The doctrine of limited atonement follows closely and directly from the doctrine of unconditional election. God, who has chosen to save His people, will also provide this salvation in Jesus Christ.
The questions that are answered in this doctrine are these: “Did Christ die on the cross for every single human being, without distinction?” or, “Did His death have an actual, saving result only for the elect?” The first position – Universal Atonement – is that held by Arminianism; the latter – Limited Atonement – is held by the Calvinist. Only Scripture itself can answer these questions truthfully.
There are those who believe in a “Universal Atonement” in the sense that all men are actually saved in the end. That is not generally the teaching of Arminianism, but of modern NeoOrthodoxy. The type of “Universal Atonement” that the Arminian has adopted is that the atonement of Jesus was intended to be universal, but man’s refusal to accept it by faith renders it ineffective. Therefore, the actual error of the Arminian doctrine is not universal salvation, but the universal possibility of salvation.
Atonement: Power or Possibility?
The real issue here is the power of the atonement of Christ. That is, “Does the death and resurrection of Christ actually save, or did Christ die just to make salvation possible for men (a possibility which man would be free to accept or reject)?” The Reformed doctrine of limited atonement teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice was powerful, and actually did save those whom the Father had given Him (those who were the subjects of God’s electing love).
As we saw in the last lesson, election itself does not save – it only guarantees that salvation will come to the elect. After election, the elect still stand in need of redemption. This is accomplished by Christ in bearing the curse of sinners and being victorious over death. If the doctrine of unconditional election by God stands true as the Scriptures teach, then it must follow that God would not have the precious blood of His Son shed for those whom He has not chosen. Since they are not chosen, God knows that they will remain in condemnation.
What “Atonement” Means
“Atonement” means that man has been made “at one” with God, that is, “reconciled” to God. Since it was man’s sin that caused enmity between God and man, sin must be removed if man is to be justified in the sight of God. This payment was made for the elect when Christ substituted Himself for us on the cross and paid the ransom for our sins.
The atonement flows completely out of the free and sovereign love of God (Jn. 3:16; Romans 3:24,25; I Jn. 4:9,10). God was under no obligation to save anyone. All that Christ accomplished in His suffering and death was because of the Father’s love for His people (see Rom. 8:32).
The plan of God to save was purely out of the love and grace of God, without obligation. Yet, we must also see another aspect of salvation often referred to as the “necessity of the atonement.” It was not necessary for God to save anyone, but once He has determined to save some, He can do it only one way. That way is through the death and resurrection of His only begotten Son. Only through this method of salvation can God be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26).
The sin of man is an abomination in the sight of our infinitely holy God. God’s perfect holiness and justice demands that sin committed against the Most High God be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 11). If God were to justify (that is, to declare someone righteous) in any way that did not involve the pouring out of His wrath against sin, God would have had to abandon His own perfect justice. In that sense only can we speak of the “necessity of the atonement” through the substitutionary, sacrificial, propitiatory offering of the blood of Jesus.
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.