Before we can ask what is “limited atonment” in todays’ climate of doubt regarding our theories of the atonement, including accusing people like me of propounding a theory of cosmic child abuse we need to start by defining the very idea of the atonement before moving to whether it is limited or not.
The atonement is simply another word for Christs death, bit it is a word that links his death to the removal of sin in the way that has been classically understood- the removal of sin. The penal substitutionary view of the atonement simply means that Jesus died to take a punishment or penalty (ie penal) he died to substitute himself (ie to take out place) and he died to bear the wrath of God.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself….For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.? (2 Cor 5:19,21)
Why did Christ need to become sin? So he could justly be punished for sin. Why was that necessary? Because it was the only way that God could be right to let us off the hook.
For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Everyone has sinned. Romans 1 makes it clear that God really does have wrath against sin, and I for one cannot accept this notion some people have that he can simply pretend it never happened!
God does freely give us a gift but this passage makes clear that this gift came at a cost – everyone who has had to “redeem” a loan knows that this word “redemption” is to do with cost. What is the cost? It is a propitiation which can be translated a turning away of wrath.
God shows that he doesnt simply pass over sins, but does something about them. He shows that he is not like the unjust judge who lets everyone off declaring them not guilty when they are guilty.
The only way this passage makes sense is that sin has a penalty to pay, a consequence if you like. That God cannot be holy and overlook this, and that somehow in Jesus death that penalty is taken away.
Now I have that off my chest, what does it mean “limited atonement”
Well lets say what I believe it doesn’t mean
-It DOESN’T mean that Jesus death was not sufficiently powerful that everyone could have been saved
-It doesnt nullify the gospel offer that “as many as will” repent will be saved.
-It doesnt mean that some people are damned from before time began simply because God didn’t like them
-It doesnt mean we should only preach to people we believe are “elect”
-It doesn’t mean that Jsus death had no value to unbelievers. The fact that God can be patient with sin and still be just is because of Jesus death. The fact that God can graciously keep sinners alive and during their time on earth they can enjoy anything in life is a mark of the “general” grace of God also bought by Jesus’ death on the cross.
My view of the limited atonement is that it was sufficient for all, but not efficient for all. In other words that whilst it is probably OK to say that Jseus died for the sins of the whole world, in another sense he died particularly for me, and knew that it was for me that he was going through this. Jesus death was not in vain, and could never have been in vain. God would make sure of that.
In one sense limited atonement is the easiest of the TULIPs to accept if we simply take it to mean that although Jesus death could have saved everyone, it in fact will not. If you don’t believe this, then you are a universalist. Limited atonement really only says that Jesus blood is not applied to every person who has ever lived.
“We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim 4:10)