This is the doctrine that is usually the hardest for Christians to accept when they haven’t been challenged with it before. This was the doctrine that held me to an inconsistent 4 out of 5 point Calvinist until I just broke under the weight of Scripture’s teaching about this doctrine. First of all, let me say yet once again, you must have a biblical understanding of who God is in His Sovereignty before any of this will be acceptable to you. If you have not read the posts on the sovereignty of God, go back and read those first. Also this doctrine must be understood in the light of the first two doctrines presented in this series. The first doctrine is Total Depravity, the second is Unconditional Election, and now we have reached the third doctrine of the doctrines of grace Limited Atonement. Make sure you have read the first two before you read this part 3 of the series.
Let’s define Limited Atonement, sometimes also referred to as Particular Atonement/Redemption.
"Christ died, not for the sins of the whole world, but specifically for the elect. Christ’s substitutionary, atoning death was for those whom God sovereignly elected (chose) to save, and not all of mankind."
I’m certain that the objections are already flying through the minds of many of you, stick with me. I want to address first of all what this does not mean. This doctrine doesn’t teach that Christ "could not" have saved all of mankind by His death, only that He chose to die for a specific group of people. Should God have chosen to save everyone, Christ’s death would have been sufficient for everyone, but Christ as we have seen in this series does not choose to save everyone. So Christ’s atonement is limited, not in power, but merely in application to whom He chose.
As always, let’s go to the Scripture and see where this doctrine is taught. I will then follow that with some logical arguments for this doctrine that accompany the Scripture, and I will end with answering some common objections to this doctrine.
"1"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers." 6This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So Jesus again said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father."
Right before this passage Jesus has just chastised some of the pharisees for not recognizing Him for who He is. And then He goes on to talk about how He is the Good Shepherd and His sheep hear His voice and follow after Him. We must recognize by what Jesus is saying that He is clearly making a distinction between those who are His sheep and those who are not.
When Jesus spoke to a crowd, those whom He had called to be His own would recognize Him as the Messiah and follow after Him, those whom He had not called would not recognize Him and would not follow. You can imagine this illustration better if you realize that in Jesus’ day they would pen many sheep together in a pen with sheep all owned by different people. But the shepherd’s knew their sheep so well and vice-versa that he knew his sheep by name and they knew his voice. A shepherd would literally call to his sheep as the gatekeeper opened the gate and just the sheep who recognised the voice of their master would come to him and follow him.
So clearly Jesus is making a distinction that there are those who are His sheep and there are those who are not His sheep. Hopefully we can all agree on that. But look what Jesus says in connection with this distinction in verses 14 and 15.
"14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep."
Jesus knows His sheep, and He lays down His life for them. He doesn’t lay down His life for other people’s sheep, He lays down His life for the sheep he knows. And as we looked at last time in Part 2 of this series, Jesus knows intimately those whom He calls from the foundation of the world. That is the meaning of "foreknowledge."
Furthermore look what Jesus says just a little bit later again rebuking the Pharisees in verses 25-30.
"25Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, 26but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30I and the Father are one."
Jesus specifically tells the Pharisees that the reason they don’t believe in Him is because they are not part of His flock. Think it through carefully now, Jesus doesn’t say "because you do not believe in me you are not part of my flock" He say because you are not part of my flock you do not believe in me! Sheep do not pick their shepherd, shepherds pick their sheep! Jesus says that He gives His sheep eternal life, Jesus says that He lays down His life for His sheep. And Jesus says that there are those that are not His sheep. This equals, people, that Jesus does not give His life for everyone, He gives His life for those who He has chosen.
This could make you angry or confused if this is not what you have been taught since becoming a Christian. The Pharisees wanted to stone Jesus for the thing He just said. But I urge you to set aside presuppositions that you have and just look at the text of Scripture. What does it say? Am I making this up? I am not.
Again, as I have said, it is crucial that you understand God’s sovereignty, if you do not you will surely reject this. It is also crucial that you have considered Total Depravity and Unconditional Election, but if you have considered those things and you agree that God is truly sovereign and in control of all things (even our decisions). And if you agree man is totally depraved and that God must choose (Elect) us because we cannot choose Him and not because of works that find favor in His sight because all of our works are evil (Romans 3:10-12) then you must accept this also!
Here are some things to consider about the beliefs that are commonly held by Christians who reject or have not been confronted with this doctrine.
Is Christ’s death on the cross truly substitutionary?
We often talk about the substitutionary atonement of Christ. That is to say that Christ Jesus died in the place of the sinner as a substitute. I believe indeed that this is biblical and true, however only for the elect, not for all people. Let’s think this through carefully.
"23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."
We see that God made Jesus a "propitiation.... so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." Propitiation isn’t exactly a commonly used word in the English vocabulary. I would assume that outside of a discussion on the atonement, it pretty much just isn’t used. What it basically means is a sacrificial turning away of the wrath of God for sin, an appeasement of God’s wrath for sin. Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God for sin. But whom did He do this for? "The on who has faith in Jesus." Who has faith in Jesus? Only those whom God elects and sovereignly breaks them out of their depravity and gives them faith and repentance. Man does not seek for God on his own, so the one who has faith in Jesus is the one whom God calls and gives faith. Jesus died for the elect, not everyone.
If Jesus Christ died, literally in the place of all sinners, why do people go to Hell? Indeed to take it further, since Christ died not only for the atonement of sin for those who would come after Him but for those who came before such as Moses and David, if Jesus died for "all people" then Jesus died for the sin of people who were already in Hell. Before anyone shouts "heretic", step back from your presuppositions and think this through. "Christ died in my place" we say. And if you are a born again believer, that is true. But it cannot be true for the person that is going to or is already suffering for their sin in Hell. If Jesus bore the wrath of God’s anger against sin for everyone, all times, all places then God would be unjust to place anyone in Hell. But Scripture clearly testifies that He does. God would equally be unjust for pouring wrath upon His son for sin that someone else was going to or already is paying for in Hell. For the doctrine of substitutionary atonement to be true, it must be understood that God died, not in place of all people, all places, all times, rather God died to pay for the sin of those whom He had chosen to save.
If you have followed with me through God’s Sovereignty and seen that man is totally depraved and unable to turn his heart to God (nor does he want to). And if you have seen that because of mans depravity that God must actively turn the heart of the sinner to Himself, not on the basis of good works (because there are none), but on the basis of His free and sovereign will, then you must accept this doctrine also.
Why would God die for people whom He has not chosen to save?
It would be illogical. God did not merely make salvation possible, He made salvation actual. Evangelicalism loves to preach that God died for all mankind and wants everyone to know Him, "but He wont force anyone to come to Him." That is pathetically unscriptural. Let me ask you this, does God fail? Jesus defined His message in this way:
"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." - Luke 19:10
Did Jesus fail in His mission? No. Jesus came to seek and save the lost and so He did, perfectly. Jesus saves all whom He intends to save. Or do you think that God is just going to be eternally unhappy? "Oh I wish John Smith would have given His heart to me, but I just couldn’t mess with his sovereign free will, now I have to know I failed to save John Smith for all eternity," says God. I don’t think so! But indeed this is just our problem, we think that our will is free and sovereign and that God "would not" and perhaps some think "could not" override our free will. But it is God who is sovereign and in control God is not sad that people go to Hell. He did not try to save them and fail. God justly puts them in Hell because they are rebellious sinners who have cursed the name and authority of God since birth. We all deserve Hell but God shows His love and mercy in choosing some of those same kind of sinners and making them His own, and God shows His justice and wrath by punishing the rest. Both the free exercise of God’s wrath and His free exercise of grace bring glory to God.
"14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 19You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-- 24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?"
Scripture clearly teaches that:
1. God sovereignly controls all things, yes even you and me.
2. Man is totally depraved because of Sin, we do not seek for God.
3. God in His sovereignty chooses (elects) some of this sinful mankind to be saved, merely by His free grace and not by our works, because no one does good in His sight.
4. God sent the Son to die in the place of the elect. He saves all whom He intended to save.
The primary objection to this doctrine as well as the teaching of unconditional election, is that this makes God unloving. I think this is a finite mans viewpoint. After all, what is fair? Fair is that we would all go to Hell. We have all broke God’s law, and the penalty of that transgression is eternal death. So it is purely by God’s goodness and mercy that He saves anyone. I’m glad that God didn’t give me what I deserve. Instead Christ died in my place and He gave me, a depraved God hating sinner, faith and repentance and He has saved me to the full.
Other objections usually center around passages that have or use the word "all" in them when referring to Salvation. I can’t tell you how many time I’ve heard pastors and evangelists use texts such as these and then have the entire crowd repeat the word "all." As if "All" is some kind of word that trumps this doctrine that I am teaching right now. As if the word "All" laughs in the face of the rest of Scriptures teaching. For those who think the word "all" is so universal as to mean that everyone, all places, all times, no matter what, here is an illustration for you.
Let’s say on a Sunday morning I am preaching and I look out the window and see how nice it looks outside. It’s mid 80's with a nice breeze and I get the inclination to move this service outside. I then say to the congregation, "It’s such a beautiful day, let’s all go outside."
Now when I said "all," did I mean that everyone in the entire world should go outside? No. I meant my specific audience whom I was addressing should go outside. The problem with many people who try and interpret Scripture when the word "all" shows up is that they do not allow the context of Scripture to define who "all" is. Sometimes it is universal, sometimes it’s not.
An obvious example is Romans 8:32 which says:
"He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?"
Isolate that verse and you could make it say whatever you want. But what does the next verse say?
"Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies."
Now we have some context, Paul is talking about the elect. Not everyone, all places, all times. And if you read the book of Romans as a whole, which is the best way to grasp the context of any verse, you will see that Paul is largely addressing people who are Christians. So who is "all?" Christians, the elect.
So let God be the one to decide what is fair. Read Scripture in its context. The doctrine of Limited Atonement is true.