The Calvinistic Doctrine of Limited Atonement
With regard to the Calvinistic "TULIP," last month's issue of the Fulton County Gospel News began by examining the "T"-Total Hereditary Depravity, and the "U"-Unconditional Election. This month we resume with the "L"-Limited Atonement.
The doctrine of limited atonement is described by its advocates as follows: "[Christ] came into the world to represent and save only those given to Him by the Father. Thus Christ's saving work was limited in that it was designed to save some and not others" [emphasis mine, LM]. If true, no child could sing those precious words, "Jesus loves me, this I know"-because no child could know if Jesus actually loved him and died for him (compare with 1 John 4:9). Instead, one is left with the uncertain question, "Did or did not Christ die for me?"
Limited Atonement and the TULIP
As ludicrous as this doctrine sounds on the face of it, limited atonement is essential to the system of Calvinism. The reasoning that Christ did not die for all mankind is inexorably linked to Calvinism's other tenets: (1) Since according to Calvinism man is totally depraved (total hereditary depravity), man cannot make a spiritually profitable decision. (2) According to Calvinism's doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints, those whom God arbitrarily chooses to save will be forced to be saved and to remain saved. (3) If Christ died for all mankind, then, according to Calvinism, all mankind would have to be forced to be saved and to remain saved, since man cannot make a spiritually profitable decision. But no Calvinist will concede that all mankind will be saved. So if the limp petal of limited atonement is plucked, the entire TULIP of Calvinism wilts into the satanic soil from which it arose.
Christ Died for the World
As demonstrated in last month's article on unconditional election, God's desire is that all have the opportunity to be saved (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). Since God desires the salvation of the world, and the only means of salvation is to be found in the death of Christ, it stands to reason that the death of Christ is for the salvation of the world.
In asking for whom Christ died, one might consider what was His initial mission in coming to earth: "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10; compare with 1 Timothy 1:15). Did Jesus come to seek and to save only some of the lost? "That which was lost" presents Christ's object of seeking and saving as one collective whole. Moreover, there is no good reason to limit "that which was lost" to "those who were predetermined to be saved," since "that which was lost" includes all human beings of accountable age (Romans 3:23).
Christ's death is specifically said to be for those who are sinners-for those who are at enmity with God:
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8). Christ died for those who could die in sin, estranged from God: "And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" (1 Corinthians 8:11).
Did Christ die for the world?
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).
And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again (2 Corinthians 5:15).
. . . God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself . . . (v. 19).
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man (Hebrews 2:9).
And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
Christ's Death Must Be Received
The Scriptures do at times speak of Christ's death as being particularly in behalf of the church (John 10:11; Romans 5:19; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25). This does not contradict other Scriptures which plainly teach that Christ died for the world. However, it does confirm that not all will receive the blessings of Christ's death and atonement. So Christ's death is particularly in behalf of those who will receive its benefits. Paul wrote, "For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe" (1 Timothy 4:10).
Christ's death can only be received by obedience to the Gospel; that is, by being "baptized into his death" (Romans 6:3-4; compare with 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Romans 6:17). Anybody can receive the Gospel, otherwise there would be no need for the Great Commission, the charge to preach the Gospel to all the world (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16). If limited atonement were true, there would be no need for the Great Commission, because the unconditional elect would be saved without the Gospel, and the reprobate could not be saved even if he desired salvation. Christ gave the invitation for "all ye" and "whosoever will" to partake in the blessings of His atonement (Matthew 11:28; Revelation 22:17). While all will not partake in these blessings, all who willingly receive Christ's death will.
Did Christ die for the purpose of saving only some and not others? Clearly God purposed that Christ's death serve as the atonement for the world. The fountain of life provided by Christ's death flows forth with abundant atonement for all. He who desires spiritual life will never find the atonement of Christ a dry fountain, contrary to the erroneous doctrine of limited atonement. Christ's atonement is not limited- but those who decline to partake of it limit themselves from receiving the greatest of blessings possible. So, dear reader, if you have not yet tasted the living water of atonement, hear what the Spirit saith:
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely (Revelation 22:17).
1 David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, Documented (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1982 reprint), p. 39.
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