Like the doctrine of unconditional election, the doctrine of limited atonement gets some people a little uppity. This is largely due to their misunderstanding of the phrase. To say that the atonement is limited is not to say that it was limited in its ability but in its scope. That is to say that, while Christ's atonement was certainly sufficient to save every human who has ever breathed, the reality is that every human is not saved which makes the atonement only efficacious for those who the Father has called to come to the Son. A better way to think of this teaching is that it is an actual atonement as opposed to a potential one.
"We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it, we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, "No, certainly not." We ask them the next question-Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They say, "No." They are obliged to admit this if they are consistent. They say, "No; Christ has died so that any man may be saved if" and then follow certain conditions of salvation. We say then, we will just go back to the old statement-Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did He? You must say "No;" you are obliged to say so, for you believe that even after a man has been pardoned, he may yet fall from grace and perish. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why you...We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it." --Charles Spurgeon
"[If Jesus died for all men]...why then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, 'Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.' But his unbelief, is it sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be sin, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it; If this is so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then he did not die for all their sins." --John OwenAre you a universalist? That is, do you believe that everyone, irregardless of their beliefs, faiths, and behaviors, is going to Heaven? Do you deny the biblical doctrine of Hell? If you answered "No" to those questions, then I have news for you: you believe in Limited Atonement.
I know we love to say that Jesus died for the whole world and certainly the Bible reads that way as well. But the word "world" must be qualified and examined in context. In John 1:29, John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Now, we know that not everyone in the world is saved and so what does this mean? Christ entered the human realm, the created order, to take away sin. In the end, in the New Heaven and New Earth, the world will be completely purged of sin and death. Yet, Christ did not come to take away the sin of everyone. If He had, don't you think it would have been accomplished? He came to take away the sin of those who believed in Him.
He came to His own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God..." John 1:11-12And how do those who believe come to that point of being born again of God? The apostle continues,
"...who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." John 1:13We also often see "world" being used to explain to the Jews that God would save people from all tribes and nations, not just Israel. "But, but...God so loved the world!" you say. Yes, He did. He loved humanity from all nations and we must recognize that His general grace abounds in the world today, benefitting even unbelievers. If it did not, we would all be smitten and condemned upon our first breath! Just remember that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Jesus Himself best differentiates between His own and the world in His High Priestly Prayer, where He clearly prays for a specific group of people, those who were given to Him by the Father.
I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. John 17:9, 15-16Hopefully, then, it's established that Jesus did not die generally for the world, as the world is seen as very separate from believers in Scripture. But what do we do with this idea that is so prevalent in evangelicalism today that the atonement was only one of potentiality? Oh no, it's not preached as such, but think about it. There is a picture today of a wide bridge that partially crosses a great chasm. Yet the bridge is not quite finished. Tim Challies beautifully finishes this illustration:
"[Man] gazes across the gap to the far side where he can glimpse God, and glimpse Heaven. Now how will he get to heaven? This bridge can serve as an illustration of a doctrine known as "unlimited atonement" or "conditional universalism." This is a doctrine that is the very opposite of Particular Redemption and in effect it states that it was never God's will to save any specific person. Rather, it was God's will to do all He could to save all men, provided they would do the little bit that He could not. In other words, the death of Christ erected this bridge which extends across part of the chasm. Man need only swim out into the current and hoist himself onto the bridge. From there he can walk safely into heaven. And if you look again you will see that this is a wide bridge, able to carry many people. This bridge is wide enough for anyone, but extends only part of the way (Online Source)."Consider a second bridge that extends the full way across the chasm. It is narrower, but it spans the entire gap that sin has created between God and man. So while it is not wide enough to carry all men, it will carry some men the entire way. This is the biblical view of Actual Atonement.
If we view the atonement as simply a barrier that has been removed, then we are saying that Christ did not die for anyone in particular. This seems to go against the many verses that speak of the elect being chosen as a gift from the Father to the Son; this goes against Christ's proclamation that He lays down His life for His sheep. The popular view that Jesus died for everybody, we just need to "activate" our salvation by having faith also puts a great burden on us for evangelism, as it is now our responsibility to "convince people to come and take the salvation that's been provided for them, to convince them to come and accept the gift (online source)." Rick Warren has said that if he can "find the key to that person's heart" he could lead anyone to Christ. So we're back to an emotional response to the Gospel that in the end will not produce true faith. Biblically speaking, we know that only God can do the saving and that, while we are the tools He uses to spread the Gospel, it is not up to us, it is out of our power, to save anyone! That is purely the work of the Holy Spirit. So why is it a problem to believe that Christ died for everyone and all we need to do is activate it? John MacArthur explains:
The fallout of that would be like this. Hell is full of people for whom Christ died. I'll say it another way. Hell is full of people whose sins were paid for in full on the cross. That's a little more disturbing when you say it like that, isn't it? Another way to say it would be that the Lake of Fire which burns forever with fire and brimstone is filled with eternally damned people whose sins Christ fully atoned for on the cross. God's wrath was satisfied by Christ's atonement on behalf of those people who will forever stay in hell.
Now by the way, Heaven will also be populated by the souls of those for whom Christ died. So Christ did exactly the same thing for the occupants of Hell as He did for the occupants of Heaven. That makes the question a little more disturbing. The only difference is the people in Heaven accepted the gift, the people in Hell rejected it. That's pretty much the evangelical view. But it just sounds strange when you start to pick it apart, doesn't it? That Jesus died and paid in full the penalty for the sins of the damned and died and paid in full the penalty for the sins of the glorified, that Jesus did the same thing for the occupants of Hell that He did for the occupants of Heaven and the only difference hinges on the sinner's choice? That is to say the death of Jesus Christ then is not an actual atonement, it is only a potential atonement. (Online source, emphasis added).So I ask, if Jesus' death was only a potential atonement, dependent solely on the choice of the sinner, how is it that a depraved sinner, incapable on his own of choosing the things of God, going to make that choice? If the death of Christ was only a potential salvation for everyone, then we have to admit that it was mostly worthless, because far more people are today in Hell than in Heaven with the Lord. We also must begin to shout "No fair!" to God, because He is punishing the same sin twice, first by punishing Christ and then by punishing the unbeliever. Or did Christ die, paying the full penalty for the sins of those who God called, granting them repentance and faith, thereby fulfilling an actual atonement, fully efficacious in its purpose? "What Christ did on the cross was a true and full and complete atonement for the sins of all who would believe and since no one can believe unless God grants them faith, it is the sins of those whom the Father has chosen to call to Himself (Online Source)."
"I argue, then, that both Arminians and Calvinists should rightly affirm that Christ died for all, in the sense that Christ's death was sufficient for all and that Scripture portrays God as inviting, commanding, and desiring the salvation of all, out of love...Further, all Christians ought also to confess that, in a slightly different sense, Christ Jesus, in the intent of God, died effectively for the elect alone, in line with the way the Bible speaks of God's special selecting love for the elect...." --D.A. Carson
I realize that the idea that Jesus didn't intend to die for everyone who has ever lived is not the most pleasant thought. But if we believe there is a Hell and that people are going there, then we have to believe that Christ's death was not intended for the lost! Yes, the death of Christ would be sufficient to save a thousand earths, but it was not intended that way and if it had been, then we must acknowledge Jesus to be a failure. But when we realize that the cross was meant for those who God has called and will call, we see how complete and full was the atonement. This does not mean that we stop proclaiming the Gospel, or that we cease to pray for the salvation of all people. We are commanded by God to do both. I cannot know who God has chosen, and so I cannot shirk my responsibility to proclaim Him, because perhaps I will be the means by which that person finally hears the Truth. A favorite argument of those who disagree with these doctrines is, "well, why should we bother? If God has already chosen everyone then what's the point of sharing the Gospel?" Remember Isaiah? In chapter 6, God told Isaiah that the people wouldn't listen to him or to his warnings. Yet God commissioned Isaiah to go and tell. Why? Because there was a remnant who would listen and who needed to hear. God knew who that remnant was, but Isaiah didn't. What did Isaiah do? He obeyed God and went out and proclaimed God's warning. We are to do the same.
On the cross, before surrendering His spirit, what did Christ cry out? "It is...mostly finished." "It is...potential." "It is...started, now you all have to finish it." NO. Our Lord cried out, "IT IS FINISHED." His sacrifice was full, it was complete, it was final. The death of Jesus Christ accomplished and satisfied fully the divine wrath of God. Christ paid in full the debt of all who would ever believe, and those who believe do so because they have been granted faith and repentance through the power of God and the Holy Spirit.
"The death of Christ was indefinite, particular, specific and actual on behalf of God's chosen people, limited in extent by the sovereign purposes of God, but unlimited in effect, for all for whom it was rendered it is fully in force, or will be in each individual life. It is the work of God. It is the work of Christ who accomplished redemption, not to make redemption possible to then be finally accomplished by the sinner. Christ procured salvation for all whom God would call and justify. Sinners do not limit the atonement, God does." --John MacArthur, online source.Jesus most clearly explained this truth when He said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Not everyone is one of Christ's sheep, but unless you know the mind of God, you must be about His business, proclaiming Him so that those who are not yet in the fold may hear His truth and enter.
Best of all and finally, the doctrine of actual atonement, or particular redemption, or limited atonement, or whatever you want to call it, should give the Christian great confidence in the nature of God and comfort in His faithfulness to keep His promises. Tim Challies said it well:
"This doctrine gives me confidence that God will always and ever do exactly what He says. It gives me confidence that the promises of the Bible are not dependent on my initiative or my response, but are dependent on the very nature of God. What God says will surely come to pass because He provides the power to accomplish what needs to be done....It tells me that God acts sovereignly and depends upon no one but Himself. This stirs my heart, for I know that if He left the choice to me, I would reject Him every time. (Online Source)."Amen.
The Doctrines of Grace: An Introduction
The Doctrines of Grace: Part "T"
The Doctrines of Grace: Part "U"
The Doctrines of Grace: Part "U" Follow-up
The Doctrine of Actual Atonement, Part 1
The Doctrine of Actual Atonement, Part 2
The "L" in TULIP