Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
We live in a culture that demands immediacy. We like things quick and easy and when we don’t get what we want when we want it, we grow impatient. One sociologist, has coined the term “The McDonaldization of society” which describes a culture that takes on the characteristics of a fast food restaurant. Sadly, we see this influence in the evangelical church where short, entertaining messages have replaced biblical and doctrinal preaching. For those who are convinced that Christ is all, there is no sacrifice too great for the immeasurable prize of knowing Christ. That is the message of Jesus in the above parable. When we pick up our Bible’s and we diligently search and examine the doctrines of our faith, when we labor and pore over the word of God, sacrificing time and precious energy, God promises that we will find a pearl of great value.
The doctrine of limited atonement is said to be the most controversial of the doctrines of grace. Of course, I find nothing controversial about it; it is after all, biblical. Yet, there can be no denying that for me, it has been the most costly in terms of time and intellectual energy. At the same time, studying this doctrine has yielded a great reward and that is the absolute and endless treasure of Christ himself.
Tomorrow morning I will be leading a discussion on limited atonement at our church’s women’s Bible study. Below are some highlights from my notes. I stress the word highlights because it may not flow so nicely. It’s VERY choppy but I’ve got 21 pages of notes that I’m already trying to pare down! Anyway, this a blog post and not a book! (I have some friends who will appreciate that! Wink, wink!)
Sometimes called Particular Redemption or Definite Atonement, the doctrine of Limited Atonement teaches that the redeeming work of Christ on Calvary was for the elect only. The substitutionary death of Christ was not for everyone in the world but rather for a particular people. Not only does Jesus make atonement for our sins, he secures everything necessary for our salvation — including our faith.
In order to understand what limited atonement means it is necessary to understand what the word “atonement” means. It can be defined just as it sounds: “to make one”. In our case, Jesus atoned for our sins in order to make us one with God.
The Scriptures, in Hebrews 13:20, speak of something called an Eternal Covenant. This covenant was made in eternity past and it involved the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and a redeemed humanity. James Montgomery Boice, in his commentary on Romans, gives us a glimpse into this decision made by the Godhead to send a Redeemer. You can read it here. In this covenant, God the Father expresses His love for the God the Son and promises to give him a Redeemed humanity. This Redeemed people would be from every tribe, tongue and nation and would praise and worship him for ever and ever.
Regarding this covenant, AW Pink says this:
The grand fact is that Christ’s death was the completion of His agreement with the Father which guarantees the salvation of all who were named in that agreement, not one for whom He died can possibly miss heaven.
The question then on this topic of limited atonement is this: Who did that agreement include? Who did God have in mind when He sent Jesus to the cross to redeem a people for Himself?
Did Jesus die for Judas of whom it is written “not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction” (John 17:12)? Did Jesus die for Pharaoh of whom it is written, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you” (Romans 9:17)? Did Jesus die for Esau of whom it is written, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13)?
Theologian Louis Berkhoff asks the question well:
Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design of for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the questions and that only is the question
There are generally 3 different schools of thought to consider when answering this question.
The Universalist will say that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and therefore justification for all was completed at Christ’s death. Since the Scriptures plainly speak of hell this position holds no weight for the Arminian or the Calvinist.
The Arminian will say that Jesus died for the sins of everyone and therefore salvation is made possible to all. However, a man or woman is not actually justified until they accept the free offer of salvation. It is faith in Jesus Christ that “activates” that salvation.
The Calvinist will say that Jesus died for the sins of the elect and therefore justification is limited to those elected to salvation. Jesus’s substitutionary atonement on the cross is limited to those who are predestined.
Key to this doctrine is understanding the priesthood of Jesus Christ. From the beginning God made it crystal clear that He would not tolerate sin. Sin, no matter how small, never escapes God. He is 100% holy and will not tolerate anything less than that. So, in order to deal with sin, God had to establish, in the Old Testament, a temporary system to deal with sin until the fullness of time when Jesus would come and redeem His people. The book of Leviticus details a very complex ritual and sacrificial system whereby the sins of the children of Israel are dealt with. The plan was for the children of Israel ONLY and did not include any of Israel’s neighbors. In this system, the High Priests would offer sacrifices on behalf of the people and also make intercession for them. Day in and day out, year in and year out animals were killed, blood was sprinkled, and flesh was burned. But the system was imperfect and it was designed to be so. These things, as the author of Hebrews tells us, were “a shadow of the good things to come” because when Christ came, “he offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” The scriptures tell us that after Jesus made purification for our sins He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High where he ever lives to make intercession for His people. (Hebrews 10:12, Hebrews 7:25)
The fact that Jesus intercedes for us is bound to the fact that he offered himself as a sacrifice. He died as a substitute; he bore our sins and Hebrews 9:12 says that, “He entered the most holy place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.”
On the significance of the fact that Jesus, our High Priest is interceding for us, James White says this:
It is impossible that anyone for whom the Son intercedes could be lost. Can we imagine the Son pleading before the Father, presenting His perfect atonement in behalf of an individual that He wishes to save, and the Father rejecting the Son’s intercession? The Father always hears the Son (John 11:42). Would He not hear the Son’s pleas in behalf of all that the Son desires to save? Furthermore, if we believe that Christ can intercede for someone that the Father will not save, then we must believe either 1) that there is dissension in the Godhead, the Father desiring one thing, the Son another, or 2) that the Father is incapable of doing what the Son desires Him to do. Both positions are utterly impossible.
Jesus himself affirmed limited atonement when he prayed, what is known as “The High Priestly Prayer”: “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” (John 17:9-12).
Jesus did not offer this prayer for the world; he offered it for believers elected in eternity past and therefore God will regard His prayers.
There are many verses that support limited atonement. Below are some that expressly tell us that Jesus did not die for the world but rather:
His scattered sheep (John 10:11-16): I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Only for those in the flock (John 10:26-29); “but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me,a is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30I and the Father are one.”
His people (Matthew 1:21): She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
For many (Matthew 20:28): even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
For His chosen friends (John 15:1316): Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
For His elect (Romans 8:32-34): He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
For people from every tribe, language, people, and nation but not everyone (Revelation 5:9): And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Far from being controversial and causing angst this doctrine is the foundation of assurance for believers. When Jesus said, “It is finished”, he meant it! Jesus did not come to merely make salvation possible; He actually saved His people. Jesus did not come to make redemption a possibility; he literally turned aside God’s wrath for each of the elect. Jesus did not come to make reconciliation between God and man possible; He actually reconciled those whom the Father gave Him in eternity past. Jesus did not merely come to make atonement for sins possible; He actually atoned for the sins of every elect believer.
Don’t you read Romans 8:31-34 in new light? ” What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
With respect to problem texts and the question that inevitably always comes up regarding then the point of evangelism, the following points are important:
1. In real estate the mantra is location, location, location. In theology, it is context, context, context. In most of the so-called problem texts that I saw, the issue, more often than not revolved around context. Who is the text referring to? For example, in John 3:16, does the “world” truly mean all people in the whole world? Or, in 2 Peter 3:19 does “all” really mean everyone in the world? In almost all cases, when these difficult texts are understood in right context they actually support limited atonement.
2. Only someone who doesn’t understand the doctrine of limited atonement can say that it hinders evangelism. The reality is that it supports and propels evangelism is an extremely biblical way. Why? The responsibility is not on man but on God. Our job, by God’s grace, is to preach the gospel to everyone. And, just as the Apostles knew that repentance and faith was a matter of God’s grace, so can we know that our efforts will not be in vain. Paul was told in Acts 18:9 not to be afraid as God assured him “for I have many in this city who are my people” — so it is with us. We can preach with confidence knowing that the Jesus we proclaim is a powerful Saviour who is able to save to the uttermost!
I have plenty more but like I said, this is a blog post and not a book!
If you remember, say a prayer for the women (and me!) tomorrow at 10am EST!
The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel by James Montgomery Boice & Phillip Graham Ryken
The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide by Edwin H. Palmer
Limited Atonement by Lorraine Boettner
Was Anyone Saved at the Cross? by James White