One great truth which has ever been emphasized by the faithful church of Christ is the truth of the atonement. To define further the Scriptural idea of “atonement,” churches of Reformed backgrounds speak of “limited” atonement. It is vital for the child of God to understand what is involved in the truth of “limited atonement.” This truth concerns the very heart of one’s spiritual life.
The word “atonement” is used many times in the Old Testament but only once in the New Testament: in Romans 5:11 — that is, in the King James Version. The word “atonement” is a theological term which is rather unusual. Most of the terms or words used to describe Scriptural doctrines in the English language are words which have been derived either from the Greek or from the Latin. But that is not true for the word “atonement.” This word is of English or Anglo-Saxon origin. It is composed of two words: “at” and “one.” The word “atonement” suggests, therefore, a dwelling-together, a making one out of that which had been divided.
One of the basic ideas of the Hebrew and Greek words for “atonement” is that of covering. The atonement is that which covers or hides. “Atonement” represents a debt which is paid, and thus “covered.” One might illustrate this idea by speaking of a debt at a bank. If a person is unable to make payment on the debt which he owes to the bank, and if a friend volunteers to pay this debt for him, then that debt is covered and the man is free from all obligation. Such is the idea of atonement.
The word “atonement” as a theological term treats the relationship which exists between God and man. The word suggests, in the first place, that there is a unity or oneness between God and man — an “at-one-ment.”
Secondly, however, the word implies that there once was something which divided these two. That something was the sin of man in which he walked in rebellion against God.
Thirdly, atonement reminds that a way has been found to unite the two, God and man, by means of a payment which removes the guilt of sin. Finally, there is implied in the word “atonement” a consciousness within a person that the evil which formerly divided has now been removed.
Atonement that is “limited”
The second word we ought to understand is the word “limited” as it is used to describe the atonement. The word is somewhat unfortunate since it can easily be misunderstood. When we speak of the “limited atonement” of Christ, we do not mean that the atonement is at all limited as far as its power is concerned. The word “limited” is used rather to describe the Scriptural truth that the atonement does not cover all men, but only a certain group — the elect of God chosen before the foundation of this world. It is this truth that we must consider.
The atonement refers to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, which death serves as payment for the guilt of sin.
The question arises repeatedly, “For whom did Christ die?”
You may know that there are those, sometimes called “Arminian” (or “freewillists”), who teach that Christ died for all men without exception. This idea has become very popular — even within Reformed circles where historically it was condemned. It is popular because it appeals to man — though it is not based upon Scripture.
The second of the “Five Points of Arminianism,” written in 1610 in the Netherlands, declares this about the atonement of Christ:
“That agreeably thereto Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, died for all men and for every man, so that He has obtained for them all by His death on the cross redemption and forgiveness of sins, yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer according to the Word of the Gospel in John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ And, in the First Epistle of John 2:2, ‘And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’”
The Arminian understands the atonement of the cross thus: it is universal, i.e., for all. A large number of gospel hymns include this same idea. These portray a Christ Who died for all men—and now He awaits the reaction and response of the sinner.
This error of the Arminian, however, is not taught in the Bible. That Christ died only for a specific group, called in Scripture “the elect,” is evident from many passages in Holy Writ. A clear statement concerning the extent of the work of Christ was given to Joseph, the husband of Mary, in a dream. The angel said to Joseph, “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
The name “Jesus” itself is derived from two words meaning “Jehovah saves.” The name “Jesus” is therefore an extremely beautiful and descriptive name. It reminds of that Scriptural truth that if a people are to be saved from their sins, it is Jehovah Who must save them. No dead sinner can deliver himself from his sins. Jehovah, the unchangeable God, alone can do that. Now the angel specifically informs Joseph that the babe to be born of the Virgin Mary is to be called “Jesus,” for He shall save His people from their sins. His work will be to deliver a specific people, His people. The work of salvation, then, does not cover all men, but is limited to His people.
Another passage of Scripture which indicates the extent of the atonement of the cross is John 10. In verse 11 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd layeth down His life for the sheep.” Again in verse 15 Jesus declares, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And in contrast to this willing sacrifice for His sheep, there is the fact presented in verse 26 that some are not Jesus’ sheep. Jesus says, “But ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep.”
The distinction which Jesus makes is very clear. He speaks of two groups of people: His sheep, and those which are not His sheep. For the former group, Jesus lays down His life; He dies for His sheep. For the latter group, Jesus does not die; they are not His sheep. Therefore, too, they do not believe on Him. Again here it is very clear that the payment which Jesus made for sin upon the cross is a payment for a specific group of people — not a payment for the sins of everyone.
Again we read in John 17:9, “I pray for them; I pray not for the world; I pray for them which thou hast given me, for they are thine.”
Jesus is speaking here not only of His disciples, but also of all those who believe on His Name through their word (see verse 20). Jesus insists that He prays only for those whom the Father had given to Him. He will not pray for the world. The conclusion ought to be obvious. Those for whom Jesus prays are those for whom presently He will on the cross. He does not pray for the world because He did not die for them. Surely, had He died for every man, He would pray for them too.
To one final passage I call your attention. We read in Romans 8:32, “He spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all — how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” Notice that the apostle emphasizes that God gave not His Son for all, but for us all. There is an obvious difference. The “us” refers to the church at Rome—and by extension, to the church of all ages. The “all” in this text represents the total number of the church of God. Christ died for them.
What of Certain Scriptural texts?
There are, however, a group of passages in the Bible that seem to substantiate the idea of a universal atonement. One of the most often quoted is 1 John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Or there is that well-known text of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
And in John 6:51 Jesus says, “And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” There are other passages which express a similar thought.
The question in each of these texts is the proper interpretation of the words “all” and “world.” One who studies Scripture even superficially soon finds that these two words do not always mean every individual who lives or has lived on the earth. Repeatedly the words are used to point to a definite and limited group. I give only a few illustrations of that. I have already quoted from John 17:9 where Jesus declares, “I pray for them; I pray not for the world.”
Obviously the term “world” in this passage refers only to the total number of the reprobate wicked. Jesus does not pray for that “world.” But also in Scripture the term “world” refers to the totality of God’s chosen people. That is true in John 3:16 and similar passages. Or one reads in Romans 5:18, “Therefore, as by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”
Now obviously, the “all men” who receive the free gift of justification does not include every man on the earth. This is a particular group; it is every member of the body of Christ. So also one must interpret 1 John 2:2. Christ is presented there as the propitiation for our sins, that is, for the sins of the apostle and of those whom he addresses; but also Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world — for all those of all ages who have been given Him of the Father.
Because the doctrine of “limited” atonement is a Scriptural truth, we find it expressed also in the confessions of the Reformed churches. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, says this in Question and Answer 40:
“Why was it necessary for Christ to humble Himself, even unto death? Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins can be made no otherwise than by the death of the Son of God.”
And the Westminster Confession, chapter 8, paragraph 5, says:
“The Lord Jesus by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself which He through the eternal spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father and purchased not only reconciliation but an everlasting inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”
The Importance of Limited Atonement
This truth is significant and important in the life of the church and in the lives of its individual members.
In the first place, it gives to the child of God the full assurance of his salvation. If Christ did indeed die for every man that ever lived, I could never be certain of my own salvation.
If Christ died for all, and so very many perish, what certainty do I have that I shall be saved?
You see, such a view, which is also unscriptural, can only leave one in doubt about his salvation.
But now, in light of the testimony of Scripture itself, one can know with certainty whether he is saved and will enter into heavenly glory. Jesus died for the sins of His own people — those given to Him by the Father.
When Jesus dies for them, they also receive His Spirit, Who works in their hearts that life which Christ merited for them.
Such are converted, confessing before God and man that they belong to Christ.
These are they who cry out in heartfelt repentance, “Oh, God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
And these have the assurance of the forgiveness of sin and the certainty of eternal life in heaven. None can take that certainty away from them. None can destroy their faith. These will not fall away from that grace of God once given to them. These do find comfort and assurance in their confession, “Jesus died for me.”
But even more important, this truth of Scripture that Jesus dies only for the sins of His own people, is the only truth which exalts the power and glory of the Name of God. Any other divergent view detracts from the glory of His Name. Any view of the atonement which suggests that the ultimate decision concerning one’s salvation rests with man, detracts from the power and glory of God.
God does not share His power and glory with any!
He is God alone!
He has absolute power. He determines the beginning from the end. He determines the final destiny of every creature — and He does so in harmony with His perfect righteousness.
When one properly considers the fact of the atonement; when one understands that he for whom Christ died shall surely be saved — he cannot help but glorify the Name of God Who has worked such wonders!
By G. Van Baren