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Limited Atonement: Provision and Application

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series

"Definite Atonement's Indefinite Inferences"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Proponents of definite atonement wish to avoid a “hypothetical” atonement by asserting that the elect’s sins were actually atoned for, when Christ died in A. D. 33. This has the unintended logical consequence of eternal justification: the hyper-Calvinist notion that the elect were justified before their birth.

To avoid this logical consequence, proponents of particular redemption assert that the atonement that was provided for the elect in A. D. 33 was not applied to them until the moment of regeneration. They correctly assert that application and provision are not simultaneous or synonymous. The only way to avoid saying that the elect have always been justified is to admit that their atonement was provided long ago, but only applied to them during their lifetimes.

But what is this, except admitting that the atonement made in A. D. 33, was “hypothetically” true of the elect for centuries before they were born and for perhaps decades of their unconverted life, but not actually true, until the moment of repentance and faith? So, in fact, advocates of particular redemption do believe in a “hypothetical” aspect to the atonement, in that they know there is a period of time in the life of an elect person when the atonement has been provided but is not yet applied. What the proponent of limited atonement really means by “definite atonement” is definite application of atonement. He means the atonement is limited and particular in its application. But, unless he is a hyper-Calvinist, he already accepts that the atonement can be hypothetically provided and not actually applied in the life of the man not yet regenerated.

In truth, the terminology of actual and hypothetical is probably misleading. When the Passover Lamb was killed, a provision had been made. Until the blood was applied to the door, however, no one in the home was safe. Both provision and application were actual, definite events, and not hypothetical or illusory. But they are distinct events. The point is that, on the day of Crucifixion in A. D. 33, atonement was provided, but had not yet been applied to anyone, except retroactively to O. T. Saints, and to the thief on the Cross.

If It’s Hypothetical for the Elect…

Now, if the elect could have an atonement that was “potentially”, or “hypothetically” provided for them during their unregenerate state, but only “actually”, and “definitely” applied once they believed, it seems the claimed problem of “hypothetical atonement” or “wasted blood” or “ineffectual sacrifice” is non-existent, or else it is a problem for the elect, too. And if it is not a problem to have a provision-application distinction for the elect, the question becomes, why would it be a problem for one to exist for the non-elect: to have a provision made, that is never applied? If Christ’s blood is not “wasted” when its application is delayed by centuries, it is no more wasted if its application is delayed indefinitely, so to speak. In fact, a provision which is not ever applied better explains other biblical evidence.

Just One Verse Excluding the Non-Elect, Please

If proponents of limited atonement accept the distinction between provision and application (which they do in the case of the elect), what is required to sustain it as a logical implication of the other four points of Calvinism is at least some biblical evidence that shows provision of atonement was not made for the non-elect. That is, if provision and application are restricted to the elect, we would want to see at least one verse negating provision to the non-elect, or one reference explicitly restricting provision to the elect. The statement that Christ died for His Bride is not sufficient evidence to exclude His dying for others. To settle the argument that no provision for the atonement of the non-elect exists, we would need an explicit negation, along the lines of, “And He is the propitiation for our sins, and for our sins only, and not for the sins of the whole world”.

Failure to demonstrate this while maintaining that limited atonement is logically necessary would actually be a form of the logical fallacy of composition. This is the fallacy that asserts that because something is true of a part of something, it must be true of the whole. Its corollary fallacy reverses matters: it asserts that if something is true of a part, it must be true of the whole. The limited atonement advocate is really saying that since the elect (who make up a part of humanity) are saved through the provision and application of atonement, the rest of non-elect humanity must be absent both provision and application. But that does not hold. It is quite possible (and, it would seem, biblically likely) for the non-elect to possess non-applied provision. What is true of part of humanity does not have to exist in mirror opposite form in the rest of humanity.

Instead of these explicit negations, we tend to find statements that, on face value, seem to suggest the opposite. We’ll consider these in the final post in this series.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.