What is Limited Atonement?

by Matt Slick

Limited atonement is the teaching within Calvinism which states that Jesus only bore the sins of the elect (those chosen for salvation by God), and that he did not bear the sins of every individual who has ever lived. This teaching is also called "particular redemption" and "definite atonement." This doctrine is known within Reformed theology and is also considered one of the five points of Calvinism known by the acronym TULIP. T = Total Depravity, U = Unconditional Election, L = Limited Atonement, I = Irresistible Grace, P = Perseverance of the Saints.

The argument used to support limited atonement is found in both Scripture and logic. Jesus said in John 10:15 that he laid his life down for the sheep. Furthermore, in John 10:26 Jesus said that people did not believe because they are not his sheep. The argument goes that if Jesus lays his life down for the sheep, and there are people who were not his sheep, then he did not lay his life down for those who are not his sheep.

Another argument is that since sin is breaking the Law of God (1 John 3:4) then there is a legal punishment due to all who break his Law. After all, a law is not a law if it has no punishment. In Romans 6:23 Paul the apostle says that the wages of sin is death. So breaking the law brings death as well as separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). However, Jesus was made under the law (Galatians 4:4) and he never sinned (1 Peter 2:22) because he kept the Law perfectly. Since he lived a perfect life, then he is righteous. When he was crucified he bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24); that is, our legal sin debt was transfered to Jesus. Furthermore, he canceled out the certificate of debt due to our sin against God (Colossians 2:14). So the logic goes that if Jesus was made under the law and never sinned, that he bore our sins in his body on the cross, and that he canceled our sin debt, then logically it would follow that he would only cancel it for those who are going to be saved. Otherwise, it would require universalism which is the false teaching that everyone will be saved.

Limited atonement is debated within Christian circles. It is not one of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. We are free to agree with it and not agree with it, but it is worth noting that every true Christian believes in a form of limited atonement. Within the Reformed camp the limit on the atonement is in the scope. In other words, the atoning work of Christ is so powerful that all for whom the atonement has been made will be saved. On the other hand, the universal atonement position limits the power of the atonement since it says that not everyone who is atoned for will be saved. Where Reformed theology broadens the power of the atonement, it also limits the scope. "Arminian" theology broadens the scope, but lessens the power. Either way, a form of "limited" atonement is held by all Christians. Nevertheless, typically "Limited Atonement" is associated with Calvinism. 

Finally, we should be careful not to pass judgment on others who disagree with us on this particular doctrine. Romans 14:5 tells us that each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. So, look to the Scriptures, study both sides, and make up your own mind. But, do not be judgmental toward Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with you.




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