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Limited Atonement: Rejecting What Was Never Provided?

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series

"Definite Atonement's Indefinite Inferences"

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We have seen that to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Scripture teaches particular redemption, an advocate would need to show an explicit negation: a denial that Christ provided atonement for the non-elect.

Instead of such a negation, we find references to universal provision of atonement. We find application of Christ’s atonement limited to the elect, but we find several references describing provision for the whole world.

And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (1 Jn. 2:1)

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. (1 Jn. 4:14)

who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (1 Tim. 2:6)

For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. (1 Tim. 4:10)

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. (Heb. 2:9)

Indeed, there are ways of explaining these universal texts (and others that speak of God’s universal saving intent, such as 2 Peter 3:9 or John 3:16) in light of limited atonement – that “world” refers to “Jews and Gentiles” or “all the elect”. But again, given the absence of texts denying that a provision of atonement was made for the non-elect, these explanations become less plausible. There becomes less and less reason to believe that these texts, which appear on face value to describe a universal provision, are actually referring to “all believers” or “the whole world of the elect”. The more difficult explanation is needless when a distinction between provision and application is understood.

The simpler explanation is preferred: Christ’s death provided atonement for the whole human race. Sufficient merit and propitiatory power exists in the sacrifice of Christ to atone for all the sins of all men. Every man can find a substitute that completely covers his sins in the person and work of Christ. The question is not, “Which individuals was Christ substituting for in A. D. 33?” The question is, “For which race’s sins was Christ providing full atonement in A. D. 33?” When the Second Adam with infinite merit offers Himself as the substitute, the answer is: the whole race of Adam.

Condemned for Rejecting What, Exactly?

For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (Jn. 3:17-18)

John 3:18 speaks of unbelievers already existing in a state of condemnation. What are they condemned for? For not believing in Jesus Christ. In John 3, belief in Jesus Christ stands for belief in His person and work (3:14-16). To reject Jesus is to reject His claims about Himself, and necessarily to reject His death on the cross. Take note: the non-elect are condemned for rejecting Christ’s atonement. But if Christ made no provision for the non-elect, what exactly are they rejecting? Are they rejecting a provision that was never made for them? And why would you be counted guilty for rejecting something never truly provided for you? Where is the guilt in that?

If the answer comes that they are condemned for overall unbelief, as in Romans 1, that would be true as far as it goes, but John 3 makes it clear that their condemnation is for rejecting Christ’s atonement. This is not the condemnation of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This is culpable guilt for rejecting something truly provided, truly offered, and yet spurned. The best way to understand this is the simple truth that Christ’s atonement was provided for the non-elect, but has not been applied.

The face value interpretation of the New Testament’s treatment of the scope of the atonement seems to be: a universal provision of atonement for all mankind has been made, with a limited application to those who believe, the elect.

While it is important to avoid the danger of universalism, and while it is necessary to safeguard the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation, it is my opinion that the doctrine of limited atonement is an unnecessary “fence” around the doctrines of grace. While not patently unbiblical, it is mostly a logical inference from unconditional election and effectual calling, not an assertion from explicit biblical statement. It must choose the more difficult readings of passages that seem to plainly teach a universal provision of atonement. Finally, it runs ever close to the ditches of eternal justification and of the denial that the well-meant offer is indeed a real one.

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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.