How would you explain the doctrine of limited atonement to an Arminian?

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We can begin with the TULIP. We use the word tulip because it’s the flower of the Netherlands and Dort is a town in the Netherlands—“Dordrecht” shortened to “Dort.” In the 1610s, the Synod of Dort met. The Dutch Reformed Church met at Dort and produced the canons—with one n, not the “boom” kind you fire with two n’s—the Canons of the Synod of Dort.

The canons were structured around five articles, five “Heads of Doctrine,” and they were a response to a document called the Remonstrance, which was written in 1610. The primary architect of it was Jacobus (or Jacob, or James) Arminius. He died, but his followers finished the Remonstrance and published it.

The Remonstrance was, by and large, a counter to the doctrines of grace, the doctrines of salvation that were taught by Calvin and codified in the second and third generation of Reformers. So, you have Calvin and the Reformers’ teaching, Arminius’ movement away from it with the Remonstrance, and then the Canons of Dort.

Dort gets summarized as five points around the beloved Dutch flower, the TULIP: total depravity (that’s us), unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. The actual order in the canons, however, is ULTIP, which is not a word. So, if you don’t speak English, you’re really confused. It’s not Latin either—it’s nothing.

The first head is election, which helps us understand what’s going on—the doctrine of election is primary. So, if the doctrine of election is primary, then Jesus did not die to make you savable; He died to accomplish the Father’s mission. And the Father’s mission was to have a people for Himself, not some blob or indiscriminate group. We are talking about a group made up of individuals that God knew. The Son’s job—Jesus’ mission—was to accomplish that. So, it’s limited. It’s limited in that it is going to accomplish salvation for the elect.

Here is how we understand this: if Jesus died on the cross, but it still takes me to do something, then His work is not finished. His work is not complete if I have to somehow accept. So, Jesus’ death has to be universal in its application if it is up to me to accept it, but then Jesus didn’t complete the mission. He left it undone, and now it’s on my shoulders to finish. I don’t see that in Scripture. I see Jesus saying in John 10: “My sheep know My voice. They are My sheep, and I am theirs.”

Jesus came for His sheep, and He came to fulfill the mission of the Father. We cannot sever the atonement from the doctrine of election. That’s what Dort is helping us to see, but it’s not just Dort. The Bible is helping us to see that Jesus came to accomplish the mission that the heavenly Father sent Him to do, and that is not to make you and me savable, but to save us. So, Jesus says on the cross, “It is finished.”

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