“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

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