Tulip: Limited Atonement

A theological earthquake shook my life over twenty years ago.  I can still see the classroom lit by the afternoon sun.  It was mostly quiet and peaceful that day with one exception.  A classmate was standing in front of me trying for all he was worth to persuade me of definite or limited atonement.  If the terminology is unfamiliar to you just remember that it is standard nomenclature used to describe the nature and the extent of Christ’s atonement.  To flesh this out even further, a Calvinist believes that “God’s method of saving men is to set upon them in his almighty grace, to purchase them to himself by the precious blood of his Son, to visit them in the inmost core of their being by the creative operations of his Spirit, and himself, the Lord God Almighty, to save them.”[i]

My friend had an uphill battle to wage.  But that day he did something very simple.  He verbalized my own position.  He said something that I believed and had said myself many times before.  But that day when I heard him articulate my position back to me it sounded strange; it sounded wrong.  What did he say, you ask?  He said, “Jeff, according to your position Christ’s death only made salvation possible, which means that you must concede two hypothetical scenarios; the death of Christ could have saved everyone or no one.”  Yes, that was what I had believed and what I had taught but on that day it sounded erroneous. 

God had given to me a new set of ears.  So, I went back to the Scripture and started asking a basic question; for whom did Christ die?  It didn’t take long for me to find the answer.  If you have a Bible handy grab it and turn to John 10.  In verse 11 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”  In verse 14 Jesus amplifies his meaning when he says, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” 

Think about this statement.  It’s beautiful.  The Son, the good Shepherd, lays down His life for His sheep.  The sheep for which He dies are His sheep.  In fact, the Lord says that He knows His sheep and His sheep know Him, even as He knows His Father and His Father knows Him.  That is incredible!  How should we understand such a thing?  Simply put, this is covenantal language.  God is not admitting to know certain facts about us and us Him.  No, the baseline of covenantal knowledge is that of intimacy; He loves us and He has enabled us to love Him.  As a matter of fact, He loved us when we were yet sinners and unworthy of His love.[ii]

When understood this way other texts begin to put definite atonement on display.  For example, consider the angel’s visit with Joseph in a dream.  The heavenly messenger described Jesus’ virgin birth to Mary and His Messianic mission saying, “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”[iii] Or take a look at Acts 20.  Paul was delivering a farewell discourse to the Ephesian elders when he said to them, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”  Or think of how Peter addressed the scattered church.  After describing Christ’s blood as precious and lamb like he said, “For He (Christ) was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you.” And to complete the thought, Paul says that we were “called, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity…”[iv]  Jesus emerged from eternity that we might have the grace promised to us in eternity. 

Brothers and sisters, as I stood in that classroom with my classmate I felt like I had underwent a seismic theological shift and for a while all I could do was hold on as the after effects continued to ripple through my life.  But it was all of grace.  In fact, how can it be otherwise when the Son of God loves me and gave Himself up for Me?[v]       

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

[i] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Boonton, NJ: Simpson Publishing Co., 1989), 100.

[ii] I John 4:10.

[iii] Matthew 1:21.

[iv] II Timothy 1:9.

[v] Galatians 2:20.


Jeffrey Stivason