Who Put the “L” in TULIP?

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:

  1. All the sins of all people.
  2. Some of the sins of all people. 
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


14 responses to “Who Put the “L” in TULIP?

  1. In no way do I desire to be contentious, only to make a point that seems “clarifying” to me…

    I find your arguments interesting but not convincing – simply because I think you are making a huge “jump” in your logic. This jump is obviously based on your pre-held 5-point beliefs. Your adherance to “irresistable grace” makes you believe, as you stated, that, “If Christ died for all the sins of all people, then it necessarily follows that all people are saved.” THAT is the jumpt – It DOESN’T necessarily follow. It doesn’t because irresistable grace is a flawed doctrinal position. Acts 7:51, John 1:11-12, John 3:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:19, and others make this point.

    Now, I agree that nobody can “receive” anything unless it is given him from heaven (John 3:27) but that does not mean that grace is irresistable, only that we cannot believe unless God allows us to believe.

    In favor of an “unlimited” atonement are verses like 1 Timothy 4:10 (where Paul calls Jesus “Savior” of all men and “especially” those who believe – a clear distinction of the two “classes” of people who are included under Christ’s “Savior”-ship) makes a strong case. As well, 1 John 2:2 teaches clearly that Jesus’ propitiation is for the entire world, not only the elect. And another, 2 Peter 2:1 shows how FALSE teachers were “bought” by Jesus (atonement?).

    Do I have a good explanation for how all this works together? No, but I’m working on it – and I’m fine if I never get it, simply because truth is God-sized and my brain is not…


  2. Carey,

    Thanks for the questions and comments. If I may return a question: If Christ died for all the sins of all people, how does it follow that all people are not saved?

    I would say that Limited Atonement is based more firmly in Unconditional Election than in Irresistible Grace, although they do work together.

    Much of what you’re saying I can affirm on one level, but it may end up that we’re talking about different things. I do think that there is an “all” component to the redemptive work of Christ, but this falls more, for me, into an eschatological category than a soteriological one (although the soteriological in this instance is tightly knitted to the eschatological).

    I’m not really saying anything new in my posts about Calvinism. I’m really just trying to present the ideas in something of an abbreviated form so that people can begin to wrestle with the language and concepts.

  3. Hi Rob,

    You said, “If Christ dies for all the sins of all people, how does it follow that all people are not saved?”

    That was the point I was trying to make by bringing up the Irresistable Grace issue. All people are not saved because people CAN resist God’s grace (see the verses I mentioned before). Universalism is NOT the necessary outcome of unlimited atonement because God, IN His sovereignty has allowed man choice to resist His grace or to accept it.

  4. Carey, I’ll post on Irresistibel Grace in the next day or so as I continue the series on the TULIP. As I do, I’ll work to address your position more carefully. At the end of the day it may be that we don’t agree, but the exchange is welcome nonetheless.

  5. Another point that shouldn’t be missed here is that unless one is a universalist, we all hold to a limited atonement of some variety. We either believe it was (is) limited by its effect or its design. In light of my understanding of sovereignty, it is necessary that it is limited by his design and intent.

  6. Once again, people seem to put themselves above the Lord GOD in one way or another. For some reason people, christians or not, cannot fathom that they are servents and that GOD “owes” you nothing and you owe HIM everything.Not a few things, EVERYTHING. Limited means limited. Christ gave all for a few, pray for grace to show you how to accept this most wonderful gift.

  7. I appreciate your comments Brian, I agree that GOD is in total control, but also believe that HE has give us a modicum of choice underneath His sovereign will. I believe that shows Him to be even MORE sovereign.

    You said, “Christ gave all for a few, pray for grace to show you how to accept this most wonderful gift.” Your comment, though well-intentioned, no doubt, smacks of condescension – something I’ve run into quite often among 5-pointers. I don’t think that’s very flattering to you or your position (or Christ-like). I will pray (as I do) for the grace to accept whatever God has willed, but I’d like someone to show me SCRIPTURAL proof for a statement like you made. All I’m ever given are passages where that meaning is STRAINED out of it, not plain and simple – like the gospel message.


  8. Carey,
    When has praying for GODS grace to see and understand his wonderful gifts to the elect become condescending?? Thank you for the prayers, I welcome them. I will also pray for you. P.S. do you have many people seek your flattery?
    May Christ Guide.

  9. Brian,

    I’m not sure how to take your last question… “seek my flattery”????? Do you mean “Do I experience people trying to flatter me?” OR “Do I experience many people trying to get me to flatter them?”

  10. I think Brian and Carey are missing each others’ points, so I’m going to step in and call time out.

    The issue at hand is the extent and design of the atonement. Please keep discussion relevant to the topic.

  11. John Piper wrote the following and I find it helpful. I know Rob was trying to be brief, but oh well.

    Limited Atonement

    The atonement is the work of God in Christ on the cross whereby he canceled the debt of our sin, appeased his holy wrath against us, and won for us all the benefits of salvation. The death of Christ was necessary because God would not show a just regard for his glory if he swept sins under the rug with no recompense.

    Romans 3:25-26 says that God “put Christ forward as a propitiation by his blood…This was to demonstrate God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

    In other words the death of Christ was necessary to vindicate the righteousness of God in justifying the ungodly by faith. It would be unrighteous to forgive sinners as though their sin were insignificant, when in fact it is an infinite insult against the value of God’s glory. Therefore Jesus bears the curse, which was due to our sin, so that we can be justified and the righteousness of God can be vindicated.

    The term “limited atonement” addresses the question, “For whom did Christ die?” But behind the question of the extent of the atonement lies the equally important question about the nature of the atonement. What did Christ actually achieve on the cross for those for whom he died?

    If you say that he died for every human being in the same way, then you have to define the nature of the atonement very differently than you would if you believed that Christ only died for those who actually believe. In the first case you would believe that the death of Christ did not actually save anybody; it only made all men savable. It did not actually remove God’s punitive wrath from anyone, but instead created a place where people could come and find mercy—IF they could accomplish their own new birth and bring themselves to faith without the irresistible grace of God.

    For if Christ died for all men in the same way then he did not purchase regenerating grace for those who are saved. They must regenerate themselves and bring themselves to faith. Then and only then do they become partakers of the benefits of the cross.

    In other words if you believe that Christ died for all men in the same way, then the benefits of the cross cannot include the mercy by which we are brought to faith, because then all men would be brought to faith, but they aren’t. But if the mercy by which we are brought to faith (irresistible grace) is not part of what Christ purchased on the cross, then we are left to save ourselves from the bondage of sin, the hardness of heart, the blindness of corruption, and the wrath of God.

    Therefore it becomes evident that it is not the Calvinist who limits the atonement. It is the Arminian, because he denies that the atoning death of Christ accomplishes what we most desperately need—namely, salvation from the condition of deadness and hardness and blindness under the wrath of God. The Arminian limits the nature and value and effectiveness of the atonement so that he can say that it was accomplished even for those who die in unbelief and are condemned. In order to say that Christ died for all men in the same way, the Arminian must limit the atonement to a powerless opportunity for men to save themselves from their terrible plight of depravity.

    On the other hand we do not limit the power and effectiveness of the atonement. We simply say that in the cross God had in view the actual redemption of his children. And we affirm that when Christ died for these, he did not just create the opportunity for them to save themselves, but really purchased for them all that was necessary to get them saved, including the grace of regeneration and the gift of faith.

    We do not deny that all men are the intended beneficiaries of the cross in some sense. 1 Timothy 4:10 says that Christ is “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” What we deny is that all men are intended as the beneficiaries of the death of Christ in the same way. All of God’s mercy toward unbelievers—from the rising sun (Matthew 5:45) to the worldwide preaching of the gospel (John 3:16)—is made possible because of the cross.

    This is the implication of Romans 3:25 where the cross is presented as the basis of God’s righteousness in passing over sins. Every breath that an unbeliever takes is an act of God’s mercy withholding judgment (Romans 2:4). Every time the gospel is preached to unbelievers it is the mercy of God that gives this opportunity for salvation.

    Whence does this mercy flow to sinners? How is God just to withhold judgment from sinners who deserve to be immediately cast into hell? The answer is that Christ’s death so clearly demonstrates God’s just abhorrence of sin that he is free to treat the world with mercy without compromising his righteousness. In this sense Christ is the savior of all men.

    But he is especially the Savior of those who believe. He did not die for all men in the same sense. The intention of the death of Christ for the children of God was that it purchase far more than the rising sun and the opportunity to be saved. The death of Christ actually saves from ALL evil those for whom Christ died “especially.”

    There are many Scriptures which say that the death of Christ was designed for the salvation of God’s people, not for every individual. For example:

    John 10:15, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” The sheep of Christ are those whom the Father draws to the Son. “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” Notice: being a sheep enables you to become a believer, not vice versa. So the sheep for whom Christ dies are the ones chosen by the Father to give to the Son.

    In John 17:6,9,19 Jesus prays, “I have manifested Thy name to the men whom Thou gavest me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to me…I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom Thou hast given me, for they are thine…And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.” The consecration in view here is the death of Jesus which he is about to undergo. His death and his intercession us uniquely for his disciples, not for the world in general.

    John 11:51-52, “[Caiaphas] being high priest that year prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” There are children of God scattered throughout the world. These are the sheep. These are the ones the Father will draw to the Son. Jesus died to gather these people into one. The point is the same as John 10:15-16, “I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice.” Christ died for his sheep, that is, for the children of God.

    Revelation 5:9, “Worthy art Thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for Thou wast slain and by Thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” In accordance with John 10:16 John does not say that the death of Christ ransomed all men but that it ransomed men from all the tribes of the world.

    This is the way we understand texts like 1 John 2:2 which says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” This does not mean that Christ died with the intention to appease the wrath of God for every person in the world, but that the “sheep,” “the children of God” scattered throughout the whole world, “from every tongue and tribe and people and nation” are intended by the propitiation of Christ. In fact the grammatical parallel between John 11:51-52 and 1 John 2:2 is so close it is difficult to escape the conviction that the same thing is intended by John in both verses.

    John 11:51-52, “He prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”

    1 John 2:2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

    The “whole world” refers to the children of God scattered throughout the whole world.

    If “the whole world” referred to every individual in the world, we would be forced to say that John is teaching that all people will be saved, which he does not believe (Revelation 14:9-11). The reason we would be forced to say this is that the term propitiation refers to a real removal of wrath from sinners. When God’s wrath against a sinner is propitiated, it is removed from that sinner. And the result is that all God’s power now flows in the service of his mercy, with the result that nothing can stop him from saving that sinner.

    Propitiated sins cannot be punished. Otherwise propitiation loses its meaning. Therefore if Christ is the propitiation for all the sins of every individual in the world, they cannot be punished, and must be saved. But John does not believe in such universalism (John 5:29). Therefore it is very unlikely that 1 John 2:2 teaches that Jesus is the propitiation of every person in the world.

    Mark 10:45, in accord with Revelation 5:9,does not say that Jesus came to ransom all men. It says, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    Similarly in Matthew 26:28 Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

    Hebrews 9:28, “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (See also 13:20; Isaiah 53:11-12.)

    One of the clearest passages on the intention of the death of Christ is Ephesians 5:25-27. Here Paul not only says that the intended beneficiary of the death of Christ is the Church, but also that the intended effect of the death of Christ is the sanctification and glorification of the church. This is the truth we want very much to preserve: that the cross was not intended to give all men the opportunity to save themselves, but was intended to actually save the church.

    Paul says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor.”

    Similarly in Titus 2:14 Paul describes the purpose of Christ’s death like this: “He gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” If Paul were an Arminian would he not have said, “He gave himself to redeem all men from iniquity and purify all men for himself”? But Paul says that the design of the atonement is to purify for Christ a people out from the world. This is just what John said in John 10:15; 11:51f; and Revelation 5:9.

    One of the most crucial texts on this issue is Romans 8:32. It is one of the most precious promises for God’s people in all the Bible. Paul says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?”

    The crucial thing to see here is how Paul bases the certainty of our inheritance on the death of Christ. He says, “God will most certainly give you all things because he did not spare his own Son but gave him up for you.” What becomes of this precious argument if Christ is given for those who do not in fact receive all things but instead are lost? The argument vanishes.

    If God gave his own Son for unbelievers who in the end are lost, then he cannot say that the giving of the Son guarantees “all things” for the those for whom he died. But this is what he does say! If God gave his Son for you, then he most certainly will give you all things. The structure of Paul’s thought here is simply destroyed by introducing the idea that Christ died for all men in the same way.

    We can conclude this section with the following summary argument. Which of these statements is true?

    1. Christ died for some of the sins of all men.
    2. Christ died for all the sins of some men.
    3. Christ died for all the sins of all men.

    No one says that the first is true, for then all would be lost because of the sins that Christ did not die for. The only way to be saved from sin is for Christ to cover it with his blood.

    The third statement is what the Arminians would say. Christ died for all the sins of all men. But then why are not all saved? They answer, Because some do not believe. But is this unbelief not one of the sins for which Christ died? If they say yes, then why is it not covered by the blood of Jesus and all unbelievers saved? If they say no (unbelief is not a sin that Christ has died for) then they must say that men can be saved without having all their sins atoned for by Jesus, or they must join us in affirming statement number two: Christ died for all the sins of some men. That is, he died for the unbelief of the elect so that God’s punitive wrath is appeased toward them and his grace is free to draw them irresistibly out of darkness into his marvelous light.

  12. Dan,
    Thanks for taking the time to write all that out. It is a very clear presentation of the ideas involved. (I can assume from the time you posted it that you did not stay up all night shooting off fireworks, and howling at the moon.)

    Happy New Year

  13. I did stay up past midnight (which i rarely do on New Years Eve) mostly watching Auburn beat Clemson in over time (a great game), but I got up early and have already cut a truck load of fire food and stacked it. I am not above taking a nap later if i need it. My wife is happy – there will be plenty of fire in the ole fireplace for the coming cold days.

  14. Paul… Paul put the L in TULIP

    One of our previous pastors said he was not a Calvinist, but a Paulist… and then he would qualify that with saying he was just plain Biblical.

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