Shepherding a church comes with many challenges. Some are expected; what pastor is not prepared—at least to some degree—to manage conflict of some sort or another? Other challenges are unexpected; for all the joking that often takes place about it, what pastor is truly prepared for the arguments over carpet and curtain colors?
Other challenges though, whether expected or not, are simply difficult to handle. There has never been a pastor who has not, on at least one occasion or another, walked away from a gospel encounter with tears in his eyes because of the obviously lost condition of the one he spoke with. How often does the pastor exhaust himself in evangelism, having done all he can to preach the gospel, and then eyed a field of fruitless results with despairing eyes? How many times have pastors laid their heads on their pillow and, rather than sleep, tears come because of the apparent evangelistic or discipleship failures that have taken place?
If there is one doctrine that is most comforting in such times as these, it is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. This doctrine fuels the evangelism of the pastor (and the church) with a reminder of both Christ’s triumphant victory and the infinite power of Christ to save, sanctify, and glorify his elect.
Limited Atonement and Preaching the Gospel
Limited Atonement is the third letter of the TULIP acronym and describes the extent of the atoning work of Jesus upon the cross. Some theologians prefer to use the term Definite Atonement or even Particular Redemption, but all three terms point to the same idea: Though the death of Jesus is sufficient in its power to atone for the sins of all who will believe, the atoning work of Jesus was made only for the elect. Or, to put it slightly differently, it could be said that when Jesus went to the cross, he went with both the names and faces of his elect on his mind. He knew whom he was dying for and, in that knowledge, made atonement for the elect. The elect will, without fail, believe in Jesus and be saved because Jesus has already purchased them and paid their sin debt in full. The reprobate, on the other hand, were not atoned for at the cross.
The difficulties that people have with the doctrine are often expressed by two arguments: 1. Limited Atonement, like Unconditional Election, seems to hinder evangelism by insisting that not only has God elected only a certain number of sinners unto salvation, but by further insisting that the atonement of Jesus was only made for the elect. This doctrine means salvation is impossible for the reprobate. 2. Limited Atonement appears to make God into a monster who has created a deterministic world in which all things are predetermined, no life is truly free, and all have had their fate sealed before the foundation of the world. How could a loving God create people for which he would not then atone?
The truth is that both objections are flawed in several ways but can be easily dismissed by the following truths: 1. Limited Atonement proves that Christ is always triumphant, which fuels evangelism more than any other promise possibly could. The free offer of the gospel is not only free but comes with a guarantee of success for all who will believe. It is absolutely true that the atonement of Jesus is sufficient for all who will believe, and that Jesus has atoned only for those who will believe. 2. God is not a monster for securing the redemption of those whom he elected to salvation, but rather is most gracious and merciful for having done so. Underserving and guilty sinners do not deserve any atonement, but judgment. A monstrous God does not make atonement for sinners; he harshly judges all—which is impossible for God to do since all deserve punishment for their sins. A merciful God chooses to make atonement for sinners, and he would still be defined as merciful even if he only made atonement to pardon just one sinner. The fact he has made atonement for more than one means he is most merciful and most gracious.
No orthodox Christian denies that not every sinner is saved. Matthew 7:13–14 teaches that many are on the broad path to Hell, while there be few that find the straight and narrow path to Heaven. Since it is equally true that Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10), the burden of salvation rests on Jesus and not on sinners. In other words, salvation is only possible because Christ died to make atonement for the elect.
This is the basic rebuttal to those who reject Limited Atonement: If Christ died for every single soul, but not every single soul is saved, then he is a failure. But if he intentionally died only for those whom the Father had promised to him, then his work has already been successful. This is, after all, exactly what Scripture itself plainly states: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25–27).
This is the truth of the gospel in a nutshell: Jesus died to procure salvation for those whom the Father chose for him before the foundation of the world, and the elect will experience salvation at the time that the Father has appointed the Holy Spirit to apply the atonement to their souls.
Limited Atonement and the Triumph of Christ
John Owen’s work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, offers one of the finest defenses of Limited Atonement that any has made. As already stated, Owen’s basic argument is that when Jesus went to the cross, he went with both names and faces on his mind. He knew who it was he was dying for. There was never a doubt that his death would secure the salvation of all those he was dying for. This triumphant victory enjoyed by Christ ought to fuel the evangelistic and discipleship efforts of pastors.
In understanding Limited Atonement, one learns to truly preach the gospel. After all, Jesus assured his saints, in John 10:14–15 that, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd who, in his perfect love for the sheep, gave his life to save them. He willingly laid it down with a guarantee of triumphant victory. As he said only a few verses later, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:18). This means that Jesus willingly laid down his life for the elect in his sovereign power, and he did so in order to secure their salvation.
From a finite and human perspective, this means at the most fundamental level that the gospel must succeed. If the gospel must succeed, then we must succeed when we share it. Either God has ordained the sinners who hear us preach be saved or be damned, but the gospel will succeed in both instances of either saving or damning as God has ordained.
Yes, success is guaranteed, but this does mean that pastors must measure success differently than the world does. While the world is most concerned with numbers, and while many ministries are known to be overly concerned with numbers as well, the pastor must never measure his success by the number of souls saved, saints baptized, or members brought in. The flow of finances is no measure of success either. God may grant great numerical increase in those areas, or he may not. The point is that pastors cannot afford to measure success by things totally outside the domain of their control, such as the salvation of sinners. But success can be measured by obedience to the gospel itself (Matt 25:21).
Pastors, and lay people as well, must make certain that the measuring stick used to mark success is Scripture itself, and not numbers. The question must never become, “How many can we report were saved today?” But instead, “Was I faithful to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures?”
Limited Atonement teaches us that the numerical success is up to God. Our obedience and faithfulness to what God has commanded in Scripture are the measuring rods by which we either stand or fall. Thus, success for the Christian minister may mean a great many souls are saved, one soul is saved, or no souls are saved. Again, success is simply measured by obedience and faithfulness to God’s Word and gospel, and not by number of souls saved.
Thus, we can rightfully say that the substitutionary atonement of Jesus was successful, has been successful, and will always be successful as God has ordained it to be. When the Father promised the Son an elect number of souls from the human race (Jn 6:37), he guaranteed them to the Son. When the Son died for the elect, he guaranteed their salvation would be completed. When the Holy Spirit works salvation in the hearts of elect sinners at the exact moment determined by the Father, he accomplishes the work that the Father and Son have already guaranteed would be successful at the atonement.
Limited Atonement points to the reality that God is sovereign and his work is always successful. He is triumphant. There are no failures, plan b’s, or “almost’s” in God’s doings. That which he has foreordained always comes to pass, and it passes perfectly.
Since his work is accomplished perfectly, our work too will be successful when undertaken in his will and for his glory.
Limited Atonement and Apologetics
While Limited Atonement guarantees the success of the gospel where God has ordained it to be, it does encourage pastors to take seriously both evangelism and apologetics. After all, every Christian minister ought to do two things: Study the Scriptures to show himself approved, and always be ready to defend the faith.
Peter wrote that all Christians must “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). We must recognize the sovereign Lordship of Jesus over everything (including the extent of the atonement), and we must be ready to give others an apologetic, or defense, of what we believe and why we believe it.
Could God have chosen to save apart from preaching the gospel and making a defense of the faith? Sure. But God has chosen to operate according to ordinary means, and the ordinary means he employs in accomplishing the salvation of the elect for whom Christ made atonement is the preaching of the Bible and the defense of it.
All Christians, but especially pastors, must be ready to make a defense of the faith. When we faithfully proclaim God’s Word and logically defend the faith with the Word, we will either see sinners saved or hardened in their sin, according to the perfect providence of God.
Limited Atonement does change our apologetic approach, however. If faith comes to the elect through hearing the Word of God (Rom 10:17), and if the atonement is applied to the elect through hearing the gospel, then apologetics must always be centered around the Word of God. All defenses made of the Christian faith must be done so in the knowledge that, at the cross, atonement was made for the elect, and redemption was accomplished, but we do not know who the elect are. Since we long for all to be saved, and because the guarantee now is that the redemption Jesus secured will be applied to the elect at the time appointed by the Father through the preaching of the Word, we must be faithful to always utilize the Word in all apologetic encounters.
Limited Atonement teaches us that apologetic arguments must be centered in and around Scripture. No number of logical arguments for the existence of God will suffice. Elect and reprobate sinners alike need to hear the free call of the gospel as given in God’s Word, and the faith must be defended with this same Word. When pastors are faithful to do so, the triumphant power of the gospel through Christ will continually be on display.