John Owen, author of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ
In a recent post, Defining Heresy, Chris Tilling reflected on David Bentley Hart's statement on 'the heresy of "limited atonement", which has so dreadfully disfigured certain streams of traditional Reformed thought' (The Doors of the Sea). Is limited atonement really a heresy? Here are some points to consider:
1. Universalists believe that Christ died for all and therefore all will be saved. I cannot argue the point now, but in my view this stance fails to take into account what the Bible says about the reality of hell for those who die in their sin (see here). Most other theological positions teach a form of limited atonement. For some, the cross is limited in its effectiveness because Christ died for all, but not all are saved. For others the cross is limited in its scope because Christ died only for the the elect, whose salvation he secured.
2. The biblical basis for limited atonement is found in texts that specify that Christ died for his people in particular. For example, in John 10, Jesus says "the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep" (vs. 11). The "sheep" are defined as those whom the Father gave to the good shepherd (vs. 29). These "sheep" will most certainly be saved, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (vs. 28). Christ makes a clear distinction between his "sheep" for whom he died and who will never perish and those who were not his "sheep", "But you do not believe because you are not my sheep" (vs. 26). Christ's "sheep" hear the voice of the good shepherd and follow him (vs. 27). Similarly, Paul wrote that "Christ loved the church and gave himself for her that he might sanctify and cleanse her by the washing of water by the word." (Ephesians 5:25 & 26). It is specifically for the church that Christ gave himself. His self-giving at the cross secures her sanctification and cleansing.
3. Denial of limited atonement undermines the link between Christ's substitutionary death and the salvation of the people of God. If Christ died for some who are not saved, then his death failed in its purpose. This is inconceivable. In him we have redemption through his blood (Ephesians 1:7). Those whom Christ has redeemed are saved by grace through faith (2:8) and therefore know forgiveness of sins according to the riches of God's grace (1:7). Limited atonement is better described as definite atonement because the cross actually and definitely achieved salvation for the people of God. Jesus died in the place of those whom the Father gave him in eternity. He bore their sins and took the punishment they deserved in his substitutionary death. Christ's cross did not make salvation a possibility for any who wished to be saved. He saved us by his blood. According to Jim Packer, "It is Calvinism that understands the Scriptures in their natural, one would have thought, inescapable meaning; Calvinism that keeps to what they actually say; Calvinism that insists on taking seriously the biblical assertions that God saves, and that he saves those whom he has chosen to save, and that he saves them by grace without works, so that no man may boast, and that Christ is given to them as a perfect Saviour, and that their whole salvation flows to them from the cross; and that the work of redeeming them was finished on the cross." (From an introductory essay to The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen, Banner of Truth Trust, 1983. p. 9)
4. The believer's union with Christ demands a definite atonement. God's elect people were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). Christ came into this fallen world as man to save those who were united to him in God's electing grace. When he died, he died for us and by our union with him, we died with him to sin and condemnation. This becomes an existential reality when we are united to him by the Spirit. We are baptised into Christ's death. The old man (in Adam) is crucified and we are raised to new life in Christ. (Romans 6:1ff). Those who have been united to Christ must, "reckon yourselves dead indeed unto sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (vs. 11). Christ's cross achieved his people's death to sin so that all for whom he died will be united to him in his death and resurrection. In Romans 6, definite atonement is the dynamic of the Christian life of holiness. This focus on union with Christ ensures that the effectiveness of the cross does not rest upon man's response to the gospel. Yes, we must believe to be saved. But even the faith that receives salvation is given to us by God's Christ-mediated grace.
5. The commercial theory of the atonement - that Christ's suffering was proportionate to the number of people whom he redeemed is not the mainstream Reformed doctrine. To make this clear, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists added an explanatory statement to their 1823 Confession of Faith, "we think it necessary to call attention to the truth concerning the infinite sufficiency of the atonement... as it its it forth in the writings of Thomas Charles of Bala, 'None will perish because of insufficiency in the atonement, but all because they will not come to Christ to be saved; and these men will have not excuse for their neglect of Christ.'" (Article 18: Redemption, 2004 reprint, Heath Christian Trust).
6. Holding to definite atonement should not hinder the free offer of the gospel. Christ is to be preached as an all sufficient Saviour who saves all who trust in him. All sinners may be assured that by his blood, Christ is able to cleanse the foulest sinner and put them right with God. John Owen writes, "There is enough in the remedy it [the cross] brings to light to heal all their diseases, to deliver them from all their evils. If there were a thousand worlds, the gospel of Christ might, upon this ground, be preached to them all, if so be they will derive virtue from him by touching him by faith; the only way to draw refreshment from this fountain of salvation." (The Death of Death op. cit. p. 185). God loves all people. Through the preaching of the gospel, God graciously offers Christ to all who will come to him for forgiveness and new life.
7. Biblical texts that teach Christ died for the "world" or for "all" do not contradict definite redemption. By the word "world", the Bible often draws attention not to human demography, but the sinfulness of mankind. Christ died for a sinful world. B. B. Warfield comments on the meaning "world" in John 3:16, "It is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it." (The Saviour of the World, Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, p. 120-121). John also wrote of Christ, "he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." (1 John 2:2). John draws attention to the ethical meaning of world in 2:15-17 of this letter. But in the text quoted, the apostle wanted to show that Christ did not die for a privileged minority among the people of God, but for a whole world of lost sinners. This does not necessarily mean that he died for all human beings inclusively. But that Christ was the propitiation for the whole world extensively - for all peoples in this fallen world. Those who hold to limited atonement should glory in such statements rather than be embarrassed by them. This is our message, "And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world." (1 John 4:14).
8. Limited atonement does not necessarily mean that only a very limited number of people will be saved in comparison with those who will be lost. According to W. G. T. Shedd, "But when Christ shall have "seen of the travail of his soul" and been "satisfied" with what he has seen; when the whole course of the gospel shall be complete, and shall be surveyed from beginning to end; it will be found that God's elect, or church, is "a great multitude which no man can number, out of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues," and that their voice is as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, "Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth," Rev. 7:9, 19:6." (Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, , p. 712).
9. Definite atonement provides a sure ground for the assurance of faith. There can be no doubt that those for whom Christ died will perish. His death has saved us. We can never be lost. An indefinite atonement cannot give believers this assurance, as not all for whom Christ died will be saved. God's elect can never be condemned because the Saviour has died in our place, "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is risen, who is even at the right hand of God for us, who also makes intercession for us." (Romans 8:33-34).
10. If you have tended just to dismiss "limited atonement" as a Calvinistic aberration, or even a "heresy" and I have not convinced you otherwise, why not read a couple of classic books on the subject? The most in-depth work is John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, already referred to in the post. See also Redemption Accomplished and Applied, by John Murray, 1979, Banner of Truth Trust.