The doctrine of limited atonement states that Christ died for the elect in contrast to the reprobate. Sometimes this doctrine is also called particular redemption.
II. Point of Controversy
Aside from Muslims and Jews, no one has much of a problem with the first half of the equation, it’s the second half that makes some people uneasy. It’s also the case that the second half is less clearly revealed in Scripture.
In general, anyone who denies that Christ died for the elect is a non-Christian. The question is, did Christ also die for the non-elect. We deny, the Amyraldians, Arminians, and many others affirm.
III. Burden of Proof
The opponents of the doctrine of limited atonement seem to want to place the burden of proof on the Reformed to prove that Christ did not die for the reprobate. This seems odd. Normally, the advocates of the positive doctrine have the burden of proof. Now, we could draft a resolution to try to place the burden on the Reformed theologian, but the ordinary rules of reasoning suggest the opposite.
Because this doctrine is negative, and the burden is really on the proponent of alleged universality of the atonement, the main arguments “for” the doctrine will be presented as objections to universality.
IV. Grounds of Objection
1. Grammatical Objections
The word atonement is essentially synonymous with reconciliation. If the atonement is universal, the reconciliation between God and man is also universal. Reconciliation is bringing together things that were separated. We were separated from God by sin. Those who are reconciled to God are those whose sins are removed. Those whose sins are removed cannot be condemned, and consequently are – or will be – saved. The Word of God, however, is clear that not all men will be saved.
Likewise, the word “redeem” from which we get the word “redemption” has to do with purchase. If something is purchased, it is owned. If a debt is paid, the debtor is free of the debt. If Christ paid for the sins of the world, then God cannot condemn men to hell for their sins.
2. Exegetical Objections
There are a number of verses that specify the purpose of Christ’s work, namely to die for the elect (those who will believe).
Matthew 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
Luke 1:68 Blessed be the Lord God of
John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
38For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. 39And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
John 10:15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.
Revelation 5:9 And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;
Because of these verses, we can see that Christ died for a specific group of people: and from other verses we can see that the group of people is not limited to a specific race or ethnicity.
3. Logical Objections
If one accepts the other petals of TULIP (namely, total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints), it makes little sense to insist that Christ died for those people whom he left in total depravity, did not elect, and did not apply irresistible grace towards. In other words, the “L” of TULIP is logically and intuitively connected as part of the whole.
4. Typological Objections
Christ’s atoning sacrifice was typified by the Old Testament sacrifices. Those sacrifices brought (outwardly) forgiveness for those for whom they were offered.
Leviticus 4:20 And he shall do with the bullock as he did with the bullock for a sin offering, so shall he do with this: and the priest shall make an atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them.
Leviticus 4:26 And he shall burn all his fat upon the altar, as the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings: and the priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him.
Leviticus 4:31 And he shall take away all the fat thereof, as the fat is taken away from off the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall burn it upon the altar for a sweet savour unto the LORD; and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him.
Leviticus 4:35 And he shall take away all the fat thereof, as the fat of the lamb is taken away from the sacrifice of the peace offerings; and the priest shall burn them upon the altar, according to the offerings made by fire unto the LORD: and the priest shall make an atonement for his sin that he hath committed, and it shall be forgiven him.
Leviticus 5:10 And he shall offer the second for a burnt offering, according to the manner: and the priest shall make an atonement for him for his sin which he hath sinned, and it shall be forgiven him.
Leviticus 5:13 And the priest shall make an atonement for him as touching his sin that he hath sinned in one of these, and it shall be forgiven him: and the remnant shall be the priest's, as a meat offering.
Leviticus 5:16 And he shall make amends for the harm that he hath done in the holy thing, and shall add the fifth part thereto, and give it unto the priest: and the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering, and it shall be forgiven him.
Leviticus 5:18 And he shall bring a ram without blemish out of the flock, with thy estimation, for a trespass offering, unto the priest: and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his ignorance wherein he erred and wist it not, and it shall be forgiven him.
Leviticus 6:7 And the priest shall make an atonement for him before the LORD: and it shall be forgiven him for any thing of all that he hath done in trespassing therein.
Leviticus 19:22 And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the LORD for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him.
Numbers 15:25 And the priest shall make an atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them; for it is ignorance: and they shall bring their offering, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their ignorance:
Numbers 15:28 And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth ignorantly, when he sinneth by ignorance before the LORD, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him.
Likewise, the atonement ceremonially cleansed (since ceremonial uncleanness points to sin):
Leviticus 12:7 Who shall offer it before the LORD, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female.
Leviticus 12:8 And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.
Leviticus 14:19 And the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make an atonement for him that is to be cleansed from his uncleanness; and afterward he shall kill the burnt offering:
Leviticus 14:20 And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meat offering upon the altar: and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and he shall be clean.
Leviticus 14:31 Even such as he is able to get, the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, with the meat offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for him that is to be cleansed before the LORD.
Numbers 8:21 And the Levites were purified, and they washed their clothes; and Aaron offered them as an offering before the LORD; and Aaron made an atonement for them to cleanse them.
In short, the work of the atonement is to make clean the unclean, to purify, and to make holy:
Numbers 6:11 And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, and make an atonement for him, for that he sinned by the dead, and shall hallow his head that same day.
So then, Christ’s sacrifice has a better effect: it accomplishes what the old sacrifices only pictured. Christ’s sacrifice actually brings about the forgiveness of sins, actually brings about justification, actually brings about sanctification, and ultimately brings about glorification. If Christ atoned for the sins of each and every person, then all will be forgiven, cleansed, etc. by analogy.
It’s also interesting to note that the atonement sacrifice was offered for the elect nations, not for all the nations. That may to be a trivial thing, but if the blood of bulls and goats ceremonially cleansed the entire nation and only the nation, then the blood of Christ actually cleansed the entire church invisible and only the church invisible, namely the elect of all generations.
5. Theological Objections
The Nature of God must be considered, and a limitless atonement would seem to be contrary to the nature of God.
a) God’s Omnipotence
Most explanations of a reason for believing that the atonement includes those who are not ultimately saved, are based on the idea that God would like to save them, but he simply cannot. This tends to deny the omnipotence of God. God is God, he can do what he wants, and no one can stop him. If he wants to save, he will.
So, what was God’s intent? Was it to save everyone? If so, why did He fail? And if he failed, how can he be viewed as omnipotent?
b) The Perfection of God
If Christ died for the reprobate, it would seem that he died in vain for them, that his work on their behalf was a waste, which would seem to attack the perfection of God. What was inadequate in Christ’s work, that it did not accomplish its objective (assuming its objective was universal salvation)? Can God really be frustrated and thwarted in his attempts? Surely not.
c) God’s Love
Some explanations respond to objection 4(a) (about God’s omnipotence) by asserting that God restrains himself from acting on his desire to save everyone. This then calls into question the depth of God’s love for those people. Particular atonement makes God love deeper, by suggesting that God’s love is the motive for his saving those he saves, which is a much greater blessing than simply leaving folks without an excuse.
d) God’s Simplicity
There is no contradiction in God. Many explanations of universal atonement, however, end up creating a conflict in God: God really wants to save people, but he is conflicted, because He also wants to avoid interfering with their “free will.” Thus, such explanations challenge the simplicity of God.
e) God’s Omniscience
God knows everything that will happen. While few explanations of universal atonement would explicitly deny that God knows the future, the idea of making salvation “possible” (typically used to explain universal atonement) makes no sense if one is omniscient with respect to the future. If one knows the future with certainty, then one cannot hold to “possibility” or “probability” in the normal sense of the words. From God’s point of view, the future is certain: the events in the future are not simply possible future events, but definite, concrete events that will occur as he has foreseen. Accordingly, from God’s point of view Christ’s death does not make anyone’s salvation “possible,” because God does not think in mere possibilities.
f) God’s Wisdom
Rather than deny God’s omniscience, some explanations of universal atonement will simply assert that God sent Jesus to make salvation possible from our perspective. Of course, this reason is starting to support limited atonement as well as it does universal atonement, because if we do not know who the elect are, then salvation is possible from our perspective. Nevertheless, such an explanation coupled with universal atonement calls God’s wisdom into question. Wouldn’t an all-wise God recognize that Jesus dying for the elect would be sufficient to make salvation possible for all mankind from our perspective?
g) God’s Sovereignty
Normally, explanations of universal atonement rely on a theory that Jesus died for all mankind, but that only man can decide whether to accept or not the atonement. This explanation takes away from the sovereignty of God, since it suggests that God’s will is not decisive in the matter. Obviously, there is significant overlap with (a), (b), and (d) here.
6. Practical Objections
a) The Love of God
Practically, knowing that Christ’s death was intended specifically for a person strengthens one’s appreciation of the love of God, particularly when one recognizes that this is special favor (grace) that was not given to everyone. It must, of course, be coupled with a recognition that one in no way deserved the special favor. But, properly understood, it heightens and strengthens one’s love of God.
b) Assurance of Salvation
If one recognizes that Christ died for the purpose of accomplishing the salvation of his flock, one’s assurance of salvation based on the sacrifice is enhanced. That’s much of the reason for the explanation provided in the Epistle to the Hebrews, particularly around the eighth chapter. It’s because Christ is our sacrifice that we can be sure we will be saved. But if some will be lost for whom Christ died, then our assurance would be weakened.
V. Arguments from Universal Atonement Folks
Normally this is the section where “objections” would be placed, but the proponents of universal atonement are the ones making a positive assertion, and consequently are the ones with the burden of proof.
1) There is no place where Scripture specifically says: “Christ died only for the elect.”
We agree, but Scripture sometimes reveals things inferentially.
2) There is no place where Scripture specifically says about anyone that “Christ did not die for them” or to anyone that “Christ did not die for you.”
We agree, but Scripture was written for the elect, not for the reprobate. Scripture was written to encourage and lift up, not to tear down. Again, though, see the comment regarding (1).
3) Scripture seems to state that some for whom Christ died will not be saved.
Of course, as a matter of logic, this falls short of establishing universal atonement. In other words, if we could find an example from Scripture of someone being damned for whom Christ died, we would only have shown that the elect plus one were the intended beneficiaries of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
Nevertheless, this argument seems to be the strongest (or second strongest) argument that universal folks have, because it would seem to strike at many the objections to universal atonement.
4) There are some verses that, standing alone, seem to suggest that Christ died for everyone.
This would seem to be the other strongest argument, namely that there are a few verses that – standing alone – and read with universal atonement on the brain might seem to suggest that Christ died for each and every person.
The double-whammy (if you will) is to try to couple this argument with argument (3) above.
5) Limited atonement lessens the love of God because it reduces the breadth of that love.
This argument is rather easily refuted. Loving more people is not necessarily better (or more loving) than loving fewer people. To make an easy illustration of this fact: From a wife’s perspective, a husband loving many women in the same way he loves his wife is worse, not better.
As for (3) and (4), the present author has previously addressed all of the verses that have been alleged to support those arguments, and has concluded that they cannot support the argument. Nevertheless, perhaps those who have previously provided proof texts for universal atonement have done a poor job of locating the best verses, or have done a poor job of explaining them, or perhaps the present author simply has not yet received the forthcoming rebuttal.
Nevertheless, I stand ready to give a defense of the dogma that Christ died for the elect, and only for the elect.