Myths About Limited Atonement

Josh Buice

While growing up in Georgia, I was taught from a little boy that Jesus loves everybody and that He died for the whole world.  At many levels, I believed that for the better part of my entire life.  While I still believe that Jesus loves the whole world in one sense, I also recognize a different type of redeeming love that He has for His people.  I recall arriving on campus at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and arguing with a group of new friends until the late night hours at Ernesto’s Mexican restaurant until they stopped serving us drinks and chips.  We then left there and returned to an apartment where I continued to wax eloquent on the subject – refusing to embrace this view called Limited Atonement – the “L” in the acronym of TULIP.  My natural flesh rejected the “C” word (Calvinism) and its teachings.

God placed a group of men around me who continued to listen to my philosophic general atonement views.  In our conversations, they would place their finger on chapter and verse in the Bible each time I would kick against the pricks.  After leaving the hot bed of the seminary campus, I went on to serve a church in Tennessee.  Although I was not a Calvinist at that point, I eventually squared off with one man who insisted that I was because I emphatically insisted that God is sovereign in my preaching through Jonah.  Through our heated debates, I was forced to study these issues on a deeper level than I did during my systematic theology class in seminary.  A few years later, after being called to return home to the church where I had grown up as a child, I picked up the study once again.  I still recall reading John 3:16 and seeing the doctrine of limited atonement in a clear way as I read the text while sitting in my office.  It was there that I finally decided to stop running from the truth.  It became peaceful to submit to God’s Word as opposed to running from the truth.

Perhaps I would have submitted to the truth earlier if it had not been for some unhelpful myths and false caricatures related to this doctrine that are often published on the Internet through articles and sermons.  This week I will attempt to provide a quick glance at some of these myths along with a brief explanation.  In order to avoid an overly lengthy article, I will focus on one myth each day through the end of this week.  The myths that will be covered in this series are as follows:

Myth #1 – If Jesus did not die for the whole world, He is an unfair Savior.

As I begin this series, I want to be transparent.  The subject of the atonement is one of great controversy in Baptist circles and beyond today.  It is not my desire to be a source of contention among friends and readers of this blog.  I am convinced that the things God has revealed to us in Scripture should be a source of joy rather than contention and division.  May God’s truth ignite a blaze of joy in your soul rather than clinched teeth upon the study of the atonement.  The study of the atonement is humbling.  It leads us to worship.  It brings us low in silence before the throne of God.

When addressing these issues, we must always make sure that we are using the same dictionary in order to avoid undue critique and controversy.  In short, it simply helps the discussion to become more efficient.  In order to make sure that everyone who reads this article understands what is being implied by the doctrine of limited atonement I would like to propose the following definitions:

Atonement:  The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 569).

Arminian Position: The death of Jesus was designed to make salvation possible for everyone, but it did not actually secure or guarantee the salvation of anyone. Sinful man determines whether or not Christ’s work will be effective by choosing to exercise his faith in Jesus.

Calvinist Position: The death of Jesus was designed to actually secure the salvation of the elect of God.  God the Father chose people to salvation before the foundation of the world, and Christ’s death secured and actually accomplished their salvation.  God has determined that all for whom He elected before time, Christ shed His blood for them on the cross.

Is that fair to suggest that God chose people before the foundation of the world and that Jesus’ mission was to save His people from their sins?  The fairness issue is a common complaint raised against the doctrine of limited atonement.  In fact, I can recall being highly offended by the term “limited atonement” when I was wrestling through these issues.  I found that “particular redemption” had a better ring, even though I continued to oppose the teachings of that position.  The idea that Jesus’ blood was limited to a select group of people was offensive to me.  It seemed prideful, arrogant, and even unfair to suggest that Jesus would only have the best interest of a select group of people in mind as He died on the cross.

I think that it’s helpful to begin with the idea of fairness in relation to our own personal salvation.  Is it fair that God has saved us?  Did I deserve to be saved?  Was God obligated to save me?  Was God obligated to offer salvation to me in a general sense and leave it up to my “free will”  in order to choose Him?  The answers to those questions start to peel back the top layer of this issue and that’s precisely where we start to get to the juicy aspects of what we are really talking about when we say – limited atonement.

In Romans 9, Paul does something very important to teach us the lesson of limited atonement.  Paul takes two historical accounts from redemptive history (wink – we see the gospel all through the Bible), and raises them up to illustrate God’s prerogative in divine mercy.

Romans 9:10-18 – And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, [11] though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—[12] she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” [13] As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” [14] What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! [15] For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” [16] So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. [17] For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” [18] So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

There are two important points to consider in this section of Romans 9.

  1. Notice that God chose to love Jacob and to hate Esau before they had done anything good or evil – before they came from their mother’s womb.  This is an important threshold to cross in this study.  You can choose to redefine or soften the blow of “hate” by suggesting it means to “love less,” but that doesn’t get you beyond the real issue.  It was God who was at work in loving Jacob before he was born.
  2. Notice that Paul asks the question in verse 14, “What shall we say then?  Is there injustice on God’s part?”  In other words, is God somehow unfair to Esau?  Paul answers his own question by saying, “By no means!”  He then turns to the Exodus to support his position by showing that God has the prerogative to love Jacob and hate Esau in the same way that He possessed the prerogative to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Most people who deny limited atonement have no problem with the damnation of Pharaoh, because he was such a wicked man who had done so many harmful things to Israel.  However, Esau wasn’t even born and God had already determined to reject him.

While limited atonement or “divine love” may not square with our Americanized freedom mindset, it cannot be escaped in the Scriptures.  If you read in Exodus 28, you will discover that the high priest was to wear a certain attire that contained stones on his shoulders that had the names of the nation of Israel etched upon it.  As he ministered sacrificial offerings, he bore the nation of Israel rather than the whole world upon him.  Was that unfair to the heathen nations who perished in their sin as the Israelites went onward to possess the land of promise?

The issue of fairness cannot be satisfied through a sympathetic emotionalism being laid upon the Word of God.  It can only be satisfied in utter humility.  Where would we be today if God treated us fairly?  Where would the entire world be today if God responded in mere fairness?  The sovereign God who created the entire universe has condescended to the dust of earth in the person of Jesus Christ and sufficiently laid down a sacrifice to save His people (Matthew 1:21) from their sins.  If we all received what was fair – God would have never sent the Christ to come as our Savior.  He would have remained our eternal Judge and we would have all been cast into the lake of fire and brimstone as we received the second death as the just penalty for our transgressions.

It’s a myth to believe that God owes us something.  God is God.  Jesus is a member of the Godhead and when Pharaoh’s heart was being hardened – Jesus was there.  When Jacob was being chosen before planet earth existed and mercy was being planned for His soul, Jesus was there.  Praise God that salvation is not fair.  Praise God that He is merciful and mighty to save guilty sinners.  In fact, all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.  There will never be too many repentant sinners for Jesus’ blood to reconcile to 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 Myths About Limited Atonement

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.