LIMITED ATONEMENT

This is the third of my posts on TULIP and my understanding of the 5 points of Calvinism or Reformed Theology.

Before I can begin a discussion of Limited Atonement I will first have to define and explain the Doctrine of Atonement. This will be a surface level explanation only – anything more is beyond the scope of this post.

Atonement, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “reparation for an offense or injury”. It is also defined as “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ”. Satisfaction is a synonym of atonement. To recap a couple previous posts, we know that man suffers from Total Depravity and as such is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and is spiritually dead in his sins (see Total Depravity). As a result man cannot do even one good thing…in fact he does not even want to because his nature is so permeated by the sin. Even in this state God still loved His creation and desired to have a relationship with some of them but because of the sins of man there is a large chasm between God and man. The wages of sin is death and an eternity separated from God. To restore the relationship the debt must be paid, it must be satisfied. Man is unable to pay the debt so in order to satisfy the debt God sent Jesus to die and make atonement to God and thus to restore the relationship and bridge the chasm between God and man. Christ’s death on the cross at Calvary was the only thing sufficient to pay the debt.

Did Christ’s death make salvation a possibility for everyone or did it save the ones that it was intended to – the Elect?

What is taught by Reformed Theology: Since God only chose some to be members of the Elect (see Unconditional Election) then Jesus came to satisfy (atone for) the debt of those elected only. Therefore the extent of the atonement was limited to the Elect. Jesus could not have died for everyone because if He did then everyone would be saved – this is known as Universalism. We know that not everyone is saved so therefore Jesus could not have died for everyone. If Jesus did die for people who did not ultimately get saved then God has exacted payment for the persons sins from both Jesus and the person. This does damage to God’s character and causes Him to be unjust. Anything that makes God appear unjust cannot be true!!

My Questions and Comments: This is the part of the TULIP that I have the most problems with. An interesting point is that both sides (unless you are a Universalist) actually believe in a limited atonement. The only real question is who does the limiting. What do I mean by that? Let me explain. Those who believe that Christ died for all people of all times (past, present, and future) limit the atonement by it application to only those who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Calvinists limit it as discussed above.

There are several passages in the NT that seem to suggest that Jesus died for everyone. John 3:16-17 may be the most well known. It says:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (ESV)

A couple more examples are:

Hebrews 9:12 “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.” (ESV)

John 1:29 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (ESV)

The question that Calvinists ask is: Did the death of Jesus only make salvation possible or did it actually save those it was intended to? Until I started this study I had never considered this question. I had always thought that it actually did both – but the choice was up to the person to accept the atonement (sufficient for all but applied to only to some). I had never thought through the other side or considered the Universalism that logically results.

Why would a loving all-powerful God chose only to save some when He could have just as easily saved all? Does the fact that some people will never have an opportunity to know Christ affect the way we think about God? What if one of our loved ones is not included in the Elect? These and many other questions are very emotional and require much time and effort to put aside the emotion and search the text for the answers. Even the name “Limited Atonement” causes an emotional reaction. One thing I do find interesting is the fact that many Calvinists prefer to use the term “Particular Redemption” instead of Limited Atonement. Truthfully, I am not yet to the point of being past the emotion..…but I am closer than I was about a year or so ago.

I would like to take a moment to examine one of the most often used verses by Calvinists. John 6:37 (ESV) says All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. The first part seems to hint at a limited or particular redemption. There is only a certain number of people (the Elect) given to Christ. Who gives? The Father. The act of giving is entirely an act of God – an exercise of His divine sovereignty. Next, notice that those given will come to Christ. There appears to be no room for choice (to accept or reject) on the part of the one given.

When we add John 6:44 to 6:37 it becomes a powerful argument. Verse 44 says No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. Remember my previous discussion on Unconditional Election and Pastor Warren’s word study on the Greek word translated here as draws. It seems that it carries the notion of compulsion. The person must be compelled by God before He can come to Jesus.

As I type this post, I can see in my mind all the barriers I have to the idea of Limited Atonement crumbling and it makes me very uneasy. Honestly, it is more comfortable for me to believe that Jesus’ death was designed for everyone. It is easier to deal with and think about the non-elect in this way. By this I mean that if they are not saved it is their own fault….they make the choice to reject Christ and therefore deserve the wrath that God justly applies to them. At this point I would probably say that my only real objection to this doctrine is that it doesn’t feel right. That really bothers me because I have always prided myself on not letting my emotions effect my decision making. I have not always succeeded in this but more often than not….I hope it will be the same in this case.

I am praying for God’s guidance in this journey I am on. I have also asked for wisdom and discernment…may He grant me my requests.

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4 Responses to LIMITED ATONEMENT

  1. astandard says:

    Hi Tom,

    Here is another text regarding the scope of the atonement, though I admit it requires a bit more thought (at least for me anyway):

    **Romans 8:31, 32. “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things?”

    The first question is who is the “us” in verse 32 for whom Christ was delivered up? Shouldn’t it be the same “us” for whom God with Christ had “freely given all things?” Paul seems to clearly argue that those who enjoy the benefits of Christ’s death also go on to enjoy the “all things,” not the least of which would seem to include heaven, eternal life, fellowship with God, etc. If the atonement was universal, Paul is either teaching universalism or he was talking about two groups of people all within the same verse.

    Verse 34 of Romans 8 seems to suddenly take on a whole new meaning if the scope of the atonement is for only Christ’s people: “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, Who is even at the right hand of God, Who also maketh intercession for us.” If the whole human race equally enjoys the benefits of Christ’s death, Paul’s answer to his own protest doesn’t really make sense here. Proponents of universal atonment would have to say: “Of course they still could be condemned, Paul! Millions will be condemned that Christ died for because they didn’t claim the benefits extended to them!” And like verse 31, he also seems to indicate that those for whom Christ died likewise enjoy the ongoing intercession of Christ as Mediator.

    Now about John 3:16-17 and 1:29: if these are referring to literally every single person in the whole world, doesn’t that seem to create problems in a variety of other passages where it is clear the same word “world” (or “kosmos” in the Greek) is used in a more general sense? John 12:19, “Behold, the whole world is gone after Him.” Surely the Pharisees here didn’t mean every man, woman, and child on earth. Or Rom. 11:12: “Now if the fall of them (Israel) be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them (Israel) the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their (Israel’s) fulness?” Isn’t “the world” of Romans 11 speaking only of Gentiles? He contrasts an entire nation of Jews with the rest of the world in general. Since these texts show the word “world” is used in different ways in the NT, how do we not know John 3:16 and 1:29 is likewise not speaking of the world in a general sense, as in members of “every nation, tribe, and tongue”?

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  2. astandard says:

    One correction: I should have clarified that John 3:16 is actually speaking of the scope of God’s love, not the atonement per se. In that sense, I should have dealt with it separately from John 1:29. I do believe John 3:16 is referring to every single individual in the world. — J.C.

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  3. Pingback: Am I a…….Reluctant Calvinist? « The Everyday Christian

  4. Pingback: The Atonement…Limited By Who? « The Everyday Christian

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