“‘All’ means all and that’s all ‘all’ means.”1 Have you heard that line before? It’s how many evangelical brothers and sisters talk about Jesus’ death. It makes them sound biblical and compassionate while Calvinists coldheartedly cling to their confessions.

As I’ve mentioned, the term limited atonement is not used in the Canons of Dort. Some also question whether it is the most helpful term for conveying what Dort actually teaches on the subject. One reason it may not be the best term is because it can lead us to think in crass quantitative terms—as if Jesus’ death gathered as many sinners as possible with the available blood He spilled, but then He ran out.

On the other hand, all evangelical Christians limit the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice in some way, whether one says His death is effectual for those whom God elected and whom the Holy Spirit actually brings to salvation (the efficacy of the cross is here limited by God’s intent), or whether one says Christ died for all sins of all people, but only those who believe benefit from it (the efficacy is here limited by the response of people). One Reformed response to the latter view is to question how it can be said that Jesus died for all the sins of everyone if the sin of unbelief keeps one out of salvation. This is the “universalist dilemma,” according to John Owen.

Logically, we have three options: Christ died for all the sins of all men, all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. This last option has rarely been affirmed, as it means all people have some sins to answer for before God and thus that no one will be saved. The second option is Owen’s version of the Reformed position. Christ died effectually for all of the sins of the some who will be saved (but does not speak of any universal sufficiency). The first option is the classic Remonstrant position, and it is held by many evangelicals even though they may be unaware that their view comes from the Remonstrants.

If Jesus died for all the sins of all people, then all people should be saved. But the Remonstrant says that not all people are saved because not all people believe in Christ. Owen’s question to the Remonstrants, then, is this: Is unbelief a sin? If it’s not a sin, why would an unbeliever be punished for it? If it is a sin, and if Christ died for it because He died for all sins, why does this sin hinder an unbeliever more than the other sins for which Christ also died? If Jesus did not die for the sin of unbelief, He did not die for all the sins of all people.2

This brings us to the real issue about what Christ’s death accomplished and to whom it is applied: What did God the Father intend His Son to achieve on the cross? Did He intend that Jesus would merely make salvation possible, or did He intend Him effectually to satisfy the justice of God only for the elect, who will share in this sacrifice by faith? In other words, was Jesus’ death intended effectually to save some or was it intended merely to make salvation possible for all? In the lengthiest article in this section on Christ’s redemption, Canons of Dort 2.8 addresses this. Since it’s long, let me outline it with my comments in brackets:

[Summary definition of the Reformed position:]
For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness [efficacia] of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones,

[Link between redemption accomplished and applied:]
in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation.

[Lengthier definition of the Reformed position:]
In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem [efficaciter redimeret] from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father;

[Lengthier description of the link between redemption accomplished and applied:]
that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired [aquisivit] for them by his death);
that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith;
that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end;
and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.

God Has a Will

This article puts an emphasis on the “will” and “intention” of God and not merely on the sufficiency of Jesus’ death.3 And when we speak about what God intended in the atonement, we’re speaking about His decretive will. The triune God has a never-failing plan and purpose for all things. As Paul says, He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Focusing on John 6 for a moment, Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (v. 38, emphasis added). As the Son of God in human flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ voluntarily humbled Himself to do not His own will but the Father’s. And you see this again in verse 39, where Jesus speaks of “the will of him who sent me,” and in verse 40: “For this is the will of my Father.”

The Father intended that on the cross, His Son, our Lord, would actually suffer the infinite punishment of God’s justice for a definitive number of sinners, a group of people the Bible calls “the elect.”

Why is this so important? Think about the last time you spoke with a believer who kept talking about Jesus’ making salvation possible for everyone by His death. This view implies that God had no distinct plan to save any individual sinner through what Jesus did. Yes, Jesus was sent down to die, but His death was not for anyone in particular; it was for everyone in general. Because of that, everyone has an equal ability and opportunity to believe, everyone has a chance to make Jesus their own, and everyone can use their own will to make salvation a reality in their lives. But Jesus did not actually save anyone by His atonement; no one in particular was in view as He hung on the cross.

However, John’s gospel records Jesus as saying that God has a will. He has a definite, determined, well-thought-out plan not only for the world as a whole but for each and every sinner whom He brings into His kingdom. The Father and the Son had specific sinners in mind who would certainly benefit from the cross of Christ.

The Father Communicated This Will to the Son

Jesus also says in John 6 that the Father communicated this will to the Son. Not only does Jesus say the Father has a plan now, but that this plan was planned out in eternity long before the incarnation: “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (v. 37). As canon 2.8 says, “It was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross . . . should effectively redeem . . . all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father.” To use Jesus’ words, “I have come down from heaven” to do “the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Then Jesus goes on to say, “The will of him who sent me” was that He “should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (v. 39).

What’s going on here that’s so important for us? In theological terms, some of our forefathers referred to the plan that Jesus is describing as the covenant of redemption. What does the content of this covenant look like? First, in eternity past, there was a deliberate and personal plan between the persons of the Holy Trinity to organize and orchestrate redemption. There was not one will of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit for redemption, with each doing what He wanted. Instead, as the divine nature has only one will, the will of the Father to organize and orchestrate redemption is also the will of the Son and the Spirit to organize and orchestrate redemption. Second, the plan is about individual persons. The canon repeatedly speaks of “his chosen ones,” “them,” “those,” and “a glorious people.” This is the wonder of all our doctrines of grace. That God—God!—thought of me, loved me, and planned human history to rescue me! As we sing:

I find, I walk, I love; but O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee!
For Thou wert long beforehand with my soul;
Always, always Thou lovedest me.4

The Son Executed This Will

Finally, Jesus says that as the incarnate Son, He executed this will of the Father. All that was planned from eternity past concerning the Son of God becoming man and going to the cross and all that was planned to redeem sinners, this Jesus actually accomplished. The Father didn’t plan one thing and then Jesus executed another. No, Jesus did precisely what was planned.

Listen to Jesus again: For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Jesus came to do the will of God in that eternal conversation, and He did it on the cross. Call this “limited atonement” if you must; I simply call it Jesus’ doing exactly what our Trinitarian God planned from all eternity.

As we discuss limited atonement or particular redemption, what really matters is not the number of those who are saved, but what God in His sovereign purpose intended for Christ on the cross.

Think of a light without any kind of cover or shade that’s turned on. What happens to the light? It is dispersed everywhere, isn’t it? So we’ve seen with Jesus’ death on the cross. It is infinitely sufficient to satisfy the infinite justice of God for a million worlds. All that Jesus needed to do, He did; there is no more He would need to do to save even one more sinner. Now, back to that light. Once you put on some sort of a cap or cover you can focus all that light in a particular direction, like a flashlight. Jesus’ death is that ever-spreading light that is intentionally pointed toward certain people. Christopher Ness once said it like this: “Those for whom Christ’s death was intended, to them it must be applied; but it is not applied to all, therefore it was not intended for all.”5

The Father intended that on the cross, His Son, our Lord, would actually suffer the infinite punishment of God’s justice for a definitive number of sinners, a group of people the Bible calls “the elect.” And this redemption accomplished for particular persons is also applied to those same particular persons: “The enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones” in “grant[ing] justifying faith” and “lead[ing] them without fail to salvation.”

That’s the big picture theologically. But how do we know if the will of God in eternity that was communicated from the Father to the Son and that the Son did was done for us personally? If “all” doesn’t mean “all,” how can we be sure? This is why Jesus brings His message home to us. He doesn’t only speak of eternity, He speaks to us personally and says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Do you believe in Jesus? Then be assured that He came to execute that eternal plan of God for your salvation. In that eternal plan, the Father spoke your name to the Son, and the Son agreed to come down for you! Amazing, isn’t it?

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 16, 2018 and is part of a series on the Syond of Dort.

  1. Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Bethany House, 2010), 183. ↩︎
  2. John Owen, “Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu; or, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,” in Works (1850–53; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, fifth printing 1993), 10:173–74. ↩︎
  3. Lee Gatiss, For Us and For Our Salvation: “Limited Atonement” in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry (London: The Latimer Trust, 2012), 82–83. ↩︎
  4. From the hymn, “I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew.” ↩︎
  5. Christopher Ness, An Antidote against Arminianism (East Sussex, England: Christian Focus, 1998), 31. ↩︎

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