DOCTRINES OF GRACE
3. Limited Atonement
I Timothy 2:4-6 declare, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” These verses teach a very important lesson about the gospel of salvation. In some ways it is a very hard lesson, not because it is hard to understand, but because it is hard to receive. It is a lesson that attacks people’s pride and demonstrates that salvation is 100% a work of God without any contribution of men. We must approach this lesson with humbleness and a mind that is open to God’s leading, rather than be persuaded by what makes sense to our sinful human thinking.
There is a commonly held idea about God’s plan of salvation that is based upon I Timothy 2:4. The idea is that, even though it is obvious not all people are saved but only some are saved, still, God wants all people to be saved. Is that true? Can God will something to happen and yet it does not come to pass? A careful look at I Timothy and other verses will reveal a very different view, a truer view of salvation.
Let us begin with the word “will” in I Timothy 2:4, found in the phrase, “(God) will have all men to be saved.” The word “will” is not a weak word denoting a wish or a desire. It does not imply that God wills in vain because His will could be frustrated by the stubbornness of man. Rather it describes an intention that is backed by the wisdom and power of an Almighty God. It is a sovereign and irresistibly effective will. What God wills always comes to pass, as we read in Romans 9:18, “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth......” That means all men whom God wills to be saved will be saved, no matter what. The will of God forms the plan of God, designed before creation, unchangeable and perfect. We can expect it to be fulfilled in all of its detail.
Another word that is often misunderstood is the word “all.” The Bible uses the word “all,” found in I Timothy 2:4 and 2:6, in many different ways. For example, in I Timothy 2:1,2, it refers to all those in authority. In another example, the word “all” in I Corinthians 15:22 occurs twice, with two different meanings. It is found in the first half of the verse, “For as in Adam all die.” Clearly, the word “all” refers to all human beings who have ever lived because all men are from Adam and all are dead spiritually at conception. It is all also found in the second half of the verse, “even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Clearly the second word “all” refers to all those who are saved, that is, all who are “in Christ,” and refers to a smaller amount of people than the first word “all.”
The context of I Timothy, as well as the rest of the Bible, limits our application of the word “all” in I Timothy 2:4-6 to only part of the human race. The word “all” must be thought of as “all kinds of men,” that is, men of all kinds of national heritage, Jew as well as Gentile, rather than “all the people of the world.”
In I Timothy 2:5 we read, “ For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Paul's point in verse 5 is that there is one mediator for all kinds of men, for there is not one mediator for Jewish people and another mediator for the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29,30). That is why Paul states that he was ordained and sent by God to the Gentiles, as we read in I Timothy 2:7, “Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.”
I Timothy 2:4-6 is not saying that God really wants every person to be saved and sent His Son to pay for their sins, but somehow things are not working out the way He hoped they would. Rather, the idea is that all the people for whom Jesus gave himself a ransom, as God willed, will be saved. All the people for whom Jesus made a full payment for sin, as God carefully planned that He would, will surely escape Hell. Therefore, the people in view in these verses cannot mean every human, because in that case, in contradiction to what the Bible teaches, every person would be saved without exception and the Bible clearly teaches that Hell will not be empty, as we read in Matthew 7:13, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.” and 25:46, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
Now we come to I Timothy 2:6 that states, “(Christ Jesus) who gave himself a ransom for all.” The question before us, the most important question and the question we must answer is, “For whom did Jesus die?” Before we carefully explain what the Bible teaches, we shall state the answer. Jesus died for all of His people and only His people. This answer question expresses an understanding of salvation that has historically been called the doctrine of “limited atonement.” That is, Jesus' atonement or ransom or payment for sins is limited to only some people. However, as we shall see, a much better name for this doctrine would be “effectual atonement” or “effectual redemption.” That is, the Bible teaches that Jesus' death on the cross is effectual, it has real power and value, not potential power and value. Everyone for whom Christ died will be saved, just as God intended when He worked out His plan before the foundation of the world.
The basis for the doctrine of “limited” or “effectual atonement” is that the gospel of salvation is essentially a judicial action and decree. That is, God has declared that the wages of sin is eternal death. There is a punishment that fits and which must be applied to the crime. However, if the payment has been paid, then the punishment cannot be required again. God sees the payment which Jesus made for a particular sinner and then declares that sinner “not guilty.” If we say that the phrase in I Timothy 2:6, “(Jesus) gave Himself a ransom for all,” means Jesus paid for the sins of everyone in the human race, but we also say that many will still go to Hell, we must conclude that those people in Hell are being punished for the sins for which Jesus died. That means God would then be asking payment for their sins twice. In criminal law this is called “double jeopardy,” and is not allowed even in corrupt human societies. Oh, no! When God makes the payment for a person’s sins, it is effective. Therefore, we know that it is limited to removing the legal liability of only those who are eventually saved.
The doctrine of limited atonement or effectual redemption is not a logical invention of theologians. We are compelled to think about the cross in that way because the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus died for His people only. Jesus Himself explains in that He died for those whom God had given Him, but not all people are God's sheep, as we read in John 10:11 and 26, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep......But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.” To that we can add verses such as Matthew 1:21, “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” and John 17:9, “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine” (Acts 13:48, Eph. 1:4-6, II Tim. 1:9). These verses, among others, show that God has a redemptive interest for only some people, for only those whom He has planned to save.
Most people today object to this idea of salvation. Therefore, it is essential that we correctly and clearly understand what the Bible teaches about Jesus' atonement for sin. Because I Timothy 2:6 states, “(Christ Jesus) gave himself a ransom for all,” we must answer the question, who are the “all”? In other words, the most important question of all is, “For whom did Jesus die?” We have shown from the Bible that sometimes the word “all” is limited, that it does not necessarily mean “all humans.”
It is essential that we correctly and clearly understand what the Bible teaches about Jesus' atonement for sin. To that end, we shall try to compare a few of the most common views of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. We shall present three different ways people answer the question, “For whom did Jesus die?” That is, whom did God have in mind when He planned that Christ would sacrifice Himself and whose penalty, demanded by the Law, did He actually pay? How we answer that question reveals how we understand what happened when Jesus went to the cross and how we understand God's plan of salvation.
One answer to the question “for whom did Christ die?” that has sometimes been given is, “Christ died for everyone, and therefore everyone will be saved.” The idea is that the words “Who will have all men to be saved” found in I Timothy 2:4 describe God's desire to save every man who ever lived, and the words “Who gave himself a ransom for all” found in I Timothy 2:6 describe what God did to make His intention a reality. If our method of Bible study is based upon the principle that we must take the Bible at face value without comparing a passage to any other passages, if we think that the correct interpretation is always the plain simple meaning of a passage as it stands by itself and that we must not seek for any other verses that may modify the apparently obvious meaning, then the answer given above would be valid. However, the above understanding of I Timothy 2:4-6 is terribly wrong. Anyone who takes the Bible seriously knows that it clearly teaches not everyone will be saved. We only have to read II Thessalonians 1:8,9, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (Matt. 7:13,14, 25:41,46). Therefore, we shall set this view aside and not discuss it further.
There is a second answer to the question “for whom did Christ die?” It is an answer that is commonly held among Bible students today. In fact it is the most widely held view. That answer goes something like this, “Christ died for everyone, but only those who believe will be saved.” The idea is that the penalty for the sins of every man has been paid and it is up to each person to accept or reject God's offer of forgiveness. From this point of view, the interpretation of I Timothy 2:2-4 is similar to the first one. That is, it is God's desire to save every person who ever lived and that Christ's death provided the possibility for every man's salvation.
We ought to add, those people who hold to this second answer to the question, those people who teach that Jesus paid for the sins of everyone, nevertheless believe, quite properly, that Hell will not be empty. But their view is that people will be cast into Hell because they rejected Jesus' offer of salvation. It is true that to refuse to believe that Jesus is the Savior is disobedience. It is a sin, for which men must pay. However, it is not any more evil than any other sin, for as we read in James 2:10, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” The Bible clearly teaches that men will be condemned, not just for one special sin, but for all of the evil that they have done, as we read in Matthew 12:36, “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Rom. 2:16, Rev. 20:12,13). A man's refusal to obey the call to trust in Jesus as Savior simply reveals the fact that the man is still a slave to his sinful nature and unable to trust or value God’s word.
According to this second understanding of whom Jesus died on the cross, the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that a Christian has chosen to receive the offered gift of salvation and a non-Christian has not. This second answer to the question “For whom did Jesus die?” is a necessary companion to the idea that all men have a free will to choose to do spiritual good and have the ability to answer God's gospel call or turn away from it. It is as if God, as a judge, has given every man a pardon for his crimes and it is up to each individual to accept or reject Christ's forgiveness. According to this view, as foolish as it may seem, a man could actually turn God down. Such a salvation plan does not ultimately depend upon God, but rests upon a man's decision.
Unfortunately, this commonly held view is a mistaken and very confusing understanding of what the Bible teaches about Christ's death and the salvation that it provides. In the first place, the Bible clearly teaches that no one has a free will. The Bible teaches that all people are dead in their sins, Ephesians 2:1, “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” Spiritually dead people do not, cannot choose to seek God. People can choose to wear one shirt or another, eat one bowl of rice or two. But no one can choose to seek God, because all people are spiritually dead. In the second place, the notion that Christ's death only makes salvation possible, that salvation is only potential, and that salvation is certain and sure only if a man chooses to accept it, cannot be supported by Scripture. Remember, the Bible teaches, in Ephesians and other places, that all men are dead in their sins. So, if salvation were only potential, awaiting the choice of men, no one would ever be saved, for sinners can do no spiritual good, such as accepting God's offer of salvation. Therefore, not only is the design and preparation of plan of salvation all of God, not only is the work that is done to fulfill that plan all of God, so is the application of that salvation to men's lives all of God. The whole program of salvation is all of God and nothing of men. It is 100% a work of God without any contribution from man, as we read in John 1:13, “Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” and Romans 9:15,16, “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
Notice what we read in Ephesians 1:4 and 5, “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” God elects men to be saved before the foundation of the world, and does everything to see that they are saved, apart from the work of men, as we clearly read in II Timothy 1:9, “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” Notice also John 10:27 and 28, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” When God wills someone to be saved, He does everything to see that His will is fulfilled, as He has planned. Also, men have no part in the fulfillment of that will, in their own salvation, because they have neither the power nor the inclination to be saved.
Therefore, according to the testimony of scripture, salvation is not potential. It is actual. God actually saves people. He does not just make it possible for people to be saved. When Jesus gives His life as a ransom for a person’s sins, that person’s sin are actually paid for. A sacrifice that provides only potential salvation is an insult and a distortion of Jesus' death on the cross. How could it be that Christ endured the agony of Hell for a man who would be cast into Hell anyway? Such a view implies that much of the terrible suffering of Jesus was ineffective and worthless. It would mean that Jesus would have paid for sins pointlessly, in as much as Hell would be populated by people for whose sins Jesus died, but who were not interested in His payment. What a valueless and tragic sacrifice! No. The truth is that Jesus died only for some people and that all of those people for whom He died will be saved.
So far we have discussed the first two answers to the question, “For whom did Christ die?” The first answer we looked at is “Jesus died for everybody and so everybody will be saved.” We showed that answer is not true. A second answer we looked at is “Jesus died for everybody but only those who decide to trust in Jesus will be saved.” We just showed the Bible will not permit that view either.
A third answer to the question, “For whom did Christ die?” and the correct view of redemption, is “Jesus paid for the sins of some people. And all those people for whose sins Jesus paid, will be saved, with no exception.” The idea is that God planned to save some people before the foundation of the world and then did what is necessary to be sure that His will was fulfilled. That is, God’s salvation will is limited to the people whom God had decided to save and His plan to save them was effective and successful.
This correct view of Christ's death is that is was effective, fully paying for the sins of men. Therefore, it is limited to the payment for those who will be saved, all those chosen by God to be His children. The cross does not just promise possible forgiveness. It provides certain forgiveness, whether the person for whom Christ died wants it or not. In fact, no one does want it. All people are dead in their sins. God must first work in a person’s heart in order for that person to have the power to gratefully embrace the forgiveness which Jesus’ death on the cross, or ransom, has obtained.
The second answer to the question, “for whom did Jesus die?” which is the notion that Jesus died for everybody but only some are saved, is a popular view. It is held by many people who teach the Bible and many who are part of the Christian community. The third answer, and the correct view, that is, the idea that Jesus died only for His people and they are the ones who are saved is a view that is not held by as many people. It is important that we clearly understand the difference between these two views of what happened to Jesus Christ when He died on the cross. Therefore, let us compare the two answers by means of the following illustration.
The view that Christ died for the sins of everyone can be compared to the idea of a bank check, which a person writes as payment for his debt. A bank check is just a piece of paper. If it is ripped up into little pieces or burned with a match into ashes, nothing of value is lost. All the money in the account is still safely in the bank. A check that is properly filled out has no value in itself. Assuming that the signature of the person who writes the check is not a forgery and assuming the person’s account has sufficient funds, a filled out check can be used to pay any debts. However, such a check is really only a promise made by the one who fills it out. He promises to make his money in the bank available to the person whose name he wrote on the check. If that check is destroyed nothing is really lost and another check can be written to replace it. If a filled out check is refused and returned, no money has ever been transferred from one person to another. However, once the check has been properly endorsed, once the check has been signed by the person who is supposed to receive the money, it suddenly has a lot of value and can be presented to a bank for payment.
Most people think of Jesus' death in this way. Most people think that Jesus payment for sin only has potential value for the payment of a person's sins and becoming a real payment for a person's sins only when the sinner agrees to the payment, as he accepts the pardon offered by God. Those who hold this view believe that the atonement is like a check, that redemption is a valid promise by God, but only negotiable if a man accepts it. It is as if a sinner's signature is required to give the promise real value. It is as if Jesus' payment on the cross, which is intended to remove a sinner's liability before the law, only satisfies the demands which the law makes upon a sinner when he agrees to that payment. That is a wrong way to look at Jesus’ death.
On the other hand, the view that Jesus died only for the people God has chosen can be compared to the idea of cash. The money printed by the government has value independent of the attitude and actions of anyone. If you take a twenty dollar bill out of your wallet and burn it, you are twenty dollars poorer. You may insist that the paper and ink has no value, but that does not matter for the money is still worth its full value. Cash is a promise by the sovereign authority of the land to back up any payment of debts, made with that money, with its own full resources. The value of a twenty dollar bill offered to me does not require my endorsement, nor does it depend upon my acceptance of it. Only if the money is lost or destroyed will its value be gone.
Those people who hold to the view of limited atonement, the view that Jesus died for His people and all of them will be saved, insist that the Bible teaches Jesus' payment on the cross is like cash and not like a check. In other words, Jesus' sacrifice for sin is not potential payment. It does not just promise forgiveness for sin if someone accepts it, instead it provides full and complete payment for sin for all of those people whom God wills to save. The payment for sin at the cross is actual and effective independent of whether any person believes or desires it. In fact, as we mentioned before, the people for whom Jesus died initially do not want the pardon for sin that His payment on the cross secures. Paul knew from personal experience that not until God works in a man's heart will that man desire and seek the salvation God offers to all of His people. But when God finally saves a man, he is under the full and eternally effective cover of Jesus' payment. The cross has indestructible worth. It is an effective payment for sin, regardless of the actions of men.
Let us present a few verses to see that the notion of limited or effectual redemption is what the Bible teaches and is not just a matter of our opinion. In John 10:11 we read, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” Jesus is the one who dies for His sheep. Yet also notice John 10:26, “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.” So, not every body is one of Jesus’ sheep. In addition to that, we read in John 17:9, “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine..” Jesus does not pray for the salvation of everyone but only for those people who are His.
A sinner can only cry out for mercy. A sinner finds salvation when he seeks God humbly with his whole heart, depending totally upon the grace of God. Then he later finds out that his effort to seek salvation was also the work of God in his life. A sinner can be compared to a lost sheep whom a shepherd seeks and carries back to the fold. The shepherd does not clear the way and expect the sheep to walk back on his own. The shepherd carries the sheep back because the sheep cannot and does not want to go back. The shepherd finds all of his sheep and gives them a heart to want to be part of the fold. Since not all people are one of Jesus’ sheep, His work of payment for sin is limited to the people who are truly saved, saved in the past, now and in the future.
Most people detest the idea that they have nothing to contribute to their salvation. The idea that they can do nothing to save themselves hurts their pride and self-respect. But in all fairness, many people have been taught the wrong view of Jesus’ death and so many questions come to their minds when they hear something different. Let us look at some of the objections to the teaching that Jesus died only for His own and all of those for whom He died will be saved.
People who reject the doctrine of limited atonement present verses in the Bible to support their view that Jesus died for everyone. There certainly are words and phrases in the Bible that seem to agree with them. For example, John 1:29, 3:16, Romans 8:32, II Corinthians 5:19 and I John 2:2 are used to support the view that Jesus died for everyone. Although we are not able here to analyze all of these verses in detail, we can say that the word “world,” which is shared by most of these verses, is often misunderstood to mean every person in the world. We showed previously that the word “all” does not necessarily mean “everybody.” In a similar way, the Bible does not always use the word “world” to mean “everybody who lives in the world.” The Bible can use the same word in different ways to mean different things.
Sometimes the word “world” can mean the physical universe, as we read in John 21:25, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” Sometimes it refers to part of the human race, as we read in John 15:19 “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” We must never be trapped into adopting an idea based upon what some isolated verses seem to say on the surface. Only close and careful inspection of a verse together with a comparison of that verse with the rest of the Bible will reveal its intent. As we have learned, the word “all”in the phrase “(Christ Jesus) gave himself a ransom for all” (I Tim.2:6) means all whom Jesus intended to save, some people out of every nation in the world.
Someone may complain that the doctrine of limited atonement, the idea that Jesus died for only some people, is a callous and uncaring view. They may complain that those people who hold that view are prejudiced or do not love those who will go to Hell. Certainly our hearts must go out to anyone who is living a breath away from death under the condemnation of a living God. Yet we cannot be wiser than God. The doctrine of limited atonement is an accurate view of unsaved man, who is a sinner hopelessly dead and unable to help himself in any way. The doctrine of limited atonement is a glorifying view of God, a mighty Creator who always accomplishes His perfect will. The doctrine of limited atonement is a loving view because it describes the truth and alerts people to seek the salvation which only Jesus can provide, rather than ignores people’s peril and keeps them in the delusion that they can do something to contribute to their salvation.
Perhaps someone who is faced by what the Bible teaches about the doctrine of limited atonement may object by saying, “Who cares about such a complex and theological teaching. Does it have any practical use for my life?” The answer is, “Yes, very much.” If salvation were partially a choice of man, if it were true that God did all He could do and the rest was up to men, then the way of salvation would be treacherous indeed. How could anyone be sure that he did what he needed to do or that he did enough to be sure he was right with God? In fact, if the burden of choice rested upon the shoulders of men, no one would ever be saved, for men are dead and unresponsive to God's call. They are rebellious, seeking to flee from God and suppress any knowledge of Him. Amazingly, we can thank God that we who were dead did not have to choose for God, that salvation does not depend upon us but totally upon His plan, purpose and action.
Christ's death does not merely provide a way out of sin and an escape from the wrath of God. It is the way out, and in Jesus our salvation is secure. Everyone for whom Jesus died will be saved. None will be lost. Salvation is God's work of grace, from start to finish. Oh, the wonder of such a loving God, who gives grace to undeserved sinners, who redeems and sustains them by His grace alone!
Finally, someone may object and say, “Well how can I know if Jesus died for me? If He did not die for me then it’s no use to go to Him for salvation.” But that is only a complaint that comes form a person who wants to turn from God and find an excuse to live a life that is self-pleasing. It is possible that someone might fearfully say, “How can I know if I Jesus died for me, if I am chosen?” However, that is not the question that we need to ask. The right question is “Do I trust in Jesus as my Savior and Lord? Am I willing to turn from my sin? Do I want to obey God?” Salvation is God's business. We must leave it all in God's hands and trust Him to do all things well. For our part, we must keep in mind Hell is a terrible destiny. Sinners should not be busy questioning God’s ways but rather should earnestly seek the Lord's salvation and avoid His wrath while there is still time. The message of the Bible is that if a man honestly seeks the Lord, it is certain that he will find Him, as we read in Jeremiah 29:13, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” and in John 6:37, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
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