Charity in all Things
The idea of “limited atonement” under the doctrine of election is an open-handed issue at TPCC. There are doctrinal issues that are not open for debate or personal interpretation (closed-handed). Examples would be the deity of Jesus, the Bible as the perfect Word of God, and salvation being through faith alone in Jesus and His work. Open-handed issues are those theological concepts that are open for debate. Examples would be the age of the earth or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of election and this subpart, called by some “limited atonement,” is in that open-hand category. We are free to discuss, debate, and wrestle with this, hopefully in love and humility, always striving to maintain unity in the Body (Ephesians 4:1-3). No matter the particulars of our theology, if it is not one that transforms us into humble and gracious people, it is not founded on the Gospel.
Limited Atonement Defined
What is meant by the term limited atonement? First let’s look at the word atonement or atone. Two English words make up atone: at and one, so atone means “to make at one.” Our sin has separated us from God, and God has sent His Son, Jesus, into the world to die a sinner’s death to atone for our sin. Atonement refers to Jesus’ penal and substitutionary death upon a cross. Jesus shed His blood to pay the penalty for believers’ sin and to appease the just wrath of the Father. “Limited” refers to the limits on this work or for whom this work is to be applied.
Was Jesus’ Atonement Limited?
I believe we have to say “yes” to this question. If we say “no” and believe that Jesus’ atonement is limitless, then we are espousing universalism. Certainly, we don’t believe that all people are saved. Let me fine-tune this point by asking this question: “Did Jesus pay the penalty for the sins of those people in Hell?” We have to say “no.” If He had paid the penalty for their sin and appeased God’s wrath for them, then they would not be in Hell. So there is a limit to Jesus’ atonement. It is not without limit. Now, a follow up question to this would be, “Could Jesus’ death have paid their penalty?” Yes. But it didn’t and they are, heartbreakingly, under the eternal condemnation and wrath of a just God. Make no mistake: the unsaved are lost and under God’s wrath because they are sinners who refused to trust and believe in Jesus.
A Particular People
Jesus’ atonement was not universal, but for a particular people. The Biblical authors have described this particular people in a couple different ways. Men writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit have used several different descriptors to designate the group of people who are the beneficiaries of Jesus’ work. Here are a few examples:
- Romans 10:13 says that Jesus has died for “everyone who calls upon His name.” The group for whom Jesus has shed His blood are those who call upon Him for salvation. It is those that place their faith in Him and His work (the gospel).
- In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul encourages husbands to love their wives as Christ has loved His church and says that He has given Himself up for [a particular group, the Church]. This is the same group of people as those who call upon Jesus, but here they are named the Church. In Acts 20:28, Luke records Paul’s encouragement to the Ephesian elders to love, pastor, and oversee the Church of God, as has been obtained by Jesus’ own blood.
- In Ephesians 1:4-7, this group is called those predestined for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. He has redeemed those whom He predestined for adoption before the foundation of the world through His blood. This is the same concept we saw in Romans 8:29-30. It is those whom He foreknew, whom He predestined, whom He called, whom He justified (made them just through the atoning work of Christ), and whom He glorified.
- In Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, this same group is called those whose names have been written in the Lamb’s book of life.
This is the same group of people, but different terms are used to describe this group. (John 15:16, 1 Peter 2:9, Titus 2:14)
A Word of Warning
We must discipline our minds not to conjure up people or scenarios that are outside Biblical descriptions. For example, the person who wants to be saved, the individual who desires to worship God or to know God, but isn’t permitted to come to saving faith. That person is not in the Bible. Everyone—or as the King James puts it, “whosoever”—desires to come to Jesus can come to Jesus. Jesus looks at the city of Jerusalem, His own people, who have rejected Him, and He weeps at their rebellion. Jesus cries that He would have gathered them as a hen gathers her chicks, but they would not come to Him (Matthew 23:37). The unsaved are lost because they refuse to believe; the Church is saved because they believe.