It is for the sole purpose of glorifying God that this paper will delve into the depths of one of the doctrines that is crucial to understanding what our Blessed Mediator did for us on the cross of Calvary. The doctrine of limited atonement has been debated for centuries. Good men have differed over this controversial idea. It is the purpose of this paper to examine a biblical view of the atonement which is limited [sic]. This will be accomplished by following a three-step plan. First of all, a cursory understanding of limited atonement defined will be presented. Secondly, this paper will deal with the doctrine of limited atonement disputed. Finally, we will take a look at the doctrine of limited atonement as it is defied throughout scripture.
Limited atonement is defined as the belief that “God limited the effect of Christ’s death to a specific number of elect persons.” One who believes in limited atonement would deny that “God would ‘offer’ salvation to those whom He has not chosen. They deny that God’s pleadings with the reprobate reflect a real desire on God’s part to see the wicked turn from their sins.”
Much of the doctrine of limited atonement is founded upon the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God is seen repeatedly throughout the Bible. In I Chron. 29:11 we see that the Lord is above all of the created order. He cannot be questioned by mankind (Dan. 4:35), He has the keys of hell and death (Rev.1:18), and He chooses those whom He will call to himself (Jas.4:12). According to those that accept limited atonement, promoting the belief that Christ died for all mankind leads to the conclusion that Christ Himself has been defeated in that not all of mankind has accepted His free gift of salvation. Since God is sovereign, he knows who will be saved, and who will be subjected to eternal salvation. His will is bound to be accomplished, and He knows who the sinners are that Christ died for. The concept t of the sovereignty of God leads the person accepting limited atonement to believe that Christ died for the elect and not the whole world.
Many scriptural passages seem to provide a solid foundation for the doctrine of limited atonement. In Eph. 5:25 we read that it was Christ’s love for the church, and not the whole world, that led Him to die on the cross. Matt. 20:28 tells us that the Son of Man came to die for many. Matt. 1:21 states that Jesus will save His people from their sins. Rom. 5:6-10 says that “in His death, Christ did not merely make adequate provision for the elect; He actually achieved the desired result.”
In short, the doctrine of limited atonement is the belief that Christ shed His blood not for the sins of the world but for the sins of the elect. Christ came to earth to purchase salvation for those given to him by God. The intent of our Savior as He walked Calvary’s hill was to purchase the elect with his blood and not to atone for the sins of the entire human race.
The second step towards the goal of glorifying God by presenting a biblical view of limited atonement is to look at how this topic is disputed. Those that would dispute topics such as limited atonement should keep in mind passages in God’s Word such as I Tim. 6:4. This passage reminds us to be careful in our disputations of doubtful topics that we might stay free from causing offense, harm, or the stumbling of weaker brethren.
For many years limited atonement has been disputed theologically by those who would hold to the belief of unlimited atonement, or the belief that “God did not limit Christ’s redemptive death to the elect, but allowed it to be for humankind in general.” In order to consider some of the key theological debates that surround limited atonement, one must have an open mind and a sensitive heart that will allow the Word of God to work in establishing convictions on an individual basis.
One of the main passages that is disputed theologically is John 3:16. Those that hold to limited atonement interpret the word “world,” or the Greek word kosmoV, to mean the elect. Others read this verse, and interpret it to support a stance for unlimited atonement. However, there are at least seven different ways that the word kosmoV is used the New Testament. Pink states “That ‘the world’ in John 3:16 refers to the world of believers (God’s elect), in contradistinction from ‘the world of the ungodly’ (2 Pet. 2:5) is established, unequivocally established, by a comparison of other passages which speak of God’s ‘love.’” Even as theologians such as A.W. Pink put forth their dogmatic conclusions on textual interpretation others take the exact opposite view. One such theologian said of interpretations such as Pink’s, “Clever exegetical devices that make ‘the world’ a label referring to the elect are not very convincing. Christ Jesus is the propitiation 'for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.’ (I John 2:2)”
Another major topic in the disputation of limited atonement is that of the love of God. Those that hold to the view of unlimited atonement find themselves confused as to how a loving God could seem to make His offer available to all, but, in fact, not have any intention of shedding His blood for the non-elect. Passages such as Titus 3:4 seem to teach us that it was the love of Christ for all men that caused Him to die. Again we read in Psalms 86:5 of how the Lord is rich in mercy and willing to forgive “all of them” that call to Him. Psalm 145:9 says “The Lord is good unto all.” Dave Hunt says that God’s not allowing some to come to salvation is “attributed to God under the excuse that it is ‘God’s good pleasure to do so.’” Hunt questions how someone could get pleasure out of watching a person die as he asks, “Doesn’t God have an even higher – yes, a perfect – standard of love and concern?” This is exactly the conviction of those that cannot reconcile the love of God with the doctrine of limited atonement.
Yet there are still those that believe that God’s love does not extend to the non-elect sinner. Boettner claims that “It was not, then, a general and indiscriminate love of which all men were equally the objects, but a peculiar, mysterious, infinite love for His elect, which caused God to send His Son into the world to suffer and die.” Many scholars use the depiction of a field of wheat to make their case for limited atonement. If a farmer has a field, does he care for every item in the field the same way? Of course he does not. The farmer cares tenderly for the precious wheat of the field, not for the tares. In this way theologians holding to limited atonement claim that Christ loves the body of Christ. Those that are not elect have no value to Christ. Thus, he does not care for them at all. Why would Christ then die for those that he does not care for? Boettner again states that “It is not the whole of mankind that is equally loved of God and promiscuously redeemed by Christ.” Beza, a prominent theologian promoting limited atonement, stated that “a mediator should be appointed...which doth appear in ye free salvation of his elect...and finally with one only offering and sacrifice of himself should sanctifie all the elect.”
The third and final step this paper will take towards glorifying God in presenting a clear, and accurate picture of the salvation of mankind is the process of defying the doctrine of limited atonement. It has been stated that one should “never be dogmatic where good men differ.” The topic of limited atonement is most assuredly a topic where good men differ. However, the Bible is clear that we are to study the scriptures, and show ourselves approved unto God.(2 Tim. 3:16) The final step in this paper seeks to prove that Christ died for all of mankind.
A disturbing pattern is observed when documenting the beliefs of those who believe in limited atonement. Although there are man that would disagree with this statement, there is no Scripture that can be used to back up the belief that Christ died for the elect alone. Because the believer in limited atonement realizes this fact, they then turn to other passages of Scripture and try to read into the text to support their position. One such passage that has been used for years is I John 2:2. According to this verse Christ is the propitiation for the sins of “the whole world.” The believer in limited atonement will respond by saying that the “whole world” in this text refers to the Jewish nation. There is absolutely no proof for this. Not one time in the book of I John do we read the words “Jew” or “Gentile.” Clearly this is another effort to try to prove a theory that is clearly not based on scripture. Not only are the words “Jew” and “Gentile” not mentioned once, but it would have been preposterous for John to have been writing this to Jews. The Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 had taken place many years before and had settled the fact that salvation was available to all. I John 2:2 refutes the doctrine of limited atonement when it states that Christ died to save the whole world.
Another passage that is commonly used when trying to support the doctrine of limited atonement is Romans 5:8. The believer in limited atonement will argue that Paul identifies himself with the elect when he says that “Christ died for us.” This belief fails to consider the context of Romans 5:8. Just two verses earlier, in Romans 5:6, Paul has written that “Christ died for the ungodly.” What does this mean? That Christ died for the ungodly who were elect? Absolutely not! “The statement points to Christ dying for the ungodly as a class, or all the ungodly.” Again, the attempt by the particular redemptionist to fit Scripture to his idea is refuted, and it is verified that Christ died for the sins of the whole world!
If Christ died only for the sins of the elect, and does not make his salvation offer available to all, then what are God’s intentions when He seems to make his salvation available to all? Was he merely joking? Was he playing some sort of cruel, tantalizing game as a ruthless soldier would as he holds out a morsel of nourishment just out of the reach of a starving prisoner of war? What kind of love is that? The person who accepts limited atonement also accepts that the God of eternity was in no way sincere in His universal offer of salvation.
Pink uses an analogy to explain Christ’s atonement. He shares that the atonement is like a situation in which a man who is in severe monetary debt has his debt paid for by a friend. The man’s debt is then paid for, and he is free. Pink says that the one who believes that Christ died for all must also agree that since every person’s sin debt is paid for, we must conclude that all are going to heaven. Pink conveniently fails to carry out his illustration in regards to the will of the one being released of debt. The man who has had his debt paid for has every right to reject the gift that has been offered to him. When the condemned man rejects his payment that is available, he is still under debt. In a very real sense the analogy of the man rejecting the payment relates directly to the atonement. Christ’s blood has been made available to all. Sin’s debt has been paid! The sinner who rejects the blood of Christ is still guilty in the sight of God even though his debt has been paid.
God will be glorified in salvation. After all Christ’s work on the cross of Calvary is undoubtedly the most beautiful pictures of love that this world has ever seen and that alone brings Him glory. This paper has sought to glorify God by presenting a biblical view of the atonement which is limited. It has done so by defining limited atonement, explaining the disputations of limited atonement, and by defying the doctrine of limited atonement.
The Bible presents Salvation as the “tidings of great joy to all people!” When we fail to recognize that Christ included all men when he died to pay sins debt, we not only become unbiblical, but we take all of the joy out of the gospel story. May God help us to remember that the gospel which began as a joyous truth still rings as a joyous truth. Christ died for all men!
This idea is taught using the basis of the passage found in Matt. 5:16
Elwell, Walter. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House Company, 2001. 114.
MacArthur, John F. "Is God Sincere in the Gospel Offer?" Master's Seminary Journal Volume 7, 1996: 14-17. 14.
Pink, Arthur W. The Sovereignty of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930. 20.
Also see Mark 10:45, and Isa. 53:10-12.
Carson, D.A. "The Love of God and the Intent of the Atonement." Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 156, 1999;2002: 392-396. 392.
Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow, C.2: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1966. 49. i.e. the elect.
Limited atonement brings with it serious disputations. For centuries men have debated scriptural interpretations and theological terminology. When entering into the debate of a topic as expansive and intimidating as limited atonement, one can find comfort in the fact that we know the God of all knowledge (Job 21:22). Although on this side of heaven the debate will never cease raging in the human mind, when we see Christ face to face it will be sweet comfort to know that HE had a plan through all of man’s confusion.
Theological debates have to do with the meanings of words, verses and terms in the Word of God.
Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary. 115.
Chang, Andrew D. "Second Peter 2:1 and the Extent of the Atonement." Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 142, 2002. 52.
 Pink, Sovereingty. 234. See also Rom. 5:8, Heb. 12:6, I John 4:19.
Pink, Sovereignty. 255.
Carson, “The Love of God”. 396.
Lewis, Grant Randall. "Limited Atonement." Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 92, 1935; 2002: 238-241. 239.
Hunt, Dave. What Love is This? Sisters, OR: Loyal Publishing, Inc., 2002. 112.
Boettner, Lorraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1977. 157.
Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine. 158.
Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine. 158.
Godfrey, W. Robert. "Developments from Calvin to Arminius." Westminster Theological Journal Volume 37, 2002: 137-140. 139.
Pink, Sovereignty, 259.
Hunt, Love. 257.
Moritz, Fred. "Soteriology Class Notes." 41.
Isa. 45:22; Isa. 55:1; Isa. 55:7
Pink, Sovereignty. 62.