Limited Atonement: I am Not Praying for the World

John 17 contains the wonderful prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ in which he bears his soul to the Father shortly before his death on the cross for elect sinners-soon-to-be-saints. In this prayer Jesus is asking that his manifest glory, which he had from before the world was created, would be his again. He desires to transition from an estate of humiliation to one of exaltation. He is not there yet. He has yet to experience the excruciating death of the cross-what has come to be called the atonement. He has yet to experience his resurrection and his ascension. The work of redemption is not quite finished.

In the shadow of the cross he prays not only for himself, he prays for his disciples and for all those who come to faith in him through their word. That would include present day believers like you and me. In that incredible prayerful conversation between the Father and the Son, Jesus utters these memorable words:

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them (John 17:6-10 ESV).

Note well the italicized words. Jesus makes a clear distinction between those who belong to the world and those who belong to the Father which the Father has in turn given to his Son. Of course these words apply to the disciples who will soon become apostles. It would apply to those who come to the faith through their teaching. It applies to we who believe at this day.

Jesus says to the Father that he is not praying for the world. Jesus ought not to be understood to be saying something that undermines worldwide evangelism and discipleship. Not at all. After all, Jesus will send his apostles out at the end of Matthew 28 and he does so again in the beginning of Acts.

What we have here is Jesus’ awareness that the Father has given him his disciples and those who would come to faith in Christ after them. Jesus had something similar back in John 10 when he called himself the “Good Shepherd.”

At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one (John 10:22-30).

These passages can be used to supply biblical support for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. But my concern here is with the teaching of limited atonement or definite redemption. Jesus is showing continuity in his understanding of what he is doing. He is saving people from out of the world. The Father chose the elect in Jesus Christ from before the foundation of the world (so says Paul in Ephesians 1:4). It is these people that Jesus came to earth to save. It is these people, and no other, that Jesus took on human flesh for. It is for these folk that Jesus preached, taught, and healed. And it is for these sheep of his that he would offer his life as a ransom.

When Jesus went to the cross he went to hang in the place of and instead of elect sinners. He did not die for the human race-in-general. He had definite men and women, and boys and girls he was substituting himself for. When Jesus went to the cross he died for those he had been praying for in his “High Priestly” prayer (John 17). And after his resurrection from the dead and his ascension and pouring out of the Spirit upon the church at Pentecost, he ministers in the heavenly sanctuary always living to intercede for his own people (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). Our Lord’s death on the cross cannot be abstracted from the rest of his mediation while on earth nor in heaven at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

The doctrine of limited atonement or definite or particular redemption is utterly biblical. Some are scared by the word “limited.” Unless we are universalists (that Jesus died for every last individual who has or ever will live regardless of professed faith in Christ), we all “limit” the atonement in one way or another. The question is not one of limitation, but what kind of limitation. Arminianism holds that Jesus died so that all may believe on him.  All people are put on an equal footing. Arminians limit the efficacy of the atonement. Jesus himself has saved no one by his death and resurrection. The Reformed on the other hand believe that the Bible teaches that those for whom Jesus died will be saved. His death has saving consequences forward and backwards. That is how we Old Testament saints. To put it crassly, Jesus did not waste a drop of his shed blood.

The take away from all this is that Jesus prayed and continues to pray for all those who for whom he died. His priestly ministry, which was clearly exemplified in his offering up of himself once for the sins of many, is all of a piece, cut from the same cloth as it were. You cannot tear Jesus’ work on the cross from his priestly intercession either while on earth or now while he is at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly tabernacle. Jesus prayed, died, rose from the dead, and continues to intercede for you. That should be encouraging and comforting.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington