I am a strange Calvinist. The idea that atonement is limited to the elect is the last stumbling block for many, but it was one of my first steps into Reformed theology. While many people readily accept that we are totally depraved, that God chose us unconditionally and eternally in Christ, that we believe in Christ only by the Spirit’s irresistible grace, and that the triune God preserves us to persevere to the end, they find it harder to swallow that Christ died for the elect only. I came to Christ by understanding that God counted our sin to His Son in order to count His incarnate Son’s righteousness to us (2 Cor. 5:21). As soon as someone pointed out that all people must be saved if Christ did these things for all people, I was sold on limited atonement.
As a children’s catechism says, “Christ died for all who were given to Him by the Father.” The issue is the triune God’s design or intent in the atonement. We can best understand the fact that Christ came to save His people, and them only, from their sins (Matt. 1:21) by rooting Christ’s death in the saving work of the whole Trinity, and by answering two common questions.
The Bible offers Jesus to all people without distinction without any embarrassment that Christ did not die for all people without exception.
The united work of the Trinity shows clearly why Christ died for the elect only. The Father chose believers in Christ before time began (Eph. 1:4–5). The Holy Spirit is the Father’s seal of ownership on the elect (vv. 13–14). No one receives the things of God or confesses that Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10–16; 12:3). The Father calls His elect to Christ by His Word and Spirit (2 Cor. 3:16–18; James 1:18). The Trinity is undivided and indivisible. Christ’s death extends as far as the Father’s electing purpose (Acts 2:23) and the Spirit’s effecting power (13:48). It is not that the Father chose some and the Spirit changes some while Christ died for all. The Father saves by particular election, the Son by particular redemption, and the Spirit by particular calling. The Son will not be the broken link in the chain. Neither is Christ’s work divided. He does not pray for the world, that the Father would keep them, that they should be one, and that they should be sanctified in the truth (John 17:11, 19). He prayed these things for those whom the Father chose and gave to Christ (vv. 3, 6, 9–10). The Son applies His death to the elect through His intercession so that they can be with Him where He is (v. 24). Those for whom He died die to sin in Him, just as those for whom He rose rise to new life (2 Cor. 5:14–15). God does what He does because He is who He is. God is triune, and the atonement is a unified Trinitarian act in purpose, production, and perfection.
Why, then, do some passages of Scripture seem to universalize Christ’s death (e.g., 1 John 2:2)? Because Christ is the only Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). He does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, culture, status, or anything else. He is the propitiation for our sins, and He is the only means for anyone to escape God’s wrath. The Bible does not call us to receive Christ’s death because He died for all men, but it calls us to receive Christ who “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (4:10).
This raises a related question: Does limited atonement limit the gospel offer to the elect only? Gospel ministry should mirror the Spirit’s ministry. He calls people to Christ generally and particularly, externally and internally. He calls sinners through preaching, even though some resist His call (Acts 7:51). Yet He calls the elect also through this general call, ensuring that they will answer it by extending to the elect the internal call as well. The Spirit opened Paul’s mouth to preach Christ, but He opened Lydia’s heart to receive Christ (Acts 16:14). Maybe our hangup is that while we tell people, “Jesus died for you,” the Bible says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The Bible offers Jesus to all people without distinction and without any embarrassment that Christ did not die for all people without exception. We should pray that all people everywhere would be saved (1 Tim. 2:1–3), and we should preach so that all people everywhere might be saved (Matt. 28:19–20; Mark 16:15). Our preaching and evangelism must mimic the Spirit’s general call if we hope to be instruments of His specific call.
Many Christians who deny that Christ died for the elect alone agree that Christ saves the elect alone. This is a problem. Christ came to save His people from their sins. They are the ones for whom He prays. He is preparing a place for them to be with Him in heaven. Christ was born for His people, He lived for His people, He rose for His people, He ascended into heaven and is seated there for His people, He will return to gather His people, and He sends His Spirit to live in His people. How could He do all of these things for some people and yet die for all people? The Son is the second person in the Trinity. Christ will not save us by contradicting the Father and the Spirit, but neither will He save us without Them. As the Spirit calls people to Christ through the gospel, so must we present Him. As Christ died for those who were given to Him by the Father, so must we receive Him.
Dr. Ryan M. McGraw is Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is author of several books, including The Day of Worship.