As I continue my blog series on myths and caricatures of Calvinism (others can be read here, here, here, and here), I have decided to devote a whole blog to the issue of definite atonement alone (also known as particular redemption, limited atonement). I made this decision because of two reasons: one, this is usually the point that most nonreformed folk stumble over or struggle with (“I’m just not so sure about limited atonement,” “I just cannot believe Jesus didn’t die for everyone,” or “limited atonement is unbiblical.”) and two, because it concerns the cross itself, it behooves us to get this doctrine right. Many have gone as far as labeling the doctrine of limited atonement heresy (the late great Jerry Falwell) and unbiblical (Roger Olson). Traditions, methods of evangelism, and biblical exposition concerning Jesus’ work are directly affected by this doctrine. This discussion is multifaceted and quite difficult to have amongst my fellow Baptists. James White in his book Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views (coauthored with Dave Hunt) summarized why it is complicated many times. He said:
Few topics reveal more clearly the role tradition plays in evangelical theology more than the commonly held views about the cross of Jesus Christ. It is not that the Bible’s teaching on the atonement is unclear or confusing. Instead, the clear theology of Scripture is often encrusted with the oft-repeated platitudes of tradition that, due to constant repetition, become accepted as biblical axioms without the first shred of meaningful biblical support. Emotion and sentimentality become attached to these phrases of evangelical tradition so that any questioning of their faithfulness to Scripture is met with accusations of heresy.
Before beginning, a running definition of definite atonement is that Jesus Christ accomplished, secured, and guaranteed the actual salvation of all who the Father gave to him with his atoning death upon the cross on their behalf. Also, in a perfect world, the term “limited atonement” likely wouldn’t be utilized because of the propensity for misunderstanding. From the outset, using the descriptor “limited” in opposition with “unlimited” makes one sound more gracious or universalistic (somehow more “biblical”). A bias could easily be formed before any meaningful dialogue is to be had because who wants to limit what Jesus did? But, say one frames the discussion using the terms “definite” and “indefinite” when talking about the doctrine. From there, the discussion would be biased because who wants to affirm a seemingly pointless or unaimed atonement? We do not live in a perfect world so the terms will have to be used. A wise reader will recognize his biases and continue on in theological formation in humility. To that end, this blog will seek to address some of the myths or caricatures associated with limited atonement.
Definite atonement is unsupported by Scripture.
This claim is believed by the Reformed to be demonstrably false. Particular redemption is an explicit deduction, inference, and consequence of what the Scripture teaches about the work of Christ itself. The Scriptures describe the end intended and accomplished by Christ’s work as the full salvation (actual reconciliation, justification, and sanctification) of his people: Christ came to actually save men from their sins (Matt. 1:21; Luke 19:10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:3-4; 1 Tim. 1:15; Titus; 2:14; 1 Pet. 3:18), God’s people are said to be reconciled to him, justified, and given the Holy Spirit who regenerates and sanctifies them (reconciled [Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph. 2:15-16; Col. 1:21-22], justified [Rom. 3:24-25, 5:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 3:13; Col. 1:13-14; Heb. 9:12; 1 Pet. 2:24], and secured with the gift of the Holy Spirit for regeneration and sanctification [Eph. 1:3-5; Phil. 1:29; Acts 5:31; Titus 2:14. 3:5-6; Eph. 5:25-26; 1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 9:14, 13:12; 1 John 1:7]). Jesus is said to have fulfilled and achieved what the Father desired in the salvation of his people (John 6:35-40, 10:11, 14-18, 24-29). Jesus prayed as a high priest of behalf of those the Father gave to him (John 17:1-11, 230, 24-26). The point of all these passages is that salvation is an actual reality. The very wording of the passages means that what God intended to do through Jesus was accomplished.
Jesus did not seek to make people savable; he actually saved. For the Arminian, Amyraldian, or anyone else holding to a general atonement, Jesus did not secure the salvation of anyone specifically. It is left for the individual to procure the salvation by their choice or reception of his work. The only problem for such a position is that it is not derived from the text itself. The literal reading of those passages speak of actualities; not potentialities. Take for instance 1 John 2:2 (“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world”). The text does not say or mean that “every person can be forgiven for their sins if they come to Christ” or “he is the propitiation for our sins, because we believed, and not only for ours, but he is a potential propitiation for the whole world, if only they believe, but of course we know they won’t.” It says that Christ was the propitiation (a sacrifice that literally turns away wrath) for our sins and also for the whole world. What is lacking is the theoretical nature of the atoning act.
The Puritan pastor-scholar John Owen in his magisterial work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ highlights the problems that arise from hypothetical readings of those passages. From the nature of the atonement itself, he derived the following syllogism:
The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either.
- All the sins of all men.
- All the sins of some men, or
- Some of the sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
- That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so,none are saved.
- That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
- But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, “Because of unbelief.”
- I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!”
Owen’s options prove daunting for those who believe in the general atonement of Christ. The doctrine of particular redemption takes seriously the words of the text when it speaks about the nature of the work of Christ. “The atonement as biblically defined means that salvation has been accomplished. The idea that it only makes salvation possible if men contribute an act of the will is not derived from Scripture. All the theological terms that we have examined within the theological orbit of the atonement teach a salvation secured. Expiation means that all the guilt of sin is removed; propitiation means that God’s wrath against the sinner is removed. Reconciliation means that God is now a friend of the justified sinner. Redemption means that Christ has paid the full ransom price to God.”
All means all, world means every single person without distinction and everyone means everyone.
Both sides affirm that Scripture occasionally speaks in narrowing and universalizing terms when it describes the work of Christ. Christ is said to have died in a limited sense for the following: for the sheep (John 10:11, 15), the Church of God (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25), us or our [Christians] (Rom. 5:8, 10, 8:32; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4, 3:13; Eph. 1:7), the elect (Rom. 8:33-34), his people (Matt. 1:21), the many (Isa. 53:12; Matt. 20:28, 26:28; Mark 10:45) and who Jesus deems friends ( John 15:13). Yet, Scripture also affirms a universal sense in regards to Christ’s death in the following: world (John 1:29, 3:16, 6:51; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2), all (1 Tim. 2:6), and everyone (Heb. 2:9). The general atonement proponents typically will raise their hands after such universalizing statements and say “All means all, world means every single person without distinction and everyone means everyone.” The Reformed respond with “not so fast!” Such universalizing passages can be understood in rather narrow ways (world, all, and everyone can mean a limited number of recipients) whereas narrowing passages cannot be used in a universalizing ways (many, some and this number can never mean all without distinction). We speak in universalistic terms when we mean a limited number of people or things. Why can Scripture not? An example would be like a football announcer who says “the whole city of New Orleans is in attendance to see the Saints win the Super Bowl tonight” while obviously some are not. There are good linguistic, textual, and theological reasons for understanding the universalizing passages in a limited sense albeit some passages clearly mean all without reservation (Rom. 3:23). Responding to a statement that “No linguistic, exegetical, or theological grounds exist for reducing the meaning of ‘world’ to ‘the elect.” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical Critique of Five Point Calvinism, Tom Nettles said:
This flattening of the meaning of those words simply is not the way that the Bible uses them. Without contention, Romans 3:23, at the close of Paul’s discussion of the universal impact of sin, means every person without exception. At the same time “the whole world” in 1 John 5:19 contextually taken does not include each and every individual for it specifically excludes those “born of God.” So Jesus distinguished the “world” from His people in His intercessory prayer in John 17:9, 14-16. Jesus’ use of “all” in John 12:32 [“will draw all men to me”] has reference to His crucifixion as embracing the non-Jewish peoples as well as the Jews when seen in the context of John 12:20-23. It is easy empirically to demonstrate that His death does not draw each and every individual but certainly does extend the manifestation of the “eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20) to all the peoples of the world. Paul’s argument in Romans 11:11-15 identifies “world” with “Gentiles” as opposed to Jews and could easily be applied to his “all men” and “all” in 1 Timothy 2:4, 6 as he asserted and defended the legitimacy of his mission to the Gentiles (7). The covenantal embracing of Gentiles, the world, scandalized the Jews who missed justification by failing to see that they, in conjunction with the world, were dependent on the operations of electing grace. (Romans 10:1-13). Paul’s application of Joel 2:32 “whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” and his inclusion of the Gentiles in the “remnant whom the Lord shall call” upset the religious equilibrium of Israel. The New Testament from beginning to end hovers over that concept expressive of the New Covenant, so an interpretation of “all” and “world” with that as background lacks no exegetical warrant.”
Textually, the “whole world” many times does not mean “all the inhabitants of the earth without distinction” but a more limiting viewpoint. Scripture writers intentionally and knowingly used universal terms when describing limiting circumstances and numbers. New Testament scholar/theologian Dr. Don Hartley pointed out the following:
Matt 26:13 (Mark 14:9) predicts that the story of the woman will be retold in “the whole world.” But if this means all people of all times and places we have problems. First, not all people in the world at any time have heard the story never mind all peoples of all times. Second, no one in hell heard it. This seems to preclude the notion that the “whole world” includes all people of all times and places. Rom 1:8 refers to the faith of the Romans being spoken about in the “whole world.” But this is manifestly untrue if it means all people of all times and places. Not even all people of Paul’s day would have heard about the faith of the Roman Christians. It could refer to the whole Roman world but this would exclude nations like China. It is most likely a reference to an even slimmer group, namely, the Pauline churches. Matt 16:26 (Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25) refers to a man gaining “the whole world” and losing his soul. Does it mean gaining all people of all times and places? Does it mean gaining all wealth and power available? This seems unlikely. Rather, it refers to having a sufficiency in terms of material possessions and power beyond the norm and even to an exceptional degree. It certainly is not intended to be all inclusive and no one would have thought it entailed all wealth and all power never mind all people of all times and places. 1 John 5:19 says “the whole world lies in the lap of the evil one.” This is false if “whole world” means all people of all times and places. The saved elect do not lie in the lap of the evil one, nor does Jesus. Only the unsaved elect and the non-elect lie in his lap—the former only temporarily. These are contrasted with those who are “of God,” that is, regenerate. This phrase is clearly limited by John. This use of “world” is similar to his Gospel. In the early chapters of John, “world” refers to the elect only (cf. 1 John 2:2). However, in the later chapters (John 17) the “world” refers to the non-elect (cf. 1 John 5:19). This is literary evidence that John is quite consistent in his use of the world with respect to limited referents and elastic with respect to which referents he specifies. Acts 11:18 records the words of Agabus who predicted that a famine “over the whole world” would take place in the days of Claudius. But this famine was restricted to places and regions within the Roman empire and was not worldwide. It did not include all people of all times and places. Acts 19:27 says that the whole world worshipped Diana. This is manifestly false if it refers to all people at all times and places not to mention all people of that time and place. Jews did not worship Diana nor did Christians and certainly not Paul. It is also unlikely that Demetrius meant all people for rhetorical effect. Few would have understood him that way. He simply means that some people in many (if not all) places of the known world (and probably only the Roman world was in mind) worship Diana.
Many more examples could be given where the universal language just does not and virtually cannot mean “all without distinction”: Luke 2:1; Matt. 3:5; Mark 1:5, 10:22; Acts 1:8, 2:17 [Joel 2:28] 26:4; John 11:51-52; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col 1:6; 1 Tim. 6:10; Rev. 3:10, 12:9.
Jewish provincialism (ethnocentrism/exclusivism) is also being combated within the New Testament community. The benefits of the covenant are open to both Jew and Gentile alike (see Eph. 2:11-3:13; Acts 15; Rom. 4:17). The terms “all men” and “world” are corporate terms (Rom. 11:11-15) referring to not only Jews but Gentiles. Because of Christ’s work, there is a “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Rev 7:9).” The whole world is represented before God.
The Reformed see the universal language to be referring to the elect only, kinds/types/classes of people, and specific numbers of people because of the Jewish ethnocentrism/exclusivism within the early Church, the hyperbolic nature of language itself, and the fact that taking the text in a “all without distinction” manners leads inevitability to heresies such as universalism (because of the nature of the atonement itself, such passages say “too much.”). This myth can be virtually denied in view of such evidences.
It diminishes the glory of the atonement by limiting it.
Unfortunately for all within the discussion concerning the atonement, all parties limit the atonement in some way. Sam Waldron in an article from the book Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, wrote that:
All evangelical Christians who believe that only some will ultimately be saved by Christ’s death hold to a limited atonement. They concede, in other words, that in some sense the atonement is limited. Arminians and Amyraldians limit the efficacy of the atonement by affirming that some for whom Christ died will nevertheless be lost. Calvinists limits its extent. The question is not, therefore, whether the atonement is limited but whether it is limited in its extent or its efficacy.
The issue is really about how someone limits the work of Jesus. Not if someone limits the atonement. The Calvinist looks at the cross and says it is limited in its number of people it is aimed to actually save (actual salvation for a large, selective number). The Arminian looks at the cross and says it is limited in the type of saving work which it was intended to accomplish (hypothetical salvation for a large, unselective number). Both sides affirm the absolute sufficiency or preciousness of the work itself. The cross is of inestimable worth and glory. Michael Horton in his book For Calvinism noted:
[The Canons of Dort expressed that]…Christ’s death is “of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,” although Christ objectively and effectively bore the sins of the elect alone. Dort was repeating the common formula, “sufficient for the whole world but efficient for the elect alone.” This formula is found in various medieval systems, including the writings of Aquinas, Gregory of Rimini, and Luther’s mentor, Johann von Staupitz. As the formula indicates, this view (definite atonement) does not limit the sufficiency or availability of Christ’s saving work. Rather, it holds that the specific intention of Christ as he went to the cross was to save the elect.
The Calvinist sees the limitation of the atonement in extent as theologically rich. They refuse the general atonement’s limitation because of the implications that naturally arise from it. Spurgeon famously quipped:
We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it, we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.” We ask them the next question-Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They say, “No.” They are obliged to admit this if they are consistent. They say, “No; Christ has died so that any man may be saved if”-and then follow certain conditions of salvation. We say then, we will just go back to the old statement-Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did He? You must say “No;” you are obliged to say so, for you believe that even after a man has been pardoned, he may yet fall from grace and perish. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why you… We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.
I believe that Christ came into the world not to put men into a salvable state, but into a saved state. Not to put them where they could save themselves, but to do the work in them and for them, from first to last. If I did not believe that there was might going forth with the word of Jesus which makes men willing, and which turns them from the error of their ways by the mighty, overwhelming, constraining force of divine influence, I should cease to glory in the cross of Christ.
The cross of Christ is a great leveler of human beings not just because it shows that we are all desperate sinners, and not just because it can only be received by faith, but also because it is such a full and effective ransom for the elect that no child of God dare ever think that we made any contribution to purchase. No color, no ethnicity, no intelligence, no skill, no human wealth or power can add anything to the all-sufficient, all-effective sacrifice of Christ. We are one in our utter dependence on his blood and righteousness.