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Limited Atonement

This is often the most debated and emotional parts of the Doctrines of Grace (better term than “Calvinism”). For most people, the issue of atonement is not one that’s well understood.

This doesn’t mean that Christ’s death isn’t sufficient to save everyone. It does mean, however, that Christ’s death is effective only for those who are the elect.  It was for a specific group of people that Jesus Christ died.

Can be extremely emotional to discuss, and made even harder by bad caricatures on one side, and arrogant slams on the other.

Key questions to consider on this topic:

For whom did Christ actually die?

What did Christ actually do on the Cross?

Why do not all people go to heaven?

Basic Points regarding Limited Atonement:

We’ll argue that the bible teaches that Christ actually bore away the sins of all God’s elect, and by doing so ensured that they would be (1) brought to faith through the new birth, and (2) kept in that faith for all time.

Additionally, if this is true, then we must begin to acknowledge that in some way the death of Christ was limited.  

The bible shows that not all are saved. And this is often missed by opponents. In fact, every view of the atonement except for universalism is limited in some way.

We’ll also, argue that the bible clearly shows that the death of Christ was very specific in its design, and what it accomplished.

Christ’s death was not to vaguely die “for” everyone throughout time.

We’re very sloppy when we talk about the fact that Jesus died “for” sin. The word “for” means something, and we often pass it over.

A responsible reader of the bible has to wrestle with what the term means, especially since it’s much of what makes the Gospel so important.

Christ’s death accomplished exactly what God intended - to purchase a people for Himself (cf. Revelation 5:9).

Highly recommend John Piper’s little book 50 Reasons Jesus Came to Die.  This is a link to a free ebook of it:

This is all in contrast to the idea that Christ’s death makes it possible to be saved and forgiven of sin, but only if we believe.  In this view, all that’s needed for salvation has been provided by Jesus’ death, but it’s entirely dependent upon our willingness to repent and believe in Him (e.g., receive him, invite him into your heart, etc.).

This is no small thing and it requires some careful thought.  We already gave the various views on the atonement (which, if you’ve not listened to, we encourage you to listen before you continue with this one).  

So, we want to show the exegetical basis for the limited/focused nature of the atoning work of the cross.

Limited Atonement—Purpose of His Death.

"She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." (Matt. 1:21)


"For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Lk. 19:10)

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor. 5:21)

Galatians 1:3 "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father."

"It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all." (1 Tim. 1:15)

"who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." (Tit. 2:14)

Limited Atonement—The Result of His Death

"being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; (Rom. 3:24-25)

"For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." (Rom. 5:10)

"Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation."

(2 Cor. 5:18-19)

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us-- for it is written, 'CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE '" (Gal. 3:13)

"And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds,  yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach." (Col. 1:21-22)

"who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." (Tit. 2:14)

Limited Atonement—John’s Gospel

Take them through John 6:35ff showing the flow of argumentation all the way to vs. 66.  Focus on the people given by the Father. Who will come. Why they come.

"I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." (Jn. 10:11)

So we can say with confidence that Christ died for “the sheep.”

The next question is who are they?

"I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me,  15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.  16 "I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.  17 "For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again.  18 "No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father." (Jn. 10:14-18)


"Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, 'Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You,  2 even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.  3 This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  4 I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. 6 I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; 8 for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me.  9 I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours;  10 and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.'" (Jn. 17:1-11)


"I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word;  21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me." (Jn. 17:20-21)

"Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 "O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; 26 and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them." (Jn. 17:24-26)

Limited Atonement—”Problem Passages”

"The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn. 1:29)

The term “world” focuses not on the totality of mankind, but on the broadness of Christ’s work---(i.e., not only for the Jew).

This is seen in the phrase “takes away” which speaks of taking sin upon himself and bearing it away.

To argue that it is true of all humans (for all time) would require us to then teach universal salvation. And the reason for that is because it never then connects it with first believing.

John 3:16

Two different “that’s” in this verse.

First is result---the result of God’s love.

Second is purpose---the purpose of the giving of the Son.

Starts very broad and goes to a very specific focus.

It’s improper to understand this as “whoever may believe...” as if this salvation is open to all.

Rather, it’s literally, “so that all the believing ones…”

In other words, there is a specific set of “believing ones,” and these are the ones for whom the Son was sent.

So as a result, the passage is showing that faith saves no one.  Rather, faith is simply the instrument that’s used to appropriate that salvation for this specific group of “believing ones.” And the death of Christ was the actual means/grounds of salvation for these believing ones.

"This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,  4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:3-4)

“All men” seems to be qualitative rather than quantitative.

“desires” is a specific Greek word that speaks of a wish or desire, rather than the one used to refer to His sovereign will.

This is a good passage to see that God is a emotional Being.  His love and care for His creation is not false, and He’s not some cold, impassive God.

“For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” (1 Tim. 4:10)

The meaning of “Savior” is very broad.

Note that there is not a contingency in this verse.  God is (indicative) the Savior of all. There’s no statement of “if” one believes.

Note also that there is a distinction between those who believe and those who don’t.  Belief brings about a unique salvation.

"The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." (2 Pet. 3:9)

Too often the assumption is that “you” and “any” means all people.  But it never says that, it is just assumed.

Both of these words are pronouns.  To identify who the pronouns refer to you must read backward to find the antecedent.  This is found in verse 8, and it is “beloved.”

If you follow the term “beloved” back you would find that it speaks to those who are christians.

So here’s the passage with the pronouns replaced by their antecedent.

2 Peter 3:9 "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward [you beloved], not wishing for [any of His beloved] to perish, but for all [the beloved] to come to repentance."

Within context, the passage is speaking of the coming of the Lord (cf. verses 10ff), but the promise is that before Christ returns all who are his shall be saved.  In other words, the point is that none of the elect shall be lost.

"He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." (1 Jn. 2:2)

This is perhaps the hardest of the problem passages.  And it’s dependent on how you understand certain words.  [Now, we’ve already looked at all of the other problem passages that are normally given, and we tried to show how they’re not rock solid examples of Christ’s universal death. Therefore, this passage needs to be considered in that light as well.]

One view is that term “world” here is only of the elect. In other words, it’s speaking of “the world of elect.”  In this view, they say there seems to be a close grammatical correlation between this verse, and John 11:51-52.

John 11:51-52 "Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”

The other view is that in some way there’s a universal application of the death of Christ for the sake of the whole world.  They say, God’s wrath has been appeased, but in two different ways, for all people. So this is part of common grace.

In our opinion, this second view is the better way to see the passage.  The word used here is “Propitiation” and has the sense of appeasing wrath.  And that is what Christ’s death did (but not the ONLY thing it did).

Why do people who reject Christ still live and breath and enjoy life?  Because Christ has appeased (i.e., held back) the wrath of God. And because Christ has also purchased a people from their sin, God endures the others.

In other words, He’s enduring them until the fullness of His elect are saved.


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