Limited Atonement: What is Limited?

The third point in Reformed theology’s famous acrostic suffers from something of an identity problem. As it has been often observed, the preferred way to describe the doctrine in question is that of either definite atonement or particular redemption, owing to the traditional term’s rather negative impression. After all, what Christian wants to be guilty of trying to “limit” Christ’s work on the cross?

But opponents of the doctrine, however it is termed, need to recognize that in their rejection of TULIP’s third petal, they may actually be engaging in another form of limitation. So the real question is not what theological system limits the atonement, in contrast to the one that does not. Rather, for each system, what does their particular limiting look like? The nature of the limitation will be either one of scope or efficacy. To put it another way, one’s view will entail either a limiting of the number of people for whom the atonement was made, or a limiting of the intent of the atonement.

The intent, or purpose, of the atonement raises this central question: Was the death of Christ intended to actually save sinners, or was the intent merely to make salvation possible for all whofreely choose to believe its message? So we see that this centuries-long debate is not simply about how many people Jesus died for. It deals with the nature of the atonement itself.

The majority position today attempts to have it both ways: the atonement was made on behalf of everyone who has ever lived, and that it carries with it the power to truly save. It does not merely make salvation possible, but it actually achieves redemption. But if this is so, why does this position not lead to universalism—the view that everyone will receive God’s salvation?

The reply generally given is that universalism does not follow because the atonement only saves those who exercise faith. So the death of Christ was offered on behalf of everyone, but it only saves those who believe. But this faces its own set of problems, which I think often goes unrecognized by those who espouse it. It seems to suggest that Jesus’s death was not able to save those for whom it was intended because the individual’s failure to believe prevented God’s salvation from being given to them. If so, then we need to ask whose choice is really the determining one in redemption: God’s or man’s? Or if Christ’s death was never meant to bring salvation to all, but only to those who would choose to believe, then is it really necessary for it to be made on behalf of all the world?

But if instead of dealing with the intent of the atonement, we work with its scope, then we can maintain that its intent was perfectly achieved because the death of Christ actually brought salvation to all on whose behalf it was offered. Just as Israel’s priests made intercession only on behalf of those for whom atonement was made, so Jesus also makes intercession only for those for whom he shed his blood. He does not intercede for the world, but for his own, as the writer to the Hebrews declares: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (v. 25).

Michael D. Roberts (DTh, University of South Africa) sits on the committee for the Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Michael Roberts