Limited Atonement?

Many students of the Bible read that believers are “elect before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:3-13) and figure that Calvin was right in saying that believers are predestined. After all, that is the language that the Bible uses, so we ought to as well. And many of the points of TULIP are comfortable to conservative Bible students, so there’s little argument there.

The holdout of the 5 points is usually Limited Atonement. This point states, in short, that Christ died only for the elect, not for the whole world. When I first heard it, I thought Calvin was a loon – it blatantly ignores verses like 1 John 2:2 –  “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Because of this verse and several others like it, many people these days (including most 4-pointers) would say “Christ’s death is available for the world, but only effective for the elect”.

These days, however, for a number of reasons, I see that interpretation as problematic, to say the least. Propitiation is an active word that describes an active sacrifice to nullify an active wrath.  Propitiation takes place when a Person (Christ) does an action (dies on the cross) that averts (redirects, nullifies) the anger of One (God the Father) who has the right to be angry at the sinner (man) and punish him forever. Why would John use the word to describe an active sacrifice that potentially satisfies an active wrath? That seems discordant to me. If this were a financial exchange, it would be like trying to say “Jesus is the potential receipt holder of the transaction”. That makes no sense.

Let’s take a closer look at the verse. There are three ways to read it:

  1. He is the actual propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world, including every man, woman and child.
  2. He is the potential propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world, including every man, woman and child.
  3. He is the actual propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world of believers.

The most natural reading to the 21-st century Western mind is reading #1. However, that means everyone is going to heaven, and that there is therefore now no condemnation for every man, woman and child that’s ever been born. Only universalists hold to this heretical (albeit plain!) reading.

But this verse has to mean something, and it can’t mean heresy! Because we’re not used to referring to a group of people as ‘world’, we commonly reject the 3rd reading, embrace the 2nd reading, and conclude that Christ’s death is available for the world, but only effective for the elect. (Which ever way we go here, we can also apply this reasoning to verses like 1 Tim 2:4,  2 Peter 3:9, etc: “The Lord is … not willing that any should perish, but that all come to repentance.”  Does the author mean ‘all humans’ or ‘all believers’?)

There are two major reasons why I find it much easier to make 1 John 2:2’s use of “world” refer only the elect.

  • Right off the bat, we’ll note that the Bible doesn’t use the word ‘propitiation’ in a potential sense. All the other passages that use the word, do so in the middle of paragraphs where the emphasis is on the work already done to or for the believer, not potential grace available to any man, woman or child.
  • Furthermore, the use of ‘world’, has plenty of Biblical, historical and logical support for being understood as referring only to the elect.

1. Universal language for the elect.

There are a number of times that various Biblical authors use universal language to only refer to the elect. Here are just a few:

A. Isaiah 25:6-12 is an excellent example. He repeatedly uses universal phrases like “all people”, “all peoples”, “all nations”, “all faces”,  “all the earth” to talk about blessings that only the elect will receive. And in the latter ½ of the very same prophecy, he speaks of the cursings that God will bring down on Moab. As far as Isaiah is concerned, Moab is not part of “all people”, “all nations”, “all faces”, “all the earth”.  But if you’re speed-reading, you’d never catch that.

B. The last few verses of Isaiah (Isa 66:22-24) are another example. In it, Isaiah uses “all flesh” twice to describe heaven-bound people who come before God to worship Him forever and ever. As they’re walking by God, they look over into the abyss and see all the unsaved burning in hell and find them abhorrent and disgusting. This is not a comfortable verse, but in this passage again, “all flesh” only refers to those who have made it to heaven. It does not mean “all humans”.

C. Joel 2:28 says “I will pour My Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophecy.” When the day of Pentecost hits and naysayers think that the disciples are drunk for speaking in tongues, Peter stands up and quotes this passage and says “This prophecy is what you’re seeing taking place.” Rewind for a sec… on how many people did the Spirit fall on that Joel and Peter are calling “all flesh”? Only on the few disciples that were praying in the house in 2:1! In other words, Peter and Joel are both calling these few, limited people “all flesh”, not the whole world. And even if we were to expand this number to the 3,000 that believed that day, it’s still another example of universal language that is only meant to apply to the “whole world of the elect”.

D. John 17 (Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer) has a couple of “limited atonement” ideas running through it. In v2, He says “You have given Him (the Son) authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom You have given Him”. Wouldn’t the “proper” way to say that be “to give eternal live to everyone”? He continues by praying only for “those whom You have given Me – not for the rest of the world”, and prays for their protection, word, faith, joy, love, etc. It’s quite curious to me that in His final hour, Jesus prays about “all flesh” / “His own”, but doesn’t seem to be concerned for those who are not part of His family. I find this very telling.

In light of these verses (and there are many more), I’m forced to conclude that clearly there are times when universal language is used, but only the elect are in view. So the question is now “Did John think this way when he wrote 1 John 2?” If I apply this established Biblical precedent to 1 John 2, the translation problem goes away. (Dittos for John 3:16, by the way!)

E. We could also use a variation of this idea to see that, frequently, the Bible uses universal language, yet does not have the elect nor the whole world in view.

– 1 Tim 2:1, Paul says to pray “for all men” and then elaborates on who “all men” is … just the men in governmental positions (v2). Not exactly what you and I would call “all men” – but he does. He then continues by saying that Christ is a “ransom for all” … But if “all men” 3 verses earlier clearly doesn’t mean “all human beings”, then why should we assume that the “ransom for all” means “ransom for all human beings”? That would be an invalid assumption, and not supported by the Paul’s own contextual use of the word “all”.

– Dittos for Acts 2:5. Luke says that “Jews from every nation under the heavens” were in Jerusalem. Really? Jews from Australia? Aborigines lived there. Jews from the Americas? Ulmechs and Mayans lived there. Jews from the Congo? Pygmies lived there. Jews from Alaska? Intuit Eskimos lived there. Jews from the Polynesian Islands? Etc, etc, etc. Somehow, I don’t think so. It seems obvious to me that Luke means just the Roman world, or perhaps only nations where Jews existed, even though he goes out of his way to say “every nation under the heavens”.

There are quite a few other passages like these, by the way.

2. Historical problem of universal propitiation

I once heard a list of early church fathers who affirmed something akin to limited atonement. It wasn’t a short list.

If I understand my church history correctly, historically, the Church held to the idea of limited atonement long before Calvin came along, and it wasn’t until about 150 years ago that the notion came to be out of fashion. (Blame the Enlightenment and the age of Modern thinking, where man insists that he is now the ‘master of his fate; the captain of his soul’. He now resists the idea of God electing his eternal destiny before he was born, and certainly does NOT like the idea of God only appointing salvation to some. Why, that would violate his free will! ..nevermind the fact that nowhere does the Bible teach that man has free will. Please note I said ‘teach’, not ‘imply’. There’s a critical difference here.) In fact, Irenaus quotes Polycarp (both of these men are direct disciples of St. John) as using language similar to  John 3:16 to say that “Christ … suffered for the salvation of those who are being saved in the whole world” (Martyrdom of Polycarp. Chp 17). As his personal disciples, these followers of John should know better than us, 2,000 years later and an ocean away, what John meant when he wrote “God so loved the world”. Certainly food for thought. ..especially if you mix it with John’s own words in John 11:49-52.

(Ed: take a look at ancient rabbinical usage of the phrase “the whole world“)

3. Logical problems of Christ dying for the whole world

As I wrangle with what I read in the Bible, there are several huge problems I see that can only be answered with Limited Atonement.

A) Why would a sovereign, omniscient God make Christ’s death available for someone He would never elect? Before He created the world, He already decided who He was going to elect (Eph 1:3-14; Titus 1:1-2; Rev 13:8; Rev 17:8), so why would He bother making a path for people if He would later prevent them from walking on it (Isaiah 35:8)? Yes, He calls all men everywhere to repent, and holds them responsible for not repenting – but that’s a very different thing from saying that He makes a provision for them to take that path that He would never allow them to walk on. That’s why we see verses that say “Christ loved the church and gave His life for her“, not “gave His life for every man woman and child” etc. I wish the Bible would say that, but I have to face facts: it doesn’t. Limited Atonement answers this question nicely.

B) Why didn’t God send His son immediately after Adam and Eve sinned? If Christ was born to Eve as the brother of Seth, then you only get ~5 people to go to hell. Granted, only 3 make it to heaven, but instead of billions in hell, you only have a tiny handful. Wouldn’t that be preferable? Yet God waited 4,000 years to send Christ, and is postponing the 2nd return another 2,000 (or more) beyond that! Why? I can only conclude one thing: God’s focus is on the number of elect that will make it to heaven, and this drives His appointment for times and seasons. Honestly, that idea freaks me out, but we see it in action in Revelation:  When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Rev 6:9-11, NIV) Yiiiikes! Whether I like it or not, Limited Atonement deftly answers this question.

C) Why didn’t Jesus do what He could to save Sodom and Gomorrah? He stood outside S&G and burned it down to the ground (Gen 19:24-25), but 2,000 years later and 110 miles NW, He said that if He did in S&G what He did in Capernaum, they would have repented and He wouldn’t have destroyed them (Matt 11). So what’s up with that? Instead of choosing to preach (and have them repent like He said they would’ve), He chose to punish (and send them to hell). If propitiation was available for them, and He was “not willing that any man, woman and child should perish” … someone should’ve told Jesus, because He sure didn’t act like it. (So much for Middle Knowledge!) Again, Limited Atonement is the only satisfactory answer to this question.

D) Many people reject Limited Atonement because they fear that double-predestination (God deliberately electing people both for heaven and for hell) begins to look logically legitimate. Because we don’t like to think of God deliberately creating people to destroy them in hell (especially in these days of ‘enlightened’ reasoning), we try to distance ourselves as far as possible from anything that would encourage that notion. But as best as I can tell, the Bible doesn’t share our squeamishness. If we don’t like Paul’s defense of this in Romans 9 (God makes vessels, both of honor and dishonor, for His purpose and glory), we still have many other passages that state (directly or indirectly) the same thing: Proverbs 16:4, Isaiah 37:26-27, Malachi 1:1-5, and more. These passages can be also used to answer another gnawing question: if God is the creator of each and every life, why does He create certain lives that He knows full well will reject Him and earn His eternal wrath in hell? Or worse, why did God continue hardening Pharaoh’s heart even though Pharaoh repented twice? We would agree that those repentances weren’t genuine, but we also should not overlook Exod 9:15-17. Again, while I hold firmly to Isaiah 55:8-9, verses 6-7 of the same chapter strongly compel me to see Limited Atonement as the only satisfactory answer.

If I reject Limited Atonement, I have problems Scripturally, logically and historically. Believe me… over the years, I’ve tried making other answers fit these, but eventually they come up short. If I add Limited Atonement to the equation, those problems go away. I can’t say I’m thrilled with it, because it compels me to change my ideas of who God is and how He works, but it’s the only answer I can find that satisfies the questions. It puts the focus back on God, His holiness, His will, His counsel, His calling and His election.

When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God told him that He would stand before him and declare His name. Here’s the answer God gave him:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.  (Exod 34:5-8, ESV)

Paul uses this idea to affirm God’s right to choose and do as He sees fit without any explanation to us.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 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.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?  (Rom 9:14-24, ESV)

If our understanding of God finds this to be odd, then we need to correct our understanding of God, not pretend the many verses like these don’t exist.