Why I Love the Doctrine of Limited Atonement
February 27, 2020 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
This is part three of a five-part series where I explore the goodness of what is commonly known as the Five Points of Calvinism, summarized by the acronym TULIP. Historically, Reformed churches have looked to this acronym as a summary God’s work in our salvation. While we believe the truths are rooted in Scripture, the “five points” often solicit strong reactions. Let’s consider each, seeking to deepen our delight in the God who saves.
Have you ever heard of a four-point Calvinist? It refers to a person who holds to or affirms four of the five points of the acronym TULIP. Typically, it is the middle letter “L” that creates this phenomenon. When I was in college and first introduced to TULIP, I initially called myself a four-point Calvinist. I believed the other four points were biblical, but this middle letter represented something not found in Scripture. The L stands for limited atonement. I argued that no one should “limit” God’s atoning work through Christ on the cross. The death of Christ is infinite, not limited.
It turns out that my belief about limited atonement was rooted in a misunderstanding of the doctrine and the biblical teaching undergirding it. Let me unpack what this doctrine teaches and then I explain why I have come to love this doctrine.
We start with a definition of atonement. Atonement is the payment that secures our redemption. We were slaves to sin and God had to make a full payment to purchase us from that slavery. The payment price for our sin is the sacrificial death of an infinitely perfect being. Christ makes that payment on the cross. Jesus is the only one who can fully satisfy the just wrath of God due our sin because he is infinitely holy and perfect.
Paul explains this in Romans 3:23-25, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” The word “propitiation” is the biblical word for atonement. So, when we speak about the atonement, we are speaking about what Jesus Christ accomplishes on the cross.
John Piper gives a fuller definition of atonement: “The work of God in Christ, by his obedience and death, by which he cancelled the debt of our sin, appeased his holy wrath against us, and won for us all the benefits of salvation” (desiringgod.org). That last phrase is important. We enjoy all the benefits of salvation because Jesus died for us. Every benefit and grace from God is a blood-bought grace. We don’t deserve any of it.
Why is the word “limited” added to atonement? Well, I have come to learn that everyone limits atonement in one way or another, unless he or she is a universalist (believing that everyone will be saved, regardless of faith conviction). Either you limit the scope of the atonement (who receives the benefits of atonement) or you limit the effectiveness of the atonement (what is actually accomplished for those who believe). I am convinced that Scripture teaches the first option, because Christ’s death secures for us all the benefits of salvation, including the regeneration of the Holy Spirit and faith. Those graces of salvation are given only to those who will be saved (Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8-9).
Since the word “limited” has caused confusion, many theologians have come to prefer to call this doctrine particular redemption. God redeems a particular group of people by the death of Christ (Rev. 5:9). I love this doctrine for these reasons:
- It exalts the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. He has done it all. He satisfied God’s wrath on the cross; there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). And his sacrificial death secures the grace needed to overcome the corruption of sin that left me dead. I am alive because of Christ. That is such good news! Nothing I do can add or take away from his redemption of me.
- It emboldens my preaching of the gospel. Many think this is a contradiction. If Christ died for only those who will be saved, why preach the gospel? They will be saved regardless, right? But God has chosen to use the foolishness of preaching to bring the beauty and wonder of Christ to the hearts and minds of those whom he is saving. The Holy Spirit uses the preached gospel to regenerate people and prepare them to respond in faith. Therefore, their faith in Christ rests not on me and my ability to preach it right, but on the power of the Holy Spirit. That is good news! I preach the gospel trusting that God works through the ministry of his word to draw many unto Christ (see 1 Cor. 2:1-5).