An Attempt to Understand Limited Atonement
Limited atonement refers to the particular love of God in unconditionally electing some totally depraved sinners to salvation, but not others. It is the belief that Christ’s death on the cross as atonement for sin is only limited to the elect – only those who are elected would be saved. For the elect, Christ’s death on the cross has the effect of awakening them to spiritual life. They were by nature dead in sin, and completely and totally unable to turn to God or understand spiritual things. Yet Christ died for them and through this great work of sacrifice, brought them spiritual life. Because of this, the elected persons would eventually come to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour in the course of their life. They would also accept that Christ’s death on the cross was an atonement for their sins and that because of His death, they are now clothed in His righteousness when appearing before God (Romans 3:25-26).
In Reformed circles, we often hear the slogan “Christ’s death was sufficient for all, but only effectual for some”, and this is something that both helps and hinders our understanding of the doctrine of limited atonement. In a sense, it is true that Christ’s death is sufficient for all. In fact, this is the most natural reading of familiar passages of scripture (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 1:15; 4:10; 1 John 2:2). Christ’s death on the cross is of infinite value. There is no maximum number of persons that His sacrifice on the cross can pay for. Even if the whole world were to confess their sins and ask Him to be their Lord and Saviour, Christ’s work on the cross is more than enough to purchase salvation for all of them.
However, to stop here is insufficient for a full understanding of the doctrine of Limited Atonement. The more astute reader may begin to see some contradictions between “sufficient for all, effectual for some”, and the other tenets of Calvinism. If Christ’s death on the cross merely makes it possible for everyone in the world to be saved, then the responsibility falls on the individual sinner to choose to accept Christ as Lord and Saviour. Yet, we know that man is totally depraved – he cannot choose to accept Christ when he is dead in sin. Furthermore, we also know that it is not man who chooses – it is God who unconditionally elects. The natural man is spiritually dead and will never choose to accept Christ, and while the elect man has to be given spiritual life before he “chooses” Christ and be saved. In other words, it is God who does the choosing. Even though Christ’s death can pay for all of mankind, God has “limited” the scope of Christ’s atonement for sin – He has chosen to only elect and redeem some.
At this point, some of us may feel a sense of unease. How can God profess to love the world and yet only choose to save some of it? Well, we need to understand that Christ’s love for the world is in a general sense. In the same way that God loves mankind and provides for them things relating to common grace (i.e. rain that waters the earth, food that feeds both Christians and non-Christians equally well), the offer to believe in Christ is also provided genuinely and freely to all mankind. At the same time, God has a particular love for His elect. Even though God has a general love for the world, in John 10:15, we see clearly that He (the second person of the Trinity) chooses to specifically lay down his life for His sheep (a subset of the world). Similarly, in 1 Timothy 4:10 we see that while God is the Saviour of all men, He is especially so of those that believe. It is this particular love that God has for His elect that makes salvation “effectual for some”. In His particular love for His elect, He gives them spiritual life, causing them to “choose” to accept Christ as Lord and Saviour.
In a nutshell, a better slogan would be “Christ’s death was sufficient for all – demonstrating His general love for man, but only effectual for some – demonstrating His particular love for the elect”. This would provide us with a fuller understanding of the doctrine of Limited Atonement, even though it is, admittedly, less catchy.
Dear Reader, one thought that struck me consistently as I sought to write this article was how the idea of “sufficient for all” became more and more practically meaningless. What use is there in understanding that Christ’s sacrifice was enough to pay for the sins of the whole world and yet was not used to do so? If God had already chosen the elect from the beginning of time, then what was the point of making so explicit the understanding that Christ’s death could pay for more than just this elect? Why go so far as to explain in detail this hypothetical “what-if” that was obviously not part of God’s plan and would never happen? I must confess, I was tempted at times to just write “This whole idea of ‘sufficient for all’ is moot. Let’s just focus on understanding what it means for Christ’s death to be ‘effectual for some’.” Upon reflection, I have realised that there is practical value in understanding Limited Atonement as a whole. It allows us to better appreciate the five points of Calvinism as they are inextricably linked together.
Firstly, understanding Limited Atonement helps us to better comprehend the total depravity of man. Even though the wonderful gift of salvation is given to all of us freely, no man is able to accept that gift. Man is so totally depraved and sinful that we would not even consider salvation a good gift apart from the working of God in our hearts! Although the joys of sinning pale in comparison to the joy of salvation, men are inexorably drawn back to sin – because of our innate depravity. Man is dead, and it is only the Holy Spirit that can give life to dry bones (Ezekiel 37) and sinful men.
Secondly, understanding that God has a particular love for His elect complements the doctrine of Unconditional Election. This should exhort us to greater efforts in growing closer to Him. Perhaps you are at a nadir in your Christian life – you may be wallowing in self-indulgence and wilful sin. It is time to realise that God has a special love for you that He does not have for some others in the world, even though there is absolutely nothing that you have done nor can do to differentiate yourself from them. This should bring you to your knees and turn back to Him, thanking Him that He loves you no matter how unlovable you are. Or perhaps, you may be dealing with a non-Christian friend, colleague, or teacher who is really difficult to love. Similarly, you ought to realise that in God’s eyes you were even more unlovable. Yet, He loved you for no reason other than the fact that He chose to love you. You have been given the privilege of being specially chosen and loved by God, He loves you even more than He loves the world in a general sense. May the awareness of this encourage us to stay closer to Him each day.
On a separate note, some of us may find the doctrine of Limited Atonement difficult to accept because it implies that sinners have no choice but to be eternally punished for their sins. Intellectually, we may understand the arguments for this. We may even be aware of many supporting arguments that are doctrinally sound. For instance, we know that it is perfectly just that sinners be punished for their sins, and we know that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Yet, we find it hard to reconcile the idea of a loving God with a God who would choose to limit His atonement to the elect. Even though we know and agree that the doctrine of Limited Atonement is theologically sound, we may somehow find it unpalatable and difficult to accept. Dear Friends, this could be a subtle symptom of pride. It may not be the kind of pride that thinks “I am better than others”. Rather, it may be a kind of collective pride that seeks to suggest that mankind in general is the most important being in the universe. Because we subconsciously have this wrong idea of the role that man is supposed to play in the world, it feels “wrong” for God to just choose to save some and not others. Furthermore, it may feel even more “wrong” when we are aware that all this is out of man’s control. Worldly influence, nation-level propaganda, and international movements may cause us to subconsciously believe a collective worldview that puts man in the centre of the universe. Constantly, we are implicitly presented with the message to do things for the “collective good of mankind”. Yet, we ought to remember that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Man is not the centre of the universe, God is. Whilst we may struggle to accept the doctrine of Limited Atonement, let us pray for submission and humility.
Lastly, we may oft be worried about the state of the souls of our loved ones. In the past, we may have tried our hardest to evangelise to them. We may have prayed for them over many years and wept buckets of tears over the hardness of their hearts. Yet, we can have comfort that as we continue to reach out to them, we can do so with the confidence that God’s will is perfect, and He will, in His perfect time, irresistibly draw them who are His. May this encourage us to continue reaching out to all our loved ones and friends.