LIMITED ATONEMENT
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

Defining the topic

What is limited atonement?  It is the belief that Christ died to atone only for the sins of his elect.  Another way to put it is to say that Christ did not die for those who would never believe upon his name.  But is this true? 

 

Since this topic has been batted around throughout the centuries by men more noble than I, why another treaties on it?  For those who have problems with Calvinism, this is usually what they can't accept.  I don't claim to have all the answers on this issue.  But I do want to delve into Scripture to visit this age old controversy, not wishing to settle it for all times, but to hopefully give a reasonable defense of what Scripture teaches on this issue.  And if nothing else, I want to clarify for myself what I believe Scripture teaches about this matter.

 

The real issue

So the question before us is, For whom did Christ die?  But before we go any further, does our answer to this question really matter?  When it comes to whether we can fellowship with other believers who disagree with us, or whether we are welcomed into heaven, the answer is no.  But when it comes to understanding God better, the question does become relevant.  If God hasn't chosen ahead of time those whom he will save and condemn, then we have no right to say that he has done that.  And if Christ's death wasn't for a specific group of people, then what was his intention in the atonement? 

 

In other words, the way in which we understand Christ saving sinners affects our view of God.  And if our view of God is skewed, more than it already is by our sin, then our other views on life and humanity will also be affected.

 

Even though Scripture doesn't tell us everything about God, it does tell us how to think rightly about him.  And when it comes to such an important issue like salvation, we believe that Scripture guides our thinking here also. 

A brief summary of Calvinism

Before we dig too deep, it might be helpful to lay out the five points of Calvinism.  Often it's known by its acronym, TULIP:


  1. Total Depravity: every aspect of mankind's being (e.g., mind, will, soul, etc.) is tainted by sin's effects.  Man is not as bad as he could be, but is nonetheless thoroughly sinful, and therefore, dead in his sin and needing life from God.
  2. Unconditional Election: in eternity past God chose those whom he would save, not based on any quality that they would possess or any work that they would do or any faith that they would have but based on His good pleasure.
  3. Limited Atonement: Christ died to atone only for the sins of his elect.
  4. Irresistible Grace: those whom God has chosen to be saved will be saved.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints: Christians will continue in their faith.  They will not lose their salvation.

 

In this paper we will mainly be dealing with limited atonement, but this issue also relates to the other points of Calvinism, which I talk about at times throughout this paper.  I'm aware that there is a technical distinction between limited atonement and some of the other points of Calvinism (e.g., unconditional election, irresistible grace), but I don't always make a clear distinction between them here in this essay. 

Scripture and Unlimited atonement (An Arminian Approach)

Now, let's look at some of the key passages which supposedly assert unlimited atonement—that Christ's death was for all, the believing and unbelieving.  I've highlighted key words.

 

Mt 11:28 Jesus says "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  (Cf. v 27)

 

John 3:16 "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, so that none should perish, but that they might have everlasting life." 

 

Jn 6:51 "The living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world in my flesh." 

 

Rom 10:13 "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

 

2 Cor 5:14-15 "For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one dies for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and rose again on their behalf."

 

1 Tim 2:3-4,6 "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth…. Who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time.

 

1 Tim 4:10 "For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the savior of all men, especially of believers."

 

Heb 2:9 "But we do see him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone."

 

1 Pet 3:18 "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit . . . ."

 

2 Pet 3:9 "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance."

 

1 Jn 2:2 "And he himself [Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only but for those of the whole world."

 

Rev 22:17 "And the Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.' And let the one who hears

say, 'Come.'  And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost."

 

Seeking to understand Scripture

Now some would say that these verses settle the matter.  After all, do they not clearly show that anyone who wishes may come to Christ?  Don't words like "world," "all," "anyone," "whoever," and "everyone" close the discussion? 

 

Admittedly these verses cause even a stubborn Calvinist to pause and carefully consider his position.  So let's take a closer look at what these passages are saying. 

 

The Bible often uses "all" and "world" to refer to all people without distinction (race, gender) NOT all people without exception (M. J. Harris).  Some passages, on the surface, seem as though everyone will be saved: Jn 1:7, 29; Rom 11:15; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:18-19; Tit 2:11.  Yet, we know that not everyone is going to be saved.  Unbelievers will be cast into hell (Mt 7:21-23; 25:46; 2 Thes 1:9; Jude 7; Rev 21:8).  We have to interpret these "all" and "world" verses in light of the rest of Scripture.  Not all the world was really going to Jesus to be baptized, were they (Jn 3:26)?  Were all things, including adultery, really lawful for Paul (1 Cor 6:12)?  Does 1 Tim 2:1 mean that each time we pray that we really have to pray for all men?  Of course not!  Sometimes "all" and "world" were used generally, just as we use them today.   

 

And of course, someone will exclaim: "Isn't the issue how 'all' and 'world' are used in the context of those key passages?"  And that's true.  So, let's look even closer at some of these more challenging verses.

 

Some tough passages for Calvinists

I think the toughest passages that Calvinists have to deal with are 1 Tim 2:3-4,6, 4:10, 2 Pet 3:9, and 1 Jn 2:2.  So let's consider them more carefully.  First let's focus on 1 Tim 2:3-4 and 2 Pet 3:9. I'll deal with these two passages together because they concern the desire or will of God. 

 

First Timothy 2 begins by talking about prayer and how it's important for believers to pray, especially to pray for governmental leaders.  In that context, Paul says, "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (2:3-4)." 

 

In 2 Pet 3:3-9, Peter speaks about the Lord's past judgment on mankind and the approaching Day of the Lord.  And since this present world, as Peter says, is being reserved for judgment, and a thousand years are as a day (and vice verse) with the Lord, it's important for believers to keep in mind that "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (3:9)."

 

What God wills and desires

These two passages (1 Tim 2:3-4 and 2 Pet 3:9) raise interesting questions about God's will and desire.  How is it that God, who controls all things, can will and desire some things that won't come to pass?  And what does that mean for our discussion?

 

Well, one can't speak too hastily here, presuming to have God figured out.  But, at least a few things can be said cautiously, with fear and trembling.  We don't understand how or why it is that God has chosen to will some things that go against his will.  Calvinists have long since talked about God's divine will and his moral will (or ultimate and specific will).  Call them what you want—I think Scripture supports these two ideas.  How else could 1 Tim 2 and 2 Pet 3 be dealt with, by either Calvinists or Arminians, if such weren't true?  Scripture helps us out here. 

 

In Luke 22:42, Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane praying.  He said, referring to what awaited him on the cross, "Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."  Here we have Christ, the God-man, saying to his Father, "Not my will, but yours be done."  Clearly, the horror of the cross was nothing to be desired, especially for the Holy Son of God.  In this passage we have Jesus willing against his own will.  In one sense, he didn't want to face the cross.  But since that's why he'd come, he embraced it anyway, to the glory of the Father.

 

Also, take Jesus' prayer while he hung on the cross in Lk 23:34.  Jesus prayed about those who crucified him, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."  Does this mean that they were forgiven in terms of salvation?  I think not!  Neither did Peter think so when he preached to them in Acts 2:22-36.  Actually, what Lk 23:34 teaches us is not that those responsible for murdering Jesus were forgiven, but that Jesus had an attitude of forgiveness, even in the face of hatred and evil.  Jesus' heart was filled with forgiveness, which doesn't mean all of his tormentors were forgiven.  They'd have to repent.

 

Furthermore, regarding God's will, consider Acts 2:23 where it says that Jesus was

". . . delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death."  Here we have a case where God planned into his will something which was against his will.  It was his divine will that Christ die for sin at the hands of evil men.  Yet, it was against his moral will for these sinful men to murder his sinless Son.  There was no way that such could not have happened; God had foreordained that it would be.  Yet, it was against his will.  Evil men nailed him to a cross (Acts 2:23), but they couldn't have done it had God not willed it (Jn 10:18).  Fathom that mystery!

 

Neither Calvinists nor Arminians can fully explain this.  But we can say that these are cases where God brought about something which was against his moral will, in order to fulfill his ultimate will.

 

So when it comes to 1 Tim 2:3-4 and 2 Pet 3:9, God is not out to make people suffer, although it is a part of his plan that people suffer.  He is not vicious and out to destroy lives.  He is love. He is forgiving and kind.  Yet, this doesn't mean that his plan of salvation for many people means that all people are saved, or even atoned for.  What ever could it mean for all to be atoned for when not all are saved?

 

Can God will against his will?

But someone may say in protest, "If it's possible for God to will things that won't come to pass, couldn't it be possible for him to atone for people that aren't going to be saved?"  No, because the difference is between God's desires and his actions.  Even we as mere humans can relate to what it must mean to will against our wills.  Take for example a parent correcting his child through discipline.  The parent doesn't want to do something that causes pain to his child that he loves, but because of the parent's love, he will discipline the child anyway.  The parent doesn't wish to spank or ground the child, but he will.  Disciplining a child is sort of a willing against one's will.  But it doesn't make sense to say that somebody has done something (atoned for the sins of unbelievers) that he cannot or will not actually do (bring those atoned to faith).

 

Savior of the whole world

Now let's look at two other passages which are sometimes also used to assert that un-limited atonement is true.  In 1 Tim 4:10, Paul says, "For it is for this [godliness?] we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the savior of all men, especially of believers."  Also 1 Jn 2:2 says,  "And he himself [Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only but for those of the whole world." 

 

So what does it mean for Jesus to be the "savior of all men" when we know that not all men will be saved?  How can Jesus be the propitiation (one who takes the wrath of God) for the sins of the whole world, if in fact, the whole world will not be saved? 

 

If all we had were verses like this to understand salvation, then we would be led to believe that all people will be saved.  But other passages, mentioned above, prove that such can't be the case.  Then what 1 Tim 4 and 1 Jn 2 must mean, at least in part, is that man's only hope of salvation is Christ and Christ alone (Acts 4:12).  And, that Christ's death, even for those who will not be saved, still works for their benefit in this life (See Calvin and common grace).

God, the giver of grace to all

God is the giver of life and anyone whom he has let live has tasted of his goodness (Mt 5:45; Lk 6:35).  Thus, God has given all people more than they deserve, even if he doesn't save all of them.  God is still good and right in his judgments.  He stands guiltless when he judges (Rom 3:1-20).  Who will condemn God?  Isn't that the point of Rom 3:4 when it says, "Let God be true and every man a liar"?

 

So if 1 Tim 4:3-4 and 1 Jn 2:2 can't mean that all people will be saved, then it's difficult to see how that these passages could mean that those who will not be saved are atoned for.  Atonement and propitiation means that the recipients will be saved, or these words mean nothing at all.  Since these passages don't mean that all will be saved, then they must refer to the general benefits of salvation that come from his atonement.  "The whole world" could even refer to the whole world of believers—that is, all believers who were not direct recipients of John's letter.  But maybe that's stretching it.

 

If the general benefits of Christ's death is what someone means by unlimited atonement,  who can doubt that some benefits come to non-believers through the cross?  But this is not a true Arminian view of unlimited atonement.  It's a Calvinists view of limited atonement, which I've tried to show is also a biblical view.

 

Scripture and limited atonement

The atonement can not be couched in the general terms that Arminians would have us believe.  There are plenty of passages that support the Calvinist view and undercut the Arminian view.

 

Let's start in Mt 1:21 where it says Mary, ". . .will bear a Son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who will save his people from their sins."  Not much needs to be said here, just to note that Jesus will save his people

 

Looking further, in Jn 10:11, Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."  He continues in verses 14-15, "I am the good shepherd; and I know my own, and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep."  It sure looks like Jesus has his sheep in mind when he refers to his coming death.  Some might be tempted to say that of course Jesus had his sheep in mind, because he came to die for all people, including his sheep.  But this passage seems to exclude of those who aren't his sheep.

 

His pre-set plan

Further developing this line of thinking is Peter's sermon in Acts 2.   In the context of Acts 2: 39, Peter tells the religious leaders, who crucified Christ, to repent and be baptized.  Peter proclaims, "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to himself."  Now if the promise of salvation and the Spirit is for "as many as the Lord our God shall call to himself," doesn't it sound as though some are excluded from the promise of salvation and the Spirit?  And if they are excluded from the promise, isn't it because the Lord will not call those people unto himself?  Even though this passage doesn't say that Christ died only for the elect, it is important to note that the Lord is the one calling people to salvation.  Is it possible that Jesus would not call to himself all that he had died for?  Surely not!  What would it mean for Christ not to redeem all of those he died for?  Is that genuine atonement?

 

If limited atonement is true at all, to any extent, then that means our views of unlimited atonement must be tweaked, not the reverse.  If we try to reverse it and say the verses on unlimited atonement inform our views on limited atonement, then what do we end up with?  A view that limited atonement is swallowed up in unlimited atonement.  There would be no such thing as limited atonement.  And if limited atonement disappears into unlimited atonement, why mention it at all?  But since there are passages that teach some form of limited atonement, then they must be there to help us know what the Lord had in mind when he used inclusive words (e.g., "all") to refer to the salvation of the world.

 

All non-Universalists believe in some form of limited atonement.  Either we believe God himself has limited his atonement or that man limits the atonement by rejecting salvation.  Scripture shows that both of these views can't be right.  What does it mean to say that Christ died for sinners, and to also say that some of those same sinners, for whom Christ died, will not be saved?  Wasn't Christ's atoning work to save sinners?  If he died for some who do not accept salvation, did his plan of salvation fail?  Was his atoning work faulty?

 

When Christ died on the cross, did God have a plan in mind?  Did the Father have a purpose in Christ's death?  Of course!  It was to glorify himself by showing his power by overcoming the devil and death in order to save sinners (Jn 10:18, 17:1, 1 Cor 15:3, Heb 2:14-15; 1 Jn 3:8).  And, I contend, to save particular sinners.

 

Doesn't Acts 2:23 say that Christ's death was a "predetermined plan" and that he was delivered up by the "foreknowledge of God"?  If this verse means anything, it means that God had planned for Christ to go to the cross; it was no accident.  How could God have foreknown something if he had not predetermined that it would happen (Rom 8:29)?  If Christ's death was planned with the intent of saving sinners, wouldn't God have known in advance whom he would save precisely because he'd planned for their salvation?  Acts 2:23 doesn't say all of that, but it does help us understand that Christ's death, his atoning work, was predetermined (Also see 1 Pet 1:11 regarding Christ's predestined sufferings).

 

Before the world began

It really seems that God had a plan before the world began, a plan for his own glory and for the welfare of those whom he would save.  God is using history to bring about his purposes, not trying to use history to bring about his purposes (Rom 8:28).  As Rom 8:29 says, "For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren."  God foreknew those who would be saved by looking down through history and seeing the ones whom he had elected.  They would respond in faith to the gospel because they were elected by God.  He knew them in the sense that he knew they were the elect and that they would therefore believe.  He didn't elect them because he knew they would believe.  Because he had elected them, they would believe.  Therefore, he (fore)knew his elect.

 

Further, it's hard to get around the clear teachings of Eph 1:3-5, where it says "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love [ or ". . . before him.  In love…].  He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will."  God had the redeemed in mind before the foundation of the world!

 

Ephesians 1:11 teaches believers that "We have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to his purpose who works all things after the counsel of his will."  Our heavenly inheritance is already planned out.

 

Ephesians 1 helps us understand the "prepared beforehand" of Eph 2:10—"For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."  Did God just prepare the work that he wanted people to do without choosing anyone who would do them?  If God had already prepared "good works" for us to do, then it sure sounds as though he knew whom he'd redeem for those good works.  What God had prepared beforehand was not just his good works but the workmanship (believers) who would do them.

 

Since Acts 2:23 says that Jesus' death was according to the "predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God," and Acts 17:26 teaches that God has "determined the appointed times and boundaries" of the people of the world, then truly, if Christ's death was pre-planned by God, and if God has truly appointed where all the people of the world would live, then it seems that nothing is really outside of the scope of his hand and dealings.  Salvation certainly isn't. 

 

Acts 17:26 ("determined the appointed times and boundaries") is relevant to salvation, because when and where one lives in history, is highly relevant to one's chances of hearing the gospel.  Someone born in the southern U.S. during the 1970's is more likely to hear the gospel than someone born into an Islamic family in the 10th century.  Man can seek God, as Acts 17:27 says, but man can only seek according to his situation and amount of revelation.  Acts 17:26-27 says tons, even if indirectly, about God's control over people groups, world history, and salvation itself.  We didn't get to vote on where we were born, who our parents were, or even if we wanted to be born.  And unless we kill ourselves, we don't have a say in when we will die either.  Was God unfair to not give us a say?  No!  We can follow God or not, but God controls who will follow him.

 

Romans 8:29-30 says, "Whom he [God] foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son . . . .  For whom he predestined, these he also called; and whom he called, these he also justified . . . ."  These passages teach that God knew us before we knew him.  In other words, he knew we would be saved.  He knew this because he'd elected us.  How could he not have known whom he would redeem?

 

God's choice

In 1 Cor 2:6-7, Paul says, "Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory."  What does God's predestined wisdom mean if it does not include God mapping out salvation in detail?

 

Peter said to his readers, "[You are] chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood . . . .  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . . " (1 Pet 1:2-3, emp. mine).

 

Who has chosen us?  Whose foreknowledge was it?  Who caused us to be born again?  God!  There can be little doubt that his foreknowledge here refers to the time before the foundations of the world.  See it in light of 1 Pet 1:20, where it says that Christ "Was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you . . . ."  Certainly Christ was known by the Father before the foundation of the world.  It seems that we were also known by our Father, even before we existed.  That's exactly what these passages mean when they use words like "foreknowledge."  God knew whom he would save before he created them, and certainly knew whom he would save when Christ went to the cross.

 

God's glory

God seeks his own glory and controls all things (Dt 30:6; Job 42:1-2; Ps 50:10-12; 135:6; 139: 15-16; Pro 16:33; 19:21; Is 14:24, 27; Is 48:9, 11; Jer 31:33; 32:17-19; Ez 36:27; Jn 6:44; Acts 13:48).  If he didn't, how would any of us ever be saved?  How could we have faith unless he gives it to us?  How can dead men choose anything (Eph 2:1-5)?  Doesn't God do the choosing and calling (Ps 33:12; Is 41:8; Mk 13:20; Jn 15:16, 19; Rom 11; 11:7, 28; 1 Cor 1:30; Eph 1:4; 1 Thes 2:12; 2 Thes 1:11; 2:13-14; Tit 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1, 20, 29; 2:9; 2 Pet 1:3, 10)?  Aren't faith and salvation gifts from God (Eph 2:8)?  Who can come to the Lord unless the Lord so wills it (Jn 6:44)?  Doesn't God even have to direct Christians into his love (2 Thes 3:5)?  If believers can do nothing apart from Christ (Jn 15:5), can unbelievers come to him without his help?

 

How can we be saved unless he has atoned for us and called us specifically to himself?  How can those atoned for not be saved?  Even if we concede for a moment that person A is atoned for, yet rejects salvation and goes to hell, how is person A atoned for?  How was Christ's atonement beneficial for person A in any real salvific sense?

 

God's glory in judging sin

We must not presuppose that man deserves a chance to be saved.  Now certainly we will do all that we can to get the gospel message out.  Yet, we don't spread the message because people deserve to hear but because God has told us to go and tell it.  And because of our good sovereign God, we can take the message to others with joy because it is good news. 

 

God is so sovereign that he even gets glory out of judging sin.  God hates sin so much that Ps 5:5 says not just that he hates sin but that he hates those who do iniquity.  Scripture teaches that he delights in dealing justly with sin: Dt 28:63; Pro 1:24-26;

Ez 5:13; Is 30:31-32; Amos 9:4; Rev 18:20.  Also, Paul uses God's coming judgment on sinners as an encouragement to believers in 2 Thes 1.

 

I believe John Piper has some helpful words for questions that might come to our mind when dealing with God's delight in judging sinners:

 

When Moses warns Israel that the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon them and destroying them if they do not repent (Dt 28:63), he means that those who have rebelled against the Lord and moved beyond repentance will not be able to gloat that they have made the Almighty miserable.  God is not defeated in the triumphs of his righteous judgment.  Quite the contrary.  Moses says that when they are judged they will unwittingly provide as occasion for God to rejoice in the demonstration of his justice and his power and the infinite worth of his glory (Ro 9:22-23) (The Pleasures of God, 67).

 

God's glory in all things

God is so sovereign, so in control, that Scripture says he glorifies himself not just in the judgment of sinners but in tragedy, sin, and unbelief (Pro 16:4, Ecl 7:13-14; Is 6:9, Is 45:7, Lam 3:38, Dan 4:35, Amos 3:6, Mt 4:11-12, Acts 4:28, Rom 9:13-24, 2 Thes 2:11).  Does not the cross itself prove that God in some way gets glory from horrible, sinful events (Acts 2:23-24, 1 Cor 1:21-31)?  He doesn't delight in them, but he is nonetheless glorified in them.

 

Any of these passages in the previous paragraph would be good to consider here, but let's just take Rom 9 as an example.  Fewer passages in Scripture boldly declare God's sovereign will over sin and salvation as does Rom 9:13-24:

 

Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."  What shall we say then?  There is no injustice with God, is there?  May it never be!  For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.  For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth."  So then he has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires.  You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault?  For who resists his will?"  On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?  The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it?  Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?  What if God, although willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?  And he did so in order that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom he also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.

 

This passage drips with the divine riches of God's great power and his all-wise plan.  It teaches that God has made some people for wrath and others for mercy.  We may not understand this, but it's in Scripture.  None of us deserve mercy.  Clearly, this passage shows that God has a purpose even for the non-elect.  He somehow gets glory even by their destruction. 

 

Listen again to v 16, "So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy."  This verse is highlighting God's mercy and authority.  God is the ultimate decision-maker.

 

How can that which is made ask questions of disapproval to its maker?  We all deserve destruction and hell.  It's difficult to think how "beforehand" in Rom 9:24 above could mean anything but "before the foundation of the world."  And if God has prepared vessels of mercy "beforehand," didn't he know whom he would save?  Did Christ not know whom he would atone for and whom he would not?  This passage doesn't say directly, but what else could be legitimately inferred from it?

 

Reasons some have rejected limited atonement

Many reject limited atonement not because Scripture teaches otherwise but, I suggest, because they want to:

 

1) protect missions and evangelism

2) guard their right to say, "Christ died for you" to anyone they meet

3) keep man's free-will in tact

4) defend God against sending people to hell

 

First, any system of thinking is subject to go astray.  So, yes, there have been Calvinists who disregarded what Scripture said about missions.  But believing in limited atonement and the other points of Calvinism doesn't mean you have to abandon your concern for the lost.  Why should it?  Besides, none of us, Calvinists or Arminians, should be doing missions and evangelism because we think God needs us.  We do it because he's told us to do it.  We don't know who the elect are; we just delight in our God and take his message to the hopeless.  Who's elect and who's not is God's business.  Declaring the worth of our Lord is our business.

 

Secondly, we don't need to guard our right to say "Jesus died for you," if Scripture hasn't told us that we have to say it.  Yes, John 3:16 says "God so loved the world," but that doesn't mean Christ died for everyone.  We can assert that God is a God of love and that he sent Christ to die for sin.  God has mercy on the sinner.  Christ did die for sin, the sins of the world, the world of believers.  Even if you're a die-hard Arminian, you have to concede that Scripture no where tells you to proclaim that Christ died for everyone's sins.

 

Thirdly, maybe we should spend more time talking about man's responsibility and less time talking about man's free will (Ray Ortlund, Jr).  After all, man can only choose from the choices he's given.  Scripture teaches that God has a plan, and uses man to bring about that plan. God makes the plans, and man makes choices, choices that are limited.  From this, man is held responsible.  When we sin, we can't ever justify our sin and say that it's ok because "it's a part of God's will."  Whatever we say about his ultimate will, he shall hold us responsible. 

 

I too marvel at the mystery of this, and I don't claim to have all of it figured out.  Yes, Scripture says "choose life" (Dt 30:19), "obey" (Dt 28:1, 15), "choose whom you will serve" (Jos 24:15), "repent and believe" (Mk 1:15), "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38), "work out your own salvation" (Phip 2:12), but this doesn't negate God's power to limit the choices he gives people (Dt 32:39; Pro 16:33; 19:21; Jer 31:33; Ez 36:27). 

 

Yet some will argue against me here with Jn 7:17"If any man is willing to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself." Doesn't this indicate that man can chose to do the will of God?  Yes, but no one can recognize Christ as God and then "will to do God's will" (i.e., walk in obedience) unless Christ reveals himself and enables him to followMatthew 11:27 makes this clear: "All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him."

 

Also, Rom 9 deals with God giving men choices.  But whatever one says about man's will and choices, it has to be submitted to God's will and choices—for after all, it is by "God's doing that we are in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor 1:30). 

 

Furthermore, it could be useful here to consider a quote from Stephen Charnock (1628-1680)"But what if the foreknowledge of God, and the liberty of the will, cannot be fully reconciled by man?  Shall we therefore deny a perfection in God to support a liberty in ourselves?  Shall we rather fasten ignorance upon God, and accuse him of blindness, to maintain our liberty?"  [Charnock: Discourse upon the Existence and Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979, 450).  Quoted from The Pleasures of God (Portland: Multnomah, 1991, 72).]

 

Fourthly, I again refer to Rom 9 for those who feel they have to defend God.

Many wish to leave man choosing hell in order to protect God.  If man goes to hell, they want man to have made that choice, not God.  But doesn't Rom 9 deal with this very question?  It doesn't answer all of our questions, but it does say that God is good and has the futures of all people in his hands.  It's not that God runs rough-shod over the choices of men, but he does accomplish what he wants through the choices of men, by leading them to choose a certain path.  We can trust him with these things. 

 

Weakening biblical terms and ideas

Arminians have to strip "foreknowledge" and "predestination" and "election" of any significant meaning.  They have to say that God looks down through history and sees what will happen rather than planning out what will happen.  But if foreknowledge is nothing more than God looking down through the corridors of time and seeing what man will do, then God does not have control of history.  That leaves man in control and God all-knowing but not all-powerful.  We should be careful not to become heretics in our desire to protect God.

 

Where does God ever say he gets glory by not being in full control?  If God is doing nothing more than just seeing ahead of time what man will do, he's not in control—he just has great insight.  And if he can't even see ahead of time what man will do, as some assert, he doesn't even have insight.  Poor God! 

 

Where Arminianism leaves us

Arminianism leaves us with no way to deal with these things.  Mr. Arminian can't say, "God has his plan of particular atonement" because that would intrude upon the will of man.  Neither can Mr. Arminian rightly say, "Man made his own choice to go to hell" because that would leave God out of the picture. 

 

Piper makes a good point when he says that,

People who really believe that man must have the ultimate power of self-determination, can't consistently pray that God would convert unbelieving sinners.  Why?  Because if they pray for divine influence in a sinner's life they are either praying for a successful influence (which takes away the sinner's ultimate self-determination), or they are praying for an unsuccessful influence (which is not praying for God to convert the sinner).  So either you give up praying for God to convert sinners or you give up ultimate human self-determination  (Pleasures, 226).

 

If we have a man-centered theology, then we are left with troubling questions that leave us with no foundation to stand on, and no peace about this world in which we live ("God needs my help!").  Although Scripture doesn't tell us everything we'd like to know on these issues, at least it does address these kinds of things.  And the Calvinistic interpretation of those passages leads us to a God-centered universe and leaves us looking through a lens that enables us to trust God's wisdom.  But Arminianism leaves us with a man-centered universe.  And a man-centered world leads to despair.  If man is ultimately choosing, then he's in control and there's no guarantee that things will work out the way God had hoped.  The emphasis ends up being on man, his will, his choices, his rights, what man deserves, rather than on God. 

 

No perfect human understanding 

Granted, both Calvinism and Arminianism leave troubling questions. How do we explain a hell that God created and lets (or causes) men go to?  And how do we explain a cruel cross where the holy God-man died at the hand of sinners?  (I suggest Anselm's Cur Deus Homo as a good place to start.)

 

Both positions leave us wondering about some things.  Why would God create such a world at all if he could not guarantee everyone's salvation?  Why did God choose to create a world in which there would have to be suffering and a hell thereafter?  These are difficult questions with no seemingly easy answer.  Romans 9 gives us some insight when it says that God's plan in the atonement as well as hell was to show his mercy to some.  The perishing of some shows not that God is cruel, but that all deserve hell.  He is merciful by saving anyone.  Arminians have no solution to this quagmire because their presuppositions rule out an interpretation that would say God had a specific group that he was calling unto himself through the death of Christ.  In other words, they have to deal with the problem of God creating a world in which he had no way to guarantee that anyone would be saved.  And thus all of humanity might have ended up in hell.

 

Many Arminians think that by falling back on the argument of man's "free will" that their dilemma is solved.  But, first, the Arminian can't escape the harsh reality of God creating a world that he knew would fall to sin.  Calvinists and Arminians are both stuck in this quandary.  And second, if Arminians get the world of "free will" that they always talk about, we end up with a world that God can't guarantee will turn out his way.  And if even one of my two assertions is true, then I see no advantage to Arminianism.

 

Even though the Calvinist response doesn't give us all the answers, we are left with a world in which God is the one holding all the pieces of the puzzle.  He isn't evil nor does he take credit for evil.  But he does take credit for being in control of the destinies of men.

 

I know there are many Arminians that have a deeper love for our Lord and a greater knowledge of Scripture than I do. And I don't mean to make Arminians out to be non-Christians or even sub-Christians.  I could be wrong about limited atonement and heaven will show the truth.  But it seems that even though Arminians claim to have a high view of God, their Arminian beliefs undermine what Scripture teaches about God's supreme power and wisdom.

 

Implications of rejecting limited atonement

The implications of rejecting limited atonement are:

 

  1. God didn't have a specific plan for history from the beginning, nor can he ever really have a plan for history or anything else, like salvation specifically.
  2. Nor did God have a plan in Christ's death.
  3. Man, not God, really makes the choice for how history will turn out.

 

But the implication for embracing limited atonement asserts that God's all-controlling hand and his tender mercies are over all of mankind. 

 

Embracing God and his plan

If God has chosen us, based on his own good pleasure, then we are stripped of glory and God gets it all (Is 14:24, 27; 48:11; 1 Cor 1:27-30; Phip 2:13).  Doesn't the book of Job teach us that?

 

God is glorious!  And his plan is glorious!  He's using cracked vessels (you and me and unbelievers) to demonstrate his goodness and to defeat Satan.  But God is getting the credit, not us. 

 

After considering the passages above, it's easy to see why so many believers have embraced limited atonement.  But the real issue is what Scripture teaches.  I've sought to look honestly at Scripture's teachings on limited atonement.  And while I could be wrong, I'm convinced Scripture teaches this glorious doctrine.  And if Scripture teaches it, we don't have to be ashamed of it or make excuses for God.  We believe in hell because Scripture teaches it not because we figured it out on our own.  The same holds true for limited atonement.  It's God's plan and his world.  We can embrace him and his truth with joy.