Limited (Definite) Atonement

January 1, 2007

This point in the Five Points of Calvinism is most likely the most misunderstood, misapplied, and controversial point of the Five Points. Arminianism and Calvinism differ so vastly at this point in doctrine that no compromise can be made without compromising on another point elsewhere. Christ’s atonement either atoned for some partially, or for all completely.

One of the key points to remember the title Limited Atonement is the word ‘Limited’. When Calvinists refer to limited, we are referring to the scope, or size of the atonement. Arminians refer to limited a slightly different way, in that Christ’s atonement was limited in that the power, or effect, of Christ’s atonement. Calvinism limits the intent of the atonement, and Arminians limit the power and effect of the atonement.

When Christ died on the cross, He did not merely suffer for our sins, and give us partial merit to enter God’s Kingdom. He died for our sins and gave the elect complete merit to enter into God’s Kingdom. This merit to enter the Kingdom is only found in the righteousness of Christ, and that righteousness is only given to those who have been elected unto salvation, and convicted of their sins by the Holy Spirit, and caused to repent, and brought to the knowledge of the saving and atoning work of Christ.

Charles Spurgeon once said, “I had rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody…” This is a wonderful explanation for the difference of Calvinism and Arminianism views on atonement. Either Christ atoned for everyone partially, or for everyone totally. There is no gray area when it comes to the views on atonement. They are black and white. They cannot co-exist.

When it comes to the defense of these views of atonement, Arminians turn directly to passages in Scripture that contain the words all, whole, or whole world. These passages define the argument for them, and tell them that Christ obviously died for all men. For example, they may point to a passage like this one:

Luke 2:10– “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.’ ”

John 3:16– “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Both of these passages define the argument for Arminians, but here lies the problem. They firmly hold that the words all, all the people, and the world truly mean every single person on the face of the planet that lived, is living, or will live. If this kind of logic is applied to the rest of Scripture, we see some strange and incomprehensible passages. For example:

John 12:19– “So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

Do the Pharisees mean that every single person has gone after Christ? Of course not! If it did, then Christians wouldn’t exist, and Christianity as a whole would not exist either. This universal term here is applied in a particular fashion

Here is another example:
Luke 2:1– “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

If the word world truly means every single person, this is illogical. Were the Chinese people taxed? Were the Incas or Mayans taxed? This is referring to the Roman Empire, not the whole world universally.

The passages that Arminians refer to when they speak of the atonement of Christ also have the same problem. The meanings of these words all, whole, and whole world must have their definitions and referrals based upon the context, of the passage they are from, to whom they were written, and compare it to the rest of Scripture.

As stated above, these universal terms are used in a particular way. These figures of speech are still used today. Dr. D. James Kennedy explained this fact very well (and slightly humorously) in The Apologetics Group’s video
Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism:

“We all say ‘all’, all of the time when don’t mean it. No we don’t. Some people never say ‘all’… they speak Chinese. You don’t say ‘all’, all of the time either when you mean it or when you don’t mean it, there is some time that you sleep. There is some time that you eat. There is some time when you say other things. You really don’t say ‘all’, all of the time, do you? And so therefore these [Arminians] don’t understand this figurative use of language. There are over 600 different species of figures of speech found in the Bible. And they are found in most any large novel, or even a big newspaper, you will find them, they are everywhere! No they are not. They are not everywhere. They are here,…and there,…and the other place. You see, we do that all the time and we don’t even realize we are doing it. No we don’t do it all the time. You see, if I called you every time you used a universal word, and you didn’t mean it universally, I would be have to stop you all of the time. No I wouldn’t…”

Now, this doesn’t mean that all, whole, and whole world are never to be taken literally. Again, the basis for the meanings of these words must be based on context, context, context! If the context makes it clear the terms are not used universally, then they are not universal.
Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism
Steele, Thomas, and Quinn. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented

Part 2

The question may now arise as whether or not Scripture says that only many, or some are atoned for. Does it? The answer is without question, yes! God throughout Scripture says many, rather than all, are elected, called, and atoned for. For example:

Isaiah 53:11-12– “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors;yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

Matthew 20:28– “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Revelation 5:9– “And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,’ ”

Here is says “Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” It does not say that everyone in every tribe and tongue and people and nation. It is referring to a specific and smaller group of people that does not include everyone in the world

John 10:11– “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”

Christ lay down His life for the sheep. He did not give His life for the wolves, and the goats, and the sheep. Only the sheep are the ones who benefit from the death of Christ. Not only does Christ say that He died for the sheep, but He prays only for the sheep, and not the rest of the world. If the sheep refers to every single person as the Arminian argument implies, than why is hell not empty?

David Steele, in his book The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, explains the difference of the limitations set by the Arminians and Calvinists:

“Since not all men will be saved as the result of Christ’s redeeming works, a limitation must be admitted. Either the atonement was limited in that it was designed to secure salvation for certain sinners, but not for others, or it was limited in that it was not intended to secure salvation for any, but was designed only to make it possible for God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe. In other words, one must limit its design either in extent (it was not intended for all) or in effectiveness (it did not secure salvation for any).”

I mentioned in Part 1 of Limited (Definite) Atonement of the difference of the Arminians and Calvinists limiting of the atonement, as Mr. Steele has done here. You also may have noticed the title which includes ‘Definite’. This is because Definite defines the Calvinist’s view of the atonement in a slightly easier fashion. Christ’s atonement was definite in that it definitely atoned for all of the sins of the elect, and not for merely some of the sins for all people.

You can even go so far as to call the third point of TULIP Limited Definite Atonement, which clears it up even more. Christ’s atonement was Limited in that in only atoned for the elect and not all men, and that it was Definite in that Christ’s work atoned for all of the sins of the elect, and not only some of them.

Another place where the limited definite atonement is demonstrated is in Ephesians.

Ephesians 4:30– “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (emphasis added)

Christ has died not that only some of his atoning work would be effectual, but that it would be complete and total in that it would seal the souls of the elect when they were saved that they may not fall away and that they may be redeemed by the atoning blood of Christ. This demonstrates the necessity to believe in the fifth point of TULIP, the Perseverance of the Saints. Those who are sealed will continue in their state of atonement and redemption ‘till the end of the word and into the heavenly kingdom of God.

Again, Ephesians shows limited definite atonement.

Ephesians 1:3-12– “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory.”

How clear can you get? God predestined us before the foundations of the world that we might come to the knowledge of Christ through the saving work of His blood and atonement, and therefore we have done nothing for our own salvation. Christ’s atonement can be for nobody but those who have been predestined and elected according to the free and sovereign will of God.


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