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  • Daniel Klassen

TULIP: Limited Atonement

In our all-inclusive society, anything limited to a certain group of people, especially when that thing is beneficial, is looked down upon. Some even fight exclusive claims to the bitter end. So it is no surprise that the doctrine of limited atonement is the most despised of the five points of Calvinism. This animosity to limited atonement is found even among Reformed people. They claim to be "Four-point Calvinists" leaving out the doctrine of limited atonement.

Limited is not the best word to describe this doctrine concerning Christ's work on the cross. Every Christian who is not a Universalist believes in a limited view of the atonement. Not everyone will be saved, and so Christ's work on the cross does not save everyone, it is limited. But that is not what this doctrine is concerned with. Many have renamed it definite atonement because its focus is the purpose of God sending Jesus to the cross.

The Canons of Dort start their section on the atonement with the basics every Christian believes. They immediately point out that the argument over the atoning work of Christ on the cross is not about how we are saved. It does not deal with how a person comes to saving faith in Christ (that is what irresistible grace is about). It is also not about repentance and belief as our actions in regeneration. The atonement is about the justice of God in the death of Jesus. For God to be just in saving sinners, He must have proper payment for sin. He cannot save sinners without just payment. There must be an atonement for us to have fellowship with God. This, we are incapable of producing (see Total Depravity). Our sacrifices and efforts are tainted with sin, and so even our attempts to atone for our sin are sinful and in need of atonement. We cannot pay our debt.

In the case of definite atonement, its focus is on the plan of God for salvation. It deals with the sovereign council of God and purpose of His will to bring salvation through His Son. This is not a venture into the secret places outside of Scripture trying to figure out the mind of God. It is the clear explanation of God's design for salvation as revealed in His Word. The argument is why God sent Christ and for whom Christ died.

For the Arminians, their basic claim is that the atonement made salvation possible for all and certain for none. They say that God did not send Jesus to the cross with a certain and definite decree to save any, but a general plan to save those who believe on Christ. The certainty of the Christian is found not in God's design and action, but in man's belief and repentance. In short, for the Arminian, the reason that some are saved, and not all is because of man's free-will, not God's plan and will.

There lies inherent in the idea of man's free-will many problems contrary to Scripture, but an even greater controversy is found in their argument. The overarching problem with the Arminian argument is that it must logically conclude that Christ could have died for no one. If God sent Jesus to atone for sin, but it was left to man to decide whether they needed that atonement, Christ's atonement could have stood in perfection and glory and never been applied to any person.

For the Calvinists, John 10 was so seared into their consciences that they could never hold to such a position. Christ, speaking of Himself as a shepherd, said, "I lay down my life for the sheep" (v.15). It is as if He were saying, "I know whom I am laying my life down for, they are those whom my Father chose before the foundation of the world." He continues, "I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice" (v.16). "I must," and, "they will" are definite terms. What Jesus is speaking of here is an intimate knowledge of those whom He will save by His death. His death secures for the sheep a salvation that is certain. They will come to Him, and they will be saved by Him.

This doctrine also comes from the prophecy of Caiaphas, the high priest, who was responding to the Pharisee's plot to kill Jesus. John records that the prophecy declared Jesus was to die not only for the nation but "to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (John 11:52). Jesus' death was meant for the elect.


The verse that is used most often as a Scriptural proof against this doctrine is found in 1 John 2 which states that Jesus is "the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world" (v. 2). The only problem is that if you want to use this as a text against the doctrine of definite atonement, you must also use it as a case for universalism. To take the phrase, "not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world," and run with it as a banner for an atonement offered to all, you do injustice to the text when the context is talking about propitiation (a sacrifice to take away the discord between God and man). The verse is speaking of a definite salvation taking place. Also when John contrasts "ours" with "the whole world," he his continuing the same message throughout the whole of Scripture: Christ came not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. This passage, used as a battering ram by the Arminians, is turned on them when scripturally explained.

The second weapon of the Arminians is their understanding of foreknowledge. They say that God knew those who would turn to Him and then chose them to be saved in Christ. The only reason that Christ death was not for naught was because God knew that there would be people who would believe. But this too is turned on those who use it. According to logic, Jesus' atoning work is still only limited to those who believe. That is no different than saying Christ only died for the elect. There is still a certain number of people, and that number will not change.


This doctrine of definite atonement is a wonderful consolation to the Christian. In certainty, hope flourishes, and this hope is wonderfully described in Article 8 of the Second Head of Doctrine in the Canons of Dort:

“It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.”

We can have confidence knowing that the work of Christ on the cross does indeed work on our behalf. It does not rely on our feeble and shifting will but on the eternal and unchanging purpose of God. The atonement is sure and steadfast in the midst of our strife with sin. Nothing can hinder this work from being effective among the elect of God.

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