The most infamous of the five points of Calvinism is certainly the third; namely, Limited Atonement. The very mention of it makes many cringe. To be sure, it is the toughest one to swallow, and if you ever meet a self-proclaiming “four-point” Calvinist, there is no question as to which point is being rejected. There are essentially two ways to accept this point of Calvinism. The first–and unfortunately, most common–is to merely accept it as a logical necessity, given the other four points of Calvinism. Certainly it is a logical necessity, and, to put it the other way round, you will never find a proponent of Limited Atonement who is not a Calvinist. However, this should not be the primary reason for accepting this doctrine. Those who hold to a Limited Atonement primarily on the grounds of logical coherence are likely to get squeamish when they are faced with certain passages in the scriptures that deal with Christ’s death in universal terms; their exegesis will begin to look suspiciously like eisegesis, and they’ll give more citations from the Westminster Confession of Faith than from the Bible. The second way to affirm this doctrine is to arrive to it exegetically. Almost always, this second group of people will recognize that the term “limited” is nauseatingly inadequate and misleading (even though it fits in nicely with that wonderful acronym). I would like to believe that I belong to this category of Calvinism, and–even though it’s far less catchy–I will therefore refer to this doctrine as Definite Atonement (so our TULIP is now a TUDIP).
So What Is the Atonement?
When we speak of the atonement, we are talking about that event in time, whereby Jesus shed his blood on the cross to decisively pay for sins. This idea of atonement is rooted all the way back in the early days of Israel. Crucial to understanding God’s relationship with Israel is an understanding of atonement. The book of Leviticus lays out specific provisions for atonement in various circumstances. These provisions were handed down by God to communicate this simple message: sin must be dealt with, and it can only be dealt with by blood. So God established the Levitical priesthood to be responsible for carrying out these ordinances; their work was intercessory. “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.” (Hebrews 5:1) At the risk of getting too far ahead of myself, I would like to point out that the nature of this intercession has a specific party in mind; the priest would perform his intercessory works for the sins of the people–that is, the people of Israel.
What Is the Nature of the Atonement?
Up until this point, there’s a general consensus of what the atonement is, basically understood. It’s a payment for sin. The Levitical priests offered payments for sin continually in anticipation of a permanent, sufficient offering for sin; which would eventually be provided by the Great High Priest, Jesus. Wonderful. The theological road forks at the question of what Jesus’ atonement actually accomplishes. The non-Calvinist would say that the atonement actually accomplishes the possibility of salvation for all the earth. The Calvinist, on the other hand, would say that the atonement accomplishes much more. Not only does the blood of Jesus make salvation the only possibility for the whole world (it does, by the way; I will elaborate in a bit), but it also actually provides for the salvation of the elect. In other words, salvation isn’t merely made possible by the atonement; salvation is accomplished in the atonement.
I’ll argue for this assertion from three angles: (1) the blood of Jesus purchases the New Covenant, which intrinsically includes a new heart that seeks justification by faith alone, (2) the nature of Jesus’ intercessory work as the Great High Priest, and (3) the effectiveness of Jesus’ offering to sufficiently deal with sins.
- “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’” (Luke 22:20) In this episode, Jesus is letting his disciples in on a juicy secret; he is informing them that his blood is the very thing that will inaugurate the New Covenant, mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34, 32:39-41, and Ezekiel 36:26-27. The New Covenant, if you recall, is that great promise that God would forgive the sins of his people and that he would write his law on their hearts. Notice, this Covenant includes a fundamental heart reorientation, the gift of his Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sin, and a fear of God. This is significant to our discussion because the non-Calvinistic understanding of the atonement would insist that Jesus’ blood provides for a possible way to be justified before God. However, these texts teach us that the faith which appropriates justification is caused by the New Covenant, and Jesus says that the New Covenant is purchased by his blood. In other words, the faith that is applied to appropriate the atonement of Jesus is itself purchased in the atonement!
- The work of Jesus in the atonement is part of a greater office which he holds; namely, that of the Great High Priest. The book of Hebrews spends a great deal of time describing how Jesus fulfills the corresponding responsibilities of earthly priests in superiorly greater ways. We are told that he is superior in that his priesthood participates in a better covenant (Hebrews 7:22). We are told that he is superior in that his priesthood is eternal; it’s not limited by death (Hebrews 7:23-24). We are told that he is superior in that he offers a single sacrifice, which sufficiently accomplished what earthly priests could never accomplish with their multitude of sacrifices (Hebrews 10:11-12). We could certainly go on; but the manner of his superiority I wish to consider right now is the effectiveness of his intercessory work.
“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:23-24) Here, it is vital that we keep in mind the relationship between the atoning sacrifice offered by a priest, and that priest’s intercession for the people. It is the offering that qualifies the intercession “…the priests go regularly into the first section…but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” (Hebrews 9:6-7) This is the idea: the offering is made for the people who are interceded for. In other words, Jesus intercedes for those he died for; in a priestly sense, Jesus’ intercession and his death are inseparable. Furthermore, Hebrews 7:24 says that the effect of Jesus’ intercession is salvation to the uttermost; which rules out the possibility that Jesus is interceding for non-believers, which would necessarily follow if his atonement was meant to deal with their sins. To say it negatively, if Jesus offers an atoning sacrifice to pay for the sins of a non-believer, and thereafter does not intercede for that non-believer, then his priestly work is incomplete.
- “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12) All of what has been said until now has been a postulation that Christ’s atonement actually accomplishes more than the possibility of the forgiveness of sins, but the forgiveness of sins itself. I now wish to show that the Bible (particularly, Hebrews) affirms this. In the above text, we are told that Jesus’ offering of his own blood secures eternal redemption. He then goes on to elaborate on this bold assertion, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15) Do you see what the author is saying? It is the death of Jesus that redeems “those who are called.” To say that the death of Jesus provides the possibility of redemption is to introduce an additional step in the process of redemption that the text does not allow.
The author goes on to explicitly say the same thing in the next chapter, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:12-14) Note, it was by the offering that he has perfected those who are being sanctified. The author does not write that by a single offering, “he has offered perfection.” So the death of Christ, as it turns out, accomplishes much more than the possibility of salvation; it offers salvation itself.
The Scope of the Atonement
Until this point, the scope of the atonement has been assumed. However, it’s important for us to consider this question directly and clearly, because the Bible does have something to say about it, and we must deal carefully with those passages that seem contradictory in this regard. We have to ask the question, who did Christ die for, and in what sense did he die for them? There is one place in particular that Jesus answers this question directly:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. (John 10:14-17)
Jesus says that he lays his life down with a particular group of people in mind; his flock. “I know them,” he says, “and they know me.” Astonishingly, Jesus mentions that his atoning intent extends to those who are not yet in his fold, but who will be when they hear his voice; so he–as the good shepherd–lays down his life, with the unregenerate elect in mind. Not only does he state this positively, but also negatively, when he informs the Pharisees that they are not his, and therefore, that he is not laying his life down for them–at least not in this sense (John 10:25-30). This kind of exclusivity of intent is echoed later on, when Jesus makes a point to pray for his own, and not for those in the world (John 17:9).
So the scope of the atonement in one sense (that is, the above redemption-accomplishing sense) is the flock of Jesus, which has been given to him by the Father (the elect). We can also say this in another way; the scope of the atonement in this sense extends to all those who are united in Christ. In my opinion, the most exegetically effective text to develop the doctrine of Union with Christ is Galatians. The theological point of this letter is for Christ to be identified as the true seed of Abraham, and thus the true heir of the promises of God. Furthermore, those who are in Christ, receive the blessings of those promises along with him (Galatians 3:27-29). And where does this union begin? The death of Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) This is something that Paul explicitly lays out elsewhere as well (Romans 6:4-7). So it’s in our Union with Christ that our sins are dealt with; Christ nails our sins to the cross because we are there with him, Christ buries our sins in the grave because he takes us there with him, and Christ raises us as forgiven heirs of God because he resurrects us in him. This is how our sin is dealt with, and dealing with sin is precisely what the atonement is all about.
Another helpful illustration for understanding the scope of the atonement is found in Ephesians 5:25-30. In this passage, Paul expressly says that Jesus offered himself up for his bride; that is, the church. This image is among the most intimate that Paul could have chosen to use. In a word, Jesus didn’t offer himself up for just anyone; it was his beloved, his bride, his church. Furthermore, he didn’t simply offer his life up to demonstrate his love for her; he offered his life in order to present her holy.
There are many other passages we can talk about specifically (Matthew 26:28, Mark 10:45, John 11:50-52), but I think it’s appropriate now for us to start making applications. If all of these things are true, how are we left to think about the notion of a universal atonement? If the atonement is for the whole world in every sense, does that mean that the non-believer has had his sin dealt with? And if so, why is he going to hell? Will the wrath of God be poured out on him for his sins, for all of eternity, even though the full wrath of God has already been poured out on Jesus for those same sins? In response, it has been said that the hell-bound sinner is hell-bound even with his sins being atoned for, and is thus hell-bound because of his disbelief in the gospel. But is that disbelief a sin? Is all sin sufficiently atoned for at the cross, or not? A universal atonement simply will not work. As drastic as it may sound, a universal atonement for some undefined mass of people is an atonement offered for no one at all. The notion of a substitutionary atonement necessitates that we think of the atonement in definite terms.
Universal “Problem” Passages
If a universal atonement will not work, what do we do then with those passages that seem to signify a universal atonement? I’m talking specifically of passages like John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, Titus 2:11-14, and 1 John 2:2. To be sure, these are legitimate concerns, and they have been given fuller treatment by men much more qualified than myself. I won’t be able to deal with them extensively here, but I will make a few observations. First of all, sweeping statements like “all men” or “all peoples” or “the world” can have a broader semantic range than we might initially assume. “All” could possibly, and often must, mean “all kinds” or “all types” rather than “each and every one.” However, in certain passages, this won’t work. If, for example, you don’t buy that John means, “he is the propitiation for our sins, and not only our sins but also for the sins of people from the whole world.” (1 John 2:2), there are still other ways in dealing with this text. Specifically, we should not be concerned with the word, “the whole world.” Honestly, in this text I do believe that the whole entire world is in view. The question is, in what sense is Christ the propitiation for the world. Here I think the emphasis is not that the whole world benefits from propitiation, but rather that Christ is the only propitiation that the world has. In other words, I think it would be wrong for us to take this passage and extrapolate the inclusivity of propitiation (the actual removal of wrath) extending to the whole world, and we should instead read it is an exclusive claim of Christ as the only propitiation available to the whole world.
In this way, the open invitation of the gospel is maintained, even for the five-point Calvinist. In fact, I would say that it is strengthened; because the Christ that we offer is a complete Christ. “If you will have Christ,” we say, “you will have all of him.” The fact that God knows beforehand who will respond, and thus, whose response has been purchased by the blood of Jesus, doesn’t negate the authenticity of the offer; if foreknowledge did that, then none of God’s offers would be authentic. Given what we have explored in Unconditional Election, we ought to be humbled enough to recognize that God can simultaneously desire for all men to come to him, and thus authentically offer himself to all men, while also only purchasing the faith of some. Unless we love the taste of our own feet, we should bend a knee at those (apparent) paradoxes and say, selah.