Did Jesus Limit His Atonement to the Elect?
Before proceeding with the doctrine of Limited Atonement, I need to address some misconceptions about Unconditional Election. I wrote about this in my last post titled "Is Unconditional Election Biblical?"
God randomly elects individuals to salvation
The Bible does not teach that God's election of individuals to salvation is random, nor does it teach that it is made without reason. God's election of individuals to salvation is solely based on His purpose and will (Ephesians 1:5, 11; Romans 8:28; 2nd Timothy 1:9). The will of God is "good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).
God's election of individual to salvation violates human freedom (free will)
The sovereignty of God and human freedom form a profound mystery that no one on this side of heaven is ever going to completely understand. Yet both are affirmed in the scriptures. Here are some examples:
Exodus 7:3 (God's sovereignty) - “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt."
Exodus 8:32 (human freedom) - "But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go."
Proverbs 16:9 (God's sovereignty) - "The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps."
Ecclesiastes 10:2 (human freedom) - "A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left."
Acts 13:48 (God's sovereignty and human freedom) - "When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed."
Acts 16:14 (God's sovereignty and human freedom) - "A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul."
God elects some to heaven and others to hell
The Bible does not teach double election. Apart from God supernaturally working in the life of an unregenerate sinner, that person will never respond in faith to the gospel of Christ. Not only does their own sin nature prevent this from happening, but they are also blinded by the god of this world (Satan) from believing the gospel. This is evident in 2nd Corinthians 4:3-4 - "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." Paul tells us in Romans 1:18 - "For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Without God's grace and mercy in electing some individuals to salvation, we would all be receiving the justice that we deserve - eternity in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15) - because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). I discussed the extent of sin and its effects in "Is Unconditional Election Biblical?"
You don't need to share the gospel to the elect
A proper understanding of Unconditional Election promotes evangelism without fear of being unsuccessful or persecuted. We don't know who God elected to salvation - God does not identify them to us! God will use our presentation of the gospel, no matter how feeble it may seem, to bring his elect to faith in Christ.
Romans 1:16 - "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
Romans 10:14-17 - "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?” So, faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ."
Paul reminded the Corinthians "And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God" (1st Corinthians 2:1-5). Our marching orders are to share the gospel of Christ (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15).
God desires all people to be saved (1st Timothy 2:4)
He certainly does! And don't forget that God does not wish "for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2nd Peter 3:9). These and similar passages do not contradict the doctrine of Unconditional Election when contrasting the "passive or desired will of God" against the "decreed or predetermined will of God." The passive will of God includes things that He desires (all people to be saved) and wishes (none perish, and all come to repentance) but does not bring to pass. God is completely sovereign and all-powerful. He could bring about salvation to all people, no matter how evil and wicked they are, if that was His decreed will. It is not God's desire for people to sin, but He allows this as part of His decreed or predetermined plan. God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked; he would rather that they turn from their evil ways (Ezekiel 33:11). Yet, His predetermined plan tells us "But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (2nd Peter 3:7).
The word "atonement" is a noun which means "compensation, reparation, or payment for a wrong or injury." The word "expiation" is a verb which means the “act making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing.” The word "propitiation" is the "means of expiation." From the standpoint of scripture, atonement means "the reconciliation of God and mankind as accomplished by Christ Jesus through His suffering and death on the cross." Paul describes the atoning work of Jesus in Romans 3:24-25 and Romans 5:8-10 - "being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed"..."But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." The apostle John referred to Christ Jesus as "the propitiation for our sins" (1st John 2:2, 4:10).
The ongoing debate is this: did Christ atone for the sins of everyone who ever lived or is this atonement limited to those that God elected to salvation "before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4). I have struggled with this question for many years, and it wasn't until recently that I came to the conclusion that the atonement of Christ is limited to God's elect. I have also come to the conclusion that, no matter what position you take on this issue, we are still brothers and sisters in Christ. There is room to politely agree to disagree. There is no room to shame someone, especially a fellow believer, just because you don't agree on this, or any other doctrinal issue.
John 3:16 - Limited or Unlimited Atonement?
Chances are that you know John 3:16 very well. It was the very first passage I memorized as a new believer. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." If I sided with Unlimited Atonement, this would be the first verse I would go to. However, two very important things are derived from this passage:
Those who believe in the Son of God will have eternal life
Those who do not believe in the Son of God will perish
John 3:36 emphasizes that "the wrath of God abides" on those who don't believe. From this passage it starts becoming clear that the atonement of Christ is limited to those who believe.
But what about "For God so loved the world?" Doesn't the word "world" mean everyone who ever lived? The word "world" in the Greek is kosmos which means the "created world, the universe, all created things." This word generally refers to "all that exists." If we apply the word kosmos to the atonement of Christ, then does His atonement include "the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1), "vegetation, plants yielding seed, etc." (Genesis 1:11), and "cattle and creeping things and beast of the earth" (Genesis 1:24)? The answer is obviously no.
The term "whoever" limits the scope of Christ's atoning work on the cross to people. But who is "whoever believes" in reference to? We have a definitive answer to this question in Acts 13:48 - "When the Gentiles heard this (v44 - "the word of the Lord"), they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." Thus, "whoever believes" in John 3:16 is limited to those who "had been appointed to eternal life."
Not Everyone Will Be Saved
Universalism is the belief that "Jesus Christ is the savior of all humanity and that the entire human race is destined to join God in heaven after death." It teaches that "all religions are interconnected by universal beliefs and that each religion therefore contains valid aspects" (www.universalchurch.org). This belief system is the result of what happens when you take the doctrine of Unconditional Election to its extreme. Paul would condemn this as a false gospel - "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!" (Galatians 1:8-9). Various scriptures make it clear that many will be lost, not saved.
Daniel 12:2 - “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt."
Matthew 7:13-14 - "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
Matthew 7:22-23 - “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’"
Matthew 25:46 - “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
2nd Thessalonians 1:9 - "These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power."
Revelation 20:15 - "And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
When presented with the evidence presented up to this point, some of those who believe in Unlimited Atonement will agree that the atonement of Christ is limited to those who believe.
But What About These Verses?
There are several scriptures, along with John 3:16, that appear to teach Unlimited Atonement.
John 1:29 - "The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
John 6:51 - "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
John 12:32 - "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”
1st Timothy 2:5-6 - "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time."
Hebrews 2:9 - "But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone."
1st John 2:2 - "and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
How would you reconcile the verses above with the following verses?
Isaiah 53:12 - "Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death and was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many and interceded for the transgressors."
Matthew 20:28 - "just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Matthew 26:28 - "for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins."
Hebrews 9:28 - "so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him."
At first glance these two sets of scripture seem to be unreconcilable. The first set teaches that the atonement of Christ is unlimited - for all, for everyone, for those of the whole world. The second set teaches that the atonement of Christ is limited - for many - not everyone.
In John 1:29 John the Baptist said that Jesus (the Lamb of God) takes away the sin of the world. The Israelites used a lamb as a sacrifice during the Passover Feast which celebrated Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:42-51). In Isaiah 53:7 (prophesy about Jesus), Isaiah presents the "man of sorrows" (v3) as a sacrificial lamb being "led to slaughter." John the Baptist declared that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb whose death will serve as the deliverance of God's people from their sins. In Matthew 1:20-21 the angel told Joseph in a dream that Mary "will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” We could conclude that the atonement of Christ was limited to His people (Israel), but this would not hold up hermeneutically with the rest of scripture.
In John 12:32 Jesus said that He will draw all men to Himself yet in John 6:44 Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day." Jesus will draw all that the Father draws to Himself.
In 1st Timothy 2:4-5 Christ Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all yet in Matthew 20:28 Jesus said the Son of Man will give His life a ransom for many.
Hebrews 2:9 states that Jesus might taste death for everyone yet in Hebrews 9:28 we read Christ offered once to bear the sins of many.
It is important to recognize that the words "all" and "everyone" are often in the context of those who believe, who come to faith in Christ. A few examples are provided:
John 11:25-26 - "Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Romans 1:6 - "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
Romans 3:22 - "even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction."
Romans 10:4 - "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes."
2nd Thessalonians 1:10 - "when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed."
Thus, we can reasonably conclude that "all" and "everyone" does not include every person who as ever lived throughout the entire world. 1st John 5:19 states "We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one." Additionally, Satan, "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." If the world is under the power of Satan, then how can "all"/"everyone" be saved without God calling out of the world those who He predestined to "adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will" (Ephesians 1:5)?
We can also conclude that the atonement of Christ is limited to elect believers who were called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28, 2nd Timothy 1:9), who are born of the will of God (John 1:12-13), who had been appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48), who were once dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), and who were made alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:4).
When you take Unlimited Atonement to its logical conclusion, Christ atoned for the sins of those who do not believe, and then those who never believe are punished for those same sins in the eternal lake of fire! In other words, Christ died for all people but not everyone will be saved. Conversely, Limited Atonement states that Christ’s atonement was specifically for the elect and that it completely secured the salvation of those whom He died for. Jesus tells us in John 6:37, 39-40 - "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out... This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing but raise it up on the last day. “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth"
2nd Timothy 2:15
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture cited in this post is taken from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update.