TULIP Part 4b

Limited Atonement


What did the death of Christ accomplish? Put another way, what was the purpose and the extent of the atonement? This is a topic that has been debated throughout church history. Historically, there have been several theories of Christ's atonement. Let's look at a few:
  • Moral Influence Theory – This view teaches that Christ's death on the cross serves as a moral example for Christians to follow
  • Ransom Theory – This view teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom paid by Christ to Satan on behalf of the elect
  • The Christus Victor Theory – This view of the atonement believes that the death of Christ achieved victory over the dominion of evil
  • The Satisfaction View – This view holds that Christ's death satisfied the demands of God's honor
  • The Governmental View – This view teaches that Christ's death served to show that sin deserves judgment and that Christ's sufferings enable God to forgive human beings
  • The Penal Substitution View – This view believes that Christ's death was as a substitute for a particular group of people. Christ suffered and died in their place satisfying the demands of God's justice
You may be thinking, "That's quite a list," and you would be right. All of these theories have developed over the entire 2,000 year history of the church, and some of them are still hotly debated. The Calvinist position of Limited Atonement holds to the Penal Substitution view. Whereas the Arminian position typically holds to the Governmental view. Which view is correct? I think the answer lies in understanding the biblical word propitiation.

To propitiate means "to make favorably inclined, appease, conciliate." We see this word in the NT in four places: Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10. In each case, the word is used in reference to Christ propitiating the sins of the people to God. In other words, Christ suffered and died in order to appease the wrath of God on behalf of his people. The writer of Hebrews mentions that Christ made propitiation for the "sins of the people," and the Apostle John twice mentions that Christ is the propitiation for "our sins." The Greek word behind propitiation means "a sacrifice that bears God's wrath and turns it to favor." Given this definition of propitiation and how it's used in the NT, it would seem that the Penal Substitution view of the atonement is the correct view. The idea of Christ standing in as a substitute for sinners brings forth the essence of his sacrifice; plus it ties it in quite nicely with the concept of atonement found throughout the whole bible.

In our last article, we discussed the extent of the atonement. If Christ's atonement is a substitution, then what is the extent of that substitution? We noted that the Calvinist view limits the scope of the atonement to the elect. Whereas, the Arminians limit the effectiveness of the atonement to those who believe. In other words, the atonement is sufficient for all, but only effective for some. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Arminian position is true and that Christ died to make all men savable. What if nobody avails themselves of Christ's saving work? If that's the case, then it is quite possible that no one will be saved. If Christ died to make all men savable, then it is up to man to finish the work that Christ started on the cross. However, Christ uttered the words "it is finished" on the cross before he died (John 19:30). This is a discrepancy in the Arminian view; the work of the atonement cannot be said to have been finished on the cross if man has to believe for it to be effective. However, if the work of atonement was finished on the cross and Christ actually secured salvation for his people, then the scope of the atonement has to be limited to the elect.

What about those verses (like 1 John 2:2) which seem to indicate that the extent of the atonement is universal? John writes, "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." Arminians point to verses like this to support their view. The key in understanding this (and other such verses) is the context. In particular, the phrase "our sins" and the phrase "whole world" need to be understood. When John says "our sins," he is referring to the sins of him and the people to whom he wrote. What he is trying to say is that Christ didn't only die for them, but for the whole world too. In other words, the message of the gospel is not only for this specific group of people, but is a message of hope for the whole world. The elect of God will be comprised of people from every tribe, tongue and nation in the world.

However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that "whole world" in this instance means that Christ died for every single man, woman and child who has lived or will ever live. Because according to the penal substitution view, if Christ bore the wrath of God for the sins every man, woman and child in the whole world, then no one goes to hell. This is a view the Arminian will not accept, but he must accept it if he wants to remain consistent. Either that or he must reject the penal substitution view of the atonement (which then puts them at odds with the bible's teaching on propitiation). The Calvinist position is consistent with itself and with the word of God. The Doctrines of Grace present a beautiful picture of God's work in salvation for his elect people.

Soli Deo Gloria!


Next: Irresistible Grace Part 1

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