Limited Atonement: L is for Living

Faithful preachers and teachers in the Church have always looked for effective ways to communicate their points. The acronym TULIP, of course, is a device meant to communicate the core of the doctrine of human salvation. Like all pedagogical devices, it is not meant to explain everything that could be explained about its subject. Yet, one thing TULIP reveals is that the Christian faith and life expresses a particular systematic theology. Each of the letters in TULIP express a particular part of the one organic system that is the Christian faith and life. Each of the doctrinal points of TULIP is organically related to and present in the other four. In the Christian faith and life systematic theology should be thought of as a unitary and living reality comprised of distinct doctrines that are not merely related rationally but organically; they are truly constituent parts of one another and do govern what each of those doctrines truly are and mean.

Perhaps, then, we might be justified in changing what the “L” stands for in TULIP. While it is still correct to have the “L” represent Limited Atonement, we might be better served in our understanding of the doctrine of human salvation if we had the “L” stand for Living. By referring to it as Living, though, we do not thereby nullify the Limitedness of Jesus’ atonement or death, instead we identify what is true of those for whom Jesus died.

As we look at a few texts that refer to what Jesus’ death actually accomplished, keep in mind that all these statements are directed to the church of the Lord Jesus; the authors wrote about what applied to and of those who were true believers in the Lord Jesus. These are not statements given to, or made about, all people in the history of mankind. Among other reasons, we know that they are not because Jesus specifically stated in John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (cf. 10:15).” Then, in response to some Jews who were questioning him Jesus stated, “But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:26-28). Notice that Jesus attributed the ability to believe in him to a person being one of his sheep. What we are determines what we do. Jesus taught the same metaphysical truth (being determines doing) in Matt. 7:15-20.

Here are just a few texts that tell us that Jesus death actually accomplished the salvation of those for whom he died; his death gave life to those for whom he died.  

“But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled through the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:8-10)

“For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:5-7)

“But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who made both one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in his flesh the enmity, which is the law of commandments in ordinances, so that in himself he would make the two into one new man, establishing peace, and reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” (Eph. 2:13-16)

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to himself making peace through his blood of the cross, whether things on earth or things in the heavens. (Col. 1:19-20)

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands, that is, not of this creation, he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:11-13)

“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sin by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev. 1:5-6).

These are only a representative example of many other texts we could cite. We should remind ourselves that Jesus’ death, as the writer of Hebrews stresses, is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant sacrificial system. God did not give that system to the Egyptians, Edomites, Assyrians or Babylonians; he gave it to his covenant people, Israel. Oh, yes, there was always a provision for those outside Israel to come and be part of Israel, but then they could only do that through an atonement for their sin. This sacrificial system upon which God’s Old Covenant people’s worship rested pointed to and prepared God’s people for Christ.

But Jesus’ life and death were far superior to that old system because it could not do what he alone could—bring life! Jesus actually accomplished salvation, he did not merely make salvation a possibility. If we believe that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension simply make salvation a possibility, we deny what Scripture reveal about the nature of God, the nature of humans as sinners, and what God actually accomplished through Jesus and applies by the Holy Spirit. If Jesus merely made salvation a possibility then this means he did not actually give us eternal life; it would mean that while yet as deadened sinners we must somehow make ourselves alive and see Jesus as worthy of our trust. But God says we are dead in our sins, blind and deaf in them. God alone is life. God alone raises the dead. Jesus gives life. He died setting his people free giving them life eternal. Now that is Good News!

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith