Limited Atonement, also known as definite atonement and particular redemption, is regarded by some as a kind of Shibboleth of Reformed or Calvinistic Orthodoxy. Disavow particular redemption, and you are a closet Arminian, an Arminian in Calvinist clothing, or even an inconsistent Universalist. If your TULIP lacks the middle petal, it’s a disfigured flower, they feel. Who wants tu-ips in a vase? It’s all five points or none at all.
While defenders of particular redemption are free to attempt to demonstrate that their five-point Calvinism is the most consistent and coherent kind, that does not preclude others of a Calvinistic persuasion who reject particular redemption from similarly demonstrating that they believe the more consistent position is theirs.
The Meaning of Definite Atonement
Limited Atonement, definite atonement or particular redemption are three terms for the same idea: that Christ’s intention was to substitute for those chosen before the foundation of the world, and for no one else. Definite atonement does not merely teach that Christ died for the elect, which everyone can agree with. Definite atonement is defined by what it denies: that any atonement was made for the non-elect. Limited atonement avers that Christ did not substitute for the non-elect; no provision was made for the non-elect. In other words, Christ did not die for all men.
It is the negative aspect of limited atonement that we quarrel with: that Scripture teaches, or even implies, that no provision of atonement was made for the non-elect.
Hypothetical vs Definite
Proponents of definite atonement believe that only definite atonement upholds the logic of atonement. They ask what Jesus was accomplishing on the Cross if He died for people who do not trust Him and therefore go to hell. Was His blood wasted? Was it ineffectual? Or do some go to hell with their sins atoned for, for some reason facing a double-jeopardy of a penalty paid twice? Definite atonement seems to be a way out of this problem: Christ propitiated the wrath of God on behalf of the elect. Nothing in the atonement was mere potential or hypothetical. Christ actually atoned for the specific sins of a specific set of people. Anyone who goes to hell did not have his sins propitiated, which is why he is punished. Logically then, Christ did not die for him. This is because God did not intend to save him, because He did not choose him.
On the other hand, the person saved has had his sins propitiated, which is why he does not go to hell. Christ died for him, because God intended to save him, and chose him. His atonement was actual and definite.
Who Was Atoned For in A. D. 33?
Of course, this idea of contrasting “actual” with “hypothetical” atonement quickly falls on its own sword. For if the only kind of atonement that exists is “actual” atonement for its intended beneficiaries, the next logical question is, when was this actual atonement achieved? That is, when were the elect’s sins covered and God’s wrath towards them appeased? Was it in A. D. 33, when Christ died on the cross?
If so, we have a difficult theological problem. If the sins of all the elect were actually atoned for in A. D. 33, how do we explain Paul’s words that believers were once “were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph. 2:1-3)? How could any true believers, at any time in their existence, have been “children of wrath, dead in sins”, if their sins were actually atoned for in A. D. 33? The logical end of insisting that atonement must be an actual atonement, is that all the elect had their sins forgiven, and God’s wrath was propitiated in A. D. 33.
This leads to the heresy of eternal justification: the hyper-Calvinist view that the elect are actually justified before their conception or physical birth. The saved are born saved; the regenerate are regenerate from the womb; the justified have been justified before birth.
Since most proponents of particular redemption do not want to embrace eternal justification, they then recognise a fact found in Scripture: a distinction exists between the provision of atonement and the application of atonement. We will consider this distinction next.