This article is part of the series “Why I Am a Five-Point Calvinist”. Click below for the other articles in the series as they build the foundation for this article:
Limited Atonement (Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption)
No other Doctrine of Grace has been more misunderstood than the doctrine of limited atonement. The misunderstanding is based largely on the connotations of the word “limited”. When people hear the word “limited”, they think weak, ineffective, or finite. That is certainly not the case with the atoning work of Christ. As we will see, a better title for this doctrine would be Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption.
Before we begin to observe this doctrine, we must know what an atonement is. Oxford says that an atonement is “a reparation for a wrong or injury”. Here it is necessary to note that an atonement is not the possibility of a reparation, but atonement is an actual reparation.
It is often said that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all, but not efficient for all. While that statement is true, it doesn’t tell us anything that will help solve our problem. All this statement does is separate particularists from universalists (or those who believe not everybody will be saved from those who believe everybody will be saved). This is an issue that the Scriptures are perfectly clear on. Countless passages say that people will die in their sins and go to Hell. In fact, Matthew 7:14 says that few will find the narrow gate that leads to life. The issue of particularism versus universalism is a settled issue. It’s been settled for all eternity. The question is, did Jesus pay the penalty for the sins of people who are in Hell today? I would say no.
Ephesians 5:25-27 says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Sadly, these verses mean absolutely nothing or very little to those who reject the doctrine of particular redemption. They hold that Christ died for everyone equally. If that is so, then how can Paul use this as an example of marital love? “Oh, I gave myself up to all those other women too, but you were the only one who’d take Me,” the Arminian Jesus might say. That is not a Biblical picture of the Perfect, Exalted, Supreme Lamb of God.
Jesus tells a parable in John 10:7-16 about His sheep, a picture of both Jewish and Gentile believers:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 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. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
The Arminian denies that Jesus specifically died for His sheep. He instead claims that Jesus died for all sheep and then some of the sheep chose Him. The “Hypothetical Universalist” or “Four-point Calvinist” claims that Christ paid for all the sheep, then chose a couple and left.
Several verses say that Jesus actually saved His own, rather than merely making salvation available:
- “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
- “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
- “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
- “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
- “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)
- “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,” (Revelation 5:9)
There are also several passages that say Christ died for all, but we must qualify the word “all”. 1 John 2:2 says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” This verse has been used by Hypothetical Universalists to justify their doctrine, but that type of usage just doesn’t work. If Christ is the Propitiation for the sins of the whole world, as in every single person to ever live, then there wouldn’t be people in Hell. Why? Because a propitiation satisfies wrath by its very definition. If Jesus paid for those sins, yet people suffer for them in Hell, that would be double jeopardy. God is just, so God doesn’t do double jeopardy, especially if it was His Son Who took the blow. A simple reading of John’s other books shows an interesting parallel to 1 John 2:2. It’s found in John 11:51-52, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” This simply means that Christ not only died for Jews, but also for Gentiles.
1 Corinthians 15:22 says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Does the word “all” here really mean what it appears to mean? If it does, then all people are spiritually alive, which is simply not true. People who use this verse against the doctrine of particular redemption leave out two crucial words, “In Christ”. Everyone who is in Adam dies, and everyone who is in Christ shall be made alive.
Many people will then beginning citing the oft misused verse, John 3:16. I would like to point out that they’re missing the point of the verse. It says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Yes, Christ died so that a universal call to salvation can be made by His followers to the whole world. That is why we are to preach the Gospel. The thing is, only those whom Christ purchased on the cross will come to Him.
Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) makes the following points in his book, “The Joy of Calvinism:
- “Any ‘solution’ to a theological problem that pictures God attempting to do something and failing must go right out the window. Whatever work God sets his hand to must be effective.” (p. 51)
- “If the love that led Jesus to the cross is a love for any individual people, then either it is a love for all individual people or only for some. We don’t want it to be only for some, because that thought is horrible. But if it’s for all people then either they’re all saved (which we know is not true) or God’s work fails in its purpose (which we also know is not true).” (p. 53)
- “Instead, the most we can possibly say on this view is that Jesus’s saving work makes salvation available. And that is what all theological traditions besides Calvinism do say. In their various ways, they portray the saving work of Jesus as creating a system of salvation. All it does is create the system. Jesus does his work to make salvation available. Individuals are not actually saved until they avail themselves of the salvation system through some other process.” (p. 53)
- “Different Arminian systems have different theologies of this moment of decision; for example, they integrate it in different ways with the work of the Holy Spirit. But for all of them, it is the moment of decision that saves you.” (p. 54)
- “The staggering conclusion is that, in this view, Jesus’s work does not remove your sins. If it did, it would actually save you. And then we’d be right back on the merry-go-round – if Jesus died for all people, and his work removed the sins of those for whom he died, everyone would be saved. All traditions besides Calvinism have gotten off the merry-go-round only by denying – in effect, if not in so many words – that Jesus’s work removes your sins… Nothing is hypothetical or conditional for him. When Jesus climbs up on the cross, he knows full well who will be saved and who won’t. How can we say that he sacrifices himself on the assumption of a hypothesis he knows to be false, or on a condition he knows is not met?” (p. 57)
I believe in particular redemption, because I believe in substitutionary atonement. I believe that Jesus actually died in the place of actual people to actually redeem them from their sins. See the following verses for more on substitutionary atonement: Isaiah 53:5, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and 1 Peter 2:24.
The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, put the idea of particular redemption much better than I ever could when he said:
- “The Arminian holds that Christ, when He died, did not die with an intent to save any particular person. And they teach that Christ’s death does not in itself secure beyond doubt the salvation of any one man living. They believe that Christ died to make the salvation of all men possible; and that by the doing of something else, any man who pleases may attain unto eternal life. Consequently, they are obliged to hold that if man’s will would not give way and voluntarily surrender to grace, then Christ’s atonement would be unavailing. They hold that there was no secure particularity and specialty in the death of Christ. Christ died, according to them, as much for Judas in hell as for Peter who mounted to heaven. They believe that for those who were consigned to eternal fire, there was as true and real a redemption made as for those who now stand before the throne of the Most High.”
- “Some say that all men are Christ’s by purchase. But, beloved, you and I do not believe in a sham redemption which does not redeem. We do not believe in a universal redemption which extends even to those who were in hell before the Savior died, and which includes the fallen angels as well as unrepentant men.”
- “We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.” We ask them the next question—Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer “No.” They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say “No; Christ has died that any man may be saved if”— and then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as to infallibly secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, “No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.” We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.”
Over the course of this week, I will be releasing articles on the Doctrines of Grace (aka the Five Points of Calvinism). This is not meant to cause division, but rather to give a clearer understanding of these doctrines. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, either leave them below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow to get our articles in your inbox!