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J.C. Ryle once commented that “the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy.” This is especially so when it comes to the doctrine of limited atonement. The adjective limited by its very name creates a problem. In redemptive history, Christ’s atonement is the climax of God’s long-anticipated salvation, so why would anyone want to limit it?

Of course, at one level, everyone limits Christ’s atonement: some limit its scope (it is for God’s elect only); others limit its efficacy (it does not save everyone for whom it was intended). Thus, it’s not whether one will limit Christ’s atonement; it’s just how. For this reason, I propose a more positive and less ambiguous term: definite atonement.

The doctrine of definite atonement states that in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past and to apply the accomplishments of His sacrifice to each of them by the Holy Spirit. In a nutshell: the death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, and not only was it intended to do so, but it will actually achieve it as well. In this respect, the adjective definite does double duty: it denotes the intent of Christ’s death (for His elect only) and it denotes the efficacy of Christ’s death (He really will save His elect, guaranteeing their faith in the gospel). Jesus will be true to His name: “He will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Since the mature articulation of the doctrine at the Synod of Dort (1618–19), the doctrine of definite atonement has received its fair share of criticism. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley preached that the doctrine was contrary to “the whole tenor of the New Testament.” In the nineteenth century, John McLeod Campbell, a Church of Scotland minister, argued that the doctrine robbed the believer of the personal assurance that Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). In the twentieth century, Karl Barth complained that the “grim doctrine” was a logical deduction from John Calvin’s misguided view of double predestination. Others have raised concerns that definite atonement serves as the Achilles’ heel of Reformed theology, a weakness that destroys evangelism and mission.

However, despite these criticisms, I want to propose that we ought to (re)affirm the doctrine of definite atonement for at least three reasons.

J.C. Ryle once commented that “the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy.” This is especially so when it comes to the doctrine of limited atonement.
Its Biblical Basis

A number of New Testament texts speak of God’s love, or Christ’s death, for “many” (Rom. 5:15, 19), for “all” (11:32; 2 Cor. 5:14–15; Col. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:6; 4:10; Titus 2:11), and for “the world” (John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2). These texts are often employed by those who want to defend a universal atonement. Conversely, there are a number of New Testament texts that speak of God’s love, or Christ’s death, for a particular group of people: for “me” (Gal. 2:20), for the “church” (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25), for “his people” (Titus 2:14), and for “us” believers (Rom. 5:8; 8:32; 1 Cor. 5:7; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 5:2; 1 Thess. 5:10; Titus 2:14). When the universalistic and particularistic texts are read together, it would seem that the onus lies with proponents of a universal atonement to explain why the New Testament can ever speak of God’s love, or Christ’s death, in limited terms if in reality there is no such limitation.

However, providing a set of particularistic “proof texts” does not prove the doctrine of definite atonement any more than a set of “proof texts” proves the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Such doctrines are not arrived at by simply accumulating biblical texts in support; they also entail synthesizing internally related doctrines that impinge on a particular doctrine in view. Theological synthesis is an important part of any doctrinal construction.

Its Theological Synthesis

The doctrine of definite atonement does not exist in a vacuum; rather, it is connected to a number of other doctrines that also impinge on it. This can be demonstrated from Ephesians 1:3–14. In this grand one-sentence (in the Greek) paragraph, wherein Paul unpacks the blessings that belong to us in Christ, the Apostle speaks of the saving work of God in three ways.

First, the saving work of God is indivisible. Paul presents God’s saving work on a temporal canvas that runs from eternity past to eternity future. It consists in four distinct moments of salvation: redemption predestined, when God chose us before the foundation of the world (vv. 4–5); redemption accomplished, when Christ redeemed us by His blood (v. 7); redemption applied, when God sealed His Word in our hearts by His Spirit (v. 13); and redemption consummated, when we will possess our future inheritance endowed to us by the Spirit (v. 14). These four moments of God’s saving work are indivisible; that is, they are distinct but inseparable moments of God’s one act of salvation. This means that Christ’s definite atonement (redemption accomplished) can never be separated from God’s eternal decree (redemption predestined) or God’s sanctifying work by His Spirit (redemption applied), which is connected to our glorification on the last day (redemption consummated).

Second, the indivisible saving work of God is Trinitarian. In this passage, Paul refers to each member of the Trinity and Their respective roles in the work of salvation. The Father elects and predestines us (vv. 4–5); the Son redeems us by His blood, providing forgiveness for our sins (v. 7); and the Spirit seals God’s Word in our hearts (v. 13) while also serving as a guarantee of our future inheritance (vv. 13–14). All three persons of the Trinity work together to accomplish the one act of salvation from eternity past to eternity future. Thus, when it comes to the intent of Christ’s atonement, the persons of the Trinity are not at cross-purposes but rather work together in harmony to accomplish salvation.

Third, the indivisible, Trinitarian saving work of God is accomplished in Christ. Several times in this paragraph, Paul uses the prepositional phrase “in Christ” or “in him.” The phraseology speaks of the believer’s union with Christ, which traverses the four moments of salvation: we were chosen “in him” before the foundation of the world (v. 4; redemption predestined); “in him” we have redemption through His blood (v. 7; redemption accomplished); “in him” we were sealed with the Holy Spirit (v. 13; redemption applied); “in him” we have obtained a future inheritance (v. 11; redemption consummated). Thus, there is no moment of our salvation that does not come within the sphere of union with Christ. This guarantees that while the moments of redemption are distinct, they are inseparable.

Its Pastoral Impetus

Two pastoral stimuli arise from the biblically based and theologically synthesized doctrine of definite atonement. First, despite protestations to the contrary, definite atonement does not rob the believer of personal assurance; rather, it grounds it. When Jesus died on the cross, we were on His mind. As Martin Luther commented, “The sweetness of the gospel is found in the personal pronouns: ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20).” Second, contrary to what some people argue, definite atonement does not sever the nerve supply to evangelism and mission; rather, it supplies it. If it is true that Christ died for all people without distinction—that He atoned for all kinds of people: rich, poor, male, female, Asian, African, European, etc.—as the Reformed faith has always maintained, then mission becomes an exciting and rewarding endeavor. Since Christ has definitively ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, some from each of these will certainly believe the gospel (Rev. 5:9). Definite atonement, therefore, is not a hindrance to evangelism and mission; if anything, it is an impetus.

Sola Scriptura

Predestination and Human Actions

Keep Reading Misunderstood Doctrines

From the April 2020 Issue
Apr 2020 Issue