The doctrine of definite atonement (or more commonly, limited atonement) addresses the purpose of the atoning death of Christ. It maintains that God's design and intent in sending Christ to die on the cross was to pay for the sins and secure the redemption of those whom God has predetermined to save, namely the elect. Therefore, the primary benefits of his death (especially as an atonement) were designed for and accrue only to believers.
As R. L. Dabney has said, "Christ's sacrifice has purchased and provided for the effectual calling of the elect, with all the graces which insure their faith, repentance, justification, perseverance, and glorification."
Limited atonement is also one of the "five points of Calvinism" denoted by the "L" in the acrostic TULIP. This doctrine stands in contradistinction to the theory of universal atonement which maintains that whatever Christ accomplished on the cross, he accomplished for all alike—both those who are finally saved and those who are eternally condemned. Limited atonement is a characteristic of Calvinism, just as universal atonement is a characteristic of Arminianism.
The most common term for this doctrine is "Limited atonement." Most Calvinists actually prefer the term "definite atonement." Other terms found in the literature virtually synonymous with the concept are: "particular atonement", "particular redemption", and in a strict sense, "penal substitutionary atonement."
John Owen's triple choice
The Puritan theologian, John Owen, considering the design of the atonement, suggested the following:
The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
- All the sins of all men.
- All the sins of some men, or
- Some of the sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
- That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
- That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
- But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
- You answer, "Because of unbelief."
I ask, "Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it is, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!"
– John Owen
This doctrine often finds many objections, mostly from those who think that Limited Atonement does damage to evangelism. We have already seen that Christ will not lose any that the father has given to him (John 6:37). Citing a common argument by Puritan John Owen, some Calvinists insist that Christ's death was not a death of potential atonement for all people. They argue that Limited Atonement requires this. According to this argument, believing that Jesus' death was a potential, symbolic atonement for anyone who might possibly, in the future, accept him trivializes Christ's act of atonement. Christ died to atone for specific sins of specific sinners. If Christ's death is merely potential, then it did not accomplish salvation.
On the other hand, many Calvinists take 1 Timothy 2:5-6 at face value when it says Christ died for all, not just all the elect. Examples of Calvinists who say this include D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and J. I. Packer. How can these two claims be reconciled? First, they say that Christ's death is not merely potential. Instead, it is actual for those who are elect because the elect are the only people whose sins are actually atoned for. On the other hand, it could have covered the sins of those who are not elect, had they been elect. In that sense, it potentially covers all. Furthermore, we do not know who is elect, and therefore when the gospel is preached to all, as it is commanded, anyone who does in fact repent and believe will be saved. In that sense, the gospel can be shared with all, telling people that if they respond in faith they will indeed be saved. This statement is true of everyone, whether elect or reprobate (those who are not the elect). So in this sense Christ died potentially for all, because anyone who does respond will be saved. Since the Bible speaks this way, with such hypothetical language, Calvinists who hold to a doctrine of Limited Atonement while also considering there to be a potential reality for all consider themselves to be more faithful to the Bible's own ways of speaking.
Either way, Christ died to make the church holy. This is his death's actual effect, whether there is a potential effect or not. He did not actually atone for all, whether he potentially did or not, because not all are saved. Only universalists truly deny Limited Atonement, so those who use potentiality language still believe Limited Atonement. It's just that some do not realize it. That is the reason some Calvinists believe the potential atonement view is consistent with Limited Atonement, though this is not by any means agreed upon by all Calvinists. On either view, the objection that it undermines evangelism does not stand up, because this doctrine elevates evangelism. Christ died for sinners, and he will not lose any of those for whom his death actually atones! So the evangelist can take comfort in the fact that Christ will save those elected to salvation.
"Sufficient for all, efficient for the elect"
Among those who generally accept the doctrine of a definite or limited atonement, it is often heard by way of explanation that "the atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect." In fact this terminology may be found in some of the most respected Reformed theologians such John Calvin, John Owen, Charles Hodge, and others. While no Calvinist would deny the intrinsic sufficiency of Christ's death for the redemption of all men had God so designed and intended it, the casual use of such phraseology can be misleading.
William Cunningham (1805-1861) gives insight into potential misunderstanding of the Reformed position, which serves as a call for care in using the "sufficient for all, efficient for the elect" terminology.
A distinction was generally employed by the schoolmen, which has often been adverted to in this discussion, and which it may be proper to explain. They were accustomed to say, that Christ died sufficiently for all men, and efficaciously for the elect—sufficientur pro omnibus, efficaciter pro electis. Some orthodox divines, who wrote before the extent of the atonement had been made the subject of full, formal, and elaborate discussion, and Calvin himself among the rest, admitted the truth of this scholastic position. But after controversy had thrown its full light upon the subject, orthodox divines generally refused to adopt this mode of stating the point, because it seemed to ascribe to Christ a purpose or intention of dying in the room of all, and of benefiting all by the proper effects of His death, as an atonement or propitiation; not that they doubted or denied the intrinsic sufficiency of His death for the redemption of all, but because the statement—whether originally so intended or not—was so expressed as to suggest the idea that Christ, in dying, desired and intended that all should partake in the proper and peculiar effects of the shedding of His blood. Calvinists do not object to say that the death of Christ—viewed objectively, apart from His purpose or design—was sufficient for all, and efficacious for the elect, because this statement in the first clause merely asserts its infinite intrinsic sufficiency, which they admit; whereas the original scholastic form of the statement, namely, that He died sufficiently for all, seems to indicate that when He died, He intended that all should derive some saving and permanent benefit from His death.
– William Cunningham. Historical Theology, vol. 2, p. 332
- R. L. Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism, Chapter 4, at Reformed.org.
- A summary statement of Owen's argument in, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Book 3, Ch. 3.
- Isaiah 53:4-5
- Mark 14:24
- John 10:11, 27-29
- John 15:13-14a
- Acts 20:28
- Ephesians 5:25
Common rebuttal texts
- Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11
- John 1:6-7, 29; 3:16-17; 4:42; 12:32; 16:8-11
- Acts 17:30
- 2 Corinthians 5:14-15
- 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 2:8-12
- 1 Timothy 2:1-6; 4:10
- Titus 2:11; 3:4
- Hebrews 2:9
- 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9
- 1 John 2:2; 4:14
- Limited Atonement, by Loraine Boettner
- Limited Atonement, by R. Scott Clark
- For What Did Christ Atone in Isaiah 53:4-5 (PDF), by Richard L. Mayhue
- Limited Atonement, by Jeremy Pierce
- Spurgeon's Message of Christ's Atoning Sacrifice: The Extent of the Atonement, by Tom Nettles
- All Men Saved, by Matthew Slick
- Covenant, Universal Call And Definite Atonement by Roger Nicole
- The Atonement of Jesus Christ by various authors