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5661613189_65be533432_bFrom time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words. Today we look at limited atonement.

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The doctrine of limited atonement--the L in TULIP--teaches that Christ effectively redeems from every people “only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation” (Canons of Dort, II.8). As Ursinus explains in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Christ's death was for everyone "as it respects the sufficiency of satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof.” In other words, the death of Christ was sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, but it was God's will that it should effectively redeem those and only those who were chosen from eternity and given to Christ by the Father.

Particular redemption is often considered a more favorable term, because the point of the doctrine is not to limit the mercy of God, but to make clear that Jesus did not die in the place of every sinner on the earth, but for his particular people. The good shepherd lays his life down, not for the goats, but for the sheep (John 10:11). This is why John 6 says Jesus came to save those the Father had given to him, and why Matthew 1:21 says he died for his people, and John 15:13 says for his friends, and Acts 20:28 says for the church, and Ephesians 5:25 says for his bride, and Ephesians 1:4 says for those chosen in Christ Jesus.

The doctrine of particular redemption is worth defining and defending because it gets to the heart of the gospel. Should we say "Christ died so that sinners might come to him"? Or, "Christ died for sinners"? Did Christ's work on the cross make it possible for sinners to come to God? Or did Christ's work on the cross actually reconcile sinners to God? In other words, does the death of Jesus Christ make us save-able or does it make us saved?

If the atonement is not particularly and only for the sheep, then either we have universalism--Christ died in everyone's place and therefore everyone is saved--or we have something less than full substitution. "We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ," Spurgeon observed, "because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved."  But, Spurgeon argued, it is the view of the atonement that says no one in particular was saved at the cross that actually limits Christ's death. "We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved."

Christ does not come to us merely saying, "I've done my part. I laid down my life for everyone because I have saving love for everyone in the whole world. Now, if you would only believe and come to me I can save you." Instead he says to us, I was pierced for your transgressions. I was crushed for your iniquities (Isa. 53:5). I have purchased with my blood men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9). I myself bore your sins in my body on the tree, so that you might infallibly die to sins and assuredly live for righteousness. For my wounds did not merely make healing available. They healed you (1 Pet. 2:24).

"Amazing love!" a great Arminian once wrote. "How can it be that you, my God, should die for me?!" Praise be to our Good Shepherd who didn't just make our salvation possible, but sustained the anger of God in body and soul, shouldered the curse, and laid down his life for the sheep.


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67 thoughts on “Theological Primer: Limited Atonement”

  1. Barry says:

    Dylan~ To be honest, I’ve not heard your view of Christ’s atonement. Per Romans 3:23-26, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation (propitiation) by his blood, to be received by faith”. etc. I understand such propitiation as a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes his wrath toward sinners into favor. At the cross his righteous anger and stored-up wrath against sin was discharged and unleashed against God’s own Son. To my mind, all competing views remain subservient to that which features the unspeakable awfulness of that ‘cup of wrath our Lord consumed. ‘

  2. Barry says:

    Dylan: Related to our discussion, are faith and repentance gifts to us from God, or not?

  3. Dylan says:

    Barry

    Thanks for taking the time to engage on more specific terms. Let me start by attempting to answer your question concerning faith and repentance. I definitely see from Scripture a sense in which faith and repentance are ‘gifts’ from God. Regarding faith in particular, one sense in which it is a gift flows from the fact that the faithfulness of Christ is the foundation of our faith…In other words, his faith (full trust in and obedience to God) gives structure, meaning, and purpose to our faith. Without his faithfulness, we really don’t know what faith is. Growing in the knowledge of Christ’s faithfulness empowers our own faith. Beyond that, it is fairly reasonable to say that faith is a ‘gift’, but here we are tempted to speculate whether we have a choice to make about receiving that gift or not. If I had to speculate, I’d say we can either accept the gift or reject it, but I don’t make it a point to judge those who speculate something else. I will however urge against trying to categorize speculation as the clear revelation of God.

    In a similar way again, I would say repentance is a gift in that it is God’s kindness which leads us to repentance. But I take it seriously that the passage doesn’t say something more like “God shows kindness toward those He has determined for repentance”. Here again, we would have little concept of genuine repentance without God’s revelation, but the Bible seems adamant to show that repentance is something we must willingly engage in.

  4. Dylan says:

    Barry

    Unfortunately, it appears that the moderators may be rejecting my attempts to respond to you along the lines you brought up. Perhaps discussing this further on another platform is possible…?

  5. Dylan says:

    Oops, nevermind…Please disregard my last comment. I guess my browser was glitching.

  6. Dylan says:

    Barry

    I’m a little conflicted on how precisely I should go about responding to you concerning how I understand Christ’s atonement from Scripture. On the one hand, I prefer to work through the Old Testament as it makes its way toward Christ…On the other hand, you have laid out a logical progression of ideas stemming from Romans 3, and could easily work through that progression with you. I think the latter may be more productive in this case.

    “whom God put forward as an expiation (propitiation) by his blood, to be received by faith”. etc. I understand such propitiation as a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes his wrath toward sinners into favor.”

    It’s interesting that you would quote the passage with both ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’ as renderings for the Greek word ‘hilasterion’, and then go on to focus the rest of your line of thinking on ‘propitiation’ only. I’m curious…Do you understand expiation and propitiation to basically mean the same thing? In any case, I acknowledge that propitiation generally refers to appeasing anger/wrath…however, I don’t see that understanding as being the only way to understand propitiation. More on that later perhaps.

    “At the cross his righteous anger and stored-up wrath against sin was discharged and unleashed against God’s own Son.”

    Up to this point, you have laid out what is generally understood concerning the word ‘propitiation’. But now you are making a definitive statement about the cross from within this propitiatory framework, and it is here that I implore you to take a step back and approach the text through biblical theology, where we strive to see from the text only what it wants to say. Let me ask you, what does the narrative of the cross reveal to us about the cross?

    “…the unspeakable awfulness of that ‘cup of wrath our Lord consumed. ‘”

    Could you lay out for me every reference in the Gospels pertaining to the cup given to Christ?

  7. Barry says:

    Thanks, Dylan. I appreciate and agree with your cmts on both faith and repentance. You possess a more full-orbed understanding of theology than I, to be sure. I love theology but am an ecologist, not a biblical scholar. As such, I will continue this link with you (as you graciously may see fit). I cannot pursue the “cup” w\o devoting more time. Hopefully TGC will not ‘close the comment period’ unannounced. (I also appreciate the many suggestions and exhortations by yourself and others who have responded to the author -Kevin- of this thread). By and large I find the manner of the replies to be biblical and Christ-honoring! thank you~

  8. Sarah says:

    This stuff makes my head/heart hurt. I’m so tired of thinking too much on the actual process of salvation – who gets saved, why, when and how. My job is to preach the gospel (of which I suck at… I will admit). Concerning how a person comes to respond to that gospel, I’m so tired of splitting hairs. I want knowledge but I also don’t want to be a know it all. I like my Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. I used to love knowing this stuff, but why? Probably the debating made me feel superior or get a high when I won. Ugh… I love Tim Keller’s teaching though. LOL! How on earth does one stay humble when they think they truly understand what the Word says or heck… even can understand Greek, Hebrew, historical context, etc? I’m sorry… I just know from personal experience the angst this particular topic has brought me in relationships and the pride I’ve seen coming out of it. Sorry for the rant. God bless!

  9. Dylan says:

    Barry

    I’d be interested to know what your specific focus is in as an ecologist. I think ecology can be an important intersection between faith and our interaction with creation.

    I’ve had a fair bit of formal exposure to the field of biblical scholarship, but I certainly wouldn’t see myself as a biblical scholar. I would say that I am largely focused on helping to move the process of theology forward along paths that are practical and healthy for the Church. There are far more influential people than me in that venture…Just hoping I can play some part in it.

    Take any time you need, and don’t feel obligated…If we are able to continue the conversation that’s a treat, if not I’m sure we will continue to hold on to nothing but Christ and the power of his resurrection.

  10. Barry says:

    D~ (more to follow). Does TGC usually terminate these threads after a finite time? (this is my 1st go round). If they do and we both share a desire to keep contact open, can you suggest a way to exchange a ‘means’ w\o publically announcing such info? (gosh, sounds so ambiguous, sorry). IOW, I’ll see this thru if that fits on your end. Simply do not know the expiration date to these posts.

    You ask several good Q’s. I’m okay with where they could be leading. My views on ‘the Cup’ were formed yrs ago by one Albert Martin (reformed Baptist pastor from NJ). Now i’m checking out those NT passages.

    My major employment has been in aquatic ecology and fishery biology. Yes, biblical stewardship has been a guiding principle for myself but the intersection you mention has too often been absent among my many colleagues. It’s possible that some held the interactions loosely but not vocally. The last ten yrs our focus has been ecosystem restoration, so you’re right on with the nexus.

  11. Dylan says:

    I’ve only had a few interactions with this TGC site over the years so I can’t be certain, but my experience so far is that they really don’t set an expiration on these posts. For instance, I engaged at length with a couple people on a post from 3 years ago, and the comments are still open to this day. It’s fairly rare I think for a site of this caliber and level of management to leave comments open pretty much indefinitely. I’m guessing that we probably need not worry in this case, but I don’t see why we couldn’t have a contingency in place for the off chance. Other than Facebook messaging, I’m kinda drawing a blank. If I gave you my name, you could likely find me… Slightly more secure than displaying an email address.

  12. Jeff says:

    I am not a theologian and, while I appreciate the great contributions theologians have made to the faith, I find that they have an insatiable desire to define everything, sometimes failing to see that God works in ways that we cannot define.

    Is it so wrong to simply say that Christ’s death was sufficient for the sin of the entire world but only effective for those who believe, and through faith (by the work of the Holy Spirit) are justified? This does not promote universalism, nor does it say that His atonement was limited in its ability to cover all sins (should all believe).

  13. Barry says:

    Dylan~
    Circling back to “the Cup given to Christ”: Seems that there are numerous literal and figurative refs to ‘the cup”. I found the following NT and several relevant OT passages –
    In the OT we see “the Cup of God’s Wrath” here: Jer 25:15-16, Isa 51:17, Jer 49:12, Lam 4:21, Ezek 23:31, and Rev 14:10
    Also, “Babylon was a gold cup in the Lord’s hands” Jer 51:7, Isa 51;22, Dan 2:32-43, Jer 25:15-16, 49:12.

    In no particular order, from the NT: As I veiwed these, Dylan, I was first reminded of the Passion movie. Jn 18;11 shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’ Mk 10:38, 45, 14:36 – Can you drink the cup I drink? etc The cup Jesus had to drink refers to divine punishment of sins that he bore in place of sinful mankind.
    Mat.20:22-23 ‘Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? And, you will indeed drink from my cup”. see Acts 12:2″James was put to death with the sword”, one of many fulfillments. Rev 1:9, 20:24.
    Mt 26:38 ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the pt of death”. v39 “My Father, if it ispossible may this cup be taken from me”. We know that Jesus was NO mere martyr. As the Lamb of God he bore the sins of the entire human race. God’s wrath was unleashed on him.
    Lk 22:42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done”.
    Lk 22:20 “This cup is the NC in my blood, which is poured out for you”. Repeated in 1 Cor 11:25. And in 1 Cor 10:21 ” you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and of demons too; you cannot have part in the Lord’s table and the table of demons”.
    This is probably not the full listing of scripture. I believe these do highlight the primary ways in which the Bible addresses ‘the Cup’. You will remember my initial cmt where this idea was linked with what I believe was a main purpose for the Lord’s Atonement.

  14. neville briggs says:

    The writer above, Sarah , has made the most insightful comment. I am looking here at very convoluted debating about theological concepts and I wonder what the value of this debate could be. Jesus chided the “theologians” of Judea by saying ” you search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life : ”

    It would seem that what the Lord wants is not expertise in theological primers, but He wants us ( any us ) to come to Him in faith and trust and He wants us to have life.
    Let’s send all those deep books to the paper recycle depot and let’s ” get a life ” , it’s about relationships; Jesus said so..

  15. Dylan says:

    Barry

    Thanks for taking the time to gather those passages…You went the extra mile with the OT references, for I had asked only for NT passages. Let’s dive into these then. First, a question about the OT passages. Given that all these OT passages speak of various people groups drinking from the cup of God’s wrath, is it your understanding that all these people groups, including Israel, did in fact drink from that cup and drink it to the full? Or do you see these passages as saying that all those people groups deserved the cup of God’s wrath, but haven’t actually drank from it yet?

    I have an observation or two about the use of the term ‘cup’ when comparing the OT with the NT. In virtually every instance in the OT, the cup is either identified explicitly by title with God’s wrath or is explicitly associated with God’s wrath. Looking at the NT passages however, with the exception of the Revelation texts, not a single instance connects ‘cup’ explicitly with God’s wrath. Just to clarify, I acknowledge the possibility of seeing an ‘implicit’ connection (obviously many Christians see an implicit connection)…But my point is that the connection isn’t even remotely explicit as that which we see in the OT passages. This is important from a hermeneutical standpoint, because we must strive to ascertain what is explicit in any particular text over and above what may or may not be implicit…In other words, be satisfied with what is plainly visible in the text.

    Another observation, one which your NT passages bear out rather well, is that there appear to be different cups for different situations. For instance there is the cup of the new covenant, which Christ shared with the disciples and also shares with us all. This is the cup of his blood, which he speaks of longing to drink and share. There is also the cup ‘of his Passion’, which is given to Christ from the Father. This cup is different, because we see that Christ fervently desired this cup to be taken away. My point here is that we must carefully see whether there be crucial distinctions within the text which dilineat one sort of thing from another sort.

    (More to come…)

    P.S. you may try looking me up on Facebook if you like…Dylan Caspari — Longmont CO

  16. Dylan says:

    Sarah and neville briggs

    Hopefully your thoughts are welcomed by all participating here. Please know that I feel what you feel. Mostly by virtue of the fact that I have engaged significantly with this post, it likely appears at first glance that my intent is to prove others wrong or show how my theology is more biblical or something like that. My hope rather is to demonstrate how complex theology and biblical interpretation is, to show how much of our particular theological distinctives is the result of rampant speculation rather than divine revelation, and to confront the notion that theological speculation should be the grounds for our divisions.

  17. Dylan says:

    Barry

    (Continued from previous)

    “The cup Jesus had to drink refers to divine punishment of sins that he bore in place of sinful mankind.”

    You make this statement immediately after referencing Mark chapter 10 and chapter 14. I’m not seeing any explicit connections with divine punishment for sins in those passages. Is it your position that the connection is explicit or simply implicit in these passages?

    It appears that you see the cup in chapter 10 as being the same cup in chapter 14. If that is your position, I agree with you, although I would say that the connection between the two texts is implicit, as in not plainly laid out. My point here is that we must continually be wary of our assumptions and be willing to evaluate them.

    Taking those two instances to be the same cup, we can test some ideas on what that particular cup represents. If we say the cup may represent the pouring out of God’s wrath, a question immediately arises: is this to mean that James and John were to share the wrath of God along with Christ? Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you answer by saying that James was himself executed, and that Jesus, far from being merely executed, suffered the wrath of God? I’m sorry if I haven’t understood your statements correctly. Let me know if I’m totally off your track.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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