Does Limited Atonement Limit Missions?

Josh Buice

Today is the final post in the series on the subject of Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP.  The acronym serves as an overview of the teachings of Calvinism.  The subject of the atonement often becomes the catalyst for passionate debate in the evangelical community.  As a Baptist, I have witnessed divisive rhetoric in blogs, state Baptist newspapers, and in private meetings over this issue.  Some people have gone as far as labeling Calvinism as heresy.

It is not my desire to stoke old fires or create new hot debates over this issue, but I do believe it’s important to shine light on the fact that much of the negative rhetoric stems from the popular myths about Calvinism – in particular – limited atonement.

The series at a glance:

Myth #4 – A limited atonement contradicts 2 Peter 3:9 and hinders evangelism and world missions

As we have already demonstrated in this series, the teachings of limited atonement claims that when Jesus died on the cross, His death was specifically designed to atone for the sins of every person who would call upon the name of the Lord for salvation throughout time (past, present, and future).  In short, Jesus’ death was designed to pay for the sins of all of God’s elect – those chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1).  According to limited atonement, the death of Jesus provided an actual atonement rather than a potential atonement.  Jesus’ death was not generic in nature.  It was designed to save His people, so when He said, “It is finished” as He died, He was making a statement about the full payment of the atonement.  Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as follows, “The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569). 

2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Many people who reject limited atonement do so based upon 2 Peter 3:9.  They claim that this verse in 2 Peter teaches that God doesn’t want anyone to perish and desires all people to repent.  That is what the text says.  Most Calvinists would agree with that on a surface level.  But, as all good students of the Bible know, we must always read the Bible and interpret it within its proper context.

There are several important facts to consider when reading 2 Peter 3:9.  First, no person should ever pick one random verse in the middle of a book of the Bible without considering the surrounding context and purpose of the specific passage.  As we consider 2 Peter 3:9, we must look back at the first part of the letter.  2 Peter 1:1 reads, “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  It is clear from the first verse of this epistle, Peter is addressing his letter to fellow Christians.

Secondly, in 2 Peter 3:9, the phrase, “but is patient to you” should not be overlooked or ignored.  This phrase connects the verse back to the first verse of the epistle – “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:9 speaks of the Lord’s delay in the second coming as a merciful act (see Romans 11:25) that fulfills God’s intended plan of saving His people.  While some false teachers were suggesting that the second coming of Christ was not going to happen, Peter illustrates that the seeming delay is God’s design in order to bring in the full number of Gentile converts and all of God’s sheep.  We must be cautious not to position 2 Peter 3:9 against John 10:16, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Regarding the idea that a limited atonement hinders evangelism and world missions, that’s simply not true.  The father of modern missions was William Carey.  He was a 5-point Calvinist. During a meeting of ministers, a Mr. Ryland called upon the young ministers to propose a subject for them to talk about.  William Carey stood up and offered the suggested topic: “The duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations.”  Mr. Ryland exclaimed with a loud voice, “Sit down, young man!  When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.”  This would not extinguish this Calvinistic missionary’s zeal.  His heart was set a blaze by God for the nations!

William Carey left for India in 1793.  Carey once said, “I am going down into the pit; you hold the ropes.” It would be a long two years later until he received his second pack of letters from England. As he opened the letters with much anticipation, one of them criticized him for “engaging in affairs of trade.” Carey was forced to work in order to earn a living for his family as well as continue the mission work.  Nevertheless, Carey remained steadfast.  It would take seven years before he would see the first convert in his gospel mission.  Although the landscape was difficult, the task dangerous, and the encouragement was low, this man with merely a grammar school education would be used of God to shake the world with the gospel.  On Carey’s grave in India would be recorded these words – “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall.”  2 Peter 3:9 was imprinted upon the soul of William Carey.  He was a 5-point Calvinist.  I think it would be wise to say that limited atonement did not slow down or cool off this faithful preacher of the gospel.

With men like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Charles Spurgeon, the idea that limited atonement hinders world missions and local evangelism is simply not true.  It’s a popular myth.  It’s a scape goat tactic employed by those who are looking for excuses in the decline among their circles of churches.  Whatever the cause of the decline, rest assured – limited atonement is not to blame.  Perhaps it’s limited interest in real evangelism and world missions?  Until Jesus does return, and we are assured that He will, let those of us who have received an equal standing by the grace of God in Christ Jesus work together to take the good news to our neighborhoods and the nations.

William Carey once said, “Expect great things from God: attempt great things for God.

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Helpful Resources:

Ligonier – Various Resources

Tim Challies – The “L” in TULIP

John MacArthur – Q&A 2010 Shepherds’ Conference

John Piper – What We Believe About The Five Points Of Calvinism

Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology

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Author Does Limited Atonement Limit Missions?

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.