Limited Atonement: A Walk Through the Basics

How many people do you know who wear glasses?  Perhaps you yourself wear them.  Glasses are a wonderful help for people who are near or far sighted.  When the lens of our eye fails to bring the image into focus on our retina, our vision is blurred or impaired.  Glasses correct the focal distance to our  retina thus bringing images into clear focus.  Now imagine that you have a friend whose eyesight requires significant correction, whose glasses are very thick, the proverbial “coke bottle lenses”.  Your glasses are thin – only a minor correction.  If you were to switch glasses with your friend, neither of you would be able to see the world clearly (correctly).  To understand the concept of limited atonement, you need to put on “God’s eyeglasses”, you need to see humanity’s problem correctly. 

Defintion:

Limited atonement, also known as “particular redemption”, is defined as:

“The doctrine that the purpose of God in the work of Christ was actually to save His elect, not to make the salvation of all men possible.  Christ died to purchase a people, not a possibility.”[1]

The Westminster Catechism asks:

Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

Answer:  God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.[2]

Mankind’s reaction:  UNFAIR!

Is that your reaction?  If so, let me gently ask you to remove your glasses and reach for the eyeglasses of God, given to us in the scriptures.  We start to bring the light into focus by reminding ourselves of the doctrine of Total Depravity.  Who fell in Adam’s first sin?  All mankind or just Adam and Eve?  The scriptures teach us that in Adam, all mankind fell.[3]  What do fallen men and women deserve?  The scriptures teach us concisely and clearly that we deserve God’s wrath, death, judgment and eternal damnation.[4]  Can fallen men change themselves?  Fallen men and women are “dead” in their sins and trespasses[5] and are unable to do good;[6] the supreme good, being the act of embracing Christ as LORD and savior.  This then is not a matter of “fairness”, which is a manmade construct to begin with, our situation is far more serious.  This is a matter of justice.  ALL have sinned, ALL deserve death, ALL are unable to change, we are, as the scriptures teach, “without hope”.[7]  God would be perfectly just to damn us all. 

God’s Solution:

Justice is defined by God.  It is part of his essence.  He defines moral purity and goodness.  That which violates His law (character) demands punishment.  Justice is that which we deserve for our moral violations of God’s law (character) and therefore our violation of God Himself.  God is of infinite value and sin demands death.[8]  In Christ, God met his demands for justice.  Christ died, the just for the unjust, in order to bring us to God.[9]  He became sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.[10]  Now remember, if God were to damn us all, He would still be perfectly just, there would be no “unfairness”.  He would simply be consistent with his character and His word.  Now, if God chooses to save a portion of those who are already damned is that “unfair”?  NO!  It would be “merciful”.  Mercy is not “injustice” in that it does not violate or contradict justice.  We might, with R.C. Sproul, call it a form of “non-justice”.  Those whom God chooses receive mercy.  Christ gets the justice they deserve.  The rest?  They still get justice.  We might not like it, but this does not change that God has acted in a perfectly righteous manner, consistent with his character.

Pastoral “Take Homes”:

  1.  God is glorified.  In Christ, He is both “just” and the “justifier” of those who have faith in Christ.  Limited atonement shows us that God is:
    1. A God of justice.  This is an attribute that is beautiful and deserving of our praise.  Would you want to love and serve a God who was not just?
    2. A God of mercy.  This mercy is far bigger than we imagine.  To think that sinners, who deserve His wrath and eternal judgment and are unable to change, are chosen, by God, out of the larger set of humanity, to be saved is the supreme act of love, mercy, and power.
  2. Since God has chosen to save some (His elect), we know that “somewhere, sometime, and someplace, someone will believe” the gospel as we proclaim it.  Therefore we can proclaim it in hope of success.  We have the great dignity of being used by God in the fulfillment of His glorious plan of redemption.
  3. Mankind is humbled.  We are indeed “dead in our trespasses”[11] and “without hope”.[12]  We bring nothing to the table.  It is worse than you thought!  None the less:  Rejoice, God is bigger, more gracious and more just that you ever thought.
  4. We need to dispense with the concept of “fairness” and begin to think biblically in terms of God’s justice.

Conclusion:

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard illustrates how we are to think.  Those that worked from the earliest part of the day and through the heat of the day were paid the same as those who were hired at the end of the day and labored perhaps for only an hour.  Each was given what the owner promised, the workers were told not to “begrudge” his generosity.  Those who are not chosen cannot begrudge God; He is simply administering the justice that was promised.  If he chooses to show mercy to some, who can fault him?  But let those who know His salvation rejoice!

Martin B. Blocki has served since 2003 as the Associate Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North Hills in Pittsburgh, PA since 2002.  He is a counselor at the Biblical Counseling Institute in Pittsburgh.  Rev. Blocki graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington (BME), Arizona State University (MM), and the Reformed Presbyterian Theological  Seminary (MDiv).  Martin and his wife, Kathy, have two married sons, one daughter, and 2 grand children.


[1] Dictionary of Theological Terms by Alan Cairns

[2] Westminister Shorter Catechism #20

[3]  Romans 5:12 & Romans 5:18

[4] Romans 6:23

[5] Ephesians 2:1

[6] Jeremiah 13:23

[7] Ephesians 2:12

[8] Ezekiel 18:4, 2 Chronicles 25:4, Jeremiah 31:30, Romans 1:32

[9] 1 Peter 3:18

[10] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[11] Ephesians 2:1

[12] Ephesians 2:12

 

Martin Blocki

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