Limited Atonement, Part 1

The doctrine of the atonement in Christian theology refers to the work performed by Christ on the cross. It teaches that on the cross Christ did “atone,” or made amends for man’s sin by bearing its punishment.

Sin rightly angers a righteous God (Deuteronomy 25:16). Sin is transgression of God’s holy law. Sin is anything that stands in contrast to the character and nature of God. Because God has a just nature He can’t simply ignore it. God is obligated to punish sin.

But God is merciful as well as just. At the cross, God took man’s place and paid the price for sin by bearing the burden and suffering for it Himself in the person of Christ. In Christ, God manifested both justice and mercy.

Christ’s death on the cross appeased God’s anger towards sin (1John 2:2; John 19:30). Sin was punished on the cross (Romans 3:25-26). Therefore, Christ’s atonement reconciles sinners to God.

Now, we have a question. Whose sins were punished on the cross Did Christ bear the sins of non-believers on the cross as well as believers? In other words, “For whom did Christ die?”

In the Calvinist view, the full blessings of Christ’s atonement are limited, or reserved for the elect – those whom God has foreordained will come to personal faith in Christ. This was the view of the Reformation. However, this is not what the majority of evangelical Christianity now preaches.

If you ask most evangelical Christians today, “For whom did Christ die?,” they’ll respond by saying, “For the whole world.” And this is absolutely correct – in one sense:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). “… (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1Timothy 4:10).

Christ’s atonement is for “the world.” Okay. What does this mean?

Most Christians (influenced by Arminianism) simply assume these Scriptures mean Christ’s atoning work on the cross applies to all individuals in the same way.

That’s a mistake.

Remember, in order to interpret Scripture correctly we have to interpret individual verses in the light of other verses. We can’t just assume the Bible teaches certain things apart from what is revealed in the whole council of God’s Word. Most Christians would agree with this. But when push comes to shove many believers don’t like to scratch beyond the surface of many verses to find their more accurate meaning, or see how they harmonize with the whole Scripture. Doing this requires work. And such effort isn’t always easy.

Is this an honest assessment of reality? If so, then please bear with me if I say some things you may never have heard before. In two previous articles we’ve discussed how Scripture distinguishes the elect from the non-elect. And when we study what Scripture teaches about Christ’s atonement we find it doesn’t teach Christ’s death relates to all individuals in the same way.

Let me explain.

When most Christians say, “Christ died for the sins of the world,” they believe His atonement simply makes salvation possible for someone to be saved. They don’t believe Christ’s atonement actually saves anyone. How do I know this? Because all individuals obviously aren’t saved.

This brings us to the first problem with an Arminian view of the atonement.

It implies Jesus’ death on the cross actually fails to accomplish what God meant for it to accomplish – saving people from sin. My Arminian friends will no doubt protest at this point. “No Joe, you don’t understand,” they’ll say. Christ’s atonement actually

accomplishes salvation, but individuals have to first believe in Christ in order to receive the blessings of His atonement for themselves.” To which I respond, “If someone has to do anything first in order to benefit from Christ’s atonement then His atonement doesn’t actually save anyone, it only makes salvation possible.”

We’re back to square one.

If Jesus died for every human being in the same way (and many don’t come to faith in Him and aren’t saved) then His death failed to accomplish for a great many people what God intended – that is, to actually (effectively) save those people from sin.

Does the Bible teach such a thing? No.

According to Scripture, God’s plans CAN’T fail (Isaiah 46:10).

When God set out to save a people for Himself He said He would DO it (Ezekiel 36: 25-27). Not maybe do it. Again we ask, did God actually save anyone at the cross – or just make salvation possible for individuals?

If Christ’s atonement actually accomplishes salvation for those it meant to save then how is it there are so many people not saved? And what does the Bible mean when it says Christ died for “the world?” Good questions.

Let’s try to answer them.

The Bible portrays the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ as the central event in human history. Everything prior to Christ’s life and death in Scripture anticipates the coming of Messiah. Since Messiah has now come the Gospel now calls upon all people to look back

upon Christ’s death and see their salvation as resting upon it. Christ’s redemptive work is portrayed as the central focus of human history.

Why? Because Christ is God the Son. God deals with man’s sin in terms of the cross, and to some extent all humanity is blessed by what took place at the cross.

God’s final judgment upon the sinful world is currently being withheld while He gathers those for whom Christ died – those who receive forgiveness of sins because of the cross (John 10:15-16; John 11:51-52; Matthew 13:29-30). This gathering of the elect takes place through the universal, worldwide preaching of the Gospel (Mark16:15-16; Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19).

This preaching of the Gospel takes place in “the world.” To “all” people throughout the world without distinction. God loves rich people. Poor people. The (bond) slave. Free people. All races. All ethnic groups. All classes. People in every language group. From every nation.

In short, God reaches out to “all” people groups because He has an elect people among them He has reserved for Himself (Revelations 5:9;7:9).

But take note. The fact that God has ordained the Gospel to be preached throughout the world (to “all” people) doesn’t mean Christ bore the sins of un-believers in His atonement. C.H. Spurgeon’s comments (from a sermon entitled Particular Redemption) on 1Timothy 2:5-6 which says, ” … the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all …” help clarify this a bit:

“The whole world is gone after Him” (John 12:19). Did all the world go after Christ? “Then went all Judea, and were baptized of him in Jordan” (Matthew 3:5-6). Was all Judea, or all Jerusalem baptized in Jordan? “Ye are of God, little children,” and “the whole world lieth in the wicked one” (1John 5:19). Does “the whole world” there mean everybody? If so, how was it, then, that there were some who were “of God?” The words “world” and “all” are used in seven or eight senses in Scripture; and it is very rarely that “all” means all persons, taken individually. The words are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts—some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted His redemption to either Jew or Gentile.

Let’s read what Paul wrote to Timothy again:

“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle…” (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

Paul is specifically asking for prayers to be made for the Gospel to peacefully proceed unhindered. Why? Because God desires that “all men” (referring to all the different kinds of elect individuals) will come to faith in Christ through the worldwide preaching of the Gospel.

Written by: Dr. Chuck F. Betters and Joe Faranaccio