A Thought Provoking Introduction to the Extent of the Atonement: By Jack Kettler
The doctrine of limited atonement or particular redemption will be the focus of this brief introductory and hopefully thought-provoking look at the extent of Christ's atonement. The doctrine of limited atonement may be an emotional shock to some. Unfortunately, it is usually the case, that those who disagree with the Biblical doctrine of limited atonement assume their position to be true and then fall back on emotionalism when challenged. What must be determined however is if this teaching is Scriptural? At the end of this study, I will provide links to classic Reformed studies on this topic that will provide meat for the serious student of God's Word.
The word atonement covers words that we find in Scripture such as redemption, redeem, purchase, satisfy, propitiation, and ransom. In addition, theologians use the word “substitutionary” or “vicarious” to describe Christ’s atonement. Atonement, in essence means acting on behalf of or representing another. At the most fundamental level, God has acted to bring reconciliation and salvation to lost sinners. Was this atonement universal in scope or limited? Does Christ's atoning death save everyone? Alternatively, is the atonement limited in scope, only to those who believe? If you believe that Christ's death was universal in scope, you are forced to limit its effectiveness to actually save anyone.
Did Christ die for everyone's sins on the cross? Many modern-day evangelicals would “yes” to this. When asked, does this mean that everyone will go to heaven, they say emphatically no because not everyone has faith. Is this lack of faith or unbelief a sin? If so, is it a sin that Christ died for on the cross? If this sin of unbelief is a sin along with all other sins that were atoned for by Christ's death, certainly, this means that everyone is going to heaven? If you would say no, not everyone is not going to heaven, then you must answer, what sins are still unaccounted for that would prevent someone from going to heaven? Again, is unbelief a sin that Christ died for, or not? A person who believes in a universal unlimited atonement is trapped in an inescapable circle of un-biblical thought and robs the Biblical words that cover the concept of the atonement of all meaning. In essence, the system of universal atonement, however emotionally pleasing as it may sound, saves no one.
The atonement is a historical fact. It is something that is objectively real. It is a completed accomplished fact. The atonement has a specific design to it. It is limited to whom it is designed for. The atonement is efficient to save those to whom it was intended. Limited atonement or particular redemption expresses the Biblical concept that Christ's redeeming work was intended to save God's elect, and secures salvation for them, not just hypothetically.
The famous Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, makes a strong case for limited atonement by exposing the affront to Divine justice universal atonement implies:
Some persons 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 admire in the theory of universal redemption, but I will just show what the supposition necessarily involves. If Christ on His cross intended to save every man, then He intended to save those who were lost before he died. If the doctrine be true, that He died for all men, then He died for some who were in hell before He came into this world, for doubtless there were even then myriads there who had been cast away because of their sins. Once again, if it was Christ's intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own testimony that there is a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit of woe have been cast some of the very person who, according to the theory of universal redemption, were bought with His blood. That seems to me a conception a thousand times more repulsive than any of those consequences which are said to be associated with the Calvinistic and Christian doctrine of special and particular redemption. To think that my Saviour died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine 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 sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous iniquity that could ever be imputed to Saturn, to Janus, to the goddess of the Thugs, or to the most diabolical heathen deities. God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise and good! (1)
The following Scriptures establish what is known as particular or definite redemption:
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) (Underlining emphasis mine)
Christ was wounded for our transgressions, not everyone's.
“He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:11-12)
We see explicit qualifiers in these two passages that restrict Christ's death, using words like many (not all) bare their (again, not all).
“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
Matthew could not be clearer; Jesus “shall save his people.” Jesus effectively paid for the sins of His people.
“Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
The Son of man came to be “a ransom for many” (not all).
“For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
“And he said unto them, this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.” (Mark 14:24)
In these two passages, Christ says His blood is shed for many (not everyone). If Christ's atonement was universal, this type of restrictive language makes no sense.
“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)
Christ lays down His life for the sheep, not the goats.
“I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word....I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine....And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them....And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth....Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word....Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:6, 9-10, 19, 20, 24)
Christ's high priestly intercessory prayer is for those (they) whom the Father had given Him. Not every person who has ever lived or will live.
“And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)
Only those who were ordained to eternal life believed. Christ's atoning sacrifice was intended for and effective for those who were ordained to eternal life.
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which The Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
The Church, not the world is purchased with his own blood.
“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us [elect] all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
God delivered up his Son for us all, the elect.
“But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:7)
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Christ bears the sins of His people by actually paying for our sins to the satisfaction of the Father.
“In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)
Our redemption involves the delivering us from our sins. Christ's blood was the redemption price that paid for our salvation according to the riches of his grace. This redemption is real and effective for those for whom it was intended.
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ, also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Ephesians 5:25)
Christ gave himself for the His Church, not everyone indiscriminately.
As noted in the underlining from the above Scriptural passages, it is quite clear that the design of the atonement was limited. Christ died for His people, i.e. the church. In John chapter seventeen, the intercessory prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ was restricted to His people. It was not a universal prayer for every person on earth.
An Objection to this teaching:
The most common argument against the doctrine of limited atonement are passages that speak of Christ’s atoning death in a universal sense. Some passages of this nature are where the apostle says; and he is the propitiation for our: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world in 1 John 2:2. The apostle also tells us that Jesus is called the Saviour of the world in John 4:42, and in another passage; The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world John 1:29. The apostle Paul also appears to suggest a universal view of the atonement when he says: Who gave himself a ransom for all 1 Timothy 2:6.
It should be noted, that these verses are easily found to be in harmony with other passages that support the doctrine of limited atonement by understanding that the Scriptures use the words; “world,” or “all” in a restricted or qualified sense. There is nothing in the larger context of Scripture that demands these passages have to mean every person in the whole world. This is unmistakable, especially when other Scriptural passages are taken into account that act as qualifiers. For example, we see that; and it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed Luke 2:1, And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city Luke 2:3. Obviously, these passages could not be talking about every individual in the whole world. This decree of Caesar did not pertain to the indigenous Indians in the Americas and to those in Africa. To think so, would be absurd.
Moreover, when the Pharisees said; do you see how you can do nothing? Behold, the world is gone after him in John 12:19, can anyone maintain that every person in the world went after or followed Christ? Clearly, there is a restriction or limit to the word “world.” The word “world” by the context has to be limited to what happening in the nation of Israel during the First-Century. It should be abundantly clear that the word or phrases “all” or “all the world” do not mean every person on the planet. These types of objections fail to mitigate against the doctrine of limited atonement because it takes certain words out of context by forcing an absolute universal meaning onto the words.
In the beginning, the question was raised, did Jesus die for everyone's sins, and how everyone who affirms this is trapped into a circle of contradictory thought by saying that non-belief keeps men from going to heaven even though Christ died for the sin of non-belief. The Puritan, John Owen, raised these questions with far greater precision, which proves the atonement properly understood could not be universal in scope, and if so, efficient to save anyone. I would encourage those who doubt this teaching on the extent of the atonement to read John Owen's “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” This work has never been refuted by any Universalist, Arminian, as well as Semi-Pelagians.
Consider just one of John Owen's arguments:
The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
1. All the sins of all men.
2. All the sins of some men, or
3. 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! (2)
It may be objected that this is a logical argument. In response it could be said, so what? It should be noted that this objection does not disprove the argument, it is merely question begging. Owen's work is the most thorough biblical examination of the extent of the atonement on this subject ever printed. The claims of ignorance by Arminian, Semi-Pelagians concerning the existence of this work and this particular argument is not a substitute for refuting it.
In conclusion, it can be said that God who determines that certain ones will be saved because of His election limits the atonement to those whom it is intended. God determined that Christ should die for the elect alone. All whom God has elected and Christ died for will be saved or as stated: “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” (Chapter 3, paragraph 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith)
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Autobiography, 2 Volumes, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1962), 1:172.
2. John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth), pp. 173, 174.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. He served as an ordained ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He worked in and retired from a fortune five hundred company in corporate America after forty years. He runs two blogs sites and is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
The serious reader should take advantage of the material that can be accessed at the following links:
The classic and important Introductory Essay to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by theologian J. I. Packer.
Download a copy of John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ in PDF file format.
PROPITIATION IN I JOHN 2:2 (A Doctrinal Study on the Extent of the Atonement) by Dr. Gary D. Long.
Particular Redemption audio lecture by Dr. Cornelis Venema.