Limited Atonement | Definite Redemption


Published on October 14, 2021

You can listen to the second part of this series here.

In our first article in this series, we introduced the history of the Doctrines of Grace (Five Points of Calvinism) and the aims of this series. Our second article looked at the doctrine of Total Depravity or Man’s Radical Corruption due to sin. The next article considered God’s Unconditional Election or Sovereign Gracious Choice of undeserving sinners for salvation. In this article, we consider the contentious topic of Limited Atonement – perhaps better titled, Definite or Particular Redemption.

The Arminian Position held that Christ’s atoning death on the Cross was designed to make salvation possible for everyone, but it did not actually secure or guarantee the salvation of anyone. People must determine whether or not Christ’s work will be effective and applied to them by exercising their faith. Thus, the atonement is “unlimited” in the sense that it is open to all who by the use of their free will choose to put their faith in Christ.

The Reformed Position in opposition to the Arminians asserted that Christ’s death was designed to actually secure the salvation of all of God’s chosen (elect) people. Christ’s atonement on the Cross actually accomplished the salvation for everyone God has predestined to salvation. It sees the atonement as “limited” in the sense that it is specific and definite or particular.

Limiting the Atonement

The title “Limited Atonement” really is an unfortunate misnomer. It can imply that what Calvinists are saying is that the atonement’s value is somehow limited – as if Christ’s death only had saving power for a certain amount of people. But this is not what was meant. Christ’s death is infinitely valuable. Instead, what is being said is that the scope or intention of the atonement is restricted to be effective for the elect. Another way to put it is that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect.

John MacArthur comments,

“You either believe in a limited atonement, or you believe in a universal atonement. If you believe in a universal atonement, to be logically consistent, then there’s no hell and no one will be in hell; everyone will be in heaven. If you affirm an unlimited atonement, then you really are going to end up as a universalist. If Jesus actually died for the whole world, then the whole world is saved. So, we can’t go there because there is a hell and it’s full of people…”

In truth, every orthodox Christian “limits” the atonement in some way. If we didn’t, then we would be universalists believing that no one goes to Hell and that God saves everyone. The difference is in who does the “limiting”. For the Arminian, it is man who limits the atonement by the exercise of their free will. God may want to save them, but the powerful free-will of man cannot be overruled, not even by a “Sovereign God”. This is odd to me indeed. However, for the Reformed Theologian, it is God who makes the atonement specific for the intended purpose of the sake of the elect whom He has chosen to set His undeserved grace upon. What is being addressed in this doctrine is the intent of the atonement.

The question of limited atonement or definite/particular/specific redemption is one which we must see what Scripture clearly says to settle the matter. It is to this we now turn.

The Scriptural Support

There are five main Biblical points about Definite Redemption (Limited Atonement) that we will consider here:

1. The Scriptures speak of Christ’s death as actually accomplishing salvation and not just making it possible

Paul makes the point clearly in Romans 5 that “God shows his love to us, in that while we were yet still sinners, Christ died for us” (v.8). Christ’s death is for us. Not for an undefined group that will be determined later. I think this is a point that many Christians fail to realize. If the atonement isn’t specific, then we cannot actually say that “Jesus Christ died for me” because if he didn’t have a definite purpose or intended recipients for his atoning work, it would depersonalize the atonement. Paul continues in Romans 5 that “much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (V.9) We have been justified by his blood – past tense. Christ’s atonement actually accomplished our justification.

In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Paul says that God has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ (past tense). He explains that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ by not imputing (counting) their trespasses to them. How does this work if the atonement is not specified for a particular people? Whose trespasses are not being imputed? This definite language is seen strongly in Ephesians 2:16 where Paul argues that God has reconciled Jew and Gentile to God in “one body through the Cross”. Again, there is a specific intent to the atonement. Colossians 1:21-22 also shows this, stating that for those who were enemies of God, “He has now reconciled in the body of His [Christ’s] flesh through death.” This language clearly indicates that Christ’s death actually accomplishes reconciliation – it does not just make it possible. Steven Lawson comments that,

“Jesus actually redeemed a specific people through His death, securing and guaranteeing their salvation. Not a drop of Jesus’ blood was shed in vain. He truly saved all for whom He died.”

Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15 also affirms the intent of the atonement to save sinners. We could also turn to Galatians 3:13 where Paul affirms that Christ became a curse for us – again a specific intent of the atonement. Or Titus 2:14 which says that Jesus gave himself for us to redeem and purify “for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” The author of Hebrews also speaks of Jesus’s blood “having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12) – not just making it possible. Finally, Jesus says in Luke 19:10 that he came to seek and to save that which was lost.

What’s on the line here is this: did Jesus come to actually seek and save the lost, or just to make them findable?

2. The Father sent Jesus Christ into the world to save the people given to Him

This point is explicitly made by Jesus himself. In John 6, he affirms that “all that the Father gives to me will come to me” (v.37) because he has come to do the will of the one who sent him (v.38). He then defines what that will is. It is that “of all He has given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up on the last day” (v.39). Everyone whom the Father gives to the Son will come to him, and will find the Son to be a perfect Saviour who does not lose any of those given to him and who raises them up on the Last Day.

Later in John 10, Jesus further clarifies. He says in John 10:11 that he lays his life down for the sheep – there is an intent to his sacrifice. It is meant for the sheep. Jesus continues,

“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)

Jesus knows who his sheep are and he lays down his life for them.

Later, the Jews acost Jesus and he rebukes them that they do not believe because they are not among his sheep (v.25-26). He then affirms that his sheep hear and follow him (v.27) and that he gives them eternal life and no one can snatch them from his hand (v.28). Here we see again that Jesus is sent to actually save His people. It is in his name’s meaning as explained by the angel at his conception,

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

Paul further affirms this point, saying that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph.1:3) and that we have (present tense) redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of sins (v.7). Not we might have redemption and forgiveness, but that we have it!

3. Christ’s High Priestly sacrifice and intercession is for specific people not the whole world

This is perhaps most clearly seen in Christ’s High Priestly prayer in John 17.

He opens off by petitioning God to glorify the Son “since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”(v.2) Jesus gives eternal life to those given to him, not makes it possible. He continues in verse 6 to affirm that God gave them to him and they have kept His word. In verse 9 he clarifies that “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” This is a plain statement that Christ’s intercession is specifically for those given to Him by the Father (the elect). In the immediate context he’s talking about the disciples, however, in verse 20, Jesus expands:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”

So, his intercession is also for all who would come to believe in him through the testimony of his disciples – that’s you and me!

Perhaps one of the most astounding statements come in verse 24 where Jesus says, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” Jesus petitions the Father that he longs that those whom the Father has given him will be with him and see his glory. Do you think that God did not answer His prayer? Was the intercession of Christ of no effect? Of course not! This is why Christ’s intercessory work is for a specific people – because it is actually effectual for them! If Christ prayed for every single person in this way, then every single person would be saved.

The author of Hebrews also makes this point clear. In Hebrews 2:17 the author argues that this was why Christ had to be made like us so that he can be our High Priest “to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Jesus’s Priestly role actually makes atonement for sin. This is why in Hebrews 3:1 he is called the Apostle and High Priest of our confession of those who share in a heavenly calling (election). His death was offered “to bear the sins of many,” specifically, “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)

4. Christ’s saving work was intended to save a particular people

When Paul was exhorting the Ephesians elders in Acts 20:28, he said “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Jesus’s blood purchased a particular people who comprise the church of God. Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 5:25-27,

“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.”

Notice that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify her to present the church to himself in splendour. There is a specific intention to Christ’s atoning work – to save the church. This is why Paul can ask such confident questions in Romans 8:32-34 such as, “who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” And “Who is to condem?” – he cites it is because of Christ’s atonement and intercessory work that we have confidence, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

Jesus says that he shows the greatest love by laying down his life for his friends in John 15:13 and that he came to give his life as a ransom (Matthew 20:28). In his institution of the Lord’s Supper, he says that his blood is shed for the remission of the sins of many (Matthew 26:28). Sometimes people think that Limited Atonement means that God is stingy with salvation. However, Christ’s atonement is intended for many people whom God has called to salvation.

This brings up the next point…

5. Christ died for an innumerable number of people from every tribe, tongue and nation

In Revelation 5:9, we see a vast host of the redeemed worshipping before the throne of God who sing, “For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” His blood actually redeems people from every people group – and this is one of the truths that gives great confidence in worldwide missions. We know that Jesus Christ has redeemed people from EVERY tribe, so we are guaranteed that when we go to a new people group with the Gospel, there will be those who will be saved!

We see this taught by our Lord in the most famous verse in the Bible, John.3:16. It says that this is how God loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son. God’s love is for the world – not just a particular nation or people group. Many who object to Limited Atonement also point to John 3:16 and point out that the text says, “whosoever believes”. However, this is a misunderstanding of the translation. In the original text, there is no word “whoever”. The Greek that is being translated is πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων. It is a participle being used substantively because of the definite article attached to it. In simple terms, it could be translated literally, “all the believing ones.” Translators add “whoever” to try to smooth out the translation to English and also because of the familiarity of the KJV translation of this verse. What it is saying is that God gave his Son so that all the believing ones (i.e. Christians) would be saved. Even this verse is speaking about a specific intent of the atonement.

This sort of expansive language of the “whole world”, in context, was meant to communicate that God’s gracious salvation was not just meant for the Jewish people, but for all people. This is the focus of the apostle John, writing to a primarily Jewish audience in 1 John 2:2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” And again in 4:14, “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” Jesus is the propitiation (atoning sacrifice) and Saviour of not just the Jewish people but of the whole world.

Paul echoes this in Romans 5:18 that, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” He obviously does not mean that all men everywhere without exception are justified, but that all types or kinds of people – Jewish or Gentile. Indeed, this was the struggle of the early Church to accept the Gentiles’ full inclusion into the people of God.

Does “all” mean all?

This brings up a pertinent objection. Many point to the Bible’s use of the word all to argue for an unlimited atonement and argue that Christ died for all – meaning everyone without exception. Some of the verses which are used are:

  • 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, “if One died for all, then all died; and he died for all…”
  • 1 Timothy 2:4, God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is… one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
  • Hebrews 2:9, “that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.”
  • 2 Peter 3:9, the Lord is “patient toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

What are we to do with these verses? Do they teach that the atonement is unlimited and for everyone without exception?

No. As we have seen prior, the atonement actually accomplished salvation – it does not just make it possible. So, if the atonement is for everyone, it would result in Universalism. Instead, we must recognize that the Bible often uses the word all in a restricted or specific sense. We cannot just import the meaning “everyone without exception” to its usage of all – just as we wouldn’t do that in our own regular language.

If I say, “everyone was there at the football game” or “Brandon was feeling generous and said, ‘I’m buying ice cream for all!”’ We don’t automatically think that I mean everyone in the world or all without exception or in an unlimited sense. We must understand these sayings within their context. There are many clear examples of the Bible using “all” in just this way:

  • Luke.2:1 – “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” – this doesn’t mean that every single person in the entire world, but rather the totality of the known world or Roman Empire
  • 1 Corinthians 6:12 – “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful.”- are all things lawful without any qualification here?
  • John 12:32 – if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” – does Jesus draw everyone without exception to himself?
  • 1 Corinthians 15:22 – “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” – is every single person made alive in Christ?

As you can see, all does not necessitate that we understand it in an unqualified way. The verses cited above (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Tim 2:4, Heb. 2:9, and 1 Peter 3:9), within their proper contexts, are using expansive language to communicate that God’s salvation is not limited only to the Jewish people, but to all kinds of people – people from every tribe, tongue, and nation whom God has elected to save.

Who did Christ Die For?

Logically, we only have 3 choices when it comes to the question of “for whom did Christ die?” on the extent of the Atonement. Christ died for either:

  1. All the sins of all people everywhere
  2. Some of the sins of all people
  3. All the sins of specific people

If the first one is true, then it means universal salvation. However, some might object – “Ah, but they are lost because of their unbelief.” But then we must ask, is not unbelief a sin? If it is a sin, and Christ died to suffer the punishment of all the sins of everyone, then why are they still lost? If the second one is true, that Christ only died for some of the sins of people, then all are lost – because even one sin is enough to damn us before a perfectly Holy and Just God. Thus, the only logical option is the last one, Christ died for the sins of the elect – those given to Him by the Father.

Perhaps the irony here is that which was pointed out by C.H. Spurgeon that it is actually the Arminian position that truly limits the atonement. They say that Christ died for all men. However, he did not die to secure the salvation of all men. Nor did he die to secure the salvation of anyone in particular. Instead, they say that he died to save anyone if… and then they outline the conditions of salvation. Arminians are ultimately saying that Christ did not die to infallibly secure the salvation of anyone. He makes salvation possible for people to attain by their free will, and thus does not surely secure it for anyone – because humans, being fallible, can fail to attain this salvation by their own merit, will and effort. Thus, the Arminian actually limits the atonement the worst – because it is limited by fallen man. However, for the Reformed, Christ’s death infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude of undeserving sinners too vast to number who will surely be saved because his death actually atoned for their sin. This is why he is the Saviour of the world – not its potential Saviour.

The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 states it this way,

“The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up to God, has fully satisfied the justice of God, procured reconciliation, and purchased an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given unto Him.” (1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 8.5)

That is such good news to those who believe in Jesus Christ. This doctrine of Definite Atonement makes the love of God shown through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ so personal to us who believe! If you believe on Christ for salvation, Jesus was thinking of you on the Cross as he gave the ultimate sacrifice to pay for our sins. As that old children’s song says, “Jesus loves me, this I know!”

I hope that this article was helpful for you in wrestling through the Biblical case for Christ’s Definite or Specific Redemption of the elect. Our next article will consider the “I” in the TULIP – Irresistible Grace or God’s Effectual Call.

If you’ve found these articles educational or edifying, please consider sharing them with others so that they may be blessed as well.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Articles in this series:

  1. The Doctrines of Grace (TULIP) | Series Introduction
  2. Total Depravity | Humanity’s Radical Corruption
  3. Unconditional Election | God’s Sovereign Choice
  4. Limited Atonement | Definite Redemption
  5. Irresistible Grace | Effectual Calling
  6. Perseverance of the Saints | Eternal Security

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