What Should We Think About Limited Atonement?

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to give a speech declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq. Over his head while he gave the speech, high up on the top of the carrier, was a banner with the words “Mission Accomplished” emblazoned on it. In his speech, President Bush said, “In the Battle of Iraq, the US and our allies have prevailed.” Unfortunately for the Bush administration, that banner became the butt of a lot of jokes and derision over the years, because the vast majority of casualties in the Iraq War came after that speech, as the Iraqi insurgency rose up and caused all sorts of problems for our troops. Recall the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, or the Iraq War “surge” in 2007 to handle the insurgents. The Bush administration obviously came to regret saying “Mission Accomplished” when the war was really just beginning.

That story highlights what really is at issue when we come to the L of TULIP, limited atonement – did Jesus accomplish salvation on the cross, or is the cross more like that George Bush banner? The question of limited atonement is the question of the extent of the atonement, “For whom did Jesus die on the cross?” Or better, we could say it’s the question of the intent of the atonement – “Whom did Jesus intend to save on the cross?” And the answer the Bible gives is that Jesus did not die a substitutionary death for every single person in the world, but He died for those whom the Father had chosen before the foundation of the world. His intention in dying was to save the elect – and that’s exactly what He did, He accomplished the mission on which His Father sent Him. The cross wasn’t Jesus trying to accomplish salvation for everyone but failing; it wasn’t Jesus just making salvation possible and really hoping that people would accept Him and be saved; it wasn’t a George Bush banner moment – He wasn’t declaring mission accomplished even though the really important work was still yet to be done by sinners who had to add their faith by the strength of their own free will. No, Jesus really did save His people from their sins, just as the angel had foretold in Matthew 1:21.

This is the hardest point of the doctrines of grace for many to accept, so hard that there are many who would call themselves “Four Point Calvinists,” because they can embrace all of the 5 points except this third one. The name of this point itself drives many people away, because it sounds so, well, limiting – and what Christian wants to think of limiting Christ’s death on the cross? But I hope to show you that if you reject universalism (the teaching that in the end, everyone is saved, that there is no such thing as hell), then there is no escaping a limited atonement – you will either limit the intent and extent of the atonement, or you will limit the nature and power of the atonement.

I want us to unpack that sentence, but not yet. First, we need to hear one of the plainest statements of this teaching in the entire Bible, from the lips of Jesus Himself. Jesus teaches the truths of the doctrines of grace more clearly than anyone in the Bible, particularly in John 10. This is the famous “Good Shepherd” discourse, and I want you to see several things from it.

First, notice that Jesus explicitly tells us for whom He lays down His life – it’s for His sheep (15); His own, those He knows (14); those who hear His voice (16, 27); those who have been given to Him by the Father (29).

Second, notice what Jesus says that He will give to His sheep: eternal life (28). John 3:14-15 tells us that He obtains eternal life for them through His cross: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” Jesus connects these dots for us in John 6:35-40 – the will of the Father is that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life; those who believe/those who will have eternal life are those who have been given to the Son by the Father (the sheep); they will necessarily come to Jesus (6:37), for the Father will draw them (6:44) and Jesus laid down His life for them and brings them to Himself (10:14, 16).

Third, notice that there is no division between the Father and the Son when it comes to the sheep: the Father is the one who has given the sheep to the Son; He is the one who has given Christ the commandment to lay down His life (18); and He and the Son are one, both holding the sheep in their hands eternally (28-30).

But fourth, notice what Jesus says to the Jews who were not believing in Him – when they ask Him if He is the Christ, He says, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in my Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep…” (25-26). He doesn’t say, “You are not of my sheep because you don’t believe,” but “You don’t believe because you are not of my sheep.” They are not of His sheep, therefore they do not believe, they don’t come, they don’t hear His voice and follow Him. Not only is this an argument for what we talked about last week, faith being a result of predestination rather than the cause, it also tells us that when Jesus says He lays down His life for His sheep, He is excluding those who are not His sheep (just as He excludes them from His great high priestly prayer in John 17) – He didn’t lay down His life for them, to give eternal life to them, to assure that they will not perish. He did not die for them, He did not intend to save them, He does not know them savingly, they will not receive eternal life, for the Father had not given them to Him, and their ongoing/persistent lack of faith is evidence of that fact. To be sure, there are some people who don’t believe right now, who will believe through the word of God preached to them; they are Jesus’ sheep, of different folds as verse 16 states. But there are others who will never believe, no matter how often the gospel is preached to them, even if it were Jesus standing here preaching the gospel – they are not of His sheep, and He did not die for them.

So Jesus’ words here pose some hard realities to those who would argue for an unlimited or universal atonement: not everyone is given to Jesus by the Father, not everyone is one of Jesus’ sheep for whom He lays down His life. But it’s very possible that this flies in the face of everything you’ve ever thought your entire Christian life, and blows lots of circuits in your mind. Maybe you’re thinking, this is a horrible teaching! How in the world could you ever say that Jesus didn’t die for everyone, how could you ever believe in a limited atonement? And so I don’t want to just look at a couple passages from John, as powerful and sufficient as I think they are – I want you to see this question from the perspective of the cross work of Jesus as a whole. I want to unpack the statement I made earlier: everyone limits the atonement: you either limit its intent and extent, or you limit its nature and power.

We need to define some terms. When we speak of the atonement, we are referring to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that covers our sins before God so that we might be forgiven and accepted. The Bible uses several different words to describe what Jesus did for sinners on the cross. One is redemption. In Galatians 3:13, Paul says that “Christ Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” To redeem something is to free it, to buy it back, by the payment of a price. Jesus gave His life on the cross as a ransom for many, and freed us from the condemnation of the law, from sin’s guilt and power, from death and Satan’s slavery.

Another word the Bible uses to describe Jesus’ cross work is propitiation. Hebrews 2:17 says that Jesus “had to be made like His brethren in all things so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” To propitiate someone means to appease them, to placate or pacify them. To make propitiation is to turn someone’s anger away; Jesus turned the wrath of God away from us by enduring it Himself in our place. On the cross God the Father was judging His Son, pouring out His just wrath on His Son in the place of sinners, punishing His Son for our sins.

One more word the Bible uses a lot to describe what Jesus did on the cross: reconciliation. To understand this word you have to remember that by nature sinners are God’s enemies. Romans 5:10 says, “…while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” To say that God reconciled us to Himself through the cross is to say that God has accomplished our peace with Himself by making war on His Son, through Jesus’ death.

So here’s the question: for whom did Jesus make atonement – that is, whom did He redeem, and make propitiation for, and reconcile to God? If you believe in universal or unlimited atonement, then your answer is, for everyone. But in response I would ask you, then why is not everyone saved? Some people would answer, “Everyone is saved! There is no such thing as hell.” And so evangelism is just telling people they’re already saved, because Jesus died for them. But most Christians aren’t universalists; they believe in hell, they believe not all are redeemed. So then, if Jesus died for everyone’s sins, and made atonement for everyone, and redeemed everyone, and made propitiation to God for everyone, and reconciled everyone, then why is everyone not saved? And the answer usually comes back, “Because they don’t believe.” But wait, you just told me that Jesus died for everyone’s sins – did He not die for the sin of unbelief? If He did die for their unbelief, why does the presence of it keep them from eternal life? But if He didn’t die for the sin of unbelief, then how can we sing hymns like, “Jesus Paid It All!” We would have to sing, “Jesus Paid 95%”, because the rest of the payment was due to my faith, exercised by my free will. So then the cross doesn’t become “Mission Accomplished,” but “Mission Partly Accomplished” – Jesus just dies to make salvation possible, but the really important contribution, the real difference maker, is whether the sinner of His own free will contributes faith.

Rather than an atonement that actually atones for all sin, you have an atonement that only partially atones. And on the basis of an unlimited atonement, salvation is ultimately in the hands of man, and man gets some of the glory for believing. Charles Spurgeon was a 19th century Baptist who preached the doctrines of grace; his opponents accused him of preaching a “narrow” atonement, a narrow bridge to heaven; they claimed theirs was as wide as the whole world. Spurgeon responded, “I grant that my atonement, or bridge to heaven, is more narrow than yours. However, your bridge only goes halfway across the chasm, and mine goes all the way. In your scheme, the sinner’s will must furnish the other half of the bridge.” See, if you say that Jesus dies for everyone but not everyone is saved because some people don’t use their free will to believe, what you’ve just done is limit the nature of the atonement.

But there’s another way you limit the atonement; namely, you limit the power of God. If the cross is unlimited in extent, then it must be limited in power. God is trying to save people by Jesus’ death, but the free will of man keeps Him from accomplishing His purpose. Man’s free will is stronger than God’s power, because God can only save those who are willing to be saved. Jesus died for everyone, but it’s possible for no one actually to be saved at all; Jesus’ death is in vain for everyone who goes to hell. As one preacher put it, “Hell is a ghastly monument to the failure of God to save the multitudes that are there…sinners go to hell because God cannot save them. He did all He could. He failed” (quoted in Reisinger, 308).

Everyone limits the atonement; you either limit the nature and power of the atonement, or you limit its intent and extent. And it’s in large part because as I read Scripture I see it talking about a cross that saves, a cross that is effectual and efficacious, that I believe in an atonement limited to the elect. That vast multitude from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, whom the Father gave to the Son before the foundation of the world, is without any question saved by the Son on the cross. He saves His people from their sins. When Jesus uttered on the cross His great “tetelestai” in John 19:30, “It is finished!”, He truly had accomplished the redemption of His people, and in time the Holy Spirit would apply it to all those chosen before the foundation of the world, working in their hearts the faith Christ had purchased for them on the cross, so that they might believe and know eternal life.

I love the way Spurgeon puts it, “Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, [those who say that Christ did not die so as to secure the salvation of anybody]. We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it… I would rather believe a limited atonement, that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of man be added to it.”

There are four reasons why this doctrine of limited, or effectual, atonement, is so important:

1. Because it ensures the Trinity is not working against itself.

Those who say that Jesus dies for everyone usually have some doctrine of election/predestination. That is, the Father has chosen this group over here (usually, as we saw last week, it’s those He has foreseen will chose Him); but the Son is dying for everyone. So you have the Father and the Son working at cross purposes to one another. But what did we see in John 10? The Father and the Son are one; one in essence, and one in purpose and intention. The Son has come to secure and accomplish the salvation of all those the Father has given Him.

2. Because it preserves the righteousness of God.

If we say that Jesus died for everyone then we must say that Jesus died for the people from the Old Testament who were already in hell: Cain, Esau, Pharaoh, Ahab, Jezebel, Manasseh; we must say He died for Judas. But if God punished Jesus for the sins of these and others already suffering in hell, or for anyone who ends up in hell, then God is unjust. Even in our fallen legal system we cry foul if a man is subject to double jeopardy. Those in hell would be right to cry out, “Hey wait a minute, Jesus died for us! You’ve already punished Him in our place. To punish us is to punish the same sin twice!” But no, God is just. Either Jesus will bear God’s wrath in our place on the cross, or we will bear God’s wrath for eternity in hell.

3. Because it gives great assurance to the believer.

The same principle we just talked about is our great hope as Christians. Listen to this hymn by Augustus Toplady: “From whence this fear and unbelief, Hath not the Savior put to grief His spotless Son for me? And will the righteous judge of men Condemn me for that load of sin Which Lord, was charged to Thee? Complete atonement Thou hast made, And to the utmost farthing paid, Whate’er Thy people owed. Nor can God’s wrath on me take place When sheltered by Thy righteousness And covered by Thy blood. If Thou my pardon hast secured, And freely in my room endured The whole of wrath divine, Payment God cannot twice demand, First from my bleeding surety’s hand And then again from mine. Return my soul unto thy rest; The sorrows of thy Great High Priest Have bought thy liberty. Trust in His efficacious blood Nor fear thy banishment from God Since Jesus died for thee.” Toplady nails it – because Jesus died in my place, to actually save me, I need not fear that I will be punished for my sins at any point!

4. Because it gives us something to actually offer the unbeliever.

This is perhaps one of the most non-intuitive applications I could make, because most of us have grown up saying things in like, “Jesus died for your sins, so accept Him into your heart and you’ll be saved.” But I don’t know God’s decree, I don’t know if Jesus died for you. What I do know is that Jesus died for a multitude that no man can number, and that His death is sufficient to save any sinner who calls on His name in faith. What I do know is that I don’t have the mere possibility of salvation to offer to you, contingent upon you using your free will to believe and repent, but I have salvation full and free to offer to you. More specifically, I have Christ Himself in the glory of His person and in all the perfection of His finished work to offer to you. He has done everything necessary for sinners to freely approach God without fear. He has purchased redemption for all those who come to God through Him; He has propitiated the Father’s wrath for lost sinners; through Christ God has reconciled the world to Himself. Because of His atoning death, He is able to forgive and save all those who put their trust in Him. So what are you waiting for? Christ is an all sufficient Savior! Come to Him, just as you are, unsaved, lost, helpless, and undone, that you might be saved! Be reconciled to God. And as you come to Him, as you commit yourselves to Him, you will know that you have been loved of God, that He has chosen you, that Jesus has loved you and given Himself up for you. The assurance of salvation will be yours as well.


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