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The beauty of limited atonement

Repentance from sin plus faith in Christ equals a new life.
Repentance from sin plus faith in Christ equals a new life. | Pixabay

Did Jesus die for the sins of people who are suffering in hell right now? It’s an important question and one that Protestants have been debating for over 400 years. But the Bible’s answer is clear: No. When Jesus dies for a sinner, the wrath of God against him is satisfied. There is no more wrath left — it was poured out on Christ once and for all. The saints will live with Christ forever because Christ died for their sins; the rest of humanity will suffer forever because Christ did not die for their sins. In other words, it is what Christ did for us on the cross, not what we choose to do with the cross, that reconciles us to God. This is the beautiful and controversial doctrine of “limited atonement.”

The controversy began in 1610, when students of a theology professor named Jacobus Arminius published five points of protest against the theology of the protestant churches. In their second protest the “Arminians” (named after their teacher) made a simple claim: “[Jesus] died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; [but] no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer.”

In response to the Arminian protest, elders from protestant churches across Europe gathered for a multinational assembly, called a “Synod,” at Dordrecht in the Netherlands. At this “Synod of Dort,” the assembly rejected all five Arminian protests. (Those five rejections later became known as “the five points of Calvinism.”) They published a document called “the Canons of Dort” in 1619 which refuted each protest, including the idea that Christ died for everyone, even those who reject Christ.

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The Canons of Dort recognized that the Arminian assertion of “unlimited atonement” raises a baffling question: If Christ’s death on the cross “obtained” “forgiveness of sins” for “all men,” then how are people in Hell right now suffering for their sins? There are only two possible answers. Either nobody goes to Hell (which Arminians deny), or the cross did not actually “obtain” salvation for anyone — it only obtained the possibility of salvation. Christ did not go to the cross to forgive our sins, but only to make our sins forgivable.

Among other things, the Canons of Dort rejected the idea that Christ did not die to save specific people, but only to make salvation possible for humanity in general. The Canons explained that “God the Father appointed his Son to death on the cross with a fixed and definite plan to save [his people] by name.” When Christ went up on the cross, he had specific people in mind whom he loved and wanted to save, and he accepted God’s punishment for all their specific sins. Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep … and I know them” (John 10:15, 27).

That is why Jesus came into the world — to die for specific people that He and His Father chose and loved. “God the Father … chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). As Jesus prayed to the Father before his crucifixion, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:6).

The Canons also rejected the idea that Christ could die for a specific person’s sin without saving him. Indeed, Scripture is clear that Jesus was confident He would save every single person He died for: “[T]his is the will of [the Father] who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that [the Father] has given me, but raise [him] up on the last day” (John 6:39). The Canons note with irony that the Arminians, who claim to make the cross for everyone, have “too low an opinion of the death of Christ,” because they assert that Christ’s death lacks the power to save anyone.

Finally, the Canons emphasized that salvation is only through faith. Nobody has forgiveness if they don’t trust in Christ and follow Him. But everyone who trusts in Christ can be confident that it is Christ — not their faith or obedience — that secures their eternal life. The doctrine of Limited Atonement gives believers the assurance that Christ has saved them. As Jesus said, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Arminian doctrine, by contrast, robs believers of the assurance of God’s love.

There are other important critiques of Arminianism. For example, some Arminians contradict an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity by pitting the Father against the Son, undermining their unity as one God. According to them, the Father chooses the elect “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), but Jesus dies for everyone, saving nobody. This contradicts Jesus’s clear teaching that He and the Father are fully united in saving the elect. Jesus explained, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:28-30).

What about critiques of Limited Atonement? Critics say it is impossible to evangelize all people if we believe that Christ did not die for everyone. This is an important objection, but the short answer is that we don’t have to tell unbelievers “Christ died for you” to share the Gospel with them. Consider how Jesus shared the Gospel with Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus did not say that His Father gave him to everyone, but that everyone who believes in him will be saved. We can preach the same good news while still knowing that many people will reject Jesus because Jesus didn’t die for them.

Opponents of limited atonement will also quote proof-text passages that sound like Christ died for all men. For example, John writes that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). But this is saying that God offers salvation to the whole world, Jew and Gentile, not that Christ died for every single human being. Similarly, Paul writes that “[Christ] died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthian 5:15). Again, the “all” here clearly refers to “those who live” — i.e., the elect who come to faith. These passages are fully consistent with Christ’s teaching of Limited Atonement and cannot be read in isolation to contradict it.

Getting this doctrine right matters for our walk with God. When I first became a Christian in college, a dear Calvinist friend told me one day, “Steven, remember that there is no more wrath. God’s wrath was fully satisfied on the cross.” That line — “there is no more wrath” — still rings in my ears when I think about my sin. There should be wrath for my sin, but instead I have eternal life because Jesus died for me, and his death really saved me. Praise God for that beautiful truth!

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea;
a great High Priest whose name is Love,
who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
my name is written on his heart.
I know that while in heaven he stands
no tongue can bid me thence depart,
no tongue can bid me thence depart.

Steven Begakis is an attorney who practices constitutional and administrative law.

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