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What is a Reformed Church? (9) "L" -- Limited Atonement, or Particular Redemption

by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD line

(A sermon delivered on December 14, 2008, at the First Baptist Church, Leominster, Massachusetts, USA)


          This is our fourth session together to study these doctrines of grace.  After an initial overview, we considered in more detail total depravity and unconditional election.  We have emphasized that man was created originally in the image of God, perfect in holiness in His nature, being free from sin, but he transgressed the command of God and fell, resulting in he and his posterity becoming sinful in nature, subjects to satan and servants of sin, incurring the wrath of God, whereby they suffer misery and death forever, incapable of recovery unless the Lord Jesus sets them free--that is what we mean by total depravity.  An individual may not be as morally bad as he might be, but he is, nevertheless, totally unable and unwilling to effect change in himself and accomplish anything that might merit the pleasure of the holy God against Whom he has sinned.  Nevertheless, God has chosen certain persons from fallen humanity to be recipients of His salvation, having chosen them before creation in Christ, not based on any foreseen condition or response of them, but solely due to His own good pleasure according to the purpose of His will.  This is what is understood as the meaning of unconditional election.  It is for these chosen ones, God has purposed and provided an eternal salvation.
             We have attempted to demonstrate the biblical basis for these teachings and we have tried to deal with some of the major objections.  I included in your notes last time a common objection to which we had no time to address.  It goes something like this: “if man is unable to respond to God then God would be unjust to condemn him for not responding.”  I read a book which deals with this matter quite well and I thought I would relate the substance to you.  It is from the book by Ernest Kevin, The Grace of Law:  A Study in Puritan Theology.  On page 151ff he deals with the matter of the Puritan’s strong belief that the fall of man did not abrogate the law of God.  Just because man becomes a sinner does not mean that God must cease being man’s Judge and that He may no longer hold man accountable to His standards.

Man had the responsibility of keeping himself morally able, and he is to blame for what he has allowed himself to become. . . It is no mockery for a man to be commanded to do something which through his own fault he has made himself unable to do. . .  We are no more discharged of our duties, because we have no more strength to do it, than a debtor is quitted of his Bands because he wants (lacks) money to make payment. . .  God hath not lost His right, though man hath lost his power; their impotency doth not dissolve their obligation.

             The challenge to the argument  therefore, may be stated as this:  “If it is true as you say that God cannot justly condemn us because we are unable to respond to God, then go out and charge goods and services, live it up to the extent that it would be humanly impossible for a human being to pay back the debt, and then argue before the judge that he should release you of your debt because you cannot pay it, for he would be unjust to condemn you for something you cannot do.”  Now in today’s culture that might work, but it will not before our thrice holy God on the Day of Judgment. 

             Today we come to the hardest to present of the five doctrines of grace.  It has been easy until now.  We want to consider the matter of definite atonement or, particular redemption, if we are to use our TULIP acrostic, limited atonement.  By the word, “atonement”, we are speaking of the manner in which God forgives and accepts sinners through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

            I.  Historic views of Christ’s atonement

            To begin our discussion of the nature of the atonement, we need to lay a little ground work.  We as evangelicals so frequently hear the idea of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for sinners, that we may be unaware that other views of the atonement have been predominantly held through the ages.  There have been a number of different views on the nature of the atonement.  Now, it has been universally held by Christians that Christ’s death satisfied God with respect to man’s guilt of sin whereby a relationship between them could be re-established.  But there have been a number of diverse suggestions as to just how this was accomplished.

             1.  The Moral Influence Theory  --  There have been those who taught that Christ was primarily an example to follow, showing the way back to the Father.  His love demonstrated in his willingness to die on the cross should move his followers to follow him.

             2.  The Atonement as Victory Theory, also called the Ransom theory of the atonement, that Christ paid a debt owed by the sinner so that he might be released to serve God; the devil was generally regarded as the one to whom the ransom was paid.

             3.  The Satisfaction Theory  --  Sin was seen to be an insult to God.   Christ’s death brought satisfaction with respect to God having been dishonored.

             4.  The Governmental Theory  --  The proponents of this position argued that Christ did not bear our punishment but suffered as a penal example whereby the law was honored while sinners were pardoned.  “The view is called ‘governmental’ because it envisions God as a ruler or a head of government who passed a law-in this instance, ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die.’  Because God did not want sinners to die, he relaxed that rule and accepted the death of Christ instead.  He could have simply forgiven mankind had he wanted to, but that would not have had any value for society.  The death of Christ was a public example of the depth of sin and the lengths to which God would go to uphold the moral order of the universe. (taken from  Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 102.)

             5.  Christ’s atonement as Penal Substitution  --  Christ suffered the penalty as a substitute for the sinner.  The law of God was violated, and the sinner must suffer the penalty.  Christ died in the sinner’s place in order to satisfy the justice of having broken God’s law.  This is what we understand to be the biblical teaching and emphasis of Christ’s atoning death.

            Now having set those various understandings of the nature of the atonement, and that evangelicals universally hold to Christ’s death as a substitution of the sinner, we need to acknowledge that even among those who hold to Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, there are differing positions.  Arminians hold/held that Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that He has obtained for them all, by His death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys the forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the Word of the Gospel of John 3:16 - ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’; and in the First Epistle of John 2:2 - ‘And He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’” This position is so widely held that it might seem strange to hear that some may differ from this position.  But I assure you, a few of us do.  And, there was a time, as we have pointed out, when we were not a few, but the majority.  But all of the old Protestant creeds and confessions and many of the great leaders of the faith have differed from the position stated above.  When we introduced this series we described the work and findings of the protestant Synod of Dort.  That synod refuted this view of the atonement as unbiblical.  And we would agree.
             It should be recognized that not only do Arminians hold this position, but so do many “modified Calvinists”, sometimes referred to as four-point Calvinists.  I have heard it said that Calvinists in Britain are generally 5 point Calvinists, but in the States, historically they have been 4 pointers.  I was a four point Calvinist for several years.  This third doctrine of the five points was the “hardest point” for me to accept for it seemed there was strong biblical material that taught otherwise.
             And so, we want to consider these matters and give a fair hearing to all parties who love God and sincerely hold to what they believe the Scriptures teach.  But, we must all be open and teachable with respect to these things.  The Word of God must be our authority, not what you or I think or want to think, or what someone we respect thinks; rather, what does the Word of God say on the matter. 

            II.  A Bible passage that speaks to Christ’s atonement--Hebrews 10:11-18

           Let us read together Hebrews 10:11-18.

          "And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool.  For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.  And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,”[1] then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”[2]  Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin."

          In this section of Hebrews the writer was showing the superiority of Jesus Christ as the High Priest of His people above the Jewish high priests of the old Jewish covenant.  Jesus is shown to be an enthroned king who brings the new covenant blessings to His people.  In verse 11 the writer first describes the imperfect ministry of the old covenant priests.   “And every high priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”  The ongoing futile activity of old covenant priests is described as a pitiful thing to consider; all their activity really accomplished nothing lasting.  The Aaronic high priests were always standing, always ministering, always sacrificing.  But in contrast to their imperfect ministry, we read what Jesus accomplished in verse 12.  “But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.”  The writer then again takes up Psalm 110 in which the king-priest Melchizedek was described, which the writer shows to have been a prophecy of Jesus Christ’s resurrection and exaltation.  Jesus Christ was enthroned.  He has since shared authority with God His Father.  As one once described it, “from the shame of the cross He has been exalted to the place of highest glory.”[3]  Christ’s intercession continues on behalf of His people, but it is the application to individuals of His one time perfect sacrifice.  Then verse 13 reads, “from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool.”  Christ is ruling at the right hand of His Father.  God has decreed that He would rule until He had subdued all opposition; He will conquer all of his enemies and bring them under His submission.
             Then the writer tells us what it was Jesus Christ had accomplished.  Verse 14 reads, “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”  Now notice what is being said.  Christ accomplished something through His death.  The Arminian view cannot agree with this.  The Arminian says that Jesus Christ made possible the salvation of all, but that His death secured absolutely the salvation of anyone, for it is yet up to the individual to believe and make the death of Christ a completed transaction.  The Calvinist who believes in definite atonement declares with the Scriptures that Jesus Christ did not make possible, but rather secured the salvation of all His people when He died upon the cross.  He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.  The writer was clearly showing that Jesus Christ had provided a completed atonement on behalf of His people.  The atonement of Christ is shown to be limited to His people, that is, “those who are being sanctified.”  In the same way that the sacrifice of a goat under the old economy had benefit only for Jews or Jewish proselytes, so the sacrifice of Christ has benefit only to those who belong to Him.  Christ is not presented as having made possible salvation for all, but having accomplished an atonement for some, all those being sanctified, in other words, all of the elect of God.  Jesus Christ’s death was limited as to its extent--His people--and definite in its scope--He perfected His people.
             The writer then quotes from Jeremiah 31 to prove his case from the Holy Scriptures.  Verses 15-17 read, “And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,’ then He adds, ‘Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.’”

              This passage of Scripture shows that Jesus Christ died for His people, thereby securing their forgiveness of sins.  In other words, the Bible teaches the atonement of the death of Jesus Christ was limited to the people of God.  Jesus Christ paid a definite payment for a specific people, accomplishing their eternal salvation.

            III.  Statement and Explanation of the Doctrine:

            The doctrine stated: The death of Jesus Christ was intended to secure the remission of sins and eternal life for His elect--the people the Father had chosen to give unto Him.  By His substitutionary death on their behalf, He redeemed them from sin, having paid their debt; He propitiated God’s wrath towards them, satisfying God’s justice on their behalf; and He reconciled them to the Father, having established peace between God and His people.

            The doctrine explained:

            A.  Although Calvinists hold to the biblical teaching of Christ’s atonement for God’s elect only, we do acknowledge that there is an “unlimited” aspect to the atonement. 

This doctrine does not mean that any limit can be set to the value or power of the atonement which Christ made.  The value of the atonement depends upon, and is measured by, the dignity of the person making it; and since Christ suffered as a Divine-human person the value of His suffering was infinite.  The Scripture writers tell us plainly that the “Lord of glory” was crucified, 1 Corinthians 2:8; that wicked men “killed the Prince of life,” Acts 3:15; and that God “purchased” the Church “with His own blood,” Acts 20:28.  The atonement, therefore, was infinitely meritorious and might have saved every member of the human race had that been God’s plan.  It was limited only in the sense that it was intended for, and is applied to, particular persons; namely for those who are actually saved.  (L. Boettner, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 151)

            B.  Calvinists teach that some benefit of Christ’s death is received by the non-elect.

            Let it be said that Calvinists do not deny that mankind in general receive some important benefits from Christ’s atonement.  Calvinists admit that it arrests the penalty which would have been inflicted upon the whole race because of Adam’s sin; that it forms a basis for the preaching of the Gospel and thus introduces many uplifting moral influences into the world and restrains many evil influences.  Paul could say to the heathen people of Lystra that God “left not Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17.  God makes His sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.  Many temporal blessings are thus secured for all men, although these fall short of being sufficient to insure salvation. Cunningham has stated the belief of Calvinists very clearly in the following paragraph:

“It is not denied by the advocates of particular redemption, or of a limited atonement, that mankind in general, even those who ultimately perish, do derive some advantages or benefits from Christ’s death; and no position they hold requires them to deny this.  They believe that important benefits have accrued to the whole human race from the death of Christ, and that in these benefits those who are finally impenitent and unbelieving partake.  What they deny is, that Christ intended to procure, or did procure, for all men these blessings which are the proper and peculiar fruits of His death, in its specific character as an atonement, that He procured or purchased redemption - that is, pardon and reconciliation for all men.  Many blessings flow to mankind at large from the death of Christ, collaterally and incidentally, in consequence of the relation in which men, viewed collectively, stand to each other.  And these benefits were of course foreseen by God, when He resolved to send His Son into the world; they were contemplated or designed by Him, as what men should receive and enjoy.  They are to be regarded and received as bestowed by Him, and as thus unfolding His glory, indicating His character, and actually accomplishing His purposes; and they are to be viewed as coming to men through the channel of Christ's mediation, - of His suffering and death.”

There is, then, a certain sense in which Christ died for all men, and we do not reply to the Arminian tenet with an unqualified negative.  But what we do maintain is that the death of Christ had special reference to the elect in that it was effectual for their salvation, and that the effects which are produced in others are only incidental to this one great purpose. (L. Boettner, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 160,161).[4]

            C.  This doctrine is the teaching of the Historical Creeds and Confessions of Protestantism.

                        1.  First London Confession of Faith with an appendix by Benjamin Cox, 1646.

We affirm, that as Jesus Christ never intended to give remission of sins and eternal life unto any but His sheep (John 10:15; 17:2; Eph. 5:25,26,27; Rev. 5:9); so these sheep only have their sins washed away in the blood of Christ: The vessels of wrath, as they are none of Christ's sheep, nor ever believe in Him, so they have not the blood of Christ sprinkled upon them, neither are partakers of Him: And therefore have all their sins remaining upon them, and are not saved by Christ from any of them under any consideration whatsoever; but must lie under the intolerable burden of them eternally.  The truth of this appears unto us by the light of these Scriptures compared together, Heb. 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2; Heb. 3:14; Matt. 7:23; Eph. 5:6; 2 Tim. 1:9; John 8:24.

                        2.  The Westminster Confession of Faith, and our own Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689

This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertaken which that He might discharge, He was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in His Soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption.  On the third day He arose from the dead, with -the same body in which He suffered, with which also He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of His Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world. 

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.

Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after His incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein He was revealed and signified to be the seed which should bruise the serpent's head; and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, being the same yesterday, and to-day and for ever.

To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, He doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by His Word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by His almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to His wonderful and unsearchable dispensation.

            V.  Other Scripture verses which teach this doctrine

Matthew 1:21. “And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for it is He that shall save His people from their sins.”

John 10:14, 15. “I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”

John 15:13. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

John 17:2. “...even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He should give eternal life.”

Romans 8:31-33. “What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?  He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?  Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?  It is God that justifieth…”

Ephesians 5:23, 25, 26, 27. “For the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ also is the head of the church, being Himself the Saviour of the body.  But as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that He might present the church to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”

Revelation 5:9. “And they sing a new song, saying, ‘Worthy art thou to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou was slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood (men) of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.’”

            VI.  Rational defense of the doctrine

            A.  If one considers the matter rightly, he will see that every position on the atonement is “limited” in one way or another.  Either Christ provided a “limited” atonement in that He secured a salvation for His people, or He provided a “limited” atonement in that He did not secure anyone’s salvation, having only made possible a salvation for everybody.

            B.  If Christ intended to die equally for everybody and He paid the same price for everybody, then there are souls in hell who have their sins paid for twice.

            C.  If Christ intended to die equally for everybody, then you have a divided Godhead, for He attempted to atone for more than the Father ever intended to give to Him.

            D.  Here is the classical argument of John Owen in defense of limited atonement that has never been refuted logically or biblically by Arminians:

I may add this dilemma to our Universalists:-God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men.  If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved? ... If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.  If the first, why are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?  You will say, “Because of their unbelief, they will not believe.”  But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?  If not, why should they be punished for it?  If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due it, or not.  If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died? ... If he did not, then he did not die for all their sins.  Let them choose which part they will.[5]

            VII.  General objections to the doctrine

            A.  Objections based upon reason  (aside from objections which have been dealt with in earlier sessions)

            --  “There are too many verses which speak about Christ dying for the ‘world’ which clearly teach universal atonement.”

            Answer: One needs to consider the meaning of the word “world” in Scripture. Much of what we think about the atoning death of Christ will be tempered by what we understand the simple word “world” to mean.  In the Gospel of John this word has special significance in that it may have any one of seven different meanings:

(1) the classical sense, i.e., the orderly universe,
(2) the earth itself,
(3) the human inhabitants of earth, by metonymy,
(4) mankind under the Creator's judgment, alienated from His Life, in the ethical sense,
(5) the public who were about Christ, Jews in particular,
(6) the kingdom of evil forces, angelic as well as human, as related to the earth, and
(7) men out of every tribe and nation, but not all tribes and nations as a whole.

            In other words the term “world” may refer to all that God has created, or to the earthen sphere upon which mankind dwells, or to mankind as a whole, or to the Palestinian contemporaries of our Lord, the Jew in particular, or to all evil forces related to the earth and in rebellion against God, or to persons selected out of every tribe and nation upon the face of the earth.  Wherever the word appears it must be dealt with in context in much the same way that the word “all” must be examined.  For example, the Scripture records the Pharisees as saying:  “Behold!  the world is gone after Him!” (John 12:19).  Now it is obvious from the context that not all of humanity was following Jesus, for the speakers themselves refused to do so.  Furthermore, we may be assured that not every human being on the face of the earth was following the Saviour.  On that occasion "the world" includes only those persons, whether Jew or Gentile, who were drawn enthusiastically to follow our Lord (for they had heard that He had raised Lazarus from among the dead).  (Duanne Spencer, TULIP, pp. 35,36).[6]

            B.  Objections based upon misinterpretation of Scripture  (If interested, come and ask me to address these passages)

                        1.  2 Peter 2:1

                        2.  1 John 2:2

                        3.  2 Corinthians 5:19

                        4.  2 Peter 3:4, 9


           Why is this important? History has shown that error leads to further error.  For example, historically the digression has been for a church or denomination to first abandon Calvinism for Arminianism, and then abandon Arminianism to embrace universalism--“Will not all people be saved since Christ atoned for the sins of all people?”  It affects our message. It affects our methods.


[1] from Jeremiah 31:33.

[2] from Jeremiah 31:34.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Hebrews, p. 239.

[4] See also on this matter the words of J. A. Spurgeon, brother of Charles, in vol. 7, pp. 314, 315 of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.

[5] John Owen, The Death of Death, p. 34

[6] See also John Owen, The Death of Death, pp. 205ff.