Author: Ron Graham
Limited Atonement is the L in TULIP. In this we come to the heart of Calvinism, because at this point Calvinism touches the cross of Christ. The question uppermost in our mind, when we consider the doctrine of "Limited Atonement" is this: Did Jesus die for some and not for others?
Before we get into the question of any limitation on atonement, let's explain the word "atonement" itself.
Atonement is the blessing of being made at one with God, that is to say being reconciled to God through the forgiveness of sins which caused us to become enemies of God and alienated from God. "Reconciliation" is another word for "atonement". Both words mean simply making peace with God, and that is possible through the blood of Christ shed on the cross.
Now, having explained the term "atonement", we come to the question of whether that atonement was "limited". In other words, did Christ shed his blood for the purpose of reconciling a limited number of people to God? Or did Jesus die that all the world might have the means to be reconciled to God?
The question of "Limited Atonement" must be considered in the light of our previous topic, "Unconditional Election".
If God elects and saves people unconditionally, then the atonement was absolutely limited to the number of the elect. In other words, God intended Jesus to die only for that number, and not for all people. Since Calvinists teach "Unconditional Election" they must also teach "Limited Atonement". In short, they must teach that Jesus died for some and not for others.
On the other hand, what if election is open to all people on a provisional basis, which requires of them a voluntary obedience to the conditions laid down by the Lord? Well then the limit of the atonement is conditional only, and there is no limit that is fixed or absolute. In other words, God intended that Jesus should die for the whole world provisionally, and that the atonement be available to anyone who would receive it.
Among the main scripture passages concerning atonement or reconciliation are Romans 5:8-11, 2Corinthians 5:14-21, Ephesians 2:8-22, Colossians 1:19-23. In none of these passages do we find an absolute limit, a limit less than all of mankind. Reconciliation is limited only by the conditions,"if anyone is in Christ" and "if indeed you continue in the faith and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel". That hope of reconciliation in Christ is held out to the world. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" and "One died for all". There is no suggestion whatever in these scriptures that God decreed some, not all, should be reconciled to God. If anyone is not in Christ, and if anyone is not reconciled to God, that is contrary to God's decree, not in accordance with it.
That favourite verse John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life". This verse tells us that the extent of God's love was unlimited. God loved the world. God gave his Son for everyone he loved. Since God loved the world, the sacrifice of atonement was intended for everyone in the world. Anyone for whom Christ died can believe. There is no limit implied in the word "whosoever". God wants everybody to believe.
Calvinists sometimes use the expression "particular atonement" instead of "limited atonement". The idea is that Christ must have died for certain people in particular, therefore he did not die for everybody in general, hence the atonement is limited. Let's examine that reasoning carefully.
The Calvinist argues that any view contrary to limited atonement would have to say that Christ died for "no one in particular". This seems to make our position look weak, doesn't it? It sounds wrong to say that Christ died for "nobody in particular". It also sounds wrong to say that Jesus died for "everybody in particular", because that seems to be a contradiction in terms. But again, it also sounds wrong to say he died for "everybody in general" —isn't that just a sneaky way of saying "nobody in particular"? So we seem to be in a sticky situation, and the only statement that sounds right is that Christ died for "certain people in particular" —which is limited atonement.
Now let's look at the fault in that argument. The argument comes partly from the art of word juggling, but mostly from that common fallacy where one insists that something must be "either this or that" when in fact it is "both this and that". The atonement is not either general (Christ died for everybody) or particular (Christ died for individuals). It is both of those, and they are not mutually exclusive. I am quite certain that Christ died for me in particular. I am equally certain that he died for you in particular. Indeed, he died both for the whole world in general, and for each sinner in particular.
You and I stand, as it were, at the foot of the cross, and I behold our Lord dying there for the two of us. I know full well that, if I were the only sinner, he must suffer no less for me than he suffers for all. You are also quite certain that, were you the only sinner, he would suffer no less for you than he suffers for all. And what other sinner should not say likewise? God has placed no limit upon how many sinners are able to believe and accept this truth for themselves, just as you and I accept it for ourselves, and Paul for himself: "He loved me, and gave himself for me!" (Galatians 2:20).
Each one of us truly says, "Christ died for me". That is particular atonement. But it is not limited atonement, because each one of us can just as truly say, "Christ died for everyone". "He Himself is the atonement for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world" (1John 2:1-2).