Sunday, September 09, 2007

Limited Atonement

Part of a series on the Five Points of Calvinism
[Introduction] [Total Depravity] [Unconditional Election] [Limited Atonement]

The "L", Limited Atonement, is probably the most vilified of the five points of monergism. I have spoken with many people who held a high view of God's sovereignty, and who agreed with points such as Total Depravity and Perseverance of the Saints, but stumbled on Limited Atonement. Limited Atonement can be defined as the understanding that:
Christ's redeeming work was intended to save the elect only, and actually secured salvation for them, and only them.
It is my aim here, as always in this series, to clear up misconceptions about Limited Atonement and make it believable, if not exactly palatable. For I, too, somehow feel the injustice of it. Christ's death - limited only to certain people! It seems so unfair of God. Yet, I have come to believe over my years of growth as a Christian and increasing knowledge of the Bible that it is true.

One thing that Limited Atonement does not mean is that God's saving power is limited somehow, that God is being put in a box, or that God's salvation is any less glorious. What's more, the extent of God's atonement is not limited by any factor except God 's own justice and wisdom. Spurgeon's sermon on this topic is well worth reading.

It also does not mean that God does not love those who are not His elect, nor does it mean (as I have argued before) that believers in Limited Atonement are less evangelistic than those who do not believe in Limited Atonement. It means simply what it says: that the salvific effect Christ's death is only applicable to those who God has elected. In fact, Limited Atonement does not even mean that Christ's death had no effect on those who are not elect. Christ's death had many effects on men, including changing the way God relates to us, handing Satan an intermediate defeat, showing us an example of supreme self-sacrifice, etc. The only effect it does not have for the non-elect (undoubtedly, from our point of view, although perhaps not from God's, the most important) is saving them from their sins.

Now that we've considered what Limited Atonement is and is not, I will try to convince you that it is reasonable. But, before we can consider that question, we need to consider two others first. The first one is: Why do people go to hell? It seems to me that there are only two answers, from a Christian point of view, to that question. First, because they don't believe in Jesus; or, second, because they are sinners who are not covered by Christ's redeeming blood.

Let's consider the first answer. Do people really go to hell because they don't believe in Jesus? I don't see any Scriptural support for that idea. Furthermore, there are real problems with that belief. First, what about the "native in Africa", or the "good Jew" problem? Is it really right that God should punish people forever because they happened to be born in the wrong place, the wrong time, or into the wrong family? What about people before Jesus died? If you go to hell because you don't believe in Jesus, why aren't they all in hell now? (Below I will argue that the second position does not have this problem, although on first blush it seems it does.)

For that matter, what about the good and honest atheist? It seems to me (and it seemed the same to atheists I have actually talked to) that this kind of God would capricious and unworthy of our worship. Now, before you judge me for considering philosophy and man's judgment over revealed truth, I believe in Limited Atonement because I believe it is scriptural, not because I was convinced of it by philosophical considerations such as I am raising now. My discussion here is merely to clear up misconceptions and hopefully to help people better understand the Biblical data, which is always the final court of appeal.

An analogy may help: people who jump out of an airplane without a parachute don't die primarily because they didn't have a parachute, but because they jumped out of the airplane. The parachute could have saved them, but its lack is not the cause of them dying: jumping out of the airplane and hitting the ground is. It's the same with salvation: believing can save us, but lack of believing is not what condemns us.

On the other hand, consider the second answer: that people go to hell because they are sinners. This answer seems to me much better fitting with the Biblical data, as well as other doctrines that I am many non-monergists accept (such as Total Depravity). Further, it does not have the philosophical problems above. It may seem that the native in Africa problem applies, but I believe it does not. The native in Africa (substitute good Jew or atheist if you wish) goes to hell not because they don't believe in Jesus, but because they are sinners. I am a sinner too, of course, which means that I deserve to go to hell just as much as the good native or Jew or Muslim or, for that matter, Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin. Believing in Jesus saves me from what I otherwise deserve: that's why we call it grace.

In fact, if people went to hell because they did not believe in Jesus, that would make salvation at least in part a work on our parts, and it would not be fully of God's grace. The native in Africa would go to hell because he didn't perform the right work, and I am going to heaven because I did. As Paul would say, "God forbid!"

So, if it is true that men go to hell because they are sinners, let's consider a second question: what is the effect of Christ's death on the cross? Is it that our sin is covered, the guilt of our sins is removed, and we are saved? Or is it simply that we are made savable? It must be the former, because otherwise our sins would still be on our own heads, their effect still upon us. If we are made savable, but God still considers us "dead in our sins and trespasses," and if people go to hell because of their sin, then we would still be going to hell. To avoid going to hell, something needs to remove the guilt of our sins; and that something must be Christ's atoning death. Thus, the effect of Christ's death must be that the guilt of our sins is removed, it is put on His head, and He became sin for us, in our place.

As an aside, I should note that this is the doctrine of substitutionary atonement - Christ took the guilt of our sins on His own head. I have heard people affirm the idea of substitutionary atonement yet deny that the effect of Christ's death was to effectively save people. It seems to me that this is a logical contradiction: the two ideas - substitutionary atonement and Christ's salvific death - are essentially the same thing. In either case, Christ died in our place and took our penalty.

Having considered these two questions, let's finally consider Limited Atonement. If Christ's death takes away the guilt of our sins, for whom did Christ die? It cannot be for the entire world, because then everybody would go to heaven, because the guilt of their sins would be removed. Or, alternatively, it removes the absolute sovereignty of God, because we as men would be able to continually thwart His plans. He planned that Christ would remove the guilt of sin, and thus that we would all go to heaven, but we keep ruining His plans by not believing in Him. That kind of God would be continually frustrated by His creatures.

The only conclusion that makes sense to me is Limited Atonement. Christ's death is perfectly effective for those whom He intends to save, and God's will is never thwarted. Those who He does not save deserve to go to hell (as do we all) because they are sinners, not because they did not believe in Jesus. It's completely by God's grace, not due to anything - not even having faith - that anybody is saved. Praise be to God!

Additional Resources:'s Limited Atonement page has lots of them


Anonymous said...

yes, Christ either died for all men that have ever lived, live now, or shall live...or
Christ died for no men at all...or
Christ died for some men and not all...
There are no other options.
If Christ died for all men, then all men are saved...universalism..
which is not a biblical teaching.
If Christ died for no men...then all men are without hope and face God's wrath...
If Christ died for some men only then it could be said in that sense that the atonement is limited, not in power but in its scope..."he will save his people from their sins.
If all men are born into this world "by nature children of wrath" then God is not obligated to save anyone! All men are equally worthy of wrath. But God does save people. He shows mercy to some (sparing from wrath) and he gives saving grace to some (favor toward individuals in spite of their own demerit/emnity toward Him)and the rest receive wrath because of willful sin and hatred toward a loving God.
Some receive mercy (non-justice)some receive wrath (justice) but no one receives injustice from a Holy God.

John Owen's 'the death of death in the death of Christ'is particularly helpful in pulling all this together.

God does not help us to save ourselves. Christ's death on the cross actually accomplished something. His death on the cross did not make salvation possible, but He was actually saving people on the cross (substitution). Your comments are spot on

Perry Jackman

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Perry, thanks for weighing in. You're exactly right. I think the idea of denying limited atonement comes from the best intentions in the world - trying to get God off the hook for not saving everybody and defending God's character - but is defective both Biblically and philosophically. God will never give anybody worse than they deserve. Better, yes - but never worse.