Mar 4, 2024

Does the Doctrine of Limited Atonement Undermine Evangelism?

4 Min Read

A frequently cited objection against the doctrine of limited atonement is that it undermines evangelism. All orthodox Christians, Calvinists included, believe and teach that the atonement of Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed to all men. We are to say that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life. The misconception exists that because Calvinists believe in the doctrine of limited atonement, they have no passion to go out and preach the cross to everyone. Calvinists have been careful since Augustine to insist that the gospel is to be offered to all men—even though we know that not everyone will respond to it. Many Calvinists have been zealous evangelists.

The doctrine of limited atonement, in reality, is helpful in evangelism. The Calvinist knows that not everyone will respond to the gospel message, but he also knows with certainty that some will respond to it. By contrast, the Arminian doesn’t know that not everyone will respond. In the Arminian’s mind, it’s a theoretical possibility that everybody will repent and believe. However, the Arminian also must deal with the possibility that no one will respond. He can only hope that his gospel presentation will be so persuasive that the unbeliever, lost and dead in his trespasses and sins, will choose to cooperate with divine grace so as to take advantage of the benefits offered in the atonement.

If we can get past such perceived problems with the doctrine of limited atonement, we can begin to see the glory of it—that the atonement Christ made on the cross was real and effectual. It wasn’t just a hypothetical atonement. It was an actual atonement. He didn’t offer a hypothetical expiation for the sins of His people; their sins were expiated. He didn’t give a hypothetical propitiation for our sins; He actually placated God’s wrath toward us. By contrast, according to the other view, the atonement is only a potentiality. Jesus went to the cross, paid the penalty for sin, and made the atonement, but now He sits in heaven wringing His hands and hoping that someone will take advantage of the work He performed. This is foreign to the biblical understanding of the triumph and the victory Christ achieved in His atoning death.

In His High Priestly Prayer in John 17:6–9a, Jesus said:

I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. . . . They have . . . known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. I pray for them.

This was Jesus, the Savior, speaking here. Notice that He said He was praying for His disciples—not for the world. In the most poignant prayer of intercession He offered in this world as our High Priest, Jesus explicitly said He was not praying for everybody. Instead, He was praying for the elect.

There is a plan of God designed for your salvation. It is not an afterthought or an attempt to correct a mistake.

Is it conceivable that Jesus would be willing to die for the whole world but not pray for the whole world? That doesn’t make sense. He was being consistent. He had come to lay down His life for His sheep. He was going to die for His people, and He made it clear here that those were the ones for whom He was about to die. There is no question here of indiscrimination. Jesus was about to make atonement, and that atonement would be effective for everyone for whom He intended it to be effective.

If you are of the flock of Christ, one of His lambs, then you can know with certainty that an atonement has been made for your sins. You may wonder how you can know you’re numbered among the elect. I cannot read your heart or the secrets of the Lamb’s Book of Life, but Jesus said: “‘My sheep hear My voice’” (John 10:27a). If you want Christ’s atonement to avail for you, and if you put your trust in that atonement and rely on it to reconcile you to almighty God, in a practical sense, you don’t need to worry about the abstract questions of election. If you put your trust in Christ’s death for your redemption and you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you can be sure that the atonement was made for you. That, more than anything else, will settle for you the question of the mystery of God’s election. Unless you’re elect, you won’t believe on Christ; you won’t embrace the atonement or rest on His shed blood for your salvation. If you want it, you can have it. It is offered to you if you believe and if you trust.

One of the sweetest statements from the lips of Jesus in the New Testament is this: “‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matt. 25:34b). There is a plan of God designed for your salvation. It is not an afterthought or an attempt to correct a mistake. Rather, from all eternity, God determined that He would redeem for Himself a people, and that which He determined to do was, in fact, accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ, His atonement on the cross. Your salvation has been accomplished by a Savior Who is not merely a potential Savior but an actual Savior, One Who did for you what the Father determined He should do. He is your Surety, your Mediator, your Substitute, your Redeemer. He atoned for your sins on the cross.