggest that He came to sacrifice Himself for those who were called to be His. Pick up the book and pour through it with an open mind. You’ll be blown away – even if you already believe in four or five Points.

But how about the Scriptures that say he died for “all” or “the whole world?” What about John 3:16 – For God so loved the world…?”

If you take the multitude of Scriptures that declare He died for His people, His elect, His chosen race and then consider the cultural and spiritual climate at the time of the Scriptures; wouldn’t it make sense that the inclusive words “all” and “world” may have been used to combat the notion prevalent amongst the Jews at the time that only Jews could be saved? Could the Scriptures be reiterating that Jews AND Gentiles are among the elect? That the whole world is worth reaching out to with the Gospel in order to bring the message of salvation to those He has predestined?

Ramifications/Why do I care?
So…who cares? If God chose some and not others and died for them, what does that matter? If we are both believers and disagree on this…so what? Aren’t we both preaching the Gospel and is it profitable to have this discussion? This discussion has caused division in the past, so why rehash it now?

Two reasons:

1. For the believer with a Biblical view of election and perseverance, it is easy to look at the “Arminian” and shrug his/her shoulders. Either way the message of Jesus is being preached; even if those who don’t feel the way the Calvinist does may live with a distorted picture of how salvation works or the character of God as relates to His chosen race. The Gospel of Jesus gets preached and we are brothers. But to those who don’t share the views of the Calvinist it is easy to look at the Calvinist as fatalistic and unwilling to reach out. Few things are more misunderstood than reformed theology by those who don’t share the same views. Discussing this respectfully brings Arminians – if not to the ‘truth’ – to a realization that Calvinists embrace evangelism and Scriptures as much as they do.

2. “Calvinism,” for a lack of a better term, offers a doctrine of assurance and peace that is worth discussing. If we are right about election and atonement, it offers so much more gratefulness and peace to the weary soul.

In his 1932 book, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” (quoted in “The Five Points of Calvinism”), Mr. Loraine Boettner says this:

“Any other system which holds that Christ’s sacrifice did not actually save anyone, but that it merely made salvation possible for all if they would comply with certain terms, reduces it to good advice; and any system which carries with it only a ‘chance’ for salvation, also carries with it, of logical necessity, a ‘chance’ to be lost. And what a difference it makes to fallen man as to whether the Gospel is good news or good advice! The world is full of good advice; even the books of heathen philosophers contained much of it; but the Gospel alone contains for man the Good News that God has redeemed him.”

Isn’t the very nature of God and His plan for us worth discussing? Isn’t the very heart of how we are saved worth exploring? I think the problem has been in how we have discussed this issue – not whether or not we should.

If you don’t believe in all “Five Points of Calvinism,” that’s not a hill I want to die on with you – you are still very likely chosen as a fellow Christ-follower.

If I limit atonement, however, I want to limit it to Good News that you are redeemed…not limit it in effectiveness and put a burden of “if you…” on the searching soul.  The Scriptures seems clear – Jesus died for the elect.  Christ’s death was designed to secure salvation, not to simply make possible election.

Some interesting Scriptures to ponder on the subject:

Galatians chapter 1 says that Jesus “gave himself” for our sins “to deliver us” from evil according to “the will” of the Father.  If he delivers whom He elects, than His will was for Christ to die in order to deliver.  It doesn’t say He gave Himself so delivery was possible.

Jesus said himself that he lays down his life for his sheep.  Who are these sheep?  The Father gave the sheep to Christ!  The sheep are the elect!  He died for the elect:
John 10:11,14-18 – “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, 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 heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (verses 24-29 reiterate that he gives the sheep he lays down his life for eternal life and they were given to him by his Father!)

Note also that in John 17 (verses 1-26) Jesus prays not for the whole world’s population but for those given to Him by the Father.  He says “I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me.”  Read the whole prayer.  If he died for more than the elect so that salvation was possible if…wouldn’t He have prayed such?

Hebrews 9:15 – “…Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many…”

Acts 20:28 seems to suggest that Church leaders are to feed the flock, which the Lord “obtained for Himself with His own Blood.”

Ephesians 5 paints the picture of limited atonement when Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up FOR HER, that he might sanctify her…”  The relationship of husband and wife is a picture of Christ laying down his life…for His Bride!

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