Doctrines of Grace: Limited Atonement

L: Limited Atonement

lightstock_2343_small_justin_The third doctrine of grace is the one that is likely to give most people the biggest pause and mainly because it involves the work of Christ on the cross. Christ’s work on the cross was monumental in regards to our salvation and therefore you should “pause” when considering what He has done for us and be careful to ensure that someone is not altering this event in a way that reflects something that is less than scriptural.

In the acronym TULIP, L stands for “Limited Atonement.” In the context of reformed theology this term means that Christ’s death on the cross is limited in some way. Now it is essential that we understand what this limitation is. There are two ways to look at it in terms of scope/efficacy and application:

1. Jesus’ death on the cross is limited in its scope/efficacy and application.

When we say that Jesus’ death is limited in its scope and application then we are saying that Jesus died only to save the “elect” and no one else. Those that argue for this view say that the fact that not everyone is saved is evidence that Jesus didn’t die for everyone. In their mind, if Jesus died for everyone then everyone must thereby be saved. This is certainly one way of looking at “Limited Atonement.”

2. Jesus’ death on the cross is limited in application but not its scope/efficacy.

When we say that Jesus’ death is limited in its application but not its scope we are saying that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for everyone but will only be applied to those who believe in Him, hence those that are elect. It seems like a subtle nuance but it’s not. This way of looking at the atonement, in my opinion, harmonizes well with the fact that Jesus was given on behalf of the whole world (John 3:16) and that Scripture says He is the Savior for all men (1 Tim. 4:10)

I tend to lean toward the second of the two viewpoints. While the first viewpoint is the position of “real” Calvinists I find that the second viewpoint is more in line with how God has revealed Himself in the Bible and maintains the distinction between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

So, how does this doctrine of grace glorify God and His grace? It sure seems on the surface as if it doesn’t because it “limits” Jesus’ atonement. But in reality this doctrine goes quite a distance in glorifying God. If Jesus’ atonement is not limited to only those who believe then it is cheapened. If it just applies to any and everybody regardless of their opinion of God and Jesus then it would really be pointless.

But, because God has limited Jesus’ atonement to only apply to those who believe in Jesus, He is glorifying Himself by making faith in Him, through Jesus Christ, the exclusive means by which individuals are saved. A “Limited Atonement” also serves to show us just how valuable God’s grace really is.

God is determined to bring glory to Himself in His triune nature. And, by the Father limiting the application of the atonement to those who believe in His Son, our triune God is being glorified in all that He is.

One response to “Doctrines of Grace: Limited Atonement

  1. Great post, brother (as all of the posts in this “Doctrines of Grace Series” have been). I, like you, am a former Arminian turned 4.5-point supporter of the doctrines of grace (i.e., I was a 4.5-point Calvinist). Limited atonement gave me a similar hangup as it appears to have given you. Here’s the thinking that got me over the hump and into supporting all five doctrines completely…note that my thoughts are heavily inspired by John Piper’s found at http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-we-believe-about-the-five-points-of-calvinism.

    1 Timothy 4:10 (which you quoted above) reads that, “…we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” I believe that this Scripture affirms two truths. First, Christ died for all people (as John 3:16 says, which you also pointed out). Second, while Christ indeed died for all people in some sense, it appears that Christ did not die for all in the same sense across the board. It is true that Christ is the savior of all people. It is equally true that Christ is especially the savior of those who believe in him.

    Christ’s the work of Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross has provided common grace to all of humanity throughout the course of human history. Rather than being immediately damned the moment we are born into sin, or the moment that we commit our first sin, God allows the sun to rise and the rain to fall on both the “good” and the “evil;” Christians and unbelievers alike (Mt. 5:45). No one is given God’s just judgement for sinfulness immediately; many humans (even unbelievers) are allowed to survive and even thrive for 70, 80, and 90 years. God’s immediate judgement was satisfied at the Cross of Calvary, and “all people” have experienced some saving benefit to this act of mercy.

    And yet, not all are saved eternally. Eternal condemnation awaits those who reject God throughout the course of their lifetime, while eternal life in the presence of the Father awaits those who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. As you’ve discussed in your previous posts regarding the “T” and “U” of “TULIP,” it is solely by God’s gracious work that ANYONE breaks free from the natural “Romans 1” self. We each knowingly and willingly reject God in our lives, and only come to receive him as Lord through the Holy Spirit’s work in softening up our hearts. Regardless, unless someone is a universalist, orthodox Calvinists and Arminians alike agree that not everyone goes to Heaven when they die…only those who believe do so.

    So, if Christ died for all in the same sense and with the same effect, my natural conclusion is that he died to provide only the opportunity to be saved, or to make all people “savable;” salvation rests on the work of Christ, but also on the prerogative of the individual. I believe that the view most consistent with the Scriptures (specifically John 3:16, 1 Timothy 4:10, all of John 17, etc.) is that Christ died and rose to offer saving benefits to ALL in some sense (i.e. common grace), but eternal salvation to SOME (i.e. His elect). In this view, Christ did not die and rise to make all men savable; he died and rose to finally, effectually, and once-and-for-all purchase his elect through the power of His blood. I believe this view not only to be the one which is most consistent with Scripture, but also the one which magnifies the power and effect of Christ’s saving work. Though the “real Calvinist” believes in limited atonement, I believe that it is the view which limits the power of Christ’s salvific work the least.

    Again, great thoughts, brother. I’m honored to be able to jump on board, and hope my comments will be gracious and edifying to both you and anyone else who may be reading!

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