I know a lot of people who would say, “I’m a 4-point (or a 4 ½-point) Calvinist.” The point that hangs them up is the “L” which stands for Limited Atonement. This point is the most disputed of the doctrines that comprise the TULIP, even amongst Calvinists. In this post I will attempt to give a brief synopsis of Limited Atonement, provide some alternative language that may be more helpful, present a logical defense of the doctrine, and point to some of its limitations — all in fewer than one thousand words. Here goes.
The word limiteditself has a negative connotation and suggests to someone not familiar with the five points of Calvinism that the atonement was in some way less than complete. While this is certainly not the teaching, it is not difficult to see how people get there. When the term limited atonement is used, it refers to the intent of what Christ accomplished on the cross. That is, Christ’s death was not intended to atone for everyone’s sins, just those of the elect (see unconditional election). While this may sound a bit harsh, to say the opposite, namely, that Christ died for everyone, is potentially far worse. If Christ died for everyone (that is, every single person who ever lived), then everyone is saved. Or, everyone has the potential for being saved, and need only to appropriate the benefits of the cross by some means. The difficulty here is with man’s total inability to do anything to appropriate anything spiritual.
Rather than thinking in terms of the limits of the atonement, language that is more helpful may be particular redemption or definite atonement. That is, Christ’s atoning work accomplished precisely what was intended by the Father, namely, to redeem those people who had been chosen from before the foundation of the world to be rescued. This makes Christ an actual Savior rather than a potential Savior.
A simple logical exercise has been helpful for me to think this through.
Christ died for either:
- All the sins of all people.
- Some of the sins of all people.
- All the sins of some people.
If Christ died for all the sins of all people, then it necessarily follows that all people are saved. This is universalism, which the Bible does not teach. And if we insist that he died for all the sins of all people, and all they have to do is believe, isn’t their unbelief a sin? And if it is a sin, did Christ not die for it? This is not a biblical option.
If Christ died for some of the sins of all people, then there are sins left un-atoned for. And if all sins are not forgiven, either the individual is left to make atonement for their own sins (by works of righteousness), or they end up not being completely forgiven and end up in hell. This not only makes atonement impossible, but would make the cross of Christ a cruel hoax and worse. There would be no hope.
The third option, that Christ died to atone for all of the sins of some people, is the only logically defensible one. All the sins (including the sin of unbelief) are completely atoned for on the cross, and, therefore, those people are surely rescued from all their sin. Christ’s death actually accomplished the salvation of all those for whom he gave his life. Christ loved the church (the called out ones) and he gave his life for her (Ephesians 5:25). It also puts the entirety of our salvation (from start to finish) in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and we rest not at all upon our own efforts or goodness. We need this kind of Savior.
Now there is a real sense in which Christ died for the whole world. This can be seen in two ways:
He died for people of all kinds (Jew, Greek, male, female, young, old, rich, poor, slave, free). He did not come to redeem a certain class of people, but all people.
His death is the means by which he is reconciling all of creation to himself. This second point is beyond the scope of this post, but is a very important one.
Some limitations of the doctrine are not found within the doctrine itself, but in how it is employed by some people. There are those (although I’ve never actually met one) who could say that we are only to preach the gospel to the elect, because it is for them that it is intended. First, this is not biblical. Mark’s account of the Great Commission says, “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.'” John Gill, himself accused of being a hyper-Calvinist, said that we are to preach the gospel promiscuously. Second, we don’t know who the elect are. There is no mark or name-tag that says, “Elect: Preach to Me.” (To my theologian friends, insert your nuances here.) So we proclaim Christ and the gospel of his kingdom to all people. If God enlivens faith in them to believe through the good news, then we know they are his and have always been his.
Interestingly, the charge that this doctrine kills evangelism is often leveled by people who have effectively killed evangelism in their own lives through their own lack of belief in the gospel. Biblical illiteracy, love of this world, unbelief in Christ, and a poor understanding of who God really is are far worse enemies to evangelism, and far more pervasive.
So we affirm God’s particular redemption of his people. Without it, how lost we would still be.