What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
(Romans 8:31-34)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
(Ephesians 5:25-27)

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
(Hebrews 9:11-14)

Limited atonement is the ‘L’ in the TULIP acronym. This doctrine teaches that the atonement is the work of the triune God in Jesus on the cross in which His perfect submission to God has redeemed us from our debt of sin, appeased the Father’s wrath against us and has given us access to all the benefits of salvation.

Now you might be wondering why the word ‘limited’ was the adjective chosen to describe what is arguably known as God’s greatest work in history, since it almost implies that Jesus’ sacrifice was not perfect!

We will quickly make some clarifications that limited atonement does not mean that its efficacy was limited. Since Jesus had an indestructible life (Heb 7:16), death could not halt His priestly ministry (v24), which means He is able to save those who trust Him to the uttermost (v25).  The Great High Priest Himself entered into the holy places ‘once for all’, not needing to go in repeatedly like the previous OT priests, and perfectly secured an eternal redemption by means of His blood (Heb 9:11-14; 10:12-14). His sacrifice did not just make salvation possible for those who draw near to Him, but His atonement actually saves completely, forever and without fail.

So then, what does the adjective ‘limited’ actually mean in the context of ‘limited atonement’? The atonement is limited in its scope as to who the atonement was meant for. Now here’s the kicker: for whom did Christ die for? Did Christ die for some people, or did He die for every single individual?

Scripture teaches that the atonement was intended for the elect and the elect only; that while its efficacy of Jesus’ atonement was certainly sufficient to save every single individual, nevertheless God intended to apply its benefits only on the chosen. The abundant evidence in support of the limit of the atonement’s extent is that:

1. God’s purposes are always efficacious. What we mean by this is that God’s purposes are never frustrated by our actions, and that He always will accomplish what He desires to do. This biblical truth is made explicit in John 6:37, when Jesus says that those that the Father gives to Him, will come to Him. God the Father makes absolutely sure the Son will receive what is given to Him. In the same way, Jesus makes absolutely sure in verse 39 that He will not let any of God’s chosen fall away from grace, but instead will accomplish the Father’s will by raising them up at the last day. Whatever the Father and the Son intends to do, both of them will do it successfully.

2. The scope of Christ’s atonement is synonymous with the scope of His intercessory work. What this means is that whoever Christ did die for, are also the ones that Christ is interceding for. This is evident in John 17:9, when Jesus ‘prays not for the world, but for those whom [the Father] has given [Him].’ Paul expounds the fact that God gave His own Son to the elect only, and is interceding for them (Rom 8:31-34).

3. If the scope of the atonement was unlimited, it leads to an absurdity – universalism. If Jesus actually intended to save every single individual, then it logically follows that every single person in the entire world would escape the punishments of hell. This conclusion is absurd, since it is already known in Scripture that Jesus promises those who reject Him will have their share of eternal misery (Mark 16:16).

Now what if we said the extent of the atonement was unlimited, but its application was limited? To say that God intended to offer salvation to all people, and yet only some are saved, leads to yet another absurdity – that there is a vast disunity within the Triune community; the Son and the Spirit did not do what the Father commanded them to do properly.

So how do the implications of this doctrine shape our view of:

a) God? Our God does all that He pleases (Ps 115:3). Nobody can frustrate His plans, and so it stands to reason that whatever He intends to do, He accomplishes it perfectly. There is also perfect unity within the Godhead; the Father chooses whom He wants to save, the Son dies for whom the Father wants to save, and the Spirit applies the benefits of the Son’s work for those whom the Father wants to save.

b) Ourselves? We are constantly reminded of our inability to atone for any sin that we have committed and we ought to constantly admire that God stood on our behalf through Jesus to be sin, so that we might be righteous before God! (2 Cor 5:21).

c) Salvation? We must thank God wholeheartedly for the perfect redemption He was able to achieve through His Son. Our sins from the past, present and future are now nailed on the cross, and we don’t have to ever fear that our sins will incur eternal condemnation (Rom 8:1-2).

d) Worship? Christ’s atonement purifies our fractured consciences so that we no longer perform dead works that dishonour Him, but instead perform works that serve a higher purpose in the glorification of the living God (Heb 9:14). Christ is well and truly deserving of our praise for the eternal redemption He secured for us!

e) Mission? We must shape the way we present the gospel to others that faithfully reflects our understanding of the atonement. Since we don’t know who the elect are, we don’t know whose sins Jesus actually paid for. So when we evangelise to unbelievers, it is best to avoid the phrases ‘Jesus died for your sins’ or ‘Jesus died for you.’ Instead, our gospel presentation should mimic Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament; ‘that Jesus died for the sins of the world, so if that you repent and place your trust in Him, your sins will be forgiven and receive the blessings of eternal life’ (Mark 1:15, John 3:16).

Click here to read the next doctrine of grace: Irresistible Grace

Click here to read the previous doctrine of grace: Unconditional Election

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