Today we come to one of the more controversial claims in Reformed theology: Limited Atonement. Limited Atonement is often one of the most contested and misunderstood aspects of the Reformed faith, the doctrines of grace, or the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. Some of the issues arise from the name.
What exactly is “limited” when we speak of Christ’s saving work? Are we saying that the power of Christ’s atoning work is limited? Are we saying that the effect of Christ’s atoning work is limited? Is it the scope of the atonement that is limited? Is it the extent? These sorts of question are worthy of study and consideration, but we have to start with definitions. The Oxford dictionary defines the word “atonement” as follows, “the Atonement the reconciliation of God and mankind through the death of Jesus Christ.” So, in order to understand this idea properly we need to look at Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
First, we must ask the most basic question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” His death was not by natural causes, nor by a political mishap. The Gospels make plain that His life’s work was focused on one end: the cross (see Matthew 16:21-23). Jesus said this in John 10:10, 18, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” He tells us that He must do this, but why?
Paul’s letter to the Romans looked at the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ and teaches us its significance, “[we] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom. 3:24-25a) This is the reason behind the cross. God’s only begotten Son died as a sin offering to turn away the righteous wrath of God away from sin. This is what is signified by that word “propitiation”. Here we learn about the cost of our sin and the depths of God’s holiness and love. Nothing short of the death of the Son of God was necessary to secure our pardon and redemption. Our sins could only be slayed by the slaying of the Son of God. Our sins could not be ignored, nor conquered by our vain efforts or good works. The love of the Father sent the Son who willingly humbled Himself to the point of death for there was no other remedy to save His people. This is a non-negotiable of New Testament Christianity.
Second, the atoning work of Christ is perfectly, effectively, and sufficiently accomplished for His elect alone. This is the claim that stands against much of modern Christianity. I want to show you from the Bible why I believe that Jesus did not merely die for the possible salvation of every person but the entire and whole salvation of some people; namely, those whom He has predestined or chosen for eternal life from before the foundations of the world (see Eph. 1:4-11; Rom. 9:6-24).
I know this claim is going to be difficult for many if they have never heard it before. I encourage you to remember that the Lord Jesus debated most with religious people who stopped asking what the Bible said and instead were content to live within their bubbles of tradition and assumption. When people stop their ears because their traditions are equated to Scripture, we find perfect models of Pharisees and Sadducees, and not of disciples. We want to be disciples of Christ. We want to be like the Bereans who regularly gave themselves over to the study of the Scriptures to determine if what was taught by the Apostles was faithful to God’s Word.
Let us begin by looking at Scripture: “[Speaking of Christ] He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8) “You shall call His name Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21) “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28) “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) From these few texts we find that it is not foreign to Scripture for the work of Christ to be focused on a particular group of people. This is one aspect of Limited Atonement. This focus on a particular group is often why Limited Atonement is also called Particular Redemption. The Limited/Particular part means that the atoning work of Christ is accomplished for a set number of individuals.
Space does not allow me to answer some of the common objections people raise when this idea is presented. I have provided a larger sermon on this very topic which is available on our website at www.CRCalexandria.org/sermons/ for your benefit. I challenge you to listen and ponder over the question: Does Jesus’ death merely accomplish the possibility of our salvation or is it secured in Him, accomplished by Him, guaranteed by Him, forever and ever? For the Reformed, Jesus’ atonement saves people and brings them all the way home. In this understanding, salvation is secured forever. For the Reformed, there is a certainty in the salvation of the elect, because of the certainty of Christ’s work.