Limited Atonement: How God Secured the Rescue

All true Christians believe in Limited Atonement.

Is that a provocative introduction? It is true. Just relax. I'm not saying that only Calvinists can be saved. I am trying to get you to read a little bit further into this article so you get the whole story. It is far too easy to build a straw man caricature of some prune-faced Puritan dressed in black squashing the zeal of a young evangelist by saying, “If God wants to save the heathen he can do it without our help.” Some might picture a poor sinner crawling in repentance to the austere god of the Calvinist, who refuses the seeker because he is not on “the list.”

In my opinion this is the most misunderstood of the five points of Calvinism. It is the one I resisted for many years as a pastor and Bible teacher because I misunderstood its meaning (and had the prune-faced Puritan in my cartoon bubble).

Many people struggle with this particular doctrine because of the word "limited." The very word makes it sound like Jesus’ death was not very powerful. They ask legitimate questions about “world” texts like John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2. They wonder how Calvinists reconcile limited atonement with texts that say God is not willing that any should perish.

The meaning of words is "limited" by context. “World” does not always mean every person on earth. If so, Caesar Augustus taxed the entire planet instead of just the Roman Empire (Luke 2:1). Likewise, when Peter told us that God is patient, waiting for us to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), he was speaking to believers (2 Peter 1:1-2), not the world.

Some confusion may be cleared up by reading the original statements (translated into English) of the Synod of Dort:

This death of God's Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.[1]

The canons of Dort acknowledged the universality of the cross. The message of the gospel is universal in scope even though the ultimate effectiveness of the gospel message is not. We have been commanded to carry this message to the ends of the earth, but not everyone will be saved. Even if we unleash to the ends of the earth all the best resources and servants in the Body of Christ, only a remnant of the dead will come to life. The power of the gospel does not reside in those who bear it but in the one who bore our sins. To put it another way, the death of Christ was sufficient to cover the sins of the world but efficient only for the elect.

While it kind of messes up our acrostic (no one looks for tupips in the spring", we might better understand this doctrine if we use the term “purposeful” instead of “limited.” I made that introductory statement because, among Christians, we all limit the atonement. The Calvinist says the atonement is limitless in its power to save those for whom it was intended but limited in its scope because God is only going to save a few of the rebels who deserve the lake of fire. The Arminian says the atonement is unlimited in its scope but limited in its power because it is subject to the free will of those who decide to accept it or reject it.

Simply put, someone who believes in limited atonement believes Jesus Christ came to earth on a mission to rescue his people. His people were purchased from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9), nations that deserve eternal punishment and are incapable of escaping from the bondage of their sin (see my earlier article on Total Depravity). Salvation is not a miracle cure for a deadly disease available for those who are smart enough to take the treatment. It is a voice calling corpses in a graveyard to life (Ephesians 2:1).

To stick with biblical pictures:

· God did not go down to Egypt to rescue the Egyptians (Exodus 3:7-8). The rescue of the people of God from bondage was not a partial rescue but a complete release. So it is with the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. He did not die for anyone smart enough to choose him. Like the high priest in Israel, he took names to the cross. The people for whom this work was intended are saved completely.

· Messiah was given the name Jesus (salvation) because he came to save his people (Matthew 1:21).

· Jesus said his sheep hear his voice (John 10:27-29). These are the ones to whom he gives eternal life. No mention here of what the other sheep get.

· Paul told the Ephesian elders to tend the flock purchased with the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28). The people who confess Jesus as Lord done so because they were given to the Son by the Father (John 6:44; Acts 13:48; Acts 16:14). They are an organized group of sheep needing leadership.

· Christ gave himself for his bride with a holy end in mind (Ephesians 5:25-27). No mention of him giving himself for someone else's bride.

Believing this makes a difference in “real life” because it brings the believer to see that Jesus’ death secured a complete rescue for us. The Savior did not simply die to make salvation possible for all smart sinners. He died to secure his people eternal life, from foreknowledge to glorification (Romans 8:28-39). This leaves them continually bowing before the throne, thanking him for his grace and carrying to every creature the powerful message that pierces the impenetrable barrier of death.

[1] Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, “The Canons of Dordt,”, accessed 5-26-08

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