4 Min Read

To begin to unravel the misconceptions about the doctrine of limited atonement, let’s look first at the question of the value of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Classical Augustinianism teaches that the atonement of Jesus Christ is sufficient for all men. That is, the sacrifice Christ offered to the Father is of infinite value. There is enough merit in the work of Jesus to cover the sins of every human being who has ever lived and ever will live. So there is no limit to the value of the sacrifice He made. There is no debate about this.

Calvinists make a distinction between the sufficiency and the efficiency of the atonement. That distinction leads to this question: was Jesus’ death efficient for everybody? In other words, did the atonement result in everyone being saved automatically? Jesus’ work on the cross was valuable enough to save all men, but did His death actually have the effect of saving the whole world? This question has been debated for centuries, as noted above. However, if the controversy over limited atonement was only about the value of the atonement, it would be a tempest in a teapot because the distinction between the sufficiency and efficiency of the atonement does not define the difference between historic Reformed theology and non-Reformed views such as Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. Rather, it merely differentiates between universalism and particularism. Universalists believe that Jesus’ death on the cross did have the effect of saving the whole world. Calvinism disagrees strongly with this view, but historic Arminianism and dispensationalism also repudiate universalism. Each of these schools of thought agrees that Christ’s atonement is particular and not universal in the sense that it works or effects salvation only for those who believe in Christ, so that the atonement does not automatically save everybody. Therefore, the distinction between the sufficiency and efficiency of Jesus’ work defines particularism, but not necessarily the concept of limited atonement.

As an aside, let me say that while not everyone is saved by the cross, the work of Christ yields universal or near-universal concrete benefits. Through the death of Christ, the church was born, which led to the preaching of the gospel, and wherever the gospel is preached there is an increase in virtue and righteousness in society. There is a spillage from the influence of the church, which brings benefits to all men. Also, people around the world have benefited from the church’s commitment to hospitals, orphanages, schools, and so on.

The real heart of the controversy over limited atonement is this question: what was God’s intent or His design in sending Christ to the cross? Was it the purpose of the Father and the Son to make an atonement that would be made available to all who would put their trust in it, with the possibility that none might avail themselves of its benefits? In other words, was God’s purpose in sending Christ to the cross simply to make salvation possible? Or did God from all eternity plan to send Christ to die a substitutionary death in order to effect an actual atonement that would be applied to certain elect individuals?

God had a plan from all eternity to redeem a people for Himself.

Historic Reformed theology takes the biblical doctrine of divine election seriously. Because of it, Calvinists believe that God had a plan from all eternity to redeem a people for Himself. That plan encompassed only a portion of the human race; it was never God’s intention to save everybody.

Remember, given our sin and His justice, God was under no obligation to save anyone. Indeed, He would have been perfectly just if He had consigned all people to eternal damnation, but in His mercy, He chose to save some. If it had been God’s intention to save everybody, then everybody would be saved, but God’s purpose in redemption was to save a remnant of the human race from the wrath they had earned for themselves and justly deserved. These people will receive God’s mercy; all others will receive His justice.

The design of the atonement was that Christ would go to the cross, as He Himself said, as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28b). He would lay down His life, as He said, “for the sheep” (John 10:11b). The purpose of the atonement was to provide salvation for God’s elect. Simply put, Reformed theology teaches that Jesus Christ went to the cross for the elect, and only for the elect. That, in a nutshell, is the doctrine of limited atonement.

People have trouble with that, particularly if I use those words to describe the doctrine. What if I say Jesus went to the cross to make an atonement for believers, and only for believers? In that statement, I declare that it was God’s design that Jesus should die not for everybody indiscriminately, but only for those who would believe. If you accept that, you see that only the elect are believers and that only believers are the elect. I’m not saying anything different when I say that Christ died only for the elect. Can you conceive of people who are believers who are not elect, or of people who are elect who are not believers? That kind of disjunction is utterly foreign to the New Testament.

Many other objections are raised to limited atonement. One of the major stumbling blocks is Scripture’s own statements that Jesus died for “the world.” Such statements must always be weighed against other biblical propositions that clearly state specifically for whom Jesus died. Also, we must strive to gain a true understanding of the meaning of the word world in the Bible. The point the New Testament writers were making, particularly to a Jewish audience, is that Jesus is not just the Savior of Jewish people, but that people from every tongue, race, and nation are numbered among the elect. In other words, the atonement has implications for the whole world, but that doesn’t mean each and every person in the world is saved. That can’t be drawn from the text.

Some people react against the doctrine of limited atonement because it appears to take away from the greatness of the work of Christ. In reality, it’s the Arminian position that diminishes and devalues the impact and power of the atonement. The point Calvinists stress is that Christ accomplished what He set out to accomplish, the job the Father had designed for Him to do. God’s sovereign will is not at the whim and mercy of our personal and individual responses to it. If it were, there is a theoretical possibility that God’s plan could be thwarted and, in the end, no one might be saved. For the Arminian, salvation is possible for all but certain for none. In the Calvinist position, salvation is sure for God’s elect.