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Limited Atonement

(6 posts)

Caring for the Lost

The doctrine of Particular Redemption (more commonly known as Limited Atonement) is ought to be a great comfort to believers and strengthen our assurance of salvation. It should also motivate us in evangelism. If it glorifies Jesus that He makes salvation possible for everyone, it glorifies Him even more that He actually saves particular individuals. Christian salvation is universal in its offer but particular in its application. A great example of this comes in the account of how Jesus went out of His way to bring His gospel to the woman at the well and, through her, to an entire village. Here we see Jesus the Evangelist bringing the gospel to those whom He would save. John 4 contains a number of famous statements, but the most glorious may be the one in verse 4. John begins this chapter by telling us that Jesus started gathering followers, who were baptized by the twelve disciples, and then He “left Judea and departed again for Galilee” (John 4:3). John then says: “and he had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4). What makes this statement so wonderful is the way in which it was not true. Geographically, Jesus did not have to pass through Samaria, and for many reasons it was inconvenient for Him to do so. But John informs us that Jesus had to go this way; it was necessary for Him. The reason was Jesus’ determination to save his own, among whom was this woman by the well. . . . One way to motivate yourself to care for others is to realize how much Jesus sacrificed to care for your own soul. We see His particular concern for individuals in His journey through Samaria. Had Jesus merely wanted to open a way for salvation for whoever would come, He need never have gone to Samaria. What He soon was to do in Jerusalem—namely, His death on the cross for our sins—was sufficient to make a way to God. Jesus did not have to go to Samaria for this. But Jesus died not only generally for all who would come, but actually to save particular people known to Him, including the woman He knew was coming to draw water from this well. If you are a believer, the same is true of you. Just as Jesus personally brought the gospel to the Samaritan woman, so He personally sought you for salvation. If you have heard the gospel and believed, it was not by chance! Jesus cared for your soul, so He died on the cross for your sins, He sent His witnesses to you, and He commissioned the Holy Spirit to open your heart to believe. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” He said (John 15:1). Realizing His sacrificial care for your soul ought to inspire you to care for the salvation of people you know and love that He might send you as His witness to them. —Richard D. Phillips, Jesus the Evangelist (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007), 110, 111–112.

How Can You Know?

Wednesday··2008·10·01 · 3 Comments
After spending some time on the doctrine of limited, or particular, atonement, explaining that Christ’s death did not merely make salvation possible, but actually secured it for a particular people, R. C. Sproul answers the question, “How can you know if you’re one of the elect?” If you are one of the flock of Christ, one of His lambs, then you can know with certainty that an atonement has been made for your sins. You may wonder how you can know you’re numbered among the elect. I cannot read your heart or the secrets of the Lambs Book of Life, but Jesus said: “‘My sheep hear My voice’” (John 10:27a). If you want Christ’s atonement to avail for you, and if you put your trust in that atonement and rely on it to reconcile you to almighty God, in a practical sense, you don’t need to worry about the abstract question of election. If you put your trust in Christ’s death for your redemption and you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you can be sure that the atonement was made for you. That, more than anything else, will settle for you the mystery of God’s election. Unless you’re elect, you won’t believe on Christ; you won’t embrace the atonement or rest on his shed blood for your salvation. If you want it, you can have it. It is offered to you if you believe and trust. One of the sweetest statements from the lips of Jesus in the New Testament is this: “‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world‘” (Matt. 25:34b). There is a plan of God designed for your salvation. It is not an afterthought or an attempt to correct a mistake. Rather, from all eternity, God determined that He would redeem for Himself a people, and that which He determined to do was, in fact, accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ, His atonement on the cross. Your salvation has been accomplished by a Savior Who is not merely a potential Savior, but an actual Savior, One Who did for you what the Father determined He should do. He is your Surety, your Mediator, your Substitute, your Redeemer. He atoned for your sins on the cross. —R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust, 2007), 151–153.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:28–39 When Jesus Died on the cross, he did not merely make our salvation possible; he actually secured that salvation—and all that it entails—for each of his elect. J. I. Packer expounds this truth from Romans 8: The thought expressed by Paul’s [question in v. 32] is that no good thing will finally be withheld from us. He conveys this thought by pointing to the adequacy of God as our sovereign benefactor and to the decisiveness of his redeeming work for us. Three comments will bring out the force of Paul’s argument. Note, first, what Paul implies about the costliness of our redemption. “He did not spare his own Son.” In saving us, God went to the limit. . . . We cannot know what Calvary cost the Father, any more than we can know Jesus felt as he tasted the penalty due to our sins. . . . Yet we can say this: that if the measure of love is what it gives, then there never was such love as God showed to sinners at Calvary, nor will any subsequent love-gift to us cost God so much. So if God has already commended his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (5:8), it is believable, to say the least, that he will go on to give us “all things” besides. . . . But this is not all. Note, second, what Paul implies about the effectiveness of our redemption. “God,” he says, “gave him up for us all”—and this fact is itself the guarantee that “all things” will be given us, because they all come to us as the direct fruit of Christ’s death. We have just said that the greatness of God’s giving on the cross makes his further giving (if the words may be allowed) natural and likely, but what we must note now is that the unity of God’s saving purpose makes such further giving necessary, and therefore certain. At this point the New Testament view of the cross involves more than is sometimes realized. That the apostolic writers present the death of Christ as the ground and warrant of God’s offer of forgiveness, and that we enter into forgiveness through repentance and faith in Christ, will not be disputed. But does this mean that, as a loaded gun is only potentially explosive, and an act of pulling the trigger is needed to make it go off, so Christ’s death achieved only a possibility of salvation, needing an exercise of faith on our part to trigger it off and make it actual? If so, then it is not strictly Christ’s death that saves us at all, any more than it is loading the gun that makes it fire: strictly speaking, we save ourselves by our faith, and for all we know, Christ’s death might not have saved anyone, since it might have been the case that nobody believed the gospel. But that is not how the New Testament sees it. The New Testament view is that the death of Christ has actually saved “us all”—all, that is to say, whom God foreknew, and has called and justified, and will in due course glorify. For our faith, which from the human point of view is the means of salvation, is from God’s point of view part of salvation, and is as directly and completely God’s gift to us as is the pardon and peace of which faith lays hold. Psychologically, faith is our own act, but the theological truth about it is that it is God’s work in us: our faith, and our new relationship with God as believers, and all the divine gifts that are enjoyed within this relationship, were all alike secured for us by Jesus’ death on the cross. For the cross was not an isolated event; it was, rather, the focal point in God’s eternal plan to save his elect, and it ensured and guaranteed first the calling (the bringing to faith, through the gospel in the mind and the Holy Spirit in the heart), and then the justification, and finally the glorification, of all for whom, specifically and personally, Christ died. Now we see why the Greek of this verse says literally (and so the KJV renders it), how shall he not with him also give us all things? It is simply impossible for him not to do this, for Christ and “all things” go together as ingredients in the single gift of eternal life and glory, and the giving of Christ for us, to remove the “sin barrier” by substitutionary atonement, has effectively opened the door to our being given all the rest. . . . Note, third, what Paul implies about the consequences of redemption. God, he says, will with Christ give us “all things.” What does that cover? Calling, justification, glorification (which in v. 30 includes everything from the new birth to the resurrection of the body) have already been mentioned, and so throughout Romans 8 has the many sided ministry of the Holy Spirit. Here is wealth indeed, and from other Scriptures we could add to it. —J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 264–266

Real, or Potential?

Did Jesus actually atone for sins on the cross, or did he only achieve a potential atonement? When he said, “It is finished,” was anything really finished, or was the finishing just made possible? Are the sins of lost souls in hell forgiven? These are the questions that must be answered by teachers of universal atonement. John Owen, in his seminal treatment of limited atonement, points out the sequence of Arminian reasoning. First, “Christ died for all and every one, elect and reprobate.” But second, “Most of them for whom Christ died are damned.” According to this view, most of the people for whom Christ offered atonement do not have their sins atoned for. If God intended the salvation of all, His intention clearly failed. John Murray observes: The very nature of Christ’s mission and accomplishment is involved in this question. Did Christ come to make the salvation of all men possible, to remove obstacles that stood in the way of salvation, and merely to make provision for salvation? Or did he come to save his people? . . . Did he come to make men redeemable? Or did he come effectually and infallibly to redeem? The doctrine of the atonement must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are the heirs of eternal life. In that event we should have to dilute the grand categories in terms of which the Scripture defines the atonement and deprive them of their most precious import and glory. —Richard D. Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? (Reformation Trust, 2008), 54–55.
As I’ve been writing on the five points as presented in The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, and referred to the TULIP acrostic/acronym, it occurs to me that I haven’t actually listed them. I suppose it’s safe to assume that most of my readers are familiar with them, but for those who aren’t, here is a brief summary (for longer explanations, click the links at the end of each): Total Depravity: When Adam fell, all mankind fell with him, and inherited his sin (Romans 5:12). This sin has so corrupted all men that, without regeneration by the Holy Spirit, we are unable to respond in faith to the gospel. The word “total” does not mean that we are as depraved as we could be. All people do not descend to the most extreme depths of evil (we are not all Hitler, Stalin, or abortion rights activists). “Total” means that sin has corrupted the totality of our beings—there is no part of us that is not touched by sin. In the Arminian versus Calvinist context, applying this truth to the notion of free will, we realize that though our will may be free, it is a corrupt, sinful will, “hostile toward God” (Romans 8:7). The late R. C. Sproul preferred to call it Radical Corruption. Unconditional Election: God has chosen a people for himself, not based on any quality they possess or any good they may do (Romans 9:11), but “according to the kind intention of His will” (Ephesians 1:5). Sproul preferred Sovereign Election. Limited Atonement: Christ died specifically to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Who are “his people”? See above. Because of the misleading nature of this term, Sproul preferred Definite Atonement. Irresistible Grace: Those who the Father has chosen will infallibly respond in faith to the gospel call (John 6:37). This is not intended to mean that the Holy Spirit forces people against their wills to come to Christ, but that, in regeneration, he changes their wills so that they come gladly. For this reason, Sproul preferred Effectual Grace. Perseverance of the Saints: All who are chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and regenerated by the Spirit will be infallibly kept in the faith (John 6:39–40). Again, because “perseverance” sounds like something we do (contra Philippians 2:13), Sproul made his own improvement: Preservation of the Saints. Thus far, you’ve only seen the doctrine and its history presented, with very little support. Stay tuned . . .

Limited Atonement in Scripture

In the Arminian/Calvinist debate, Limited Atonement, the “L” in the TULIP, is almost certainly the most common point of contention. Many Arminians have embraced the other four points while still rejecting this one. These often call themselves “four point Calvinists.” It is not too difficult to understand why many, even having accepted the other four points, have trouble with this one. Who wants to believe in a “limited” atonement? Doesn't that belittle the work of Christ, implying it wasn't quite enough in some way? Good question, I say, and that is the reason many theologians prefer alternate, less confusing terms such as “definite atonement” or “particular redemption.” I agree with them, though I'm sticking with the L for the sake of the TULIP. Although I understand the objections, I never—once I understood the bigger picture—had any trouble believing this, that is, that Christ died specifically for the elect. After all, it's simple math, isn't it? If the Father chose particular people to save, and gave them to the Son, who promised to redeem them, keep them, and see them safely into heaven (John 6:37–40), it stands to reason that those are the people for whom he died. Furthermore, how could I believe that hell is populated by souls for whom Christ died? The only way that could make any sense is if I believed, as Arminians do, that Christ did not actually save any, but only made salvation possible for those who will make the right decision. It is evident that everyone (who is not a universalist) believes in a limited atonement. One party (Arminian) limits its effect; the other (Calvinist) limits its intent. The former says God tried; the latter says he succeeded. Since not all men will be saved as a result of Christ's redeeming work, a limitation must be admitted. Either the atonement was limited in that it was designed to secure salvation for certain sinners, but not for others, or it was limited in that it was not intended to secure salvation for any, but was designed only to make it possible for God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe. In other words, one mist limit the design either in extent (it was not intended for all) or in effectiveness (it did not secure salvation for any). As Boettner so aptly observes, for the Calvinist, the atonement “is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian, it is like a great wide bridge that goes only half-way across.” —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 40–41. The crux of the matter, for the Calvinist, is that Jesus saves—actually, not merely potentially. This is always the language of Scripture. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. —Matthew 1:21 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us . . . —Galatians 3:13 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. —Titus 2:14 (A point not made in this book, but that is very important, is that the epistles were written to believers. Therefore, when Paul writes “to us” and “for us,” he is not addressing all humanity, but the elect only.) Repentance and faith, indispensible to salvation, which Arminians believe we must bring to the table, are gifts we receive through Christ. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. —Acts 5:31 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake —Philippians 1:29 Jesus himself specified a particular people for whom he would die. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. . . . 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. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father. —John 10:11, 14–18 Jesus, in his “high priestly prayer,” prayed specifically for the elect, to the expressed exclusion of all others. I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. —John 17:6–10 Now, the question that must be answered is, what of those passages that speak of Jesus being the savior of the world (John 1:29; 3:17; 4:42; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 John 2:2; 4:14) or of all men (Romans 5:18; 2 Corinthians 5:14–15; 1 Timothy 2:4–6; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9)? One reason for the use of these expressions was to correct the false notion that salvation was for the Jews alone. . . . these expressions are intended to show that Christ died for all men without distinction (i.e., He died for Jews and Gentiles alike), but they are not intended to indicate that Christ died for all men without exception (i.e., He did not die for the purpose of saving each and every lost sinner). —The Five Points of Calvinism, 50. As we have seen, the preponderance of scriptural evidence plainly indicates a particular redemption. Christ died for “his people,” “the sheep,” “those whom you have given me.” The passages listed above must be understood in that context, or we must embrace a universal atonement that saves everyone. Both Scripture and experience render that conclusion indefensible. Jesus died for one purpose: to save his people from their sin. The bulk of this post is drawn from The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 39–52.


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