Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Ten things on limited atonement

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.


michael jensen said...

Sigh! Bentley Hart's ignorance of Calvinism is only matched by his vehement hatred of it.

I would not recommend Owen on this subject - it was reading him that convinced me that the position could not be right!

I think the weakest parts of this whole argument are those pertaining to the scriptural texts. It just is not the case that a natural reading of the usual non-limited atonement texts accords with the limited atonement case. So, you are left with having to twist the texts to fit the preconceived theological position. This is MOST evident in Owen's very dull book!

I think we MUST hold both

a) The NT seems to teach that Christ's death is somehow different
towards the elect, as opposed to the non-elect:


b) The NT also teaches that Christ's death is available for all to find
forgiveness in (1 John 2:2, John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:1ff.).

Reconcile them if you can! But the Bible doesn't seem to see the need.

Guy Davies said...

It must be almost 20 years since I read Owen's book and I found his basic argument persuasive.

I wouldn't disagree with either a) or b) in your comments. Christ's death is effective for the elect. Christ is able to save all who trust in him.

Arminians deny a), hyper Calvinists deny b). Evangelical Calvinists preach both!

Jon said...

Limited Atonement is hardly great assurance... Pragmatically, one can know that salvation is certain if one knows one is saved but one cannot know that one is saved... QED.

I read Owen's book last year. I'm not a great fan of Limited Atonement I must admit. It seems to me firstly to miss a great deal of texts out which suggest Christ died for all or the world (nb. not therefore that all will be saved. For example, if I were to have an advertising campaign and decided to hand out free sweets, the fact that not everyone took the sweets wouldn't therefore question the freedom of the sweets or even the motives of the giver).

Also, it seems to me fairly superfluous - i.e. if it is removed from the whole "Calvinist" scheme what is lost?

michael jensen said...

Yes Guy, your response makes me suspect we are quibbling about words rather than having a significant disagrement really... but your post seems to lean away from asserting b) because you would (like Owen) deny that the texts that teach it, teach it...

Guy Davies said...


Thanks for your comments. On assurance, why do you assume that it is impossible to know that one is saved? We have the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ is saved, the evidence of a transformed, God-oriented life and the witness of the Spirit. Definite atonement gives the believer a firm basis for assurance because we know that Christ has not simply made our salvation a possibility, he has saved us by his blood.

What is lost from Calvinistic theology if we leave out limited atonement is the efficacy of the cross and the reality of penal substitution. Christ died in the place of those whom God had given him. His death saves the elect.

Guy Davies said...


I have no problem with what you said in point b):

"The NT also teaches that Christ's death is available for all to find
forgiveness in (1 John 2:2, John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:1ff.)"

You did not say that Christ died for all people without exception. I agree that Christ may be offered to all without exception with the promise that he is able to bring forgiveness to everyone who trusts in him. As I tried to show, definite atonement does not undermine the genuine, free offer of the gospel.

Baus said...

You say in #2 that the "biblical basis for limited atonement is found in texts that specify that Christ died for his people in particular."

I think you ought to revise this. Obviously, you have a point about those texts. However, as Murray points out in 'Redemption Accomplished and Applied' (and which you yourself suggest in #s 3&4), the extent of the atonement is based in the nature of the atonement. So, it would be more accurate to say that the biblical basis for limited atonement is found in texts that specify that Christ's death is efficacious for those for whom He died.

The texts that specify that those for whom He died are His people follow from the revelation of the atonement's "definitude".

Also, to reinforce #5, see article 3 of the 2nd head of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt. It affirms that Christ's sacrifice is of infinite worth and more than sufficient to expiate the sins of every individual.

michael jensen said...

'You did not say that Christ died for all people without exception. I agree that Christ may be offered to all without exception with the promise that he is able to bring forgiveness to everyone who trusts in him. As I tried to show, definite atonement does not undermine the genuine, free offer of the gospel.'

Well, when you put it this way, yes it does, because thenit isn't a genuine offer, it is just slippery wordplay!

I have never understood why penal substitution demands LA. People keep asserting it, but the logic of the statement escapes me.

Guy Davies said...


Thanks for your remarks. Readers will no doubt find them helpful. But I'll let the post stand as it is.


I glanced at Pierced for our Transgressions the other day, which is currently on my "to read" shelf. I noticed from the index that they discuss particular redemption. I didn't look up what they had to say until this morning. Spookily, their argument is quite similar to mine in many respects. They have some helpful things to say about the relationship between PSA and LA. See p. 268-278.

michael jensen said...

Well, it is precisely the PFOT argument that I don't get... those pages seems to me superfluous.

Guy Davies said...

Oh well, MJ.

Jon said...


Can't see how you can't see the flawed logic in Calvin's logic here. His problem was with assurance of salvation. Limited atonement was his answer to that but he didn't solve the problem of assurance he just pushed the problem further back. Salvation is definate for the elect - but how does one know that one is elect... push the problem to a different level doesn't make more assurance. You know that the whole problem with Calvinism is that people question their election etc.

Again - agree with MJ. Limited atonement is not necessary for penal substitution.

Guy Davies said...


I don't think Calvin came up with LA in order to solve the problem of assurance. LA was not a major concern for him. According to Calvin, we know that we are elect because Christ is the mirror of our election. If we have been united to him by faith, we are elect. Christ is the basis of assurance that we are elect.

I have a post on Christ as the mirror of election under the "Favourite Posts & Series" thing on my sidebar.

The sad thing is that Calvin's helpful teaching on election in Christ has not always been followed in Reformed theology. See the post just referred to for more details.

michael jensen said...

Did Calvin teach LA? The point is controversial.

Sorry to be a bit of a grumpy old man, Guy! (PFOT also mounted an attack on one of Moore College's finest sons in those exact pages... parochialism has set in, I am afraid, on my part!)

Guy Davies said...


If I wanted to be facetious, I might say, "How typically Anglican of you to be more interested in ecclesiastical politics than doctrinal precision." But that would be a bit below the belt, so I won't even mention the thought.

As for Calvin and LA, I'm not sure that Jon, (for all his "Can't you people see?" bluster) knows what he is talking about. I'd very much like to see the textual evidence for Calvin using LA in answer to the problem of assurance. Most Calvin scholars (even "Five Pointers") agree that he did not really give much attention to the extent of the atonement.

While he denies that Calvin taught a universal atonement, this is what William Cunningham had to say,

"To adduce Calvin as maintaining the doctrine of particular redemption, could scarcely, upon a full and impartial survey of the whole circumstances of the case, be regarded as warrantable. It is evident that he had never been led to examine this precise question, in he form which it afterwards assumed in controversial discussion, and to give explicit deliverance upon it. He seems to have attached little or no importance to and definite doctrine about the extent of the atonement."

The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, William Cunningham, 1979 reprint, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 400-401.

Anonymous said...

I think Owen's words are relevant to this discussion, and sadly this is the second forum on which I have quotedt them this week,

"Little did I think I should ever have lived in this world to find the minds of professors grown altogether indifferent as to the doctrine of God’s eternal election, the sovereign efficacy of grace in the conversion of sinners, justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ; but many are as to all these things, grown to an indifferencey: they know not whether they are so or not. I bless God I know something of the former generation, when professors would not hear of these things without high detestation; and now high professors begin to be leaders in it: and it is too much among the best of us. We are not so much concerned for the truth as our forefathers; I wish I could say we were as holy."


Anonymous said...

David Bentley Hart is in my opinion one of this generations leading theologians. That beng said, I am disappointed in his treatment of Calvinism (I am however sympathetic to his criticism of a rigid determinism that some Reformed folk have been apt to tend towards).

As per above, I think that it can be stated that a penal substitution presupposes a definite atonement if in fact everyone is not saved by the penal substitution of Christ (I am liberally borrowing from Owen and Spuergeon): should some persons bare punishment for their sins in judgment after this life when Christ has already bore their punishment on the cross? Persons who are not united to Christ by faith will suffer the punishment of their sins. Of course, they do not recieve the benefits of Christ's atoning work because of their unbelief. But unbelief is something that hs been overcome by the atoning work of Christ, it is on His behalf that persons believe (Phil. 1:29). If unbelief is one of the sins among many that have been overcome by the penal substitutionary work of Christ, then it can only be concluded that His atoning work was not targeted at all persons in the same way, because not all persons believe that Christ is their Saviour.

This does not diminish the free offer the gospel any more than the doctrine of election does: anyone who comes to Him and accepts Him as their Saviour and Lord, turns from their wicked ways, he will recieve the righteousness of Christ. Election, just as definite atonement, presupposes that not all will come to Him, but that does not diminish the truth of the promise.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks for your comments JP & Anon.

I don't have a vendetta against David Bentley Hart, I just wanted to respond to his remarks regarding limited atonement. I have is The Beauty of the Infinite on my wishlist.

GeneMBridges said...

"Yes Guy, your response makes me suspect we are quibbling about words rather than having a significant disagrement really... but your post seems to lean away from asserting b) because you would (like Owen) deny that the texts that teach it, teach it..."


"'You did not say that Christ died for all people without exception. I agree that Christ may be offered to all without exception with the promise that he is able to bring forgiveness to everyone who trusts in him. As I tried to show, definite atonement does not undermine the genuine, free offer of the gospel.'

Well, when you put it this way, yes it does, because thenit isn't a genuine offer, it is just slippery wordplay!

I have never understood why penal substitution demands LA. People keep asserting it, but the logic of the statement escapes me."

>>I realize I've come late to this discussion, but, Michael, these conclusions are only true if you come to the table with an aprioristic idea of what constitutes a "true offer." This is no different than the Roman Catholic who comes with an aprioristic idea of what constitutes a workable rule of faith. We need to ask "What constitutes a 'true offer?'" and we need to get this from the Bible.

In the Bible, the "true offer" carries the force of a command, according to 1 John 3. So, if you were consistent, you would also assert that an offer is not "true" or "sincere," if men did not have the ability of themselves to accept it. That, of course, is nothing more than using libertarian freedom to underwrite the "true offer." Where is the biblical argument for LFW?

The Amyraldian and General Redemptionist are using the atonement as a warrant to believe, eg., by your own admission, if it is not general it cannot be a "true offer." But where does the Bible ever couch the sincerity of the offer in those terms? The logic here is no different than that of the person using LFW as a warrant to believe and is just as aprioristic.

This is also the logic of the hyper-Calvinist. The hyper-Calvinist uses a subjective sense of election to do the same thing. Underwriting all three of these is the idea that "ability limits responsibility.'

That, Michael is the logic that denies GA and favors LA as a result. If you posit GA, you're not just positing things about the atonement. You'll wind up having to posit things not in Scripture.

I would also point out that while the "commercial" or pecuniary theory of LA is the minority position, questions about the "infinitude" of the atonement are ultimately from tradition and not Scripture. Scripture never says anything one way or the other about the intrinsic "infinitude" of the atonement or the pecuniary nature of it. Rather, it addresses the objectivity of the atonement and the identity of the atonement. General redemption will always find its terminus in the subjectivity of the atonement, since it has no intrinsic efficacy and is always posited as a gospel warrant. I would also point out that appeal to the "infinite value" of the atonement is also problematic philosophically, because, while it sounds good on paper and in a confessional document, it doesn't talk about what sort of infinite set is in view. There are many kinds of infinite sets. Which one does this view accept? Nobody has ever answered. That's why it is a problem to underwrite the free offer with the sufficiency of the atonement if by that you mean the infinite value of it is required to underwrite the offer. The gospel warrant - the warrant to believe it - is its own warrant, just as the commands of God in the Bible are their own intrinsic warrant.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks for your helpful comments, Gene.

While I agree that Scripture does not explicitly assert that the atonement was of infinite value, I think that this truth can be deduced from the fact the the atonement was the act of the Son of God. As the WCF says, "The whole counsel of either expressly set down on Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture"

cj said...

Regarding MJ's comment: "Well, when you put it this way, yes it does, because thenit isn't a genuine offer, it is just slippery wordplay!"

I also don't get it, why a particular penal substitution undermines a genuine offer. If the logic is that you can't offer Christ to someone who is unable to be saved because Christ didn't die for his sins, unless we go fully Arminian or worse, I think you are still going to have problems with that logic. It will just be a moving of the goal posts. Eg if you still uphold Total Depravity and the necessity of the Spirit's work before someone can believe, won't that also undermine the sincerity of the offer, since they are unable to receive it if God doesn't choose to open their eyes etc...

Actually, I was also just listening to a talk by Peter Jensen. It was what led me to google which led me here. At about the 51.5 minute mark, he talks briefly about Limited Atonement as part of TULIP. He emphasises both the sufficiency and the limited intention of God in Christ. Perhaps Michael can tell us if he is saying the same as his earthly dad, and maybe also what differences Peter Jensen may have with more Owenistic views of LA. Or where else PJ has written or spoken about it..?

You can get the talk here: