Limited Atonement is not in the Bible

Hah! Got you! You're probably wondering what I'm going to say and about how Limited Atonement is wrong aren't you?

I'll state two apparently contradictory things here:

1. Limited Atonement is not backed up by Scripture
2. I believe in all five points of Calvinism, including Limited Atonement.

You see, it's a bit of a semantic trick. A few years ago I sat down and tried to nut out everything the Bible said about Limited Atonement - the idea being that I was looking for a verse that specifically tied the Atonement to Election.

And guess what? I couldn't find any.

Of course, the Bible is replete with verses that point out that God's people, the church, have their sins forgiven solely by the work of Christ on the Cross in his atoning death - what many theologians describe as "penal substitutionary atonement". There is no other way that a person may be forgiven.

And, of course, the Bible is also replete with verses that point out that it is ultimately God who chooses those who come to him. From the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 we see that dead people cannot choose to serve God unless they have been regenerated first. Because we are dead in our sins and incapable of responding to God's grace, God acts in our hearts through the Spirit. In other words, it is God who makes us Christians - a process that has been determined since the beginning.

Yet there are no Bible verses which link these two doctrines. Yes, God's people can only be fogiven through the Atonement; Yes, God's people have been elected from the beginning; No, Atonement and Election are not mentioned together.

The problem is that it is not Calvinists who created the term "Limited Atonement", but Arminians who forced them to through the Five articles of Remonstrance (specifically article 2):
That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer...

The article actually sounds quite good doesn't it? Nevertheless, Calvinists (not John Calvin himself, who was long dead when this problem arose) responded to these five articles with their own five, which includes the response to article 2 and is now called "Limited Atonement". These five points are now known as "The Five Points of Calvinism"

As I grappled with Limited Atonement, I came to the conclusion that it is the only possible outcome that results from the Bible's teaching on Atonement and Election - yet it is a conclusion that has no explicit Bible verse to back it up, and relies instead upon the logical outcomes of an analysis of two biblical doctrines. In a sense, Limited Atonement is similar to the doctrine of the Trinity in that it is a thoroughly biblical idea that results from a conglomeration of various doctrines. This analogy falls down, however, considering the overwhelming amount of biblical data for the Trinity (thus making it an essential feature of the Christian faith - denying the Trinity is essentially denying God, while denying Limited Atonement isn't as serious).

As such, if a Christian truly examines the scriptures and is convinced of the reality and truthfulness of both the Atonement and Election; and if that Christian should be presented with the idea of Limited Atonement; then that Christian will come to the conclusion that to deny Limited Atonement would be to deny either the Atonement or Election or both. In a sense, Limited Atonement is a "Litmus test" for the ability of a Christian to work out the logical result of two different (though obviously related) biblical doctrines.

I make the point that denial is the important thing to look at here, rather than acceptance. If a Christian should accept both the Atonement and Election then that is enough - even if that person does not know what Limited Atonement is. What is important is if that denial of Limited Atonement ends up denying something else in Scripture.

Let me get back to the Trinity. No Christian is apostate if they do not understand the Trinity. Denial of the Trinity, however, is a damnable offense. Again I will state that a denial of Limited Atonement does into fit into this class. (Denial of the Atonement is, however, quite a serious matter)

So what place does Limited Atonement have, especially in preaching and teaching? I think it's important for people to know, but I think it is far more important for people to understand the Atonement and Election. If the congregation have these two things right, then they'll accept Limited Atonement.

Moreover, when Christians begin to read verses like 1 John 2.2 and John 3.16, they may be led to question the extent of Christ's salvation, a process which could lead to Universalism. In trying to explain how the universal nature of God's gospel call fits in with his specific acts of election, Limited Atonement is an excellent teaching to follow.

From the Theosalient Department

© 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

FAQ about the author

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.


Jonathan Moorhead said...

Wow, no comments on this one?!

Craig Schwarze said...

Nup, no LA for me thanks Neil. I'm not even convinced Calvin believed LA - look at his comments on John 3:16.

I believe the atonement is universally sufficient, but only particularly efficient. Hope thats cleared everything up.

BTW, your namesake wrote a good review in SC this month...

One Salient Oversight said...


If you believe what you just posted above, then you believe in Limited Atonement. If you thought it was more than what you posted about, then perhaps you've had some strange idea of what LA is.

Is LA controversial? Heck yeah. I wouldn't want to live there...

Craig Schwarze said...

Part of the problem is there is no "official definition" of LA. But many (most) of the reformed proponents of LA I've read have defended limited sufficiency as well as limited efficiency.

Anyway, an easy test is to answer this question. Did Christ die for

a. the World
b. the Elect

I answer a.

Terry Rayburn said...

"Atonement" is a bad choice of words for what Jesus did in the New Covenent, for several reasons:

1. The Old Covenant uses the word "atonement" for a mere temporary covering of sins, through the blood sacrifice of animals. This can confuse the issue of the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

2. New Age mysticism uses the word "atonement" by splitting it into at-one-ment, referring to being "at one" with the "universal intelligence", sometimes called God.

3. It brings thoughts of "extent" of atonement, rather than "purpose" of atonement. In other words, I never met any Calvinist who wouldn't agree that the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross wouldn't be enough payment for all the world if that was God's intention. But it wasn't His intention, and that's why Limited Atonement is true.

But the terminology is it's own worst enemy.

I've found that if the better term "Particular Redemption" is used for the "L" in T.U.L.I.P., it helps those who start out enemies of Limited Atonement to become friends of it.

Why? Because they can see God's PURPOSE in Particular Redemption, that is, to save His people from their sins. And they don't have to immediately deal with the "Limited" concept, which looks like it's limiting the awesome price that was paid.

Obviously, I don't expect to expunge "atonement" from all the theology books dealing with the Cross, but in one's daily dealing with Arminians, if we want to actually persuade them and not just win a debate, it's helpful to use "Particular Redemption".

It saves an unnecessary battle, sometimes, and puts the emphasis where it belongs.

Terry Rayburn
Grace For Life