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. For many—myself included—the term “limited” is nauseatingly inadequate and misleading (even though it fits in nicely with that wonderful little acronym). So even though it’s far less catchy, I will refer to this doctrine rather 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 instructions for atonement in various circumstances. These instructions 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.
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 provide the only possibility of salvation for the whole world (it does, by the way; I will elaborate in a bit), but it also actually purchases 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 this from three angles:
- The blood of Jesus purchases the New Covenant (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 is the great promise that God would forgive the sins of his people and that he would write his law on their hearts. This Covenant includes: a fundamental heart reorientation, the gift of the 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.
- The nature of Jesus’ intercessory work as the Great High Priest (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.
- The effectiveness of Jesus’ offering to sufficiently deal with sins (Hebrews 9:11-12)
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, note also 10:12-14) Notice, 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.
Christ’s Unique Love for His Flock
In John 10:14-17, Jesus says that he lays his life down with a particular group of people in mind; his flock. 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).
There are many other passages we can talk about specifically (Matthew 26:28, Mark 10:45, John 11:50-52 Ephesians 5:25-30), 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.
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 (like 1 John 2:2, for example). 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 as 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.