Limited Atonement

Limited Atonement

The question answered by the biblical teaching called limited atonement is “What was the purpose of Christ’s death?” Or perhaps, “What did the Father intend to accomplish by sending the Son to the cross?” Specifically, the issue revolves around whether Christ’s death purchased salvation in all of its aspects (redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, justification, etc.) for all men or only for the elect. There is general agreement that the death of Christ has infinite worth and that His death would be adequate to save all men if such was the Father’s intention. However, there is disagreement over what the intention of the Godhead was. Theologians have argued for one of the following three views of the design of Christ’s death.

Particular Redemption is commonly called limited atonement or definite atonement or 5 point Calvinism or high Calvinism. This view holds that Christ died to secure the salvation of the elect ones who were given to Him by the Father. Christ’s death was for those who actually believe; it was not universal in its effectiveness or its value. Its design was to provide an actual payment to God for the sin-debt of the elect. In other words, the death of Christ was never intended by God to redeem any except those He chose to save before the foundation of the world.

General Redemption is commonly called unlimited atonement or 4 point Calvinism for those who embrace all points of TULIP except the “L” or Arminianism for those who reject TULIP in toto). This view holds that Christ died for every human being who has ever lived, including all who suffer eternal torment in hell. The atonement is universal in scope in all aspects. Therefore, all men are savable. His death did not actually secure the salvation of anyone; rather, His death is spoken of in terms of potentiality or provision.

Intermediate Redemption is commonly called modified limited atonement or modified general atonement or 4½ point Calvinism or low Calvinism. This is an in between position. This view holds that Christ’s death is sufficient in value for all men, but efficient only for the elect. That is, Christ’s death removed all obstacles to the redemption of all in case they should believe; yet the salvific benefits of atonement are applied only to the elect.

It should be noted that nuances of these terms are common in theological discussions.  This is especially the case in connection with what I have called "Intermediate Redemption".  I am not including these subtle, albeit significant, variations in this brief paper. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that, in my view, the value of the atonement is not the issue. It is the wrong question.

Central Concepts

Several biblical teachings will help us clarify this important topic. As with the essays on the other doctrines of God’s grace, this brief study does not touch on all facets of the question by any means. Nor does it deal with all the cogent arguments and points of emphasis. However, it is hoped that the reader will at least become familiar with the basic issues involved. Here are some of the concepts that drive us to embrace the view of particular redemption.

1. Christ’s cross work is described in the New Testament in terms of actual accomplishment rather than provisional possibility. Certain transactions actually happened at the cross. There is no hint of some sort of tentative transaction awaiting future conditions or events to take place before these transactions are completed. For instance, the Scriptures speak of men being saved, not being rendered savable; of being reconciled, not reconcilable. The atonement is definite in nature; it really accomplished specific benefits for human beings. In other words, according to Bible terminology the atonement is plainly described in terms of actuality. So, in the infinite mind of God, the elect were actually redeemed from sin, actually reconciled with God, and God’s wrath actually was propitiated on their behalf at the cross. The death of Christ made these things certain. Thus there has never been any possibility that the elect would fail to be saved. This is retroactive in the case of those who lived prior to the cross in the same way that their faith is anticipatory.

However, the application of these terms to individual elect ones takes place at a point of history; namely upon the individual exercise of the gift of faith.  Men must believe in order to be saved. Thus, the Bible describes an elect person as an enemy of God prior to conversion. So on the one hand, this view does not say that men are redeemed at the cross absolutely – such thinking would lead to a denial of the necessity of faith.

However on the other hand, this is not to say that the cross was provisional or that it accomplished nothing as taught by general atonement. Nor does this say that the cross only removed the legal impediment for all men so that they could be saved as taught by intermediate atonement. So, to repeat, Biblical redemption actually delivers those for whom it was intended; Biblical reconciliation actually changes those for whom it was intended; Biblical propitiation actually shields the wrath of God from those for whom it was intended.  The atonement accomplished something; it did not merely create an opportunity.

Here are a few actualities of the cross.

Substitutionary sacrifice. Did Christ actually take someone’s place or not? “…so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (Hebrews 9:28).1  “…but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). “…and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Peter 2:24). If the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ was an actual accomplishment and if it is coupled with a general atonement for all men, then universalism follows. If Christ was actually the substitute for all men, all men will be saved.

Propitiation. When Christ died on the cross, was God actually appeased or not? “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).  So if God is actually appeased, He no longer deals in wrath with the beneficiaries of propitiation. And if the atonement was for all men, then all men are no longer subject to God’s eternal wrath. But of course, the Bible clearly teaches that many men will suffer eternal torment. “And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).

Reconciliation. Have men actually been placed into a new relationship with God? “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:10-11). “…and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Colossians 1:20-22). So the enmity between God and those reconciled has been removed. If all men have been reconciled, as general atonement avers, then God has no human enemies.

Redemption. Did Christ actually purchase men by His death? Did Christ pay for men with His own blood or did He not? “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us…” (Galatians 3:13). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). “…knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). If a completed transaction took place by Christ’s death, all those for whom He died belong to him. A general atonement requires that all men have been purchased by Christ.

Salvation. Have men actually been rescued or not? Did Christ intend to save every man? "And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1:15). A general atonement requires us to understand that Christ intended to save everyone, but failed.

2. Particular redemption is the necessary corollary to the biblical concept of unconditional election. If the Godhead in eternity past determined to save only a portion of humanity, as unconditional election demands, then it is contradictory to suggest Christ’s work on the cross was intended to save all humans equally. Further, if the salvation of the non-elect is impossible—that is, all who are saved are also elected—how could the non-elect be rendered savable by Christ’s death without their also being elected? On the other hand, if those who are eternally lost are elected, then God’s election decree is defeated.

3. The priestly ministry of Christ is co-extensive with His intercessory ministry. Those for whom Jesus offers himself in sacrifice should also be those for whom He intercedes. “…Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).   “…Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34).  “My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 21:1-2). "I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine” (John 17:9). What kind of God would love all  men enough to die for them, but not enough to save them or even pray for them (John 17:9)? Would Jesus really have refused to pray for those for whom He died? Yet, this is precisely what a general atonement requires.

4. The harmonious economic function of the trinity assumes particular redemption. It appears nonsensical to think that Christ bore the sins of those whom the Father had not given Him and whom the Holy Spirit will not regenerate.

5. Particular redemption best resolves the problem of universal language and is in harmony with specific controversial passages (such as 1 John 2:1-2, 2 Peter 2:1, 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Tim 2:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; John 3:16, and etc.). All views must deal with difficult passages and the universal terms; this interpretive problem is not unique to particular redemption. For instance, everyone must deal with questions like, “if God is propitiated on behalf of all men how do we explain that his wrath is poured out on some men?” When universal language is employed with salvific terms, one either must limit the terms by making them provisional or limit the scope of the terms. There is Scriptural precedent for the latter but not for the former - universal terms are often used in a restricted sense. It is also true that Christ loves all men but not without distinction or not in the same manner. There are non-salvific results of the atonement. The Bible clearly teaches that all men everywhere benefit from the cross in general non-salvific ways. This is often called common grace. However, universal grace or salvific benefits for all men are not clearly taught in the Scripture.

6. The question at debate is the intent of the atonement not its value. There is general agreement that the Christ’s death is able to save all who come to Him regardless of the number. The key question is the design of the atonement. What was the divine intent in sending the Son to the cross? If the Godhead intended to save all, the atonement is sufficient to do so. However, the Scripture does not teach that God intended to save all. It seems to me that the intent of the atonement determines the value of the atonement not vice versa. If the atonement is efficient only for those who actually believe, it is sufficient only for the same group. Specifically, the issue revolves around whether Christ’s death purchased salvation in all of its aspects for all men or only for the elect.

Double Jeopardy

The classic question posed by Dr. John Owen (1616-1683), Chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, is widely quoted in demonstration of the futility of general redemption.2

For Whom Did Christ Die?

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:

  • All the sins of all men. 
  • All the sins of some men, or 
  • Some of the sins of all men. 
  • In which case it may be said:

    • That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved. 
    • That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth. 
    • But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins? 
    You answer, "Because of unbelief." I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!

    Final Word

    Salvation is limited to the elect because the atonement was limited to the elect. When Christ died, He died in the place of certain specified sinners—those previously chosen by God. This same death not only rendered to God a sufficient and effective payment for the sins of the elect, but also purchased everything necessary for their final salvation: their regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, sanctification, and glorification.

    Spurgeon left no doubts about his disdain for the general atonement view:

    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 opponents limit it: we do not. The Arminians say, “Christ died for all men.” Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.” We ask them the next question: Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer “No.” They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, ”No; Christ has died that any man may be saved if”—and then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ's death; we say, “No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.” We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.3


    1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 1998).

    2 See John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London, England: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963), Book One, chapter 3, pgs 61-62, for his irrefutable defense of particular redemption.

    3 As cited by J.I. Packer in the Introductory Essay to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London, England: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963) p. 14.

    © Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source