A Brief Defense of Limited Atonement
By William J. Baldwin
In each set of options below, choose the phrase or statement that sounds better.
a) Unlimited Atonement
b) Limited Atonement
a) Christ died to save everyone
b) Christ died to save his people
a) Some percentage less than 100 (and as far as we can tell, a lot less, probably under 10%) of those for whom Christ died will be saved. The rest will go to hell.
b) 100% of those for whom Christ died will be saved
a) At the cross Christ secured the possibility of salvation for all but guaranteed it to none.
b) At the cross Christ finished and guaranteed the salvation of his people.
a) Many for whom Christ died, paying for their sins, will nevertheless be required to pay for their sins themselves in hell.
b) Everyone for whom Christ died will be saved because their sins have been paid for already.
John says God sent Christ into the world "that the world might be saved through him."
a1) Christ failed in that mission although he possessed the capability of succeeding
a2) Christ failed in that mission because of forces beyond his control
b) Christ accomplished that mission.
Now, the question of which message "sounds" better is in no way decisive. We wish to follow the statement of Scripture wherever it leads us. But I wanted to demonstrate up front that "Limited Atonement" is not a harsh and disappointing doctrine. It is-of the two doctrines being considered tonight-the one that we long to be true.
The Sin of the World
The Extent and Nature of the Atonement
For whom did Christ die? And what did his death accomplish? If we say that Christ died for everyone and that his death accomplished their salvation, then hell shall be empty and all the children of Adam brought to glory. This conclusion the Bible plainly denies. Scripture speaks of hell and insists that some will go there. That leaves us with two choices: 1) If we say that Christ died for everyone who ever lived, we must conclude that his death failed to secure the salvation of some, the non-elect. 2) If we say that Christ's death secured the salvation of those for whom it was intended, we must conclude that Christ did not die for all and everyone.
For those who take the first option:
A) They must explain the Scriptures that appear (on their view) to limit those for whom Christ died.
B) And they must explain the statements of Scripture that appear to say that Christ's death actually reconciles God to sinners (rather than merely providing potential reconciliation).
Those who take the second option have the opposite task:
A) They must explain the Scriptures that appear to say that Christ's death applies even to the non-elect.
B) And they must explain the Scriptures that appear to say Christ's death merely provides the potential for salvation without actually securing it.
In this second option I know of no Scriptures that come under "B", appearing to suggest that Christ's death merely provides the possibility of salvation. Therefore, in the name of William of Occam, I judge it probable that Option 2 will prove more defensible. I hope to defend that option by demonstrating three truths:
1) Scripture explicitly includes some and excludes others from the number for whom Christ died.
2) Scripture unequivocally describes the atonement as that which secures salvation by paying at that moment for the sins of the elect.
3) Scripture speaks expansively of the extent of the atonement as applying to "all" and to "the world." These passages refer to the elect only but do so by emphasizing the fullness of God's promise and probably the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Covenant of Grace.
Before pursuing these points, I want to make a couple of quick observations.
The limitation of the subjects of the atonement reveals no defect in the atonement itself, as though Christ's death could not have saved a greater number. His death would have been sufficient for all the children of Adam had God chosen and called them all.
This view of the atonement must not interfere with the Free Offer of the Gospel, as though we should preach Christ and him crucified only to the elect. Rightly understood, Limited Atonement does no violence to that precious doctrine. Wrongly understood, it becomes "Hyper-Calvinism" and an attempt to deal with people according to God's secret rather than his revealed will.
Scripture explicitly includes some and excludes others from the number for whom Christ died.
For His People
The Old Testament sacrifices were never for the sins of those outside the nation. Rather, they were for "the assembly" (Lev 4:21, using a word that is translated into the Greek word for "Church"), for "the congregation" (Lev 10:17), "the people", "the children of Israel", "all the congregation of Israel", and "all the people of the congregation of Israel (Lev 16:15-17,33,34). All these offerings are meant "to make atonement for the house of Israel" (Ezk 45:17).
The Psalms and the Prophets speak similarly. "You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people; You have covered all their sin" (Ps 85:2) and "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities... and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is 53:4-6). The prophecy of Christ in Matthew is "He will save His people from their sins.
These passages picture or prophesy the work of Christ and suggest that atoning blood is shed only for the people. So what is Israel a picture of? The church. Explicitly so in Lev 4:21 (above) and hardly less explicitly in names like "the congregation."
Paul picks up this theme in the New Testament by insisting that this congregation is spiritually conceived according to faith rather than national birth: "Those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as seed" (Rom 9:8). Therefore, Paul excludes unbelieving Jews and includes believing Gentiles in spiritual Israel (Eph 2:14-19). (To get ahead, this inclusion of the Gentiles is warrant for saying Christ died for the sins of "the world" in contrast with national Israel alone.)
If Israel were a picture of the world, both elect and non-elect, then the sacrifices would picture an unlimited atonement. As it is, "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us" (1 Cor 5:7) the children of the promise by faith in Christ.
For the Sheep
This is the most powerful argument. Jesus says "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). In that context he goes on to tell the doubting Jews "you are not my sheep" (10:26). Thus Christ did not lay down his life for those who are not his sheep. This conclusion is buttressed by Jesus's later refusal to pray for those who were not his sheep: "I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours" (John 17:9). Arguing from the lesser to the greater, if Christ will not even pray for them, he will certainly not die for them.
"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt 20:28). And "This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Mark 14:24).
Scripture unequivocally describes the atonement as that which secures salvation by paying at that moment for the sins of the elect.
Ephesians 1:14 says the Holy Spirit is "the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession to the praise of his glory." It's clear that "the purchased possession" will be redeemed. And Paul has already defined that redemption as "forgiveness of sins" (Eph 1:6). CONCLUSION 1: Anyone whom Christ purchased with his blood will have his sins forgiven and be redeemed. CONCLUSION 2: Any who will not have their sins forgiven and will not be redeemed cannot have been purchased by the blood of Christ.
A similarly strong point emerges from Romans 5. "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). Paul draws the following as a necessary consequence of the statement "Christ died for us": "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him" (Rom 5:9). Everyone for whom Christ died will be saved.
Scripture speaks expansively of the extent of the atonement as applying to "all" and to "the world." These passages refer to the elect only but do so by emphasizing the fullness of God's promise and probably the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Covenant of Grace.
When John the Baptist saw Christ, he cried "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). But if "the world" means "everyone who ever lived, lives, and will live" this passages prove too much. If Christ has taken away the sin of all and everyone, then God cannot in justice be angry with them. 1 John makes this more explicit in a passage often cited by Arminians and Amyraldians (4-point Calvinists): "He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 Jn 2:2). But if Christ has propitiated God (turned aside his wrath) for all and everyone, then no one will experience his wrath in hell.
Paul also proves too much for an "unlimited atonement" but non-universal salvation view. He says that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them" (2 Cor 5:19). Again "the world" here must be saved or the Psalmist is a liar in calling them blessed to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity (Ps 32:2). God has no just cause to be angry with this world; they have no sin imputed to them.
So we return to the Johannine corpus to find an explanation. (Translation: Let's look at another book John wrote.) The saints in Revelation sing a new song about Christ saying, "You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (Rev 5:9). They do not say Christ redeemed all and everyone, but that he redeemed from every corner of the earth, from every sort of person. Salvation was not for the Jews only but for the whole world. We are so used to this fact that we forget to be stunned by it. Yet Paul and all the New Testament writes are amazed by this fact. And if we become amazed again, we will see how appropriate this universal language is to describe the work of the Jewish Messiah.
Similar things may be said about the "all" passages; and I'll try to add more thoughts in the coming days.