Limited Atonement

The doctrine of Limited Atonement (or Particular Redemption) is probably the most controversial of the doctrines of grace and most difficult to accept by many believers. Limited Atonement states that Christ's redeeming work was intended to save the elect only, and actually secured salvation for them. His death was the substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ's redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation; including faith which unites them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, therefore guaranteeing their salvation.

Scriptural Support:
Exodus 4:21, 14:4, 8, 17; Deuteronomy 2:30, 9:4-7, 29:4; Joshua 11:19; 1 Samuel 2:25, 3:14; 2 Samuel 17:14; Psalm 105:25; Proverbs 15:8, 26, 28:9; Isaiah 53:11; Jeremiah 24:7; Matthew 1:21, 11:25-27, 13:10-15, 44-46, 15:13, 20:28, 22:14, 24:22; Luke 8:15, 13:23, 19:42; John 5:21, 6:37, 44, 65, 8:42-47, 10:11, 14, 26-28, 11:49-53, 12:37-41, 13:1, 18, 15:16, 17:2, 6, 9, 18:9, 37; Acts 2:39, 13:48, 18:27, 19:9; Romans 9:10-26, 11:5-10; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, 2:14; 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, 4:3; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-14; 2 Timothy 2:20, 25; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 1:3, 14, 2:9, 16 (cp. Galatians 3:29, 4:28-31), 9:28; 1 Peter 2:8; 2 Peter 2:7; 1 John 4:6; Jude 1, 14; Revelation 13:8, 17:8, 15-18, 21:27.

The first thing to consider is the purpose of Christ's death. Hebrews 10:9 says that Jesus came to do the will of the Father. So it follows that the purpose of His death was to accomplish the Father's will. But what was the Father's will in the death of Christ? It was shown from Scripture in the previous article on the doctrine of unconditional election that it was the purpose of the Father to choose some for salvation, not make salvation a potential for all based on the exercise of free will, which is totally corrupted and depraved by sin. If, then, Christ came to fulfill the purpose of the Father; and it was not the purpose of the Father to elect some to salvation rather than all; then it logically follows that it was not the purpose of Christ to die for all men.

In the covenant of grace, the Father chose a people, Christ promised to die for them, and the Spirit pledged Himself to apply salvation to their hearts. In Isaiah 53:10-12 it says: "But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors."

Christ foresaw the suffering and agony that He would have to endure, and yet, He was content with it, for He realized that by His death, everyone for whom He died would be redeemed from sin. Now if Christ died for all men, and some for whom He died ended up going to hell anyway, then Christ could not have foreseen the suffering and agony of His soul and been satisfied. He would have been disappointed because His efforts would not have been sufficient to save everyone for whom He died. Therefore, the atonement Christ made for the sins of His people was limited in purpose; not in its value, but in its purpose, for it was designed for the elect of God.

The second point to consider is that the purpose of the death of Christ was to save His people from their sins. That is clearly stated for us in Matthew 1:21: "She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." This passage did not say that He would save the whole world, nor did it say that He should try to save His people; but that He would save His people from their sins. If that was the prophecy given concerning the birth of Jesus Christ and the purpose for which He came, we must surely know that which was determined by the Father was fulfilled by His faithful Son. Luke 19:10 supports this point: "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." If that then was His purpose; He accomplished that very thing.

Thirdly, the purpose of Jesus' death was to bring the elect to glory. Romans 8:28-30 says: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified." In John 17 is the prayer of intercession made by the Lord Jesus. In verse 2 He prayed, "Even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life." Note that eternal life was not for all men, but those that were given to Him by the Father. In verse 9 He continues: "I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours;". It would not be reasonable that Christ would limit His prayers to those given to Him by the Father, and at the same time die for all men, knowing very well that many would not be saved. He prayed for those for whom He died, and He died for those given Him by the Father. His purpose then was not to save the entire human race, for if that had been His purpose He would have accomplished it. Christ is the Almighty and accomplishes everything He intends to do. It was His purpose to save only the elect of God, and His purpose was fulfilled.

Christ died for His sheep, and because of this none can be lost. In John 10:10-11 He said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." And in verse 28 He continues: "I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand." (Notice that He does not offer them eternal life.) Jesus died for the sheep, and He gives eternal life to everyone for whom He died. Christ did not come to attempt to save men; He came to redeem His people. He purged their sins and then sat down on the right hand of His Father. (Hebrews 10:12)

As was stated at the beginning, there are many who find this doctrine hard to accept and so object to it. Nonetheless it is truth that is taught in the Word of God. There are many objections that are raised, and this article will only deal with some of the main ones. One of the first things objectors usually refer to is the use of the word "world" in the Scriptures, and the first passage that is always read is John 3:16: " For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." John 3:16 simply states that the design of God's love, that all who believe in Christ should be saved by Him. These believers in their unregenerate state are scattered abroad among the Gentiles as well as among the Jews, and so are fitly described by the word "world." Of course, there are those who reject this explanation. They may look to Acts 11:18 for support: "When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, 'Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life." But does this mean that every Gentile has been granted repentance, and that every Gentile will be saved? Of course not. What this passage shows is that repentance has been granted to the Gentiles; it simply means that all those of God's elect among the Gentiles shall be given repentance unto salvation. The Jews are not the only ones to be granted this gift. Jews as well as Gentiles have been given repentance, and so it is the same in John 3:16. It does not have reference to every person in the world, but it has reference to men of all nations.

A passage that illustrates this point well is found in Revelation 5:9: "And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.'" This helps us to understand, in this context, what is meant by the use of the word "world". It means people of every tribe, tongue, and people; that Christ's death was not restricted to the Jews, but that it was for members of the entire human race scattered throughout the earth.

There are several other examples. In John 7:7 the word "world" is used to distinguish unbelievers from believers. In John 12:9 the word "world" is used of a special people. Romans 11:15 uses it to distinguish Gentiles from Jews, and thus so in passages such as John 3:16 and 1:27, 1 John 2:1 and 2 -- it is used of all the elect of God. Hebrews 2:9 says, "But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone." At this point someone may say, "This is Scriptural proof that Christ died for all men." But the context will explain what it means. "For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, 'I WILL PROCLAIM YOUR NAME TO MY BRETHREN, IN THE MIDST OF THE CONGREGATION I WILL SING YOUR PRAISE.'" (Hebrews 2:10-12) When read in context it can be seen that the passage has reference to sons; it has reference to the church; it has reference to the brethren; it has reference to those who are the children of God. So this passage could be understood to say that "Christ has experienced death for every son," for every one that was given to Him by the Father.

What about 2 Peter 2:1? "But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves." It must be made clear that these false teachers are unsaved. They are compared to dogs and pigs, not to sheep (2 Peter 2:22). Such people are described in Jude 19 "devoid of the Spirit." If a person does not have the Spirit of God within, he is not a child of God (Romans 8:9). He may appear to be saved and even become a member or an officer in the church, but eventually, in one way or another, he will deny the Lord. 

Notwithstanding, this passage is not discussing the atonement of Christ. Peter's first epistle was written to Jews, so most likely was his second one. (1 Peter 1:1; Galatians 2:7) In what sense were these false teachers "bought" by the Lord? To a Jew who was not a Christian "the Lord" would most naturally refer to God the Father, not Jesus. And the Jews were "bought" by God in the Exodus.

One more passage of Scripture to consider is Romans 8:34. It is a clear example of Limited Atonement, or Particular Redemption. It says, "Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us." How could any for whom Christ died be condemned? The law has been fulfilled, justice has been satisfied, sin has been paid for; and so, the Apostle Paul argues that condemnation is impossible. And since condemnation is excluded by His death, then none for whom He died can be condemned. All for whom Christ died, died in Him; thus the law could not again demand their death.

The renowned 19th century British preacher and evangelist Charles H. Spurgeon had these words to say about limited atonement (from his sermon, "The Mission of the Son of Man"):

"Now, some people love the doctrine of 'universal atonement' because they say it is so beautiful. It is a lovely idea that 'Christ should have died for all men'; it commends itself, they say, to the instincts of humanity; there is something in it full of joy and beauty.

"I admit there is; but beauty may be often associated with falsehood.

"There is much which I might well admire in the theory of 'universal redemption' but let me just tell you what this supposition necessarily involves. If Christ on His cross intended to save every man, then He intended to save those who were damned before He died; because if this doctrine (that He died for all men) is true, He died for some that were in hell before He came into this world, for doubtless there were myriads there that had been cast away.

"Once again, if it were Christ's intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed! For we have His own evidence that there is a lake that burns with fire and brimstone, and into that pit must be cast some of the very people, who according to that theory, were bought with His blood!

"To think that my Savior died for men in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to imagine. That He was the substitute for the sons of men, and that God having first punished the substitute, punished these same men again, seems to me to conflict with any idea of justice.

"That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards, some of those very men should be punished for the same sins which Christ had already atoned for, seems to me, to be the most marvelous monstrosity that ever could have been imputed to Saturn, to Janus, aye, to the god of the Thugs, or the most diabolical heathen demons!

"God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise."

In conclusion, the death of Christ is the foundation of the Christian's hope. But those believing in a general redemption cannot possibly fully enjoy that blessed hope in Christ. They claim to believe in a redeemer who is not completely successful in redeeming the lost; an atonement that falls short of achieving its purpose; thus believing that the death of Christ must be joined with freewill in order to save. Fortunately, Jesus is a Redeemer who does deliver His people from sin; not just tries to deliver His people with the possibility of losing some of them. His grace is thoroughly efficacious in saving the elect, for whom He died. And one elected by the grace of God is bound to come to Him, for it would be then natural for him to do so.

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