Welcome back. Today we talk about limited atonement, by asking the question: For whom did Christ die? What is the extent of his atoning work? Did he die for the elect only? Or did he die for every human who would ever live? In other words, was the atoning death of Christ limited, or was it unlimited?
So we have this question from Vincent in Japan: “Hello Pastor John! As you know, Calvinists/Reformed theology majors on the theme of God’s glory. So my question is, how does limited atonement make much of the majesty of Jesus when it is called limited? I understand that we sinned against an infinitely holy God and therefore need an infinite, atoning sacrifice. How is this reconciled with the doctrine of limited atonement? Isn’t an un-limited atonement more profoundly glorious?”
Let’s start with a celebration of an amazing book published three years ago called From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective with 23 essays — all answering that question. I would hope that our questioner would go and find the book. So, Vincent, look it up. It is really worth the effort.
You can see what the editors of that book did. They did not use the word limited atonement. They used the word, the phrase definite atonement, not limited, because Vincent is right that on the face of it limited atonement sounds like God is held back or limited in some way from doing the really great thing. But, in fact, both sides in this debate limit the atonement, only in different ways. And the question is: When they are both said and done, is definite atonement a more glorious act than the one supported by unlimited atonement? So, let’s start with a definition of atonement. I don’t assume that everybody knows even that word.
The atonement is the work of God in Christ through Christ’s obedience and death and resurrection by which he canceled the debt of our sin, removed or absorbed the holy wrath of God against us, and secured for us all the benefits of salvation — even eternal life. That is the atonement: the work of God in Christ to achieve all of that. So, the atonement is the work of God to deal with our sin, to deal with this wrath through the work of Christ so that we could have eternal life. Both sides limit this action. Let me see if I can explain.
Those who support so-called unlimited atonement limit the effectiveness of the atonement. They deny that it effectively secures the salvation of any particular persons. Or, to say it another way, they deny that the blood of Jesus secured the promises of the new covenant; namely, that God would take out of his people the unbelieving heart of stone, put in a new, believing heart of flesh, and cause them to walk in God’s ways. Now, those who espouse definite atonement affirm all of that; namely, that the death of Christ did effectively secure the complete, eternal, full salvation of God’s elect, the bride of Christ, including the fulfillment of the promises of the new covenant to take out of each one of his chosen people the heart of stone, put in a new, believing heart, and cause us to walk in his statutes. The blood of Jesus, the atonement, secured that absolutely, effectively, perfectly for all of God’s elect.
Let me try to explain this with some texts. It says in Luke 22:20 that Christ took the cup — this is at the Lord’s Supper — after they had eaten saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Matthew 26:28 says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In other words, right at the heart of the atonement, the shedding of the blood of Jesus is God’s design to purchase, secure, obtain what was promised in the new covenant. That is what it means when it says, This blood of mine is the new covenant (Jeremiah 31–32; Ezekiel 19; 36; Deuteronomy 6). He is purchasing and obtaining and securing absolutely, infallibly the promises of the new covenant for his people.
What was promised in the new covenant? It was not just an offer of salvation for those who would produce faith on their own, but rather the very gift of faith was purchased. The transformation that made faith a reality was secured in the atonement for the beneficiaries of the new covenant. In other words, a new heart was purchased for God’s people in the atonement. This is more than the purchase of a possibility. This is more than the purchase of an offer of salvation. This is the real purchase for God’s people of God’s sovereign work to take out the heart of stone and put in the new, believing heart of flesh. Nobody would believe if that hadn’t been bought for them.
Here is the way it is said in Ezekiel 36:26–27: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” This is one of the ways that the new covenant is greater than the old covenant. God works decisively and sovereignly to fulfill the promises of the new heart: new obedience in the lives of his people. He doesn’t leave it to so-called free will. He overcomes the bondage of the will to sin, gives us the gift of faith, puts in a new heart, grants repentance, and causes us to walk in his ways. This is, therefore, a definite, decisive, particular achievement of the cross for the people of God, the elect, the bride of Christ. If this were done for everybody, everybody would be saved, because it is effectual. But we know from Scripture everyone is not saved.
So, if you asked me, “Did Christ die for everyone?” the answer is, “Christ died for everyone, but not everyone in the same way.” He died for everyone without distinction in John 3:16, in that sense: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” — in what sense “for the world”? — “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is because of the atonement that that is possible. You can say that to everybody. In other words, God gave his Son for the world in such a way that whoever believes in him would have eternal life; that is, in such a way that the offer can be made to everybody in every people group in every family in every neighborhood — it can be made without any distinction or without any hesitation. If you believe on Jesus, you will have eternal life.
And the reason this is so is that Christ purchased a full and complete and effective and eternal, infallible salvation for the bride of Christ, and everyone who believes is part of that bride. This is what we offer people when we do evangelism, which we should do every day. We say: There is a complete and full and effective redemption for the people of God. It is already secured, already full, already complete. We invite you to receive Christ. And with him, you receive everything that he bought for his people. So, we are offering Christ to people and the full, complete salvation that he bought for his people, for those who are in him. But this means that Christ died for his bride and he loves his people in a particular and definite way that is different from all the world, just like I love my wife different from all the women that I love in another way.
So, in answer to Vincent’s question, “Isn’t an unlimited atonement more profoundly glorious?” the answer is, “No.” Because that so-called unlimited atonement, if it existed, which it doesn’t, would leave everybody in bondage to sin, because no triumphant grace that takes out the heart of sin and stone and purchases redemption and a new heart, none of that would be provided. And the decisive act of faith that saves us wouldn’t be a gift bought by the blood of Jesus. Nobody would be grafted into the vine, because that only happens because they were purchased by the blood according to the new covenant.
On the other hand, definite atonement is glorious because it accomplishes more, not less, which is why we claim that unlimited is more than limited. No, definite atonement is more glorious because it accomplishes more, not less than the so-called unlimited atonement. It not only purchases a genuine offer to the whole world in terms of John 3:16, but goes beyond the offer and actually accomplishes the triumph over unbelief and hardness of heart and brings to pass salvation and all the purposes of God that depend on it.