Why you should (and probably already do) believe in limited atonement

By Robin Schumacher, Exclusive Columnist

When it comes to which of the five points of Calvinism that irk non-reformed Christians the most, my money is on limited atonement. The doctrine of limited atonement teaches that Christ’s redeeming work on the cross secured an actual salvation for only the elect of God.

If this causes you to grind your teeth in irritation, stop. I’m going to show you why you probably already believe in limited atonement and then provide what I believe to be the definitive argument that puts the issue to bed once and for all.

Welcome to the club

Unless you’re a universalist, you already believe in limited atonement. That’s right – if not everyone is saved, then the atonement has to be “limited”.

How is it limited? It is limited to believers only: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Technically, this is called limited in extent, meaning limited in who it applies to. Christ’s death saves every person that it meant to save and doesn’t make salvation a mere possibility, which would be limited in effect.

So, as I said, you likely already believe in limited atonement in general without knowing it. Charles Spurgeon puts it like this: “[They] say Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by that. Did Christ die to secure the salvation of all men? They say no, certainly not…Did Christ die to secure the salvation of any one person in particular? They say no, Christ has died that any man may be saved if … and then follow certain conditions of salvation.” 

The knockout punch

John Owen wrote what is perhaps the most definitive work on Christ’s atonement in “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”. In that book, Owen delivers what I believe is the knockout punch to anyone who opposes limited atonement. Let me quote his argument in full and then let’s work through it a little at a time:

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved . . . If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, ‘Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.’ But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will”.

The Options

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men.

Owen says we have three options: either Jesus died on the cross for (1) all the sins of everyone; (2) all the sins of a particular group of people; (3) some of the sins of everyone.  He then proceeds to work through those possibilities.

Option 3 – out

If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved.

Working backwards, Owen quickly jettisons the third option because, if everyone still has some sins that have not been atoned for, no one will spend eternity with God. Impossible to disagree with, wouldn’t you say?

Option 2 – limited atonement

If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.

The second option Owen presents is limited atonement – that Jesus only died for God’s chosen people and took upon Himself all their sins. Such a position ensures an actual salvation for that group of people because all their sins were placed on Christ at the cross and they have nothing left for which to atone.

The start of option 1 – a good question

If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?

Option 1 is what many Christians believe – that Jesus took upon Himself, at the cross, all the sins of everyone who ever lived or will live. But Owen asks a good question: if that’s the case, then why isn’t everyone saved?

Outside of universalism, no one believes all will be saved and this includes those not upholding the reformed doctrine of limited atonement. And it is these people that Owen addresses next.

Is Unbelief a Sin?

You will say, ‘Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.’

The ever-famous John 3:16, which I’ve already quoted, limits the atonement to only those who believe – a point that showcases the truth that all Christians really believe in limited atonement in one form or another. But then Owen asks an important follow up question:

But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?

This inquiry marks the beginning of the end for anyone who attempts to deny the doctrine of limited atonement. The answer, of course, is yes. Paul flatly says, “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). The writer of Hebrews, describing faithless Israel, also says, “So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19).

But Owen works through the possibilities, nonetheless.

If not, why should they be punished for it?

If unbelief is not a sin, Owen says then there is no reason for it to bar anyone from God’s presence.

If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not.

If unbelief is a sin (and we have seen that it is), then it was either one of the sins that Christ died for, or it was not. So, either unbelieving people still have something for which to answer to God or they don’t.

If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death?

This logical conclusion is the deathblow for anyone claiming that Christ died for all the sins of everyone, but that unbelief keeps a person from eternal life. Owen says if unbelief is a sin, and if Christ died for ALL the sins of everyone born of human parents, then that sin must be included in the mix and labeled as one for which Christ died. Unbelief, as a sin, could not keep anyone from spending eternal life with God more than any other sin for which Jesus paid.

If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.

If someone wants to say that Christ did not die for a person’s unbelief, and unbelief is a sin, then Jesus did not die for all his or her sins. Thus, a person cannot make the claim that Jesus died for all the sins of the world (with “world” being defined as every human being ever born).

Let them choose which part they will.

This is polite 17th century language for saying, “Checkmate”.

Owen convincingly shows that options 1 and 3 are untenable, with the only option remaining being the doctrine of limited atonement.

Not fair?

In his book entitled, The Nature of the Atonement, John McLeod Campbell explains how the only alternative becomes one where Christ’s atonement is limited. Recounting the just-covered John Owen’s summary of the case, Campbell concludes, “As addressed to those who agree with him as to the nature of the atonement, while differing with him as to the extent of its reference, this seems unanswerable.”

I agree.

Any scripture plucking[1] or other arguments fall short of undercutting the biblical logic behind limited atonement. Truth be told, most attempts are emotional in nature and boil down to a “not fair” contention.

But here’s the thing: as Christians, we often quote Is. 55:18, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways” and we rest in it until it comes to matters like this. Then we expect God’s ways to be our ways.

But Proverbs 50:21 says simply, “You thought that I was just like you”, meaning He’s not just like us. Whatever superficial feelings we have about God’s plan of salvation being not fair are misplaced.   

Dr. James White speaks to the simplicity and beauty of Christ’s atonement when he says, “In its simplest terms the Reformed belief is this: Christ’s death saves sinners. It does not make the salvation of sinners a mere possibility. It does not provide a theoretical atonement … Christ’s death saves every single person that it was intended to save.”

I’m good with that. Are you?

[1] E.g., 1 John 2:2; John 12:32; 2 Pet. 2:1 by themselves and not viewed within the whole of Scripture.  

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master’s in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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25 responses to “Why you should (and probably already do) believe in limited atonement

    • I’m glad you’re amused Ed. Maybe that’s your point? You think not posting the same ill considered rants against Reformed theology proves you are right? Have a great day!

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      • No, study proves I’m right. Israel mine elect states the king James version. You need to prove that you are Israel. We are not convinced in a spiritual Israel. Jacob is Israel. The children of Jacob (Israel) is mine elect. Nowhere does it indicate Gentiles as mine elect.

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        • Ed,
          You refer to a passage from Isaiah, in which God refers to Israel as his elect, and that is most certainly true. However to maintain that in the entire New Testament, the “elect” only refers to Jews, isn’t even in the realm of intelligent thought.

          While I could list numerous instances of references to Gentiles as the ‘elect’, and most notably by the Apostle Paul, minister to the Gentiles, I will leave you with but one, from the book of Colossians:

          The Apostle Paul, in writing to believers (Jews and Gentiles) in Colossae, introduced himself thusly:

          “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colossae: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Col 1:1-2)

          Later in the same book he had this to say:
          “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. (Col 3:10-13)

          I find it sad that you probably won’t even consider the possibility that you might be in error, there are many who, like you, have their minds made up to the point of resembling the proverbial ‘steel trap’ which has been rusted shut by time and the environment. I pray I am wrong about that.

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          • Romans 16:4
            Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.

            The opposite of “churches of the Gentiles” is “Churches of the Jews”.

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            • PLEASE either read the entire context vv. 1-16, in which Paul introduces the bearer of the letter, greets specific Roman Christians, and acknowledges ALL Gentile Christians. You might also consult a commentary or two. Verse 4 is part of a larger thought concerning those who have taken great risks in protection Paul. Sometimes I wonder if you are just baiting me in some way. Your comment about “opposites” has nothing to do with the context and only serves to support the preconceived notions read into the passage. Have a nice weekend.

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              • Dan,

                I know the context. If you read the WHOLE book of Romans, you will notice that the book of Romans is distinguishing the DIFFERENCE between Jew and Gentile, not the similarities. The only similarities are the converted Jews who are Christians, as well as the Gentiles. But when Paul uses the phrase “churches of the Gentiles”, and you look at the definition of “churches”, which means “asselblies”, then you see that Gentiles assembled separately from the Jews. They did not attend the same church services, being ushered together in the same pews. They did not gather together. Other than Jesus, they had nothing in common.

                Remember, in the first part of Acts, up until chapter 10, only the Jews were converted, not the Gentiles at all. Peter had no clue that Gentiles were allowed, until chapter 10.

                But again, my whole point is that there is no such thing as “limited” atonement. Lydia keeps coming up in this conversation of Limited Atonement, but she was a Jew, not a Gentile. And as a Jew, her heart HAD TO BE OPENED. Gentiles hearts don’t need opened.

                Isaiah 6:10 (Jews)
                Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

                Romans 15:21 (Gentiles)
                But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand.

                Jews are DIFFERENT than Gentiles, all because they had the Law of Moses, and Gentiles didn’t, and never did, and never will.

                You have a nice weekend, too, Dan!

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              • I really don’t have a lot to say to all that, other than to post your comment. Your talent for reading into scripture what you want it to say is truly amazing! The author of Romans, who differentiated between Jews and Gentiles mainly along the lines of law and grace, also wrote Galatians. Nothing further.

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  1. Jesus could have died for all humanity, making the atonement unlimited. But if the forgiveness the atonement provides is only applied to those who request it? That wouldn’t limit the scope of the cross.

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    • Hi Jim!

      The question “For whom did Christ Die?” is pretty much an ageless one that will be debated until the Second coming. I find John Owen’s argument compelling. One thing I KNOW is that only those who believe and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of their sin will be saved.
      The question then arises “Who WILL believe?” Only those, who like Lydia, listen to the gospel message with God-opened hearts?

      I imagine that there are those who “request” forgiveness, who do not sincerely appreciate the gravity of their sin. Perhaps they just want ‘fire insurance’.

      At the end of the day, I believe salvation is ALL the work of God and none of man’s work, lest anyone should boast. If I am saved, it’s all on God. If I am
      damned, it’s all on me.

      I like to think of having made a ‘freed’ will decision. 🙂

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      • You’re right about the debate. It goes on and on and on. But Owen makes a huge mistake in his logic:

        “Option 1: Jesus took upon Himself, at the cross, all the sins of everyone who ever lived or will live. But Owen asks a good question: if that’s the case, then why isn’t everyone saved?”

        If Owen’s logic is correct, then faith in Christ is unnecessary. All sin was forgiven the moment Christ died on the cross. Nothing more is needed. But nobody believes that. Both Calvin and Arminius agree that something else must happen. Faith in Christ MUST be exercised.

        Calvin and Arminius argued about when and how that faith is exercised. They both agree that it must be present in a persons life. So everyone agrees that something else must happen for the work of the cross to be applied to a person’s life.

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        • Option 1 was one of the possibilities of several.

          ““God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either 1) all the sins of all men, or 2) all the sins of some men, 3) or some sins of all men.”

          Per Owen, option 2 is correct. If Christ died for ALL of the sins of ALL men, then either ALL men should be saved or God failed? Owen never posited that faith is unnecessary. He was speaking strictly of the extent of he atonement.

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              • The either/or argument is also called the False Dilemma in logic. There are more options than simply “God Failed” or “Everyone is Saved” Not dealing with the other options or assuming they are not there is the mistake.

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              • What other option might there be that Owen failed to address? Owen is defending the doctrine of election. Of course belief is required, but God Will unfailingly bring all in his elect remnant to saving faith. Rom 8:29-30?

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              • If in Owen’s mind God CANNOT fail, is that a viable option? If God failing isn’t even a possibility, aren’t we back to Owen’s original three options? Good discussion. I would call “All are not saved AND God did fail a statement of irrefutable certainty. 🙂

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  2. Very interesting post, Dan. I’m not sure I understand the entire case here but I will definitely get back here to reread this post as many times as it takes for me to understand it.

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    • Here’s a link to another article on the subject of “limited atonement”, which might be more properly called “particular redemption”.

      https://www.ligonier.org/blog/design-and-scope-atonement/

      What I do know is that Christ’s atonement is limited to those who believe. On that both sides of the theological debate agree. Owen merely sets forth the only three options concerning the atonement that he sees. If Christ died for ALL the sins of ALL men, and if unbelief is a sin, how can God justify NOT saving ALL men? That is his question, whether or not they believe? Owen is defending the doctrine of election, which might be the most hated doctrine in Christendom.

      My personal belief is that if I made a free will decision to receive Christ as the last link in a chain of events leading to my salvation, I contributed something, although very small, and have reason to boast. If, on thee other hand, my submission to Christ resulted from “effectual grace”

      Enjoy your journey!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the reply, Dan.

        I have tried to make several comments on your blog in the past few years and they didn’t go through. I asked Pastor (slim)Jim to let you know about it and eventually gave up trying. I was happy to see my comment go through. During the time I couldn’t comment here, I could comment on some blogs but was unable to on others. I have no idea what the problem was. I have done nothing different and now all of my comments are going through. Maybe it had something to do with the new Gutenberg “block” editor but I’ll probably never know.

        I completely agree that we have no reason to boast. I also believe in the doctrine of election as I’m very aware of the “predestination” verses.

        I think this is my favorite sermon on the subject:
        https://archive.spurgeon.org/sermons/sum&sub.php

        Thanks for the Ligonier Ministries link. I have always liked R. C. Sproul. I will definitely check that out.

        I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me and thanks for your kind words.

        God’s blessings…

        Like

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