In Chapter 4 of Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray deals with one of the most controversial doctrines of Reformed theology – limited atonement. In contrast to the idea of universal atonement, which is that Christ died for the sins of every single person, limited atonement holds that Christ died only for the elect of God.
This is a hard teaching, and it is understandable that sincere and well-meaning Christians should take umbrage at the thought that somehow Christ’s death is not for everyone. Not only do several passages of Scripture give credence to the idea of universal atonement (2 Cor. 5:14, 15; Heb. 2:9; 1 Jn. 2:2), but at the very heart of the gospel message is the offer of forgiveness and eternal life for all who believe in Christ (Jn. 3:16). The idea Christ died for some but not all strikes the sensitive Christian as contrary to the expansive love of God, and to the truth that the gospel is a call to all people to take hold of the salvation found in Christ.
But, there is no contradiction between the teaching of limited atonement (or better, particular redemption) and the free offer of the gospel to all. And, the love of God is in no way compromised by saying Christ died specifically for his people. The real issue is the sovereignty of God. If Christ died for all, yet not all are saved, then God’s plan of redemption failed in part and consequently, he is less than fully sovereign. But in fact Christ accomplished the purpose for which he suffered and died, and that was not to make salvation a possibility for all, but to actually save God’s own (and thus maintaining the truth of God’s sovereignty). Murray writes:
What does redemption mean? It does not mean redeemability, that we are placed in a redeemable position. It means that Christ purchased and procured redemption. This is the triumphant note of the New Testament whenever it plays on the redemptive chord. Christ redeemed us to God by his blood (Rev. 5:9). He obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12). “He gave himself for us in order that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify to himself a people for his own possession, zealous of god works” (Titus 2:14). It is to beggar the concept of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and by power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people. (p. 63)
One thought that came to me is related to the consideration of the sovereignty of God. And that is, the doctrine of limited atonement preserves the redemptive nature of the suffering and death of Christ. In our own experience, there is nothing worse than the idea that our suffering or death, or the suffering and death of another, has no meaning or significance behind it. To suffer is bad enough, but to suffer with no hope that there is something good to come from it is pure despair. One of the glories of the Christian faith is the assurance that, if I belong to Christ, no matter what I suffer God has a good and holy purpose for it.
Why should it be any different for the suffering and death of Christ? If Christ died for the sins of all people, then for each person who ultimately rejects Christ and dies in unbelief, Christ died in vain. This not only impugns the sovereignty of God, but it means that to some extent Christ’s suffering and death was wasted. And it is unthinkable that any suffering on the part of the Son of God should have been to no effect. To assert that, even if by implication, is to say also that God may allow some suffering on the part of his people to have no good purpose. And that is a terrifying thought, because as a Christian one of my chief comforts in this life is that God uses my suffering for good.
So, when Christ died on the cross, no part of his suffering and death was superfluous. All those for whom Christ died, will be saved in the end. In no way at all was his a wasted death.