Limited Atonement & Shepherding
Imagine for a moment you are going on a pleasant hike through some unnamed wood. You hear from a distance what sounds like rushing waters, babbling over rocks. Nostalgic sounds of sloshing water against the rivers edge begin to fill the air, till’ finally you reach it - the bank of the river. How might you cross? Well a bridge of course. You look, and there it is, an exceptionally narrow bridge. But, rest assured it goes all the way across to the other side - you’ll make it. Now, imagine the same scenario, only this time the bridge is terribly wide, able to fit dozens of people at a time, only, this bridge stops half way across the river.
This rudimentary sketch provides an illustration of how differing camps view the atonement of Christ, and can be summed up with this question: is Christ a real savior, or merely a potential one? Or put another way, did Christ’s death atone for the sins of all humanity, or for the sins of the elect only?
Even among those who embrace Calvinism, the phrase “limited atonement” has been a stumbling block. Causing some to become what is known as a “four-point Calvinist.” But if we understand what is meant by “limited” then we would see quickly how wonderful this statement actually is and there would be no need to abandon the doctrine. In this regard, some have chosen to call this doctrine “particular redemption” or even “Christ’s purposeful atonement,” both of which aid in clearing confusion.
When we consider Christ’s atonement, we know that not all men will be saved (Psalm 2, Romans 1-3), even though if God so chose, Christ’s death, being of infinite worth, could have atoned for all. But rather, those who will be saved is limited to those whom the Father gives to his Son (John 6:37, 17:6). This limit on Christ’s atoning work does not limit its effectiveness in any way (Romans 1:16; Jeremiah 23:29), but simply its extent (Romans 9:15). In other words, the Lord limits the extent of his atonement to those whom he choses to give it (Ephesians 1:5), and when he gives it, it actually saves, it doesn’t potentially save.
Because the atonement is not limited by whether or not someone chooses Christ, but rather by the sovereign selection by Christ, then it follows, that Christ offers actual salvation, not a salvific tease (Galatians 1:3-4; 1 Peter 3:18).
The bible makes the point abundantly clear, that Christ did not come to empower men to save themselves, but rather he came as the power which would be able to save men from their sin (Matthew 1:21). It really is no wonder why men hate this doctrine. Men have always stiffened their necks at God’s sovereignty. It is their practice to always want to be owed for their labor and say it was their doing which brought success (Romans 4:4). It’s autonomy they want, and the doctrine of limited atonement strips it from them.
Because of Christ’s death we are no longer at war with God - in fact we are reunited to Him in a loving bond (Romans 5:10). This is not a provision of Christ that is likely to occur - it is an absolute certainty (Colossians 1:21-22). And how foolish would it be to consider the possibility that God would have crucified his own Son in mere hopes of reconciliation.
Christ didn’t die in hopes that someone would take hold of his atonement through intellectual ascent and be saved. No, rather he came to an unworthy and incapable people (Romans 8:1-8) to die for them and to give them the righteousness and pardon they needed (Romans 5:8-9). He didn’t do this with fingers crossed while blowing out candles. He did this with a set group of people who would be saved.
Regeneration and Sanctification
Since Christ offers actual salvation, real, tangible, and lasting change is possible due to it. By Christ’s death we are really washed clean with the pure water of the word, and genuinely renewed by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-6). And in this he has become our source of life, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Without an actual atonement none of this would be certain, but only a mere possibility. Therefore, praise be to God that his atonement is limited, and praise be to God that his mercy has been extended to the wicked and undeserving, like me and you.
Nick Muyres is a Navy veteran and lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and children. He is a graduate of Liberty University and is a Certified Biblical Counseling with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Nick also writes for reformconfess.com