Basic Reformed Theology 4

Basic Reformed Theology 4

No part of Reformed Theology (RT) is as much rejected as the doctrine of Limited Atonement in TULIP (sometimes called “definite atonement” or “particular redemption”). Yet this biblical doctrine coheres well with the rest of RT and to deny it would put disharmony into the Trinity. Limited Atonement means that Christ died only for those whom the Father gave to Him (Jn. 10:28, 29). Jesus paid the full penalty for the sins of those chosen by God the Father. Remember, His name is Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt.1:21).

The Nature of Atonement

In the OT, God provided animals to make atonement for the people’s sins. Since life is in the blood, they were forbidden to eat blood. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Lev. 17:10) The shedding of blood meant death and without the shedding of blood there was no forgiveness of sin (Heb. 9:22). Yet the blood of “bulls and goats” could never “take away sins.” (Heb. 10:4) Those provisional sacrifices were always limited to God’s people and for specific offenses.  The priests never offered the atoning sacrifices for everyone without exception. For example, only God’s people benefited from the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:26-32). If a specific individual did not comply with the requirements of the atonement, he would be “cut off from his people” (v. 29). That provisional and definite atoning sacrifice washed away the sins for whom it was offered.

Design and Accomplishment

Those chosen by God the Father had to be redeemed by God the Son. Particular election requires a definite atonement. God gave a people to His Son and He was to raise them up on the last day: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raiseit up on the last day.” (Jn. 6:39) God’s design was for the elect and Christ accomplished his redemption by dying for them.

If Christ died for everyone without exception then Christ labored in vain for those who would perish. The Son always pleases the Father (Jn. 8:29) and the Father is well pleased with Him (Mt. 3:17). Jesus said He accomplished the work given to Him (Jn. 17:4; cf. 5:36). If Jesus paid the penalty for everyone, then why doesn’t the Father forgive everyone? Isn’t the Father pleased with the Son’s work given to Him? The Father is pleased with the Son and will lose none for whom the Son gave eternal life (Jn. 10:28-30). No discord exists between the Father and the Son. For that reason, Jesus only prays for the ones the Father gave Him: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (Jn. 17:9)


All theories of atonement limit either their effectiveness or extent. Universal atonement limits its effectiveness because it secures no one’s redemption. It makes all men “salvable” and technically Christ’s death could have secured no one’s salvation (only made salvation “possible” for all upon the condition of faith). It is like a very wide bridge that never makes it across the river though everyone could go on it. Limited atonement limits the extent. Christ’s atoning sacrifice fully atoned the sins of God’s elect and it is effective for them alone. Using the same bridge analogy, this narrow bridge goes fully across to the other side but only for the numerous elect of God. The Son came to seek and save (Lk. 19:10; 1Tim. 1:15), to deliver us (Gal. 1:3, 4). Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us… to purify for himself a people” (Titus 2:14). He did not come to make sinners salvable, deliverable, redeemable, purifiable, etc. Jesus “loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). He died to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18) and gave himself for the church (Eph. 5:25).

Christ’s death secured everything for the specified sinners (full atonement, full forgiveness, full work of the Spirit as a gift, full acceptance with the Father, etc.). The sinner does not “add” his faith to secure the benefits of Christ’s death but his own faith is the gift because Christ removed all the righteous legal barriers (his guilt, sin, judgment, etc.). He has secured all the spiritual blessings for the elect (Eph. 1:3, 4).


We don’t know for whom Christ has died so we can’t say Christ died for you. It doesn’t matter. We can unreservedly declare that Christ died for sinners and that He will save all who believe in Him. God will draw the elect and enable them to believe.

All and World? What about Jn. 3:16 and the other passages that refer to “all” (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9) and “world” (Jn. 1:9, 29; 4:42; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Jn. 2:1, 2; 4:14)? The word “world” in Jn. 3:16 refers to the wicked world of sinners — he loves them and whoever would believe will be saved. God’s general love for all does not mean He loves everyone the same way. We are all required to love everyone but we do not love them all the way we love our family, close friends, parents, etc. Usually the word “all” denotes all men without distinction but not all men without exception. God does desire the salvation of all people (1 Tim. 2:4) but it does not mean He will surely save all. Jesus’ ransom for all (“who gave himself as a ransom for all” 1 Tim. 2:6) perfectly illustrates all without distinction. If it was “all without exception”, that means all have been ransomed (not all have been “ransom-able”). If it was for everyone without exception then everyone has been truly ransomed, bought or purchased — that cannot be correct since not everyone is saved.

Efficacious or efficient for the elect but sufficient for all! Some have carefully noted that Christ’s death was sufficient (of such worth and value) that it could have technically saved everyone without exception. Limited atonement no way diminishes the value of Christ’s work on the cross. The design or intent behind Christ’s death was only for His people. The benefits of His death would be applied only to God’s chosen people; it is efficacious to them alone.

How do I know if he died for me? Remember, that is not the question you should be concerned about. He died for sinners and if you would repent and believe you will be forgiven, justified, and sanctified. Then you’ll be able to say that Jesus “loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).

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