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Matthew 1:18–21

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).

As we conclude our brief study of the atonement today, we must have a brief discussion of God’s intent in the atonement. One significant point that has distinguished the Reformed tradition from other branches of Protestantism is the teaching that Jesus died to atone only for His elect. That is, God intended His Son’s death to pay for the sins of His people, to have a salvific benefit only for His chosen. We lack the space to make a full case for what is known as limited atonement or particular redemption. However, let us note that all Christians limit or particularize the Lord’s death in some way. Non-Reformed believers say that Jesus’ death is made effectual by the individual’s reception of it. That is, Christ died to render salvation possible or potential, and He did not die to make it actual for some. In the final analysis, our faith makes the atonement an actual payment for our sin because it must be added to Christ’s death to make it effectual for salvation. The efficacy of the atonement is limited not by God’s intent but by our willingness to believe—by our faith. As Reformed believers, we hold that no one is saved apart from placing his or her faith in Christ alone. But we differ from non-Reformed Christians in confessing that Christ died to make salvation actual for His people. Our faith, in the final analysis, is not something we add to the atonement so that its benefits may apply to us. Instead, the atonement guarantees that we will have faith. This is consistent with the biblical teaching that faith is the gift of God and not something we work up in ourselves (Eph. 2:8–10). If Jesus really atoned for sin, He also atoned for the sin of unbelief. Under a non-Reformed view of the atonement, Jesus atoned for the sin of unbelief, but God still pours out His wrath on those who reject the Lord. That is logically inconsistent, for how could a sin that was truly atoned for still incur the Father’s wrath? The whole point of atonement is to turn away the Father’s wrath (Rom. 3:21–26). The triune God’s intent as the limiting factor in the atonement’s efficacy is taught in many passages, including the one chosen for today’s study. The angel brings a message from God that Jesus will die to save “his people” from their sin (Matt. 1:21). Christ also tells us that He lays down His life for His sheep, not His sheep and the sheep of others or His sheep and the wolves (John 10:1–18). His death guarantees our salvation.  

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

The Old Testament also points to limited atonement or particular redemption. Israel’s high priest offered atonement only for the people of Israel, not for Israel and those who remained outside the covenant community. From first to last, the Bible teaches that God’s work alone saves His people and that He always accomplishes the salvation of those whom He wants to save. This is a great comfort, for it means He cannot fail to complete the good work He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6).

For Further Study
  • Jeremiah 31:10–14
  • John 6:35–40

Justification by Faith Alone

The Indwelling Spirit

Keep Reading The Shema

From the May 2013 Issue
May 2013 Issue