Limited Atonement: A Look at Isaiah 53
The concept of “limited atonement” does not mean that we limit the power of the blood of Jesus Christ. Far from it, the idea of the limited atonement secures the effectiveness of the work of Jesus Christ. Limited atonement says that because Christ died for sins the sinner comes to saving faith. Limited atonement means those whom Christ redeemed in his purchase will go to heaven.
First, limited atonement does not mean that the gospel announcement should not go to all people. The call of the gospel is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” We announce that to all people. There is a promise to it: if you believe, you will be saved. How do we know? Because in this call, the Holy Spirit draws an individual to saving faith. The atonement on the cross now comes to apply to the individual. In this way, not one drop of Christ’s blood is “wasted” as if to somehow pay for sins that will not be washed away.
Second, limited atonement does not mean that we limit the plan and purposes of God. There are still people from every tongue, tribe, and nation that will be saved. A great multitude will come to salvation because Christ died for them. Consider Revelation 5:9b, “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Christ did not just make a ransom possible, rather He actually ransomed them. This is why many prefer calling the concept of “limited atonement” something like “effective redemption.” Christ did not go to the cross wondering if His blood would be spilt in vain, would anyone believe and receive it? He knew he was dying for a people whom God had given him (John 17:9).
Consider Isaiah 53:
v.5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
The death of the Lord Jesus did not just upon the possibility of peace, it actually brought peace to us. His wounds did not just make healing possible, they actually healed us.
v.8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
Again, it is for the transgressions of God’s people that he dies. This is all believers everywhere. But it is again an effective atonement in that the Son is cut off from the living so that he can pay for the transgressions of a specific people. People will come to saving faith and forgiveness because Christ died for them.
vv.(10)Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. (11) Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (12) Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
There are several points in these verses that help us develop a doctrine of effective atonement. First, as the Son makes an offering of guild, the Father sees the offspring of the Son. He prolongs the days of the Son (in resurrection) given the son an inheritance. But this is done with a view towards the Son actually having offspring, spiritual heritage. His death as a guilt offering does not merely make salvation possible but accomplishes it. The Father in resurrecting the Son has in view the work of the Son for a particular people, those “in Christ.”
Second, the Lord is satisfied with the offering of the Son. Thus, the Righteous One will “make many to be accounted righteous.” Why? Because “he shall bear their iniquities.” Those who are accounted righteous are those who have had their sins bore by the Lord Jesus Christ. His death is effective that it brings them to saving faith and they receive justification and imputed righteousness by this faith. But this is particularly tied to the actual event of Christ bearing iniquities. We must thus rightly conclude: those for whom Christ died will be those who will receive the salvation by faith as the result of the Holy Spirit’s work.
Third, notice that the “many” whom Christ died for will receive a portion of the inheritance. They receive a portion of the inheritance precisely because the Father applies the work of the Son. Because he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for transgressors, these same “many” will get the spoils of victory. The Son does not just make hypothetical intercession, nor is his intercession opening the door of mere possibilities. Rather the Son accomplishes on the Christ all that the Father intends. He is an effective intercessor, standing in the place of all the Father has given to Him so that they will be raised up on the last day. None that the Father has given to the Son will be lost.
The doctrine of limited atonement is not to make us smug. We are not to question others with arrogance: “well maybe Christ didn’t die for you”. Rather, it is a doctrine that brings humility and assurance to us. Christ’s work accomplishes what God intends. As we proclaim the gospel, God will bring people in because Christ’s work is effective. The atonement is sufficient for all who will come to Jesus through faith and repentance. But as we come to the cross, we see that God did not just make salvation possible and leave the rest up to me. Rather from start to finish God accomplished the work that He intended. His grace rests on His purposes and glory.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.