In a recent post, by a fellow Patheos blogger, titled “Did Jesus Die Only To Save His Favorite? (The Calvinist Heresy of Limited Atonement),” Benjamin Corey argues the calvinistic doctrine of Limited Atonement is unbiblical. He doesn’t stop there, he adds words like “insane” and “heresy” to his list of eye-brow raising descriptions. His argument is underwhelming and mostly unsupported (citing only 2 verses and satirical children’s poem).
The title of the article alone, specifically the use of the word “favorites,” leaves me wondering if he really understands calvinism at all. The idea that God saves someone because they are His “favorites” is a gross misrepresentation of what every reformer ever taught. Not to mention, the ease by which he tosses around substantial terms like “heresy” is concerning. It’s one thing to represent an idea or doctrine accurately and then contend against it (I think Dr. Roger Olsen does this well), it’s another to misrepresent and overstate for shock value and social media attention. This is not terminology one should toss around like darts, especially when you miss the mark by so much.
In my response, I will attempt to be as brief as possible, but I think that will prove difficult. The atonement of Christ is not a doctrine you can sum up or refute in a couple verses. Like most things in Scripture, it’s both simple and complex. It requires contemplation, thoughtfulness, and prayer. A single blog post will likely come across as recondite and lacking. Yet, my hope is it will point some in the right direction and generate some helpful thinking for future study, contemplation, and dialogue.
From the outset, let me say it plainly, as this statement is often missing from discussions on Limited Atonement: Limited Atonement is stunningly beautiful. It is a large jewel in the crown of historic Christian doctrines. For generations, men have reverentially marveled over the implications of a Limited Atonement. And (while abrasive at first), when rightly understood, it throws open a door to a deep river of grace that you may swim your entire life.
If this a topic new to you, or something you are oppose to, I ask you to try and set aside your presuppositions and look at this topic with fresh eyes.
What is Limited Atonement? The term limited atonement is a poor descriptive. It suggests to some that God was limited or restrained in His atonement efforts. Which is not the case! If I am honest, I think the term better describes the Arminian point of view. A preferable term would be Definite Atonement or Particular Atonement. Meaning, God the Father, in His infinite wisdom, designed that although the death of Jesus Christ is sufficient to atone for the sins of the entire world, the atonement of Christ’s death would work itself out fully in the elect only, thereby bringing them to salvation without fail.
“Arminians pretend, very speciously, that Christ died for all men, yet, in effect, they make him die for no one man at all.” ― John Owen, The Death of Christ
Is Limited Atonement (Definite Atonement) Scriptural? Yes, it is. While you might not agree with the interpretation, the concept was not created out of thin air. Below is an extensive list of verses often used to support the idea that Christ died effectually for a particular group of people, His church, and that God is sovereign over salvation/men’s will.
There are probably more listed here than needed, but the point is to establish that not only is the concept of a Definite Atonement present in the Bible, but it is prevalent throughout all of Scripture. Verses are presented in the ESV (English Standard Version). Emphasis added is mine.
- Deuteronomy 29:4 – “But to this day, the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”
- Joshua 11:20 – “For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy, just as the LORD commanded Moses.”
- Isiah 53:12b – “yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercessions for the transgressors.”
- Matthew 13:10-11 – “Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And He answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
- Matthew 1:21 – “She will bear a son, and you shall his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
- Matthew 20:28 – “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
- Matthew 22:14 – “For many are called, but few are chosen”
- Luke 13:23-24 – “And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
- John 1:12-13 – “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God”
- John 5:21 – “…so also the Son gives life to whom he wills”
- John 6:37 – “All that the Father gives to me will come to me. And whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
- John 6:44 – “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws Him”
- John 6:65 – “And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
- John 10:11 – “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
- John 10:15 – “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I lay my life down for the sheep”
- John 10:26-27 – “But you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
- John 12:39-40 – “Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart…’”
- John 13:1 – “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world…”
- John 15:16 – “You did not choose me, but I chose you…”
- John 17:9 – “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”
- Acts 13:48 – “And when the gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
- Romans 9:15 – “For he says Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So, then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.”
- Galatians 1:4 – “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of the Father.”
- Ephesians 1:4 – “Even as he chose us in his before the foundation of the world”
- Ephesians 2:8 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
- Ephesians 5:25 – “Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
- 2 Thessalonians 2:11 – “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false”
- Titus 2:14 – “[Chris], who gave himself for us to reed us from all lawlessness…”
- Hebrews 9:28 – “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many…”
- Revelation 17:8 – “The beast that you sawwas, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.”
“Rather we say that in the cross, God had in view the actual, effective redemption of his children from all that would destroy them, including their own unbelief. And we affirm that when Christ died particularly for his bride, he did not simply create a possibility or an opportunity for salvation, but really purchased and infallibly secured for them all that is necessary to get them saved, including the grace of regeneration and the gift of faith.” – John Piper, Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace
Why does a definite atonement matter? It matters because it means Jesus accomplished what Jesus meant to accomplish. At the heart of this debate is the question, what was accomplished on the cross? In other words, did Jesus accomplish His mission fully or is the act only mostly complete?
The calvinist argues that when Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross, He meant it. He secured a salvation for those for whom He died. Therefore, Paul says that nothing can separate us (Christians) from the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38), because the work that has been done by God, cannot be undone. I am reminded of Isaiah 43:13, “From eternity to eternity I am God. No one can snatch anyone out of my hand, No one can undo what I have done.”
You may argue (as Mr. Corey does) that Jesus’ death on the cross simply made salvation available for all. But, consider some implications about what you are saying. That would mean that no one was saved on the cross; The work of salvation was not finished and we must complete the act of salvation by exerting our wills. Jesus did 99% of the work, but we must do something to make up the 1% that’s missing and complete the act of salvation. You may borrow the analogy of Jesus opening a door that we might walk through, but scripture is clear we are saved by grace apart from works (Ephesians 2:1-10).
To dig a little deeper on the significance of the cross, reflect for a moment on the events that took place shortly after Jesus died on the cross. If you recall, we see cosmic things taking place. We have earthquakes, eclipses, and curtains in the temple torn from top to bottom. We even have dead rising!
Scripture is clear that these events are happening because death is being defeated and the wall that divided man from God is falling. In His death, Christ bridged the chasm that once separated us from a holy God. It’s done; He accomplished that! He didn’t just extend an invitation and hope some would respond. He secured it. The cross of Christ is arguably the most crucial and central point in all human history, and the grandeur of the events surrounding it indicate that Jesus didn’t just open a door, He tore down a wall of hostility and eternally secured for Himself a people.
The other side to this coin is that if Jesus died for the world and some never will come to faith, it could be argued that Jesus’ blood was spilled in vain; this, my friends, is a limited atonement. It’s a view of the atonement that is weak and lacks effectiveness.
The cross happened exactly as “God’s set plan and foreknowledge” intended (Acts 2:23) it to happen. This is great news! If our souls were left in our own hands and doors were simply opened, no one would walk through. Our hearts are too easily charmed by the world to distinguish the beauty of the cross set before us. God must save or no one will come.
Here is a concise exegetical defense of “particular redemption” in the book of John. Please follow the train of thought to the end. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37) – From this text we understand that all that the Father gives to the Son will believe in him. It does not read “some” of those given by the Father will believe but reads “all” of those the Father has given the Son will believe. Note that it also teaches that the giving to the Son precedes their believing in Him. Let’s make some other connections here …. Please notice how this text relates directly to a passage by the same author in John 17, the High Priestly prayer. Jesus uses the same language of “those the Father has given me” when he says “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9) So he makes a clear distinction of those He prays for and those He does not before going to the cross for them …. and of these same people in verse 19 Jesus prays “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” That is incredible … He sanctifies Himself so those the Father has given him will also be sanctified … and in verse 34 he establishes that he further is speaking not only of the immediate disciples but of others who the father has “given him” who hear their word. This exegetically demonstrates the truth of particular redemption, especially since Jesus is praying for all those the Father has given him just prior to going to the cross to sanctify them. – John Hendryx
Why is a definite atonement beautiful? I do not deny there is an offense to the doctrine of particular atonement; but let’s not forget that the gospel is offensive. If your doctrine of salvation has no offense to it at all, I suggest you look to see if it’s the gospel you are preaching.
A definite atonement is offensive because it reminds us that we are nothing and we contribute nothing to our salvation. Its offensive because, without proper understanding, it makes God’s seem unfair and unjust. To borrow from Mr. Corey’s title, it could seem as if God has “favorites”. However, as I contented earlier, this is simply not true and caricature of what calvinism and reformed theology teaches. I will respond more to this later.
So why then would a definite atonement be beautiful? One could write volumes answering this question. But, let me give one anecdote from the Apostle Paul. In his book of Ephesians, Paul uses the marriage illustration to help communicate to us the love that Christ has for the church. In chapter 5, he teaches that “Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church” (Eph. 5:25). Reflect for a moment on this analogy and unique love that exists between husbands and wives.
As a married person, do we expect our spouse to love our neighbors the same way they love us? Certainly not! It would be terrible thing if a spouse loved someone else the same way they are called to love their spouse. Yet, people everywhere claim that Christ loves the entire world the same way He loves the church. I am not denying a general benevolence and grace towards mankind as whole; God does love the world. But, this is not the same love that flows out into and towards the Church by means of the Holy Spirit! His love for His sheep is special, unique, and effectual. It calls us from death to life and sustains us.
To think that I am just one person in the billions of people that Christ died for is underwhelming. But to consider that Christ was “numbered with the transgressors” and on that day, Christ personally died for every one of my sins is awe-inspiring. He loves me differently, perfectly and uniquely. Not because I am one of His favorite but because it pleases Him (consider, Isaiah 43:25, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”). God knows the depths of heart intimately and because of this, He intercedes for me personally and effectively. My salvation is tied to Christ’s work and hope is anchored on the other side. That is a beauty that I will spend eternity trying to wrap my head around.
Another point worth making is that if Christ did secure salvation for His people on the cross, it gives us hope for missions. If a man’s salvation purely rests on us convincing them that the bible is true, we have little hope of reaching those in the worst of place (North Korea, Iran, etc.…), if any at all. But if we go to those places knowing that some of Christ’s sheep are there and they will respond to the call, it can give us the courage and boldness needed to preach light into the darkest of places. It’s a miracle, in and of itself, that God would even want to use us to preach His gospel; “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (Isaiah 52:7).
The sin of Adam did not make the condemnation of all men merely possible; it was the ground of their actual condemnation. So the righteousness of Christ did not make the salvation of men merely possible, it secured the actual salvation of those for whom He wrought.” – Charles Hodge
What about verses that seems to say Christ died for the world? For this last section I will respond directly to the verses Mr. Corey chose to build his strawman argument. In his article, he presents 2 verses to make the case that Definite Atonement is unbiblical and heresy. Those verses are:
- 1 John 2:2 – “(Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but also for the sins of the whole world”
- 1 Timothy 2:3-6 – ““This is good, and pleases God our Savior,who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”
Let’s start with 1 John 2:2. This can be a problematic verse for some, because at-a-glance it seems like it directly contradicts many of the verses above. But, a brief study of context and authorship clears things up rather easily.
For some reason, when we read the bible it can be easy to forget that the person who wrote the book (while inspired by God) still has personality, trends, traits, and uniqueness that comes through in their writings. You can read a letter written by Paul and find phrasing and wording like that of other letters he has authored. With this in mind, let’s look at some of other places where John addresses atonement.
In Revelation 5:9, he says that Jesus “redeemed people for God out of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.” Here he makes the point that salvation was no longer just for the Jews, but for all types of peoples. (Side note: take notice that John speaks of the atonement as a completed event. Jesus has already done this).
Perhaps a better example comes out of the gospel of John. Here we find a parallel of what is described in the 1 John verse. John 11:51-52 reads, “he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” The same pattern of wording, from the same author.
John is not saying in 1 John that Jesus provided atonement for every person in the world. But rather, His atonement was not just for the sins of the Jews, but for the sins of people all over the world. If Jesus did provide atonement for everyone in the world, that would mean that no one (past, present, future) would be punished for their sins. How could Jesus be punished and then they also be punished for the same sins? This would be unjust and makes sense. The same man who wrote the 1 John 2:2 verse, also wrote, “Whoever believes in the Son eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36).
Now, let’s briefly look at the 1 Timothy verse. As you might expect, the same reasoning used on our 1 John verse applies here. Seeing this is rather easy if you back up and read the few verses surrounding it. It reads, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Right away, it’s easy to see what Paul means here. He is urging that supplications, prayers, and intercessions be for “all people” and then goes to elaborate on different classes of people, naming kings. These things of God are not reserved for one type of person, but for all types and classes of people.
In closing, while often ridiculed and reviled the doctrine of limited atonement, or definite atonement, remains one of the pillars of the Christian theology. It is a doctrine of rich beauty and sweetness to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. One blog post could not cover all aspects or questions, but I do pray this can be a conversation starter.