Particular Atonement

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).

- John 10:7–18

No discussion of the atonement of Jesus would be complete without a consideration of the intent and extent of the atonement. Here we are addressing the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Did He die to atone for the sins of all human beings who will ever live, or did He die to atone only for the sins of a particular people, namely, His people — the elect?

Traditionally, the concept of a particular atonement is known as “limited atonement,” and it is associated only with Reformed theology. This association is regrettable because all true Christians must agree that the atonement is limited in some way. Experience and, more important, the testimony of Scripture tell us that not everyone will be saved. Some people refuse to believe in Him and do not have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (John 3:36; Rev. 20:11–15).

Essentially, there are only two ways in which the atonement can be limited. Either the atonement’s power to save is limited because its efficacy is dependent on human response, or the intent and extent of Christ’s death is limited to the elect. In the first case, the Arminian position, we have a potential atonement that does not actually redeem anyone but must be combined with a human response to achieve saving power. In the second case, the Reformed position, the atonement actually saves people, but not everyone. Here, our faith ultimately results from Christ’s paying for our sins. We do not work it up in ourselves to make the cross effective.

If the atonement’s power is merely potential, as in the Arminian view, it had the potential to save no one. There was the possibility that no one would ever make a “free will” decision for Christ. But Scripture never depicts a potential atonement. Jesus did not go to the cross to make salvation possible; He was crucified to save a people for Himself. As the Messiah, He knew that He would be satisfied because His sacrifice would really save some (Isa. 53:11). The Bible says Christ came to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

God did not send His Son to make it possible or even probable that some would be saved. Instead, His plan guaranteed the salvation of His elect. Christ died for the sins of His people alone. He gave His life only for His sheep (John 10:11).

Coram Deo

Christ’s death truly and eternally secured our redemption. We do not experience the blessing of the atonement because we have faith; rather, we have faith because Jesus actually atoned for our sins and sent His Spirit to give us the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8–9). Jesus never fails to accomplish that which He has settled to do from all eternity. Because He surely accomplished our salvation, we know that we can trust Him to consummate His plan.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 10:20–22a
John 6:37–39; 17:9

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