The Bible contains some teachings that are just plain hard to accept. As Christians, however, we must humble ourselves before God, acknowledge that his thoughts and ways are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9), and seek to understand even the difficult teachings of Scripture. One such teaching is the doctrine of limited atonement (the “L” of “TULIP”, an acronym denoting what are known as the “five points of Calvinism,” or the “doctrines of grace”). Limited atonement teaches that when Christ died on the cross, he died as a sin-bearing sacrifice not on behalf of every single person in the world, but only for God’s elect. In other words, God’s purpose or design in sending Christ was to accomplish a certain salvation for his people, not a possible salvation for all people.
Like all the other doctrines of grace, limited atonement is taught in several places in Scripture. The angel who spoke to Joseph in a dream concerning the birth of Christ said: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus declared: “For even the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In John 10:11, we read, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (that is, “his own sheep”, v. 3). And Hebrews 9:28 says that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many.”
Other verses may be added to these, but just as important as these proof texts is the fact that every time the Bible speaks of the redemptive work of Christ, it speaks of it as an accomplished deed, as a work that has most definitely brought salvation to sinners. But if Christ somehow died for all people equally, and the salvation he purchased for all only becomes a reality for any one sinner when he or she chooses to accept that salvation, then the efficacy and success of Christ’s sacrifice was never really a certainty. It was only a potential salvation, wholly contingent on the (possible) acceptance of it by sinners. But there is no such tinge of doubt or uncertainty in the Bible’s clarion declaration that Jesus Christ died to save sinners.
Likewise, only a limited atonement upholds the absolute sovereignty of God over all his creation (which is the uniform teaching of the entirety of God’s Word). If Christ died to atone for the sins of every single individual in the entire human race, yet some are not saved, does this not constitute a massive failure on God’s part? How can a sovereign God who “does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3) fail at anything? If we gladly ascribe to God all power in the works of creation and providence, why would we withhold his power when it comes to his greatest work of all, the salvation of sinners? Instead, let’s glorify God by ascribing to him sovereignty in redemption: Christ died to accomplish an infallible salvation for his own, not a potential salvation for all.
Besides all this, simple logic demands a limited atonement. If it is true that Christ died for the sins of everybody, then why doesn’t everybody go to heaven? And how can God be just if he condemns one sinner to hell for whom Christ died?
Now a limited atonement certainly doesn’t entail any limit to the value of Christ’s sacrifice. As the Son of God, his death on the cross has infinite worth. The atonement is “limited” in its extent, not in its inherent value. You could put it this way: if God willed for every single sinner in the world to be covered by the sacrifice of Christ, Jesus would not have had to hang one more minute on the cross. His death was of sufficient worth to cover the sins of all people. But he actually expiated the sins only of God’s elect.
And, a limited atonement in no way contradicts the truth that the gospel is to be proclaimed to all people indiscriminately, or the truth that all people are called to repent and believe in Christ for salvation. There is a free and genuine offer of eternal life in the gospel to all who hear the good news. As the Lord proclaimed through Isaiah the prophet, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Isaiah 45:22). But as mysterious as it may be, at the same time salvation is freely offered to all, God actually brings to saving faith in Christ only those whom he has chosen, that is, those for whom Christ died.
This doctrine also magnifies the love of God. God is love (1 John 4:16), and he loves the world (John 3:16), but his love for his people is not a vague and abstract love for all humanity. Rather, God loves his people with a special love reserved for them; it’s a particular love for his own. In Ephesians 5, we read that Christ is a husband who loved his bride, the church, and gave himself up for her (v.25). A husband’s love for his wife is personal and particular; he loves her uniquely. No husband says to his wife, “Honey, I love you because I love all women!” In the same way, God loves his people because he chosen them to be his own, not because he loves all people indiscriminately.
The wonderful truth at the heart of this doctrine is that, if you belong to Christ by faith, then all that Christ did – his incarnation, his life of obedience, his suffering and death on the cross – he did with you in mind, because he loved you in particular. He is the Good Shepherd who knows your name, who calls you by name, and who died with your name on his heart. This truth should not only fill your heart with joy and praise, but once grasped, should compel you to share with others the good news of the gospel that they may also come to know the riches of Christ’s love for his own.