Definite Redemption: Missing the Point
We have all encountered self-styled “Four Pointers,” people who say they embrace the teachings of Reformed theology which are summarized in the TULIP acrostic. The one difference is that they reject the “L” which stands for “limited atonement.” Four-point Calvinists struggle with the biblical teaching of limited atonement, also called definite redemption, which holds that Christ’s death was intended by God as limited to and effectual for the elect only. The doctrine that God has chosen some for salvation and not others is a sobering reality in and of itself, but when some Christians also have to consider the related truth that Christ did not die for all men but only for those whom God chose, these related doctrines often become more than some folks can comfortably embrace. But should Christians deny the doctrine of definite redemption? Let’s take a look at what the biblical writers say, and specifically what the Lord Jesus himself said about it.
A good starting place is the gospel narratives where Jesus corrected two of his more ambitious (and presumptuous!) disciples about their kingdom aspirations. Both Matthew (20:28) and Mark (10:45) record Jesus saying “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There is no hint of universal atonement on the lips of Jesus here. Another time Jesus spoke on this subject is when he uttered the familiar words of institution we use in the Lord’s Supper. Again both Matthew (26:28) and Mark (14:24) record Jesus telling his disciples that the cup “is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Our Lord does not indicate that his redeeming work was intended for everyone universally.
Could it be that one reason why so many believers struggle with the doctrines of predestination and definite atonement is that such revelation kicks against our innate but corrupted sense of fairness? They object, “How could a loving God create a situation in which it would not be possible for someone to freely come to him?” These teachings are also hard for American Christians to accept. Our lack of class-consciousness and our highly developed sense of democratic equality cause many to bristle at the notion that God effectively calls and provides for some while others he does not.
But such an outright rejection of the biblical doctrine of limited atonement causes well-intentioned Christians to miss one of the main points why such a doctrine has been revealed to us. The seventeenth-century Synod of Dort, which refuted five theological errors raised by Jacob Arminius, affirmed the doctrine that “it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross…should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father” (Canons of Dort II.8). And what they want us to grasp with both mind and heart is that the doctrine of limited atonement is part of God’s grand design to display his glory: “This plan, arising out of God’s eternal love for the elect, from the beginning of the world to the present time has been powerfully carried out and will also be carried out in the future, the gates of hell seeking vainly to prevail against it” (II.9) The Father’s work of redemption through his Son’s atoning work for the elect alone is intended to be a source of comfort and encouragement. We can be fully confident that God will complete all he has set out to do for his people. No person or thing can ever thwart God’s plan for his chosen ones.
It is good to remember that the doctrine of election, and by extension, the doctrine of definite redemption “must be set forth with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High” (I:14). But since these teachings were “specifically intended” for the church today, they should not be passed over by any Christian, but instead should be appreciated and embraced, and we should allow them to lead us to a greater and more profound adoration of the Father, who is at work through the Son by the power of the Spirit for our good and his glory.
James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Th. M. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.