“Limited Atonement” Examined

One of the tenets of John Calvin’s system of theology holds that the atonement made for sin by our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross is limited in scope to God’s elect – those souls chosen by Him before the foundation of the world. Let’s take a brief look at that teaching of “Limited Atonement”, which is the “L” in the TULIP acronym subscribed to by “five point” Calvinists.

Believers take comfort and rejoice in the plain words of the Lord Jesus in John 3:16, that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” While some Calvinists have argued that the “world” in this verse means only the elect (a strained interpretation of the Greek word cosmos), most Christians would agree to this: that God desired the salvation of the entire fallen human race, and that He sacrificed His dearly-loved Son in order to offer salvation to all sinners.  Sadly, all do not believe on Christ for eternal life.

Why does it matter whether or not Christ’s atoning work has all men for its scope? Because both the truth of the love of God and the integrity of the scriptures are at stake, as they relate to men’s consciences. We have already addressed the scope of the love of God as being toward the whole world; now let us take note of what the scriptures have to say about the atonement.

The man Christ Jesus “gave Himself a ransom for all”, and “He died for all”, showing that all men were under the sentence of death¹.  What is helpful about this passage in II Corinthians 5, as it relates to the scope of the atonement, is that “they which live” (as new creatures in Christ) are viewed as a subset of the “all [who] were dead”. One could hardly make sense of a teaching that declares the word “all” within this narrow context to have two or three different meanings that are not coextensive in scope. But “they which live” – now there we have a group smaller and infinitely more privileged than the whole mass of mankind.

It is this smaller group of souls who have new life, and whose sins are washed away because the Lord Jesus bore them “in His body on the tree”². He suffered the wrath of a righteous God for the sins of all who believe on Him, and we see this clearly in Isaiah 53:5, 10-12. Peter refers to this remarkable prophecy when he quotes it: “By His stripes we are healed.”  This is usually referred to as the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work, because He stood in as the perfect Substitute for all believers of every age, suffering for our sins because we could never bear the righteous judgment of God for them in order to stand in His presence as “holy and without blame” (Ephesians 1:4).

Yet at the same time the Lord Jesus was bearing the sins of believers, He was making atonement or “propitiation for . . . the whole world” (I John 2:2). In this aspect of His work, He purified the “heavenly things” with His own blood, an infinitely better sacrifice than ever was used to purify the earthly tabernacle.³  God has been propitiated (or appeased)  with respect to every sin ever committed against Him by members of the human race, so that He can reach out to man in mercy, without compromising His holy character (Romans 3:25-26; Psalm 85:10).

The two goats presented before Jehovah on the Day of Atonement provide a picture of this two-fold nature of Christ’s atoning work (see Leviticus 16). One goat was not enough to show in type how the Lord Jesus not only made atonement in the sanctuary for the totality of the sin and uncleanness of the people, but also acted as the sin-bearer, bearing confessed sins away forever. The first goat was Jehovah’s lot, and the effect of its offering was universal and general in propitiating God, providing a righteous basis for Him to be merciful toward all.  The second goat was the Scapegoat, and it took confession of sins and a transfer of guilt (v. 21) for the atonement to be effectual for the sinner.  Scriptures like Psalm 22:1-3, Psalm 69:1-9, Isaiah 53, and Matthew 27:45-46 show clearly how the Lord Jesus suffered under the judgment of God for three dark hours on Calvary for the sins of all of His own. Sadly, all who reject God’s mercy in Christ must suffer for their own sins, as shown clearly in John 8:24, Romans 2:8-9, and Revelation 20:12-13.

Believers on Jesus can know that He bore their sins, that He was their Substitute under the judgment of a righteous God, for they have by faith had their sins “laid on Him”. And they can have the comfort of knowing that for their unbelieving neighbors or family members, Christ is the Propitiation (Mercy-seat)* for all.  The offer of mercy and salvation ought never to be spoken of as limited, as though it had not the whole world for its scope. We have reason to speak of a definite atonement, or a particular atonement, for all who avail themselves of the offer of eternal life, and whose sins are borne away, but the infinite work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross should never be called a “limited atonement”.

 

¹   I Timothy 2:6; II Corinthians 5:14-15

²   Revelation 1:5; I Peter 2:24

³   Hebrews 9:23; Leviticus 16:15-19

*   Romans 3:25

The Voice of the Shepherd

Many voices clamor to be heard in our modern world.  With the advances in technology over the past century, broadcast media and (more recently) social media have made it possible for almost any forceful and persistent voice to be heard.  Add to that the fact that in most of the Western world the concept of freedom of speech is held in high esteem, and we have a social environment in which there is little restraint of either constructive or destructive, of either gracious or hateful, messages. As long as God is merciful in allowing the gospel of His grace and sound teaching to be disseminated via this array of media, much blessing is able to come by means of them to saint and sinner.

But there is also great cause for concern among faithful Christian teachers, evangelists, and pastors (shepherds). The world system is under the power of the “god of this world” (Satan), who seeks to blind the minds of unbelievers, so that the light of the gospel of Christ’s glory won’t shine out for their salvation and blessing.¹  Satan is not standing idly by and allowing the truth of God’s word to be faithfully preached and taught in its unadulterated essence. One of His many “devices”² in recent years seems to be to clutter the broadcast and social media space with a mixture of truth and error.

The Lord Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, who would lay down His life for His sheep (John 10). In that same discourse to unbelieving Jews, Jesus spoke of His sheep as those who hear His voice and follow Him, all the while being known (and foreknown³) by Him. The Lord elsewhere spoke of Himself as the Son of God who quickens (gives life to) whomever He will among men, and with that comes the ability to hear His voice and enjoy eternal life (John 5:21-25). Any desire we have to follow Him as our Shepherd is a result of that new life within our souls. The necessary implication of that desire to follow the Lord Jesus is that we must be able to discern between the voices in the Christian profession that are misleading, as contrasted with those that are channels for the Shepherd’s voice, exhorting us to follow Him.

Nehemiah, an Old Testament saint with the discernment that accompanies spiritual life, refused to take the course of action recommended by one of his Jewish countrymen that professed to be a prophet. That act of going into the temple for refuge would have put him in a compromising and unscriptural position (Nehemiah 6:10-12). “And, lo, I perceived that God had not sent him”, he writes, and we can take courage from that to refuse the voices and “prophecies” that will bring compromise, disobedience, and the “spirit of fear”.*

The truth that the believer in Christ is indwelt by the Holy Spirit allows for even keener discernment as to the truth or error of a teaching presented for our acceptance. “The anointing which ye have received of Him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in Him” (I John 2:27).  God gives us teachers to help us understand the word of God, but we need only the Spirit of God to recognize the truth, which is embodied in the Shepherd’s voice (John 1:17; 14:6).

For a little help in understanding how a Christian can act on this principle practically in a fragmented Christendom today, I give here a few examples of religious teachings that do not bear the character of our Shepherd’s voice:

  • That believers in Christ will enjoy health and prosperity in this life as a result of their faith.
  • That salvation and eternal life come by doing good works, and are maintained by our efforts.
  • That miraculous signs or speaking in “tongues” is required evidence of new life by the Spirit of God.
  • That obedience to authoritarian dictates from the clergy or to church rules pleases God.
  • That God approves of recent reinterpretations of His moral standards (particularly with regard to sexuality).
  • That the act or the manner of meeting with other Christians is a matter of personal preferences.
  • That Christians have a duty to involve themselves in the politics and warfare of this world.^

Now the matter of our motives must be addressed as well in this regard. The Lord Jesus spoke these searching words: “If any one desire to practice His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is of God . . .” (John 7:17, Darby translation). How prone we are to falter in this exercise, even as believers!  But the Christian has no promise of discernment without this component to the life of faith: a desire to please God.

I do not deny the power of God in using His word to quicken and save a soul, even if presented in mixture with error.  But sadly, too much of what passes for Christian teaching is but an admixture of the truth with fleshly or worldly principles, catering to either the pride or lust of men, and the results can be destructive of faith. Those who teach Christians ought to call out this element for what it is.

Believers can enjoy something much better than a confusing cacophony of religious voices; we have the capacity both to hear the voice of the Shepherd, and to follow Him while enjoying His perfect gift of eternal life.

 

¹   II Corinthians 4:4

²  Or designs, or thoughts – II Corinthians 2:11

³   John 10:16,27,29

*   II Timothy 1:7

^   Scripture references addressing these false teachings will be given later in the comments section, or upon request.