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Question and Answer

Limited Atonement


I am having a hard time reconciling the doctrine of Limited Atonement with the Scriptures that say that Christ came to save the whole world or loved the whole world. How does the OPC reconcile them?


Let me start with a review of the Five Points of Calvinism, of which Limited Atonement is #3. They all hang together. Then I'll attempt to show that Scripture teaches them. Finally, I'll try to deal with those Scriptures that seem to contradict limited atonement.

Total Depravity means that fallen mankind is depraved in every part of his being. His intellect is depraved so that he cannot understand the things of God, and his affections are centered on himself and the things of the world so that he cannot receive the things of God. His will is also limited to doing that which is according to his fallen nature. So Total Depravity includes total inability to do anything that pleases God.

Unconditional Election means that God sovereignly chooses those whom He will save. You are a Christian. Yes, you chose Christ as your Savior and Lord. But you could not have done so unless God, by His Holy Spirit had chosen you from the foundation of the world. So salvation is by grace alone. You did not contribute anything to your salvation. Even your faith is a gift from God.

Limited Atonement. (I'll come back to Limited Atonement after I bring in the last two points.)

Irresistible Grace means that God (in a manner of speaking) made war against you and, because He is sovereign in wisdom and power, you came to Him on His terms that you might be saved.

Perseverance of the Saints means that once you became a child of God, since salvation is all by grace, you will remain faithful to the end and attain to glory.

Now let's look at Limited Atonement. If salvation is all by God's grace, and Jesus Christ is the Son of God, can you imagine that the reason that some people are lost (for not everyone will be saved!) is that (a) God's power is limited, or (b) the blood of Jesus is limited as to the number of sins and sinners He can atone for?

Actually, the word "limited" in "limited atonement" may be misconceived. What the doctrine really states is DEFINITE atonement. God had certain people in mind. When I was young we used to sing a simple chorus: "He laid down His life for His sheep;/ He laid down His life for His sheep./ This Shepherd so kind had me in His mind/ When He laid down His life for His sheep."

You see how each of the Five Points needs all of the other four. If salvation is ALL of grace, and God is all-powerful and all-wise, then Christ did not die for the express purpose of saving someone he didn't want to save!

Does Scripture teach total depravity? Look up and read these passages: Ephesians 2:1-3; 1 Corinthians 2:14; John 6:44. (I could give many more, but these are quite clear on the point of man's depravity.) This is not to say that total depravity means absolute depravity. Only the devil is absolutely as evil as he can be. God graciously restrains most unsaved people from being as evil as they can be. In fact, by the standards of human morality unsaved people can do many things good in themselves, but the "good" works of unbelievers are not acceptable with God. Romans 14:23 says "That which is not of faith is sin"!

Does Scripture teach Unconditional Election - that God chooses those whom He will save? See Ephesians 2:8-9 in which the Apostle Paul says that faith is a gift from God, not of works, lest we should boast! See also Ephesians 1:3-5. Notice that His choice of you was not in you, but "according to the good pleasure of His will." Read also Romans 8:28-30. And don't let "and whom He did foreknow.." mean that, since He as God knows everything, therefore his choice of you was after the fact of your choice of Him. The word "know" in Scripture often has the meaning of a father's begetting his child (e.g. Genesis 4:1). Or, to put it somewhat differently, "foreknow" in Scripture may mean "forelove."

Irresistible Grace is taught in Scripture. Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18 all tell of the conversion of Saul (later known as the Apostle Paul). There was no pleading or negotiating, but the effectual call and the revelation of God's will for the rest of his life. Galatians 1:15-16 undergirds this in Paul's own words. See also Romans 8:30 and John 15:16.

It may be true that, under conviction of sin, some may resist and struggle long before yielding to God's Spirit, yet in the end they come and yield to Him. Whom He predestinated, He justified, He glorified. God's calling ALWAYS secures its answer.

Finally, Perseverance of the Saints. See Philippians 1:6 and John 6:44; the latter states it so simply: nobody whom God calls is able to respond unless he is one whom the Father draws. And those so drawn will be raised up in the last day. John 5:24 says in effect that whoever trusts from the heart the Lord Jesus Christ has EVERLASTING life. How can everlasting life be lost and still be everlasting?

Let's now concentrate on Limited (of Definite) Atonement. John 10:11, 14-16 says it so clearly. The Good Shepherd laid down His life for His SHEEP. And note that the other sheep (vs. 16) refer to Gentiles. Then verses 24-30 are very explicit. In 26 He says "... you don't believe , because you are not my sheep." The remaining verses state who ARE His sheep. Notice the personal pronouns: "My sheep hear MY voice and they follow Me ... I give them eternal life, ... neither shall anyone snatch them out of MY hand." Jesus is speaking with the voice of the Son of God, later making Himself EQUAL with the Father.

Add to this John 17, our Lord's high priestly prayer: Jesus thanks the Father that he has kept those the Father had given him (vs. 12). He makes one exception: "... the son of perdition," referring to Judas. The expression, "son of perdition," suggests that Jesus outwardly called Judas to be one of the twelve, but excluded him from the number of the true disciples. See also Acts 1:25: "Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place." That place was "perdition" the place of eternal punishment. It was his place from beginning, and Jesus knew it as such (John 12:6). Only the disciples were surprised. Judas was not one of those the Father had given Jesus.

In chapter 17 Jesus prays for the eleven true disciples and then (in vs. 20 and following) includes ALL who should believe in Him through the word of the Apostles. That includes us!

Finally, let's look at some verses which might seem to teach universal atonement: John 3:16 and 12:32. God loved the world ("cosmos") etc. John uses this word in the sense of the world of fallen mankind. But it doesn't say the whole world. He gave His Son that "whoever believes ..."

John 12:32 says Christ lifted up on His cross will draw all to Himself. ("Men" or "peoples" are supplied by translators.) "All" cannot mean all mankind. This is contrary to Scripture. So the translators are right to supply a qualifying word. Of the versions on my desk, three supply "men," and one "peoples." The latter (New King James) makes the best sense.

If it is not all people absolutely, then all sorts of people would fit better, including men and women, Jew and Gentile, old and young, learned and unlearned etc.

Hebrews 2:9: "... so that ... [Jesus] might taste death for everyone." But if Jesus tasted death (died) for absolutely everyone, we must conclude that he failed in his purpose if most of those for whom He died were lost. This implies failure on the part of God and His Son in failing to accomplish what He set out to do!

"We have not so learned Christ"! The Greek word is "all." It can only mean all who believe, or all the elect, or some such. An example of such a use of "all" is found in 1 Corinthians 15:51: "We shall not all sleep [i.e. die], but we shall all be changed." That means, "all" shall be resurrected and glorified. It cannot mean all humanity (see Revelation 20:15). In this case the "all" is limited by the context. Unbelievers and their resurrection is not under consideration throughout this chapter, only believers. So all believers will be resurrected and changed.

I could cite other like examples. Always look at what is called the "universe of discourse," which is sometimes clear to the reader, and sometimes not. 2 Peter 3:9 is a case at point. Is God NOT willing that the objects of His wrath should not perish? If so, we again must believe in a limited God, for if He is the one who chooses who should be saved, and chooses to save everybody and then fails, what kind of God is He?

Now the context in this verse is not clear. Yet we can agree that we should understand that the "any" must mean, any of those whom He has chosen. The opposite interpretation contradicts all the Scriptures I have cited for limited atonement.

One more verse: 1 Timothy 4:10 "... the living God, who is able to be the Savior of all men, especially those who believe." The "especially" seems to say that God saves some who do not believe. The question is solved in the verb "to save," in the Greek, "sozo." That word is at times used to denote a temporal deliverance. Israel of old received such deliverance from their enemies. This deliverance was from God. Someone seeming miraculously delivered from almost certain death may, in the end, suffer eternal loss for not believing in Jesus.

The "especially" narrows the concept "to those who believe," i.e. saved through faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. In Reformed parlance we speak of "common grace" as God's goodness even to those who are destined to be lost (Romans 2:4-5; Matthew 5:45). God's goodness to reprobate sinners may be considered the product of the cross. In that sense it might be said that Jesus died for all mankind. But saving grace is called "special grace." And whatever we may say of benefits flowing from the cross, Christ did NOT die to save those whom He willed to pass over unto deserved condemnation!

This turned out to be more than a simple answer to a simple question. But I've attempted to answer your question honestly from Scripture. I was not sure how much understanding you have about Reformed theology. But I hope this clears up your perplexity. Please come back with further questions.

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