The Atonement…Limited By Who?

If you have followed my blog any at all then you know that I have been studying Reformed Theology for a little more than a year now. I started out (at least I thought) as somewhere between Calvinist and Arminian but I realized several months ago that I had actually always believed in 4 of the 5 points of the TULIP. The one problem I was having was with Limited Atonement. I realized and acknowledged that everyone but a universalist (someone who believes that all people will end up in Heaven) understood that the atonement made by Jesus for us was limited. The only question was who did the limiting. I started out thinking that we limited the atonement by our choice to accept or reject Jesus as Lord and Savior of our lives. I would say that the Atonement was sufficient for everyone but only effective for those who chose to accept the gift of salvation from Jesus. I also realized that this understanding of the atonement did not fit logically with the other four tenants of the TULIP. That did not change the fact that I want to believe this way. That is what makes it so hard…I have many years invested into this belief. So I have been working through this and I have been getting gradually closer to accepting the full Calvinist understanding of the limitation of the atonement.

One of the passages that has really helped move me is found in Matthew 1:21. It says

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

In our Sunday School class we are going through Matthew this quarter. I happened to be teaching the lesson that included this verse. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had read many people’s explanation about God limiting scope the atonement but had not really accepted it and then I read this verse. I had read it before….how many times I am not sure but it never jumped off the page at me like it did this time. I am not claiming a new revelation but I am saying I have a more accurate interpretation / understanding now.

Now to the question. Who limits the Atonement? Does God limit the scope (meaning that it is only for the Elect) or do people limit the effectiveness (meaning it is for everyone but is only applied to those who choose to accept God’s gift of salvation)? Who has the power…God or man? I light of Matthew 1:21 we would have to agree that it is God and only God. Notice what Joseph was told by the angel in the vision. The angel tells Joseph what, who, and for what purpose the baby was being born. I want to focus on the purpose for a minute. We see here that before Jesus was born God had already set His task and that task was to save His people from their sins. His people….. Let me say it again….His people.

Well that brings the obvious question. Who are His people? The Bible answers this question for us in John 6:44. It 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.

So here we see the Jesus’ people are those that the Father draws. But this does not completely answer the question. It just leads to another question and that is…Who does the Father draw? That is a hotly debated question. Click here and here and here to read some posts that discuss this. One of the most obvious passages that answers this question is Ephesian 1:3-6. It says

(3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, (4) even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love (5) he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, (6) to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

As we can see in verses 5 & 6, God chose whoever he wanted “according to the purpose of His will.” The Father draws whoever it pleases Him to draw. The Bible tells us in other places that this choice is not based on anything done or any faith foreseen by God. The choice is not earned in any way and it is not a result of God’s knowing that the people would choose Him.

So, to recap. God chooses whom he wants before the foundation of the world and draws them to Himself. He does this for His good pleasure and will. Once drawn, God gives them to the Son. They are His to make atonement for. He makes the atonement on the cross (salvation is actually accomplished) and then serves as the Good Shepherd ensuring that none who are His are not lifted up on Judgment day. From all of this there seems to be some good biblical evidence that God intended to limit the atonement in eternity past. Makes sense…right? Actually it does, but I still am having trouble shaking off the desire to believe the atonement was universal in scope. For me though, Matthew 1:21 was a big step in that direction. How about you? Does Matthew 1:21 help you?


8 Responses to The Atonement…Limited By Who?

  1. Andrew says:

    John 12 says…
    30Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
    Notice Jesus says ALL men. Just came to mind as I read.



  2. Randy says:

    Good observation.
    Matthew 20:28 is a good verse “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Note the word “many” not “all”.
    And Isaiah 53:8 “He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.” Note the word “My people”.
    Isaiah 53:11 “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.” Notice the word “many” not “all”. And Isaiah 53:12 “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.” Notice the words “He bore the sin of many” not “all”.


  3. Andrew says:

    Interesting things you point out. I would be interested to do a search into the original language. I think the Greek word for all and many are used interchangeably.


  4. aelianus says:

    Presumably you accept that Jesus’s death on the Cross sufficed to save all men, that it was not inadequate but super-abundantly meritorious? Obviously God saves whom He will. Nevertheless He has provided for the salvation of all. If men have free will and God has provided for the salvation of all then if they are condemned to Gehenna it is their own fault. Man’s free will cannot frustrate the will of God. God wills from all eternity to save many by giving them a living faith in Him which endures until the end. He wills to give grace to overpower any resistance they might make. He wills to give all the opportunity to take up the offer of salvation but He does not will to overpower the resistance of all. For this reason Scripture refers to His will to save all and His will to save many or few (these last two are relative terms). He draws all men to Himself, many are called, few are chosen.


  5. Tom says:


    Thank you for visiting my blog and for posting your comment.

    Aelianus said

    Presumably you accept that Jesus’s death on the Cross sufficed to save all men

    I believe that Jesus’ death on the Cross was sufficient to save all men. His sacrifice was perfect and as such if it was sufficient for one then it would be sufficient for all. But that is not the end of it….we have to look at what God’s intention was in sending Jesus to die. It appears, from the teachings of the Bible, that God limited the scope of the atonement.

    Aelianus said

    Man’s free will cannot frustrate the will of God.

    True. But you don’t seem to understand that man’s will is only free to choose things that are in agreement with it’s nature. What is the nature of man’s will? It is sinful until regeneration.

    Aelianus said

    He wills to give grace to overpower any resistance they might make. He wills to give all the opportunity to take up the offer of salvation but He does not will to overpower the resistance of all.

    I don’t think this is a correct interpretation of what God does in salvation. He changes the nature completely. This means removing the “heart of stone” and replacing it with a “heart of flesh”. This is the process of giving spiritual life. This also changes the nature of the will so that at the point the person heeds the call of the Gospel they will willingly come to God, no over powering in necessary.

    I used to believe as you do that God gives everyone an opportunity to be saved. I am no longer convinced that is the case. There seems to be a preponderance of biblical texts with clearly teach that God limited the scope of salvation from eternity past. I want to believe that God gives everyone the opportunity to receive salvation, that is easier but I am just not sure that is what is taught in Scripture.


  6. aelianus says:

    As has been pointed out there are passages in Scripture which refer to the action of Christ being directed at ‘all’ and there are passages which refer to it being directed at ‘many’ or ‘few’. If we suppose that God wills to provide the means for the salvation of all but only efficaciously to accomplish the salvation of some then we are able to do justice to all these passages. Otherwise, we have to accept some and ignore the others.

    It seems to me that there is a serious conceptual problem with talk of evil natures. Everything that is is created by God. When we talk about natures we talk of what something is not merely how it is. Something can only be called evil because it lacks something or what it has is disordered. Sinful is how not what it is. Unless we abandon monotheism and suppose that some rival power is the creator of evil we cannot say that any thing as such ‘is’ evil. Because God saw all that He had made and it was very good. The first thing He says is ‘not good’ is ‘for man to be alone’. That is not some thing that is some how. Evil is a privation not an entity.

    When God restores human nature He cannot change it into another nature otherwise there would be no persisting subject of that change. God would simply have destroyed one individual and created a different one. In my home town the local authority had a regeneration plan for a run down area. They intended to move the population out, knock down the houses, build expensive flats and move in much richer people. The existing inhabitants were understandably unimpressed with this regeneration plan. Regeneration by grace cannot be of this kind! So it must consist in some benefit given to a subject who is numerically the same before and after the gift. This benefit cannot be God Himself (except by way of pledge) because this is what we are promised in the future. Therefore it is created, therefore in principle it must be resistible even if in point of fact (for the predestined) resistance is futile.

    When Christ draws all men to Himself, when He calls the many who are not chosen He bestows a benefit upon them (even if it will be to their shame on the last day). They ‘are’ called, they ‘are’ drawn’ but they are not saved. These are the words of Scripture to which we must do justice.


  7. kangeroodort says:

    John 6 seems to be a hang up for many people who are investigating the claims of Calvinism. For an excellent treatment of the key passages in John 6, 8, 10,and 17 from an Arminian perspective I highly recommend the following link:

    I recently discussed the nature of the atonement with three Calvinists who were making the case for limited atonement. I think you might benefit from the discussion. Here is the link:

    God Bless,


  8. Tom says:


    sorry it has taken me so long to reply. Thanks for the links, I will check them out.


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