TULIP Part 4a

Limited Atonement


You often see it at major sporting events, someone holding up a big banner with JOHN 3:16 in huge letters painted on the front. John 3:16 is one of the most cherished verses in the entire bible. In that verse, the message of the gospel is summarized: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." The meaning of this is clear, right? God loved the world so much that he gave his Son, Jesus, to die for the sins of mankind. In order to be saved and not perish, you have to believe that Jesus died for you.

However, is that the message of John 3:16? Did Jesus die for the sins of the whole world? The third petal of TULIP, Limited Atonement, seems to teach otherwise. The message of the Doctrines of Grace are that Jesus died for the sins of a particular group of people, not for the "whole world."

If you've been following the series on the Doctrines of Grace, you'll know that we've already covered Total Depravity and Unconditional Election. Briefly stated, we've learned that due to Adam's fall into sin, the whole human race was born spiritually dead in sin and is unable to obey God or seek him for salvation. If anyone is going to be saved, God must first elect him unto salvation. So far, so good? Alright! Limited Atonement basically teaches that Christ died for those whom God elected unto salvation. The Canons of Dort states it this way:
For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son's costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God's will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father.
In my experience, Limited Atonement is the hardest of the Doctrines of Grace for evangelicals to accept. You will get objections to the other Five Points of Calvinism, but Limited Atonement heads the list. Why? Because of verses like John 3:16 (and others), which seem to suggest a universal atonement, not a limited atonement. We'll address the biblical argument against Limited Atonement in our next article. For now, I want to provide some biblical evidence in favor of Limited Atonement and some closing arguments to consider.

In John's gospel, we find the following:
  • I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15)
  • My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
  • I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. (John 17:9)
These verses speak very strongly about a particular group of people: Whom Christ knows; who hear the voice of Christ; for whom Christ dies; and for whom Christ prays. So whatever your view on Limited Atonement, you have to reconcile these passages which make quite clear that Christ's work on earth was for a specific group of people.

In closing, I want to make a couple of points regarding Limited Atonement. People who object to this doctrine object to it because they don't like to think that the atonement of Christ is limited in any way. That's a noble sentiment, but unless you're a Universalist, everyone limits the atonement in some way. Calvinism limits the scope of the atonement: Christ died only for the elect. Arminianism limits the effectiveness of the atonement. In what way? Arminianism limits the effectiveness of Christ's atonement by saying Christ died to make salvation possible for all, but it only becomes effective in those who believe. Which leads me to my next point: Did the death of Christ actually accomplish salvation, or did it merely make salvation possible? This is a crucial question that needs to be answered. I believe that the witness of Scripture is clear that Christ's work of atonement was finished on Calvary (John 19:30). We'll look at this more closely in our next article.

Soli Deo Gloria!


Next: Limited Atonement Part 2

Image Credit: Thomas Totz, Germany; "5 tulips"; Creative Commons

The Series:
Introduction: What are the Doctrines of Grace and what is their historic importance?
Total Depravity: Are we all as evil as we can be? What about the good that people do?
Unconditional Election Part 1  |  Part 2: Does God choose those who are going to be saved ahead of time?
Limited Atonement Part 1  |  Part 2: Did Jesus die for the sins of the whole world or only for the elect?
Irresistible Grace Part 1  |  Part 2: How does God draw people to himself? Can we resist?
Perseverance of the Saints: What does it mean to persevere in faith? What about apostasy?

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Republished 5-20-2013