On Limited Atonement

I find it better to use the words of others to explain the doctrine and truth on Limited Atonement and it’s implications rather than to explain it within the confines of my blog. Those who have done it better, we use their voice (there is no shame at this, except for those who think that they are so knowledgable that explanations must come from their own study otherwise it is void):

  • A good summary on the issue is available here.
  • Sinclair Ferguson on Reconciliation here, particularly in this excerpt:

It is effected in the salvation in all of the elect through the proclamation of the gospel. Sinclair was once sitting in a Baptist church at a Christmas service hearing an Arminian preacher and he was reading the Scriptures, but the way he read “He will save his people from their sins.” resulted in all the issues I had been grappling with for months over limited atonement fell into place. This passage in 2 Corinthians 5 is replete with universals – ‘all,’ and ‘the world’. Why should one hang on to limited atonement in the light of these universal terms? Because of Paul’s understanding of the nature of the atonement. It is effected by the substitution of Jesus Christ in our place. He has affected the atonement. So payment God cannot twice demand . . . The very nature of the atonement implies and demands that this atonement is effectual. Either the atonement would be incomplete, or God would be unjust.

  • John Macarthur (famously misquoted and beaten on this point) explains in a good, down-to-earth sermon here. The good excerpts that give a gist of his contention of the matter are:

But let’s start with some simple things.  If I ask the average Christian for whom did Christ die?  The traditional answer would be, “Everybody…everybody, Christ died for the whole world, He died for all sinners.”  And most people then in the church believe, and I’m sure many people outside the true church, many people associated with Christianity, believe that on the cross Jesus paid the debt of sin for everyone because He loves everyone and He wants everyone to be saved.” That’s pretty much the common evangelical view.  Jesus died for everybody, He paid the price for the sins of everybody.  And all we have to do is tell sinners that He loves them so much that He paid the price and He wants them to be saved and all they have to do is respond.

Now if that is true, then on the cross Jesus accomplished a potential salvation…not an actual one.  That is, sinners have all had their sins atoned for potentially and it’s not actual until they activate it by their faith…. [skipping to the end]

Now the sum of it comes down to this.  Is the death of Christ a work that potentially saves willing sinners or is it a work that actually provides salvation for unwilling sinners who by God’s sovereign grace will be made willing?  The only possible answer is that God provided a sacrifice in His Son, a true payment in full for the sins of all who would ever believe and all who would ever believe will believe because the Father will draw them and He will grant them repentance and faith and regeneration.  Jesus’ death then is to be understood as a full satisfaction to God’s holy justice on behalf of all whom God will save. 

I didn’t invent this, this doctrine goes way back, back to the Reformation, back to John Owen, and even back to Charles Spurgeon.  Listen to what Spurgeon said, “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 opponent’s limited.  We do not.  The Arminians say Christ died for all men.  Ask them what they mean by that.  Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men?  They say no, certainly not.  Or we ask them the next question, did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any person in particular?  They say no.  They’re obliged to say that if they’re consistent.  They say no.  Christ has died that any man may be saved if…and then follow certain conditions of salvation.”

  • A slightly diplomatic view, which does not clearly tries to tie or make a clear connection between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty, from D.A. Carson is here. I thought the pastoral elements and implications are clearly and frankly summarised.
  • J.I. Packer’s introduction to Owen’s own treatment on the issue in “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” is here, while the full treatise of the latter is here.

In the end, I see that those who practice or believe in “Unlimited Atonement” to be defficient in their Christian beliefs. Not that they are not saved, no, no… for Grace is from God, and what is unified with grace is faith and the work of the Spirit.

What I suspect to be the ‘shock’ in which these people see the doctrine is mostly personal; if this “limited atonement” is true, then what about my initial profession? Was it effectual? Did God really save me? They are afraid of struggling with the issue of ‘assurance’ which naturally stems from this doctrine. One is saved by God’s Work, not mere confession that is de-void of the Spirit’s work. The comfort they had on mere intellectual assent is challenged!

On the other side, another group is afraid because they look at their wills and with the same mind, believe that it is possible to ‘unwill’ your faith. To lose salvation. Therefore, “limited atonement” is not possible (which guarantees full effectual atonement on the sinner saved – elect).

I pity them with much sadness. Mystery of certain things that are not available to the human intellect is necessary a humbling thing that brings us to awe at a mighty God who is almighty and is living not only in our space and time, but beyond also. Humbling that we know fully that it is Him who saves and gives us the will to cry out “Faith!”. More humbling for the one who cries out and find out even his cry was not from his own depraved will, but a renewing work of God.

Other alternatives really just doesn’t measure up to the Glory of God. Pure, sovereign, blissful Grace.



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