The Limited Nature of the Atonement
What was the “value” of the atonement? First, it must be seen that since Christ was both man and God in one person, the value of His suffering and death was infinite. I Peter 1:18,19 tells us that it was not with “silver and gold” but with the “precious blood of Christ” that we have been redeemed. If it had pleased God, the death of Christ could have resulted in the salvation of all men. That is, it was of sufficient value to save everyone, if God had intended to do that. Christ would not have had to suffer more if God had determined to save more. It would have taken no more of a sacrifice to save millions of people (or even all of mankind) than it would take to save only one person. God’s perfect justice required that a perfect sacrifice of infinite value be made. Therefore, the number who are saved are not determined by the value of the sacrifice itself.
This matter of “the sufficiency of the atonement” is important since some would accuse Calvinists of limiting the value of Christ’s death. The value of the blood of Jesus is not determined by the number it is applied to, but the effect that it brings to whom it is applied.
While the work of Christ was “sufficient” for all, it was not efficient for all. That is, its effect and intent would not be to save all, but only the intended subjects. Christ had no such intent when He died. He intended only to save those whom the Father had from eternity given to Him through His election (see how sharply Christ felt this as He prayed to His Father in John 17:2, 3, 6, 9, 12, 24).
The reason why God did not elect all men and have Christ to die for all men remains a mystery to us, yet that is the teaching of Scripture regarding the plan of God. We certainly have no justification for thinking that God was obligated to save any or all men. If God were under obligation, salvation would no longer be by grace. What should be a greater mystery is how God could love even one person enough to choose him and send His Son to die for him!
If Christ would have died for all men and all men would come to salvation, then nothing would have been removed from the power of the atoning death of Christ. But it is clear from the Bible that all men are not believers and that many men are lost eternally. However, if as Arminians say, Christ died for all men, and yet some are lost, this must indicate that Christ’s death actually saved no one. It would then have only provided the possibility or the offer of salvation. It would then be left for man to decide whether or not he will accept the plan of God and the work of Christ. This would put the power of the atonement in the hands of sinful men. If this is true and man rejects Christ’s atonement, then God is rendered powerless to carry out His intentions. Christ’s death would be good only if man decides he wants it.
It is easy to see, if Arminianism is right, that the whole of God’s eternal plan is made dependent on man. If man is totally depraved as the Scriptures teach, and it rests with man by himself to repent and believe, nobody could or would be saved!
According to the Arminian doctrine of “unlimited” atonement, the blood of Christ was shed in vain for many. The fact, however, is that anyone whose sins are covered in the sight of God does not perish. If Christ died for all, then all are saved (a universal salvation that even most Arminians reject).
The Calvinist is often accused of limiting the power of the atonement by maintaining that it is effective only for some (the elect of God). But in reality, the Calvinist does not limit it – God limits it to “His people” (Matt. 1:21).
It is the Arminian who really places the limitation on the work of Christ when he limits the power of Christ’s blood and the power of God to save those whom He intended to save! The Calvinist confesses that God has limited the atonement quantitatively (with regard to the number), while the Arminian limits the atonement qualitatively (with regard to power and effectiveness). In this way they place a much more serious limitation on the work of Christ than they accuse the Calvinist of.
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.