An article was recently shared with me that had convinced an Arminian to become a Calvinist. It describes the doctrine of Limited Atonement. For those who are curious about my thoughts on the matter, I wrote an in-depth article on the issue here. My thoughts haven’t really changed since then. But, for the purpose of this article, I’ll define the two positions as follows:
- Limited Atonement: The belief that God only intended to save those who are actually saved.
- Unlimited Atonement: God both desires and acts with the intent to save all of mankind.
Now, I have defined it this way because I find the usual definitions of the terms unhelpful, focusing on emphases rather than actual differences. I also don’t think that the debate has anything really to do with the nature of the atonement, but rather with the place the atonement takes within God’s overall plan. Both sides believe that God, on some level, wants to save everybody, that Christ’s death is sufficient to save everyone, is completely efficacious in securing that atonement, and that it accomplishes what it was intended to accomplish. All language to the contrary is simply misrepresentative.
Now with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the article. The article is in two pieces, so I’ll be writing two parts to this response: first to the main article, and then to the counterargument section. I won’t be responding to each and every line, so I encourage you to go and read the article in full. So, let’s get into it:
Now, my basic reaction to this post is that it is very unimpressive. For the most part it relies on being vague about what Limited Atonement teaches and using caricatures of Unlimited Atonement. Though I’ve seen worse. His comments in the first paragraph about the Scripture mattering more than wording are well taken, but the fact that he is never clear on what he is proving with the Scripture quotes he gives means that I can simply say I affirm every quote he gives and see no reason to accept Limited Atonement. You can’t just say a passage confirms your position. You have to show it.
So he doesn’t really get into the meat of the issue until paragraph 2 where he defines Limited Atonement thusly:
The doctrine of limited atonement affirms that the Bible teaches Christ’s atoning work on the cross was done with a definite purpose in mind—to redeem for God people from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9).
Now this definition is a real problem. It is because no one disagrees with this sentence. Of course the atonement had a definite purpose in mind; and of course God wants to redeem people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. We all believe this. Since it doesn’t differentiate Limited Atonement, it can’t be a proper definition.
He then goes on to quote several biblical passages which affirm that bit that we all agree with. That’s fine. I affirm these passages too, though I will quibble about the John 6:37-40 passage. This passage is later echoed in John 17, especially verse 12. Here we see that this language is specifically referring to disciples that Jesus had during His earthly ministry, and not every single believer. It is also worth noting that Judas is one that is “given to Him”, and yet he DOES walk away. But since that is more the P than the L in TULIP, I won’t press it too hard here.
He ends the paragraph with:
These verses and many others talk about an atonement that was specific in whom it covered (God’s people), was substitutionary in nature (He actually bore their sins on the cross), and actually accomplished what God intended it to do (justify many). Clearly, here is a picture of an intentional, definite atonement. Christ died not simply to make justification a possibility but to actually justify those He died for. He died to save them, not to make them savable.
So again, he doesn’t say anything here that I technically disagree with, except that I know that he is defining terms differently than me. For instance, he understands “God’s people” to be the list of every individual who will enter into eternal life. I understand “God’s people” as the kingdom Christ, chosen through Christ, made up of whoever has faith in Him. I disagree with what he means, but I agree with the sentence that he utters.
Also, “the atonement accomplishes what it was intended to do”. Yes. It accomplishes our atonement. “Christ died not simply to make justification a possibility but to actually justify those He died for. He died to save them, not to make them savable.” Correct. However, even though I agree with the sentences, I know that he thinks he is denying unlimited atonement. He’s not. I’ve never met any Arminian who says that the atonement makes us “savable”. That’s not a thing.
Let’s think about this carefully. In Calvinism, are the elect born redeemed, or do they become redeemed? I’ve known no Calvinist who thinks that we are born redeemed. Yet Christ’s death was 2000 years ago (±15 years). In both systems our atonement was procured then and is applied now. So, the atonement is not efficacious until it is applied. We also all agree that once the atonement is applied, the person is 100% redeemed. Thus, we agree on efficaciousness. This whole “savable” thing is simply the gap between the point in which the atonement is procured and the point in which it is applied. While there is a difference in God’s choice in applying it, the NATURE of the atonement is the same.
Next we get into substitutionary atonement:
The doctrine of limited atonement also recognizes that the Bible teaches Jesus’ death on the cross was a substitutionary atonement for sins. Many theologians use the word “vicarious” to describe Christ’s atonement. This word means “acting on behalf of” or “representing another” and is used to describe “something performed or suffered by one person with the results accruing to the benefit or advantage of another.” The vicarious atonement of Christ means He was acting as a representative for a specific group of people (the elect) who would receive a direct benefit (salvation) as the result of His death. This concept is clearly seen in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He (God the Father) made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Again, we believe in a substitutionary atonement. However, after this, he begins to get interesting.
If Jesus actually stood in my place and bore my sin on the cross as the Bible teaches, then I can never be punished for that sin. In order for Christ’s atonement to truly be a substitutionary or vicarious atonement, then it must actually secure a real salvation for all for whom Christ died. If the atonement only makes salvation a possibility, then it cannot be a vicarious atonement. If Christ acted as a real and true substitute for those for whom He died, then all for whom He died will be saved. To say that Christ died a vicarious death in the place of all sinners but that not all sinners will be saved is a contradiction.
There is an assumption here. That assumption is that in order for a vicarious atonement to work, there must be a direct one to one correlation to the one sacrificed and to each and every beneficiary. I do not see why this has to be the case. People groups in the Bible are understood as true entities, and often are in the law as well. If a company is in debt, does that debt get distributed to each and every member of that company? No, not really. It is the company that is in debt. And if that debt is paid for by some outside donor, does that donor have to pay a distinct check for each and every member of the company? Of course not. And yet there is a very real sense in which the company is in debt, and that the company is redeemed.
And we see this in Israel throughout the OT. When Israel sins, does that mean that each and every Israelite committed the same sin? No. Indeed, we know the prophets didn’t. When Israel is punished though, they are all punished together. And when Judah is restored, does that mean that each and every Jew has an individual restoration? No. I personally see no reason to accept this premise. As such, the conclusion doesn’t follow either.
The next paragraph and the one after talk about how the terms ransom, reconciliation, propitiation and substitute imply a limited atonement. But since he has yet to give a definition of limited atonement that distinguishes it from unlimited atonement, and does not provide an argument as to why these terms imply a limited atonement, there is little for me to say here.
Now let that sink in. We are five paragraphs in, and he has yet to give a clear definition of limited atonement that distinguishes it from unlimited atonement. Now, I know what he means. And there is a good chance you know what he means. But since this supposed to be explaining the basics, we shouldn’t HAVE to know what he means to understand what he is saying.
For comments, see original post: https://jcfreak73.blogspot.com/2019/08/response-to-got-questions-limited.html