Unlimited or limited atonement?
By Robin Schumacher
Some long-time friends came over the other night for dinner, and since they're fellow believers, we naturally discuss Christian-oriented topics when we get together. One of them teaches at a local Christian school and he was lamenting the fact that they had hired a Calvinist (gasp!) as one of the teachers. I shocked both him and his wife by disclosing the fact that I now embrace reformed theology. That revelation produced an awkward pause in the evening, followed next by some good discussion.
After some brief back and forth on the subject, they made the statement to me: "But Jesus died for everybody!" Such a claim is very common. Of all the doctrines of grace (i.e.: the five points of Calvinism), the teaching of limited atonement seems to get people's skin the most.
The doctrine of limited atonement says that Jesus only died for those whom God chose to be the Bride of His Son and no one else. To those unacquainted with the logic and theology behind the teaching, it creates lots of questions, and also produces what are called "four point Calvinists" (those who hold to every other doctrine in Calvinism except limited atonement).
I have what may sound like a shocking statement to make: Of all the doctrines of grace, I believe limited atonement is the easiest doctrine to affirm and embrace. Let me explain why.
Can't Touch This
Dr. John Piper is somewhat famously known for remarking "My best friends are dead men." What he means is that, when it comes to God-fearing, solid theological teaching, it's hard to beat the works of people like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and others.
One dead (but present with the Lord) man Piper and I look to for wisdom and instruction is John Owen who wrote what is perhaps the most definitive work on Christ's atonement in "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ". In his book, Owen delivers what I believe is irrefutable logic on why Christ's atonement must be limited. Let me quote the full section from his book and then work through it in parts:
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved . . . If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, 'Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.' But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will". (page 61)The Options
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men.
Owen first lays out the options for the atonement. Either Jesus suffered on the cross for (1) all the sins of everyone; (2) all the sins of a particular group of people; (3) some of the sins of everyone. He then proceeds to work through those possibilities.
Option 3 — Out
If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved.
Working backwards, Owen quickly discards the third option because, if everyone still has some sins that have not been atoned for, no one will stand in the presence of God and spend eternity with Him. I don't know of anyone who disagrees with this.
Option 2 — What Reformed Teaching Affirms
If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.
The second option Owen presents is what reformed theology embraces — that Jesus only died for God's chosen people and took upon Himself all their sins. Such a position ensures the salvation of that group of people because all their sins were placed on Christ at the cross and they have nothing left to atone for. This is limited atonement.
The Start of Option 1 — a Good Question
If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?
Option 1 is what the vast majority of Christians believe — that Jesus took upon Himself at the cross all the sins of everyone who ever lived or will live. But Owen asks a good question: if that's the case, and it is sin that keeps people from God, then why isn't everyone saved?
Teachers like Rob Bell and others who hold to universalism believe everyone is eventually saved; that "love wins" in the end and that no one will be lost. Part of their rationale is that Jesus did indeed die for the sins of everyone.
But outside of Bell and the universalists, no one believes everyone will be saved. This includes those not upholding the doctrine of limited atonement as reformed theology presents it. And it is these people that Owen addresses next.
Is Unbelief a Sin?
You will say, "Because of their unbelief; they will not believe."
What keeps people from eternal life with God? Their unbelief, which is a fact affirmed by both reformed and non-reformed Christians alike. The ever-famous John 3:16 limits the atonement to only those who believe — a point that showcases the truth that all Christians really believe in limited atonement in one form or fashion.
But then Owen asks an important follow up question:
But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?
This inquiry marks the beginning of the end for anyone who attempts to deny the reformed doctrine of limited atonement. The answer, of course, is yes. Paul flatly says, "whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). The writer of Hebrew, describing faithless Israel, also says, "So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:19).
But Owen works through the possibilities nonetheless.
If not, why should they be punished for it?
If unbelief is not a sin, Owen says then there is no reason for it to bar anyone from God's presence.
If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not.
If unbelief is a sin (and we have seen that it is), then it was either one of the sins that Christ died for or it was not. So either unbelieving people still have something to answer for to God or they don't.
If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death?
This logical conclusion is the deathblow for anyone saying that Christ died for all the sins of everyone, but that unbelief keeps a person from eternal life with God. Owen says if unbelief is a sin, and if Christ died for ALL the sins of everyone born of human parents, then that sin must be included in the mix and labeled as one that Christ died for. Unbelief, as a sin, could not keep anyone from spending eternal life with God more than any other sin that Jesus paid for.
If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.
If someone wants to say that Christ did not die for a person's unbelief, and unbelief is a sin, then Jesus did not die for all his or her sins. Thus, a person cannot make the claim that Jesus died for all the sins of the world (with "world" being defined as every human being ever born).
Let them choose which part they will.
This is polite 17th century language for victoriously exclaiming, "Checkmate!"
Owen has shut off all possible options for those who want to claim that Christ died and bore the sins for every human being, and yet still want to adhere to the (right) teaching that all will not be saved. With options 1 and 3 being untenable, the only option remaining is the reformed doctrine of limited atonement.
Easily Understood and Easily Embraced
A short while back, I taught a ten-week series on reformed theology at a very large Arminian mega-church. For many in the class, it was the first time they had ever heard the doctrines of grace presented in a systematic manner.
When we got to the section on limited atonement, I covered the doctrine in full, discussed the verses that are sometimes used to support an unlimited atonement, and then presented Owen's defense of limited atonement. One person in the class admitted, "You said at the beginning that this is the most controversial of all the reformed teachings, but I think this just follows naturally, especially if the other points are true."
In his book entitled, The Nature of the Atonement, John McLeod Campbell explains how he came to understand that if the death of Christ was a penal substitution (i.e.: Jesus dying in the place of others), a person has to deal with the issue of why everyone is not eventually saved. He admits that the only alternative becomes a limited atonement.
Recounting the just covered John Owen's summary of the case, Campbell concludes, "As addressed to those who agree with him as to the nature of the atonement [as a penal substitution], while differing with him as to the extent of its reference [that it was intended for all sinners], this seems unanswerable."
I agree again. Make no mistake about one thing: every sin committed in the history of humankind will be punished and paid for. The sin will either be paid for by Christ on the cross or in Hell by the unbeliever. God does not exact double punishment or payment for sin, once by Jesus on the cross and then by those who reject Christ in Hell. He only punishes once for sin.
The doctrine of limited atonement has definitely gotten a bad rap in Christendom, but I believe it's actually the most easily embraced of the reformed doctrines. John Owen's brief but powerful logic demonstrates this quite well I think.
Believing I can't choose God on my own (the doctrine of total depravity)? Thinking that God chooses only those He desires for His Son's Bride (election)? Affirming that God somehow "violates" and overcomes my will and resistance to Him (irresistible grace)? I find those are things that cause more consternation in Christians than limited atonement.
Dr. James White speaks to the simplicity and beauty of limited atonement when he says, "In its simplest terms the Reformed belief is this: Christ's death saves sinners. It does not make the salvation of sinners a mere possibility. It does not provide a theoretical atonement...Christ's death saves every single person that it was intended to save."
Knowing that God never fails at anything, that makes sense to me.
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