How is limited atonement true when Scripture teaches that Christ died for the whole world?

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We know Jesus is the Savior of the world because there’s only one Savior for the world. The world has only one Savior, but we also know the atonement is limited. We all know that, right?

The atonement is limited because people go to hell. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and I will say to them, ‘Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity. I never knew you’” (Matt. 7:22–23). Jesus talked more about hell then He did about heaven. We know that hell is a reality, and we know people go there and perish forever. So, we all believe in a limited atonement, right? Not everybody’s going to be saved.

You either believe in a limited atonement, or you believe in a universal atonement. If you believe in a universal atonement, to be logically consistent, then there’s no hell and no one will be in hell; everyone will be in heaven. If you affirm an unlimited atonement, then you really are going to end up as a universalist. If Jesus actually died for the whole world, then the whole world is saved. So, we can’t go there because there is a hell and it’s full of people, in fact, most people.

The atonement is limited. The question is, Who limits it? Do we limit it or does God limit it? The answer to that question, biblically, is crystal clear: God limited it. He limited it to the elect. Either God determined whom He would save and takes the glory, or God just threw atonement out there as some nebulous option and hoped some people would grab hold of it and become a part of His redeeming purpose. The Bible does not allow for that. So, you just need to remind yourself that you believe in a limited atonement.

Now, you ask the question, are men sovereign or is God sovereign? If God’s sovereign, then He limited it.

This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with John MacArthur and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.