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Limited Atonement: Evaluating the Argument

In the Nick of Time

I want to discuss Limited Atonement (Definite Atonement, Particular Redemption—I choose to use the traditional terminology). At the moment, I am not concerned with the question of whether Limited Atonement is true. What I am concerned with is the way that some Calvinists argue for it. Before we can even discuss the argument, however, we have to recognize an important distinction.

The atonement involves two aspects: provision and application. The distinction between these is both necessary and biblical. For example, in Ephesians 2 the apostle Paul addresses believers—i.e., the elect. Part of what he does is to remind them of what they were before they trusted Christ. He says that they were dead in trespasses and sins; they were dominated by the world, the devil, and the flesh; and they were by nature children of wrath, just like the rest of the world. In other words, there was a time when these elect needed to be saved. They did not yet have the gift of eternal life. If they had died at that time (a condition contrary to fact), then they would have ended up in hell. They were lost and needed a savior; Jesus became that savior to them.

Christians agree that Jesus secured the provision of atonement (including redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation) on the cross. In other words, when He died and rose again, Jesus intended to provide salvation for all the elect (we are not yet discussing the non-elect). He secured the provision of atonement for the elect, but He did not actually save them at the cross. Otherwise, it could never be said that they were dead in trespasses and sins, dominated by the world, the devil, and the flesh, and that they were by nature the children of wrath. They would already have been saved before they were ever born.

In other words, the provision of salvation that Jesus secured on the cross was not applied to the elect until they believed. Only when they trusted Christ was His righteousness reckoned to them. Only then did God pronounce them righteous. Only upon the exercise of saving faith did God apply the saving benefits of Christ to the elect.

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The distinction between provision and application is critical. If this distinction is denied, then the alternative is a doctrine of eternal justification in which the elect do not need to believe in order to be saved. Even if it is argued that the elect will in fact eventually believe, they would be merely recognizing a salvation that has already been applied. Under these circumstances, faith in Christ is not a condition of receiving eternal life. This doctrine is so obviously contrary to so much of Scripture that I will take no time refuting it.

On the cross, Jesus secured the provision of salvation for the elect. What about the application? A host of biblical texts indicate that Jesus also secured the application of salvation to the elect. Even Arminians understand that Jesus knew who was going to believe and who was not; He must have intended to do something for those who would believe that He did not intend to do for those who did not. Even on an Arminian accounting, Jesus must have intended to make actual for some what He made possible for all.

The Bible says that Christ died for His bride to make her holy (Eph. 5:25-26). The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (Jn. 10:15). He will save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Jesus gave Himself for our sins that He might deliver us from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). These and similar passages deal with the application of the atonement. They tell us that Jesus actually intended to secure the application of the atonement to the elect, which is another way of saying that He secured their eventual belief. They are not saved automatically without belief, but their eventual belief and salvation is certain.

Many who argue for Limited Atonement build their argument upon these application passages. The doctrine of Limited Atonement, however, has two sides: a positive and a negative. The positive side of Limited Atonement is the assertion that Jesus intended to secure the application of salvation to the elect. The application passages cited above certainly seem to support the positive side of Limited Atonement.

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But what about the negative side? Limited Atonement denies that Jesus intended to secure the provision of salvation for the non-elect. No demonstration on the truth of the positive side of Limited Atonement will demonstrate the truth of the negative side. The reason is simple: passages that address the application of the atonement do not imply anything at all about the provision of the atonement.

Even for the elect, there is a time when the provision of the atonement (secured by Christ) is not applied. Might the atonement be provided for some to whom it will never be applied? This is the question for which advocates of Limited Atonement struggle to find a biblical and logical answer. If there were a passage that clearly designated certain individuals as those for whom Jesus did not secure the provision of atonement, then the case would be closed. If there were a text that so closely linked the provision with the application that the two were inseparable, then the case would be closed. If someone could demonstrate that the statements, “Christ died to secure the application of atonement to the elect,” and “Christ died to secure the provision of atonement for all humans,” were logically contradictory or contrary, then the case would be closed. But no amount of citing application passages will answer the provision question.

Some advocates of Limited Atonement have attempted to appeal to Christ’s High Priestly prayer in John 17. In this prayer, Jesus specifically excludes those whom the Father has not given Him (9). But for what is Jesus praying? He is asking for certain benefits to be applied to His sheep—to the elect. In other words, John 17 is an application passage, not a provision passage. It does not answer the question about provision.

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Some Calvinists regularly try to argue for Limited Atonement by appealing to passages that show Christ intending to secure the application of salvation to the elect. These passages wonderfully demonstrate that the positive assertion of Limited Atonement is true. They do nothing, however, to justify the negative claim that Christ did not intend to secure the provision of salvation for the non-elect.

The advocates of Limited Atonement have succeeded in demonstrating its positive assertions. Commonly, they seem to assume that they have also demonstrated its negative assertion. The two, however, are not logically correlative. If the negative side of Limited Atonement is actually true, then its advocates need to find a more clear and convincing proof.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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More Marr’d Than Any Man’s
William Russell (1861)

More marr’d than any man’s,
The Savior’s visage see;
Was ever sorrow like to His
Endured on Calvary?

Oh hear that piercing cry!
What can its meaning be?
“My God! my God! oh! why hast Thou
In wrath forsaken me?

Oh ‘twas because our sins
On Him by God were laid;
He who Himself had never sinn’d,
For sinners, sin was made.

Thus sin He put away
By His one sacrifice,
Then, conqueror o’er death and hell,
He mounted to the skies.

Therefore let all men know
That God is satisfied;
And sinners all who Jesus trust,
Through Him are justified.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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