Limited (Definite) Atonement Part 1

February 7, 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.
__________________________
Resources:
Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism
Steele, Thomas, and Quinn. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented

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3 Responses to “Limited (Definite) Atonement Part 1”

  1. Jon Daley Says:

    Where “context” and “makes it clear” means as defined by Calvin?

    Seems like a circular argument to me.

    What translation are you using? I can’t find the words you are referring to in the Colossians passage.

    As for the Luke passage, I thought that referred to the people in the world as they knew it. Aren’t there a number of passages that refer to the “whole world” that mean “Roman empire” or something like that?

  2. Jon Daley Says:

    I have been on vacation, but I stopped by again, and saw that you never responded. That’s too bad. I was hoping for some more insight into what you meant.

  3. Matt Wells Says:

    Sorry Jon! I published your comment and forgot to reply.

    Thank you for the correction on the Colossians passage. I had written wrong it in my notes.

    As for the Luke passage, it is referring to the world as they knew it, because the whole world was the Roman Empire.

    Yes, there are passages that do refer to ‘all’ as being every single person, but the majority of these passsages refer to the wickedness and depravity of man as a whole.

    When the word ‘all’, ‘whole’, and ‘whole world’ are used in regard to salvation, they refer to a limited number of people. The reason ‘all’ in these passages refers to only a limited number of people is because of other passages which refer to ‘many’ who will come to know Christ (i.e.: Hebrews 9:28). If these are both taken literally, than there is a contradiction. ‘Many’ can never mean ‘all’, no matter how you slice it. ‘All’ very often means ‘many’, so that would be the interpretation which must be applied.

    Context is everything. I could take any one random passage in the Bible, and twist it to fit my argument any way I wanted, if I didn’t look at the context. If, however, the context is examined, than using the passage to suit my needs would be flat out lying.

    Making it clear is what I used to show how important context is to any one passage. It is not a circular argument. Context makes passages in the Scriptures clear.

    If I am misunderstanding your question, please let me know.


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