Is it wrong to say that Jesus’ work of atonement is limited in some way? Today, R.C. Sproul clarifies that the doctrine of limited atonement addresses what Christ accomplished on the cross according to the eternal decree of God.
One of the doctrines that we struggle with in the church, particularly in Reformed theology, an integral part of TULIP, the famous acrostic T-U-L-I-P, which stands for what? Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. And so many of our evangelical brothers and sisters embrace TULIP. They’ll affirm the T, the U, the I, and the P, but they knock the L out of TULIP. The L standing for limited atonement.
It’s amazing to me how much controversy ensues over that point of historic Reformed theology. People say, “How can you say that the atonement of Jesus Christ is limited? Doesn’t the Bible say that He dies for the whole world? Are you saying that Jesus’ atoning death is not sufficient to save everybody in the world?” And these same people who say that, say that not everybody in the world is saved.
Well, why isn’t everybody in the world saved? Because a necessary condition to be saved by the atoning death of Jesus Christ is to have faith in Jesus Christ. And if you have no faith in Jesus Christ, the atoning death of Christ only exacerbates your guilt before God and will do nothing to alleviate it because you have rejected the perfect sacrifice that was offered once for all. But think about this for a minute, friends. If Jesus on the cross died for every sin of every person who ever lived, made an atonement for every sin of every person who ever lived, how can you therefore resist the conclusion of universalism?
If Jesus died for every sin of every person, there’s nothing left for God to punish. Everybody would be saved because every sin has already been atoned for. But obviously the atonement of Christ is made only for those who believe. And so, in that sense, the efficacy of that atonement is limited. It’s limited to believers. Jesus didn’t die for everybody. He died for believers. He died for the elect. And everyone for whom He died, everyone for whom He made an atonement, has their sins forgiven forever. This was not an afterthought in the economy of God’s plan of salvation, but from all eternity, God had planned to send His Son into the world to atone for the sins of His people.