Limited Atonement: The Historic Reformed Position


Jesus Christ “was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our stead, that He might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf (II, 2). “It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death… (II, 8).


The popular Back-To-God Hour radio preacher, Dr. Peter Eldersveld, always was bold in proclaiming his Reformed convictions, including the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement. In his last full sermon on the subject, accurately entitled, The Aim of Redemption (Feb. 9, 1964), Dr. Eldersveld eloquently and clearly presented the Reformed teaching. In opposing Arminianism, he said:

“But the Bible gives us an altogether different picture. It tells us plainly, and somewhat bluntly, that God did not send His Son into this world to save all men.

“[Jesus] made it very plain that He came here to give His life only for the sheep, not for the goats (John 10:11).”

Commenting on John 17:1, 2 and 9, Eldersveld preached:

“There you have His own conception of the aim of his atoning sacrifice, Notice how he emphasized that it was meant only for those whom the Father had given Him, those who had been chosen from eternity to be saved by divine grace, He was ready to die for them and for them only.”

If Christ died for all men, Eldersveld goes on to say, “Then a large part of His painful sacrifice would have been utterly wasted.” But, he says: “That blood was not spilled: it was shed for sinners. Not one drop of it can be wasted. God gives it only to those for whom it was intended—and he sees to it that they get it.

“The atonement of our Lord is not some kind of gigantic universal, indiscriminate ‘grab-bag,’ from which men may pick a parcel of salvation, if they so desire.”

Some have mistakenly thought that the Biblical teaching of limited atonement has hampered a minister’s preaching to unbelievers. Some have even proposed to modify the Biblical teaching for the utilitarian purpose of winning more souls! Notice, however, that Dr. Eldersveld in preaching to such a great and diverse radio audience did not feel at all hampered in preaching the full-orbed Reformed faith, and at the conclusion of his sermon, he very effectively made an evangelistic plea:

“But it confronts us with a big question. Do we belong to the sheep for whom the Good Shepherd laid down his life? You must answer that question for yourself. Was it for your sin that He died upon the cross? Have you made that confession, believing that He paid for your sin with His own precious blood? Then you are certainly one of His sheep.”


The prince of the Dutch Reformed theologians, Herman Bavinck, stood four-square with the historic Reformed position of definite or limited atonement.

“The preaching of the gospel does not say to each person, head for head: Christ died in your place, all your sins are atoned and forgiven” (Gereformeerde Dogmatlek, Kampen, 1930, p. 5).

“Although it is absolutely necessary to maintain the complete universality of the preaching of the gospel and of the offer of grace, one may not deduce that Christ’s benefits were won and intended for all men, head for head” (Magualia Dei, Kampen, 1909, p. 404). “As soon as the Holy Scriptures deal with the question: ‘For whom did Christ win his benefits? To whom did he dispense and apply them? and Who actually partakes of them?’ it always relates his work to his church. Just as in the Old Testament there was a special people whom God chose for an inheritance, so also in the New Testament there is the concept of God’s special people….It was for this people that Christ shed his blood and won salvation….There is thus complete agreement between the work of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As many as were chosen by the Father were bought by the Son and regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit” (pp. 405–406).


“Widespread is the theory that Christ died for all men, that the atonement was made for all men, but not all do avail themselves of it.

“This theory is contrary to Scripture, and robs Christ’s death of that very atoning character which it aims to exalt….

“The very words to save and Savior mean just what they say. If Christ shed His blood for many unto the remission of sins (Matt. 26:28), how can it be held that He shed it for many not unto the remission of sins? If He is called Savior because He saves his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21), how can it be that He is the Savior of those who will not be saved, or that He shed His blood for them and failed to remit their sins?” (The Heritage of the Fathers, Grand Rapids, 1948, pp. 198, 199).


In 1936 one of the greatest American Calvinists of this century, J. Gresham Machen, gave a sermon on II Corinthians 5:14–15 which has the phrase “One died for all.” He explained what Paul meant by the word all:

“But what does he mean by ‘all’? ‘One died for all’ he says, ‘therefore all died.’ He seems to lay considerable emphasis upon that word ‘all.’ What does he mean by it?

“Well, I suppose our Christian brethren in other churches, our Christian brethren who are opposed to the Reformed Faith might be tempted to make that word ‘all’ mean, in this passage, ‘all men’; they might be tempted to make it refer to the whole human race. They might be tempted to interpret the words ‘Christ died for all men everywhere whether Christians or not.’

“But if they are tempted to make it mean that, they ought to resist the temptation, since this passage is really a very dangerous passage for them to lay stress on in support of their view.

“In the first place, the context is dead against it. It is rather strongly against the view that ‘Christ died for all’ means here ‘Christ died for all men.’ All through this passage Paul is speaking not of the relation of Christ to all men, but of the relation of Christ to the Church.

“In the second place, the view that ‘Christ died for all’ means ‘Christ died for all men’ proves too much. The things that Paul says in this passage about those for whom Christ died do not fit those who merely have the gospel offered to them; they fit only those who accept the gospel for the salvation of their souls. Can it be said of all men, including those who reject the gospel or have never heard it, that they died when Christ died on the cross; can it be said of them that they no longer live unto themselves but unto the Christ who died for them? Surely these things cannot be said of all men, and therefore the word ‘all’ does not mean all men (God Transcendent, Grand Rapids, 1949, pp. 134–135).


In his introductory essay to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London, 1959), James Packer eloquently sets forth the Calvinistic teaching of limited atonement. At the very beginning he deals with the oft-raised charge that limited atonement is detrimental to the gospel. In his estimation, however, a reading of Owen’s treatise on limited atonement “will help us in one of the most urgent tasks facing Evangelical Christendom today—the recovery of the gospel” (p. 1). It will help us “to recover the old, authentic, biblical gospel, and to bring our preaching and practice back into line with it” ( pp.2–3).

“Redemption, according to Arminianism, secured for God a right to make this offer, but did not of itself ensure that anyone would ever accept it; for faith, being a work of man’s own, is not a gift that comes to him from Calvary. Christ’s death created an opportunity for the exercise of saving faith, but that is all it did. Calvinists, however, define redemption as Christ’s actual substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners, through which God was reconciled to them, their liability to punishment was for ever destroyed, and a title to eternal life was secured for them….Calvary, in other words, not merely made possible the salvation of those for whom Christ died; it ensured that they would be brought to faith and their salvation made actual. The Cross saves” (p. 6).

“Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for His own chosen people” (p. 10).

“Owen sees that the question which has occasioned his writing—the extent of the atonement -involves the further question of its nature, since if it was offered to save some who will finally perish, then it cannot have been a transaction securing the actual salvation of all for whom it was designed. But, says Owen, this is precisely the kind of transaction that the Bible says it was. The first two books of his treatise are a massive demonstration of the fact that according to Scripture the Redeemer’s death actually saves His people, as it was meant to do” (p. 10).

In his later book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Chicago, 1961), Packer is very much concerned that evangelists in attempting to win people to Christ do not deny the Biblical teaching of unconditional election and limited atonement. “The fact is that the New Testament never calls on any man to repent on the ground that Christ died specifically and particularly for him. The basis on which the New Testament invites sinners to put faith in Christ is simply that they need Him, and that He offers Himself to them, and that those who receive Him are promised all the benefits that His death secured for His people. What is universal and all-inclusive in the New Testament is the invitation to faith, and the promise of salvation to all who believe.

“Our task in evangelism is to reproduce as faithfully as possible the New Testament emphasis. To go beyond the New Testament, or to distort its viewpoint or shift its stress, is always wrong” (p. 68 ).

In presenting the gospel, Packer says, we must avoid the unbiblical statement that Christ died for all or that, since he died for only some, perhaps he did not die for the listener of the gospel call. “The gospel is not, ‘believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,’ any more than it is, ‘believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours.’ The gospel is, ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for sins, and now offers you Himself as your Saviour’” (p. 69).


Doctrines are often not fully developed and discussed unless a challenge to them has arisen. Thus Calvin did not spend a great deal of space on election, reprobation and the foreordination of sin in the first edition of his Institutes. Only after being attacked at this point did he develop his ideas more fully both in the Institutes and elsewhere. Since.a controversy around limited atonement did not develop until long after his death, Calvin did not expound this teaching in any detailed fashion, taking its truth for granted. In one place, however, he clearly reveals his sentiments.

In his commentary on I John 2:2, he states that “Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect.” In commenting on John’s words that Christ is a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, Calvin says: “Under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world.”


The great English preacher of the last century once said: “We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not.

The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, ‘No, certainly not.’ We ask them the next question—Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer ‘No.’ They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say ‘No. Christ has died that any man may be saved if’—and then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you! You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, ‘No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.’ We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.”

“I have my own private opinion that there is n0 such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism….I do not believe we can preach the gospel…unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the Cross.” (Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Vol. I, Ch. xvI, p. 172).


In 1928 the Dutch Gereformeerde New Testament exegete, Dr. C. Bouma, devoted a whole book to the subject Geen Algemeene Verzoening [No Universal Atonement] (Kampen). Having spent one chapter on The Reformed Confession, he concludes:

“There is no Reformed theologian who has expressed himself in any other way than the above. Everyone without exception dearly confesses the teaching of particular satisfaction….It is not possible for one to be soundly Reformed and still to hold to this error. It is either/or: Either you are Reformed and thus a teacher of the truth that Christ died only for the elect, or you are not Reformed at this point” (pp. 52, 53). “First the nature and work of the Savior must be studied. When that is clear, then it will be easily seen that the doctrine of universal atonement is in conflict with the work of Christ.

“What docs the Bible teach concerning the meaning of atoning work of the Mediator? When One reads carefully what the Bible says about it, then one fact stands out clearly: Christ has not only won salvation, but he also applies it. His work did not consist only of the taking away of guilt, but also of the dispensing of salvation now. Both the winning and the dispensing are inseparable in his work as Mediator” (p. 59).