As we approach that time of year when the church in particular remembers the death and resurrection of our Savior, it is appropriate to consider this often perplexing question. Christians, faithful to a Reformed understanding of Scripture, have always held that “it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father” (Canons of Dort, II:8). This teaching has been called by various names: “Limited Atonement,” “Definite Atonement,” or most preferably, “Particular Redemption.”
However, many Christians challenge this teaching that Christ died only for his elect people. They often appeal to the following Scripture passages to point out why they consider this doctrine to be unscriptural:
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
1 Timothy 2:5–6: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all.”
1 John 2:2: “And He (Jesus Christ) Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
Hebrews 2:9: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.”
These passages talk in such universal and inclusive terms of Christ’s death that it seems clear to them that the Reformed position must be contrary to Scripture.
How should Reformed Christians respond to these charges, and how can we defend biblically our teaching? In what follows we will look at a few important arguments to show the Scriptural basis of the Reformed position.
The Unity of Scripture
The principal starting point must be that the teaching of Scripture forms a unified whole. Simply put: Scripture cannot contradict itself! We cannot take one verse from Scripture to teach what Scripture clearly denies elsewhere. Even those who disagree with the Reformed view, will (have to) agree on this point, since a denial of this impinges upon the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God.
Salvation is Limited
Scripture emphatically teaches that not everyone will be saved. Although there are those who take the above mentioned passages in an absolute way saying that all mankind will be saved (we call them “Universalists”), they have to deny our Savior’s persistent teaching about the reality of hell for those who unbelievingly reject him and his teaching (Jn 3:17–21, 36; Mk 9:42–48; Mt 7:13–14, 21–27; 25:31–46; etc.). All Bible-believing Christians would agree that these passages, although using such universal language (“all,” the “whole world,” “everyone”) do not teach that everyone will necessarily be saved. So here we see that both Calvinists (Christ died for the elect only) and Arminians (Christ died for all) limit salvation in some way. Therefore, it is disingenuous to smear Calvinists for preaching a “limited atonement!” If you are not a Universalist, you have to limit the atonement in some manner.
What is Limited: The Extent or the Effect?
This is the real question. The Arminians say that because Christ died for all, and Scripture clearly teaches that not all will be saved, it therefore must mean that Christ did not die to effect salvation for all. Christ’s death in and of itself did in fact save no one. His death does not secure or guarantee salvation for anyone. He only makes salvation possible for all men. Christ did not redeem anybody, but merely made redemption possible. What makes Christ a Savior is not ultimately his work, but my faith. By teaching this, Arminians must limit the effectiveness of Christ’s work. But Scripture clearly affirms the definite accomplishment of Christ’s cross in the following passages:
Matthew 1:21 “you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”
2 Corinthians 5:21 “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (“Might become” does not point to possibility but to the purpose and definite accomplishment of the main action, namely “He made Him . . . to be sin.”)
Galatians 4:4–5: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
Hebrews 2:17 “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
Hebrews 9:11–12: “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”
Many more passages can be pointed to that affirm the real actual accomplishment of Christ’s work. He does not only makes salvation possible, he does save; he does not only make redemption possible, he does redeem, “having obtained eternal redemption”; he does not only make propitiation possible, he does turn away the wrath of God for those for whom he died; he does make propitiation! Christ accomplished nothing less than what he set out to do. For he said: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), and this is exactly what he did. As the apostle Paul affirms in 1 Timothy 1:15: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” If Christ’s work is as effective as Scripture declares it to be, then there are only two options open: 1) All men are in fact saved; or 2) Only those are in fact saved who were intended to be saved. We have already disqualified the first option since it clearly contradicts Scripture. That leaves us with only option two as a viable explanation of Scripture. Before we move on to discuss the design of the cross we must mention that the “infinite value and worth” of Christ’s death is “more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” (Canons of Dort, II:3). We do not deny this. We confess this with all our heart! But since the Scriptures teach us that not all are saved, we must begin to see God’s will and purpose with the cross.
The Design or Purpose Behind the Cross
Here the harmony and cooperation between the three persons of the Trinity is of the utmost importance. God the Father elected out of the whole human race before the foundation of the world a multitude no man can number unto eternal life (Eph. 1:4–5; Rom. 8:28–30). Then the Father gave this multitude to his Son, Jesus Christ, to save. No place is this more emphatically stated than in Jesus’ high priestly prayer of John 17. Listen to these phrases:
“as many as you have given me” (2),
“the men whom You have given Me out of the world” (6),
“I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours” (9),
“Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me” (11),
“Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am” (24).
It was for these whom the Father had given Him, and for these alone, that Christ secured eternal salvation. John 6:38–39 makes the point: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.” It is even clearer in John 10:25–29: “Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” Why will Christ’s sheep not perish but inherit eternal life? Because their Good Shepherd said earlier: “I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:15). Christ’s death is limited in its extent to the multitude the Father has given him and whom he calls his sheep, but it is definitely not limited in its effectiveness! Christ did accomplish salvation for all his people. Now it is to these people, for whom the Father has given Christ and for whom Christ laid down his life, that God the Holy Spirit comes to apply to their hearts the very salvation accomplished in Christ (Cf. John 3:3–8; 6:44–45, 64–65; 14:26). Here we have the harmony and perfect agreement between the three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, planned and purposed the salvation of the elect, Jesus Christ accomplished all that the Father purposed, and the Holy Spirit applies the salvation purposed and accomplished to those whom the Father elected and for whom Christ actually died. The Arminian position presents a contorted and frustrated Godhead: The Father purposes salvation only for those who he foresees will believe, the Son makes salvation possible for all, and the Holy Spirit has to wait until the sinner turns the doorknob of his heart to let him in. Here the Father, Son, and Spirit are working at cross purposes, and in the end salvation still rests in the hands of man. But Scripture is clear: “Salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together to bring the elect multitude into the fullness of salvation.
The “Universal” Passages
The final question is what do we do with the passages mentioned above that seem to use such universal language? Here are a few pointers:
Always read these passages in their context. Often the context will make clear that it does not include everyone head for head. Hebrews 2:9 is a good example of this. Who is the “everyone” for whom Christ tasted death? Well, they are “the many sons” to be brought to glory (v. 10), they are “those who are being sanctified” (11), they are those who are called by Christ “My brethren” (12), and they are called “the children whom God has given Me” (13). Clearly this defines the “everyone” for whom Christ tasted death and it shows that it is not every single person head-for-head.
It is important to take into account that not every instance of universal language is always meant to include every single person. Matthew 10:22 says “And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” Here the “all” clearly does not include the disciples as if the one disciple will hate the other. Another example would be Luke 2:1–3: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. . . . So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.” Here the reference to “all the world,” “all” and “everyone” does not refer to the whole world but only those under Roman jurisdiction. This fact must be taken into account when reading those seemingly universal passages.
Remember also that biblical words have various meanings. This is particularly important when we look at the word “world.” It can mean the “world” created by God (Jn 1:10), it can be the sinful rebellious world (Mt 18:17; 1 Jn 2:15–17), it can be a reference to the Gentile “world” in contrast to the Jewish one (Eph. 2:12). So we have to figure out exactly what the reference is of “world” in any particular passage.
As Christ’s work is before us once again, let us marvel at the cross of Christ and what he did actually accomplish for us. Let us not be ashamed of the cross of Christ for it is the “power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
Rev. Jacques Roets is the pastor of the Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.