The Extent of the Atonement, Part I
“In love the Father predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (vv. 4–6).- Ephesians 1:3–14
Of all the issues related to the atonement of Jesus, perhaps none is more controversial than the extent of the atonement. Here we are asking the question, Did Jesus atone for the sins of every person who has ever lived, or did He die on the cross to pay for the sins of believers only? Some professing Christians would likely affirm that Jesus atoned for the sins of all people without exception, that on the cross He paid for the sin of every person in history. Yet, Reformed theology disagrees, affirming that Jesus died to atone only for the sins of His people. He did not sacrifice Himself for everyone.
Evidence for this Reformed understanding falls into two categories. First, many biblical passages teach the doctrine of limited atonement specifically. Second, the doctrine of limited atonement is made necessary by other biblical doctrines. Today, we will focus on the second category.
One biblical doctrine that leads us necessarily to affirming limited atonement is the doctrine of the Trinity. As the Bible teaches, God is one in essence and three in person. These three persons are distinguished from one another by distinct personal properties: the Father is eternally unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. Yet these three persons are one in essence, each possessing the fullness of the divine nature. On account of this unity, the persons of the Trinity are fully united in will and purpose; everything the persons of the Trinity do, They do in harmony with one another, never working against one another. As Jesus says, when it comes to the will of God in the work of salvation, He and the Father are one. They agree to save and preserve a specific people (John 10:29–30).
This is explained a bit more in Ephesians 1:3–14, which describes the work of salvation in terms of the Father’s choosing a people for Himself in Christ and Christ’s saving them by His blood. There must be a perfect unity in this work, but this unity would be compromised if the Son died in order to save all people while the Father has chosen not to save all people. Jesus would be dying for men and women whom the Father never intended to save. With limited atonement, however, there is perfect unity. The Father chooses to save a particular group of people and the Son concurs with that election by dying only for those particular individuals.
Because God’s revelation is without error and perfectly harmonious, the doctrines He has revealed must also be harmonious. As we study theology, we must consider how the various doctrines of our faith relate to one another. Logical consistency in our theology should be our aim, for God is not a God of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). If one of our doctrines contradicts another, then we have gone wrong somewhere in our thinking.
Passages for Further Study
John 5:21, 30
John 6:40, 44
2 Timothy 1:8–10