The Extent of the Atonement, Part II
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”- John 10:11
As we continue our study of the doctrine of limited atonement, we will begin today by noting that all orthodox Christians limit the atonement in some way. Only universalists, who say everyone will be saved, believe that there are no limitations on what the atonement accomplishes—and universalism is a false teaching.
Non-Reformed theologies ultimately limit the atonement in terms of its power or efficacy. In such systems, the atonement makes salvation possible for everyone, but in itself it does not actually save anyone. It has saving power only when we choose to believe, and that choice to believe is grounded in us. The atonement makes salvation available to everyone, but it does not guarantee that anyone will believe and receive the atonement’s blessings. The Lord does not give irresistible grace, so He does not ensure that anyone will believe. Lots of people whom God wants to save are never saved.
In Reformed theology, God’s design limits the atonement in its extent, not its power. The atonement saves everyone for whom Jesus died, but Jesus did not die to atone for the sins of all people. His death guarantees the salvation of those for whom it was offered. It ensures that they will not finally resist God’s call to repent and believe. The Lord never fails to save all those whom He wants to save.
What, then, does Scripture say specifically about the extent of the atonement? Consider, first, the Old Testament, particularly the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. On that day, the high priest atoned for the sins of Israel, but he did not atone for the sins of the whole world. In fact, the entire sacrificial system was limited in its extent to Israel. Other nations were not given God’s means of atonement.
In the New Testament, we have passages such as John 10:11, where Jesus says that He lays down His life for the sheep. We know, of course, that humanity is made up of sheep—God’s people—and goats—those who are not God’s people (Matt. 25:31–46). But Jesus does not say in John 10:11 that He dies for the sheep and the goats, but only for His sheep. We find confirmation for this in the announcement of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1. There we read that Jesus will save “his people,” not “all people,” from their sins (v. 21).
We could multiply examples where Scripture limits the extent of the atonement to paying for the sins of the elect only. The Reformed doctrine better summarizes the teaching of God’s Word on the whole regarding God’s plan and purposes in salvation.
Non-Reformed Christians have a noble intent in believing that Jesus atoned for the sins of all people, for they want to magnify God’s love and grace. Ultimately, however, they reduce His power and they make His love nonspecific. But the Lord can do all that He wills, and He has a specific love for His people that He does not have for everyone. The Reformed doctrine thus magnifies the glory, power, and love of God.
Passages for Further Study