Limited atonement was definitely the hardest one for me to accept, so if you’re having trouble with it, know that I can sympathize with your thoughts. The thing about the doctrines of grace is that each point depends on the others in order to really have any meat. You’ll notice in my posts that I will touch on a couple other points of Calvinism each time I write (though I definitely try my best to focus on one point) because they are so closely tied.

Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor, was actually the one who mainly put forth the idea of limited atonement. Some claim that he distorted Calvin’s views, but it’s more likely that he made them more explicit. One day, I may do a series of posts on the reformers in the same vein as the ones I’m doing on the early church fathers, and if I do, Beza will definitely be on that list, but for now, I will leave a few resources on Beza below, if you are curious.


What is it?

Why did Jesus die? Or rather, who did he die for? These questions are at the heart of the debates surrounding limited atonement. 

Limited atonement is the doctrine that states that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for all of mankind, but effectual for the elect (this also ties into irresistible grace for tomorrow). Many prefer not to use the term limited atonement (or any of the other labels that are parts of TULIP) because they find it to be a bit misleading. RC Sproul tends to lean towards using definite atonement. No matter what you call it, all Christians have to come to grips with the idea that not all people will be saved, if we are to be biblically faithful.

But what about the whole world?

“Almost everyone limits the atonement in one way or another,” J. A. Medders writes in Humble Calvinism. “Unless you’re a universalist, who thinks that Christ’s death saves everyone regardless of their response to the gospel, you limit or define the atonement’s effects. All orthodox Christians limit the atonement as being effective for those who have placed faith in Christ’s death in their place. The Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement limits the scope of the atonement while expressing its effectiveness. Jesus’ death redeemed his people, specifically.”

But John 3:16 says that God so loved the whole world, how could he limit (or define) the atonement to only apply to certain people? When we look at scripture, we need to survey the whole counsel of God. and you’re right, hypothetical person, God does love the world enough to send Jesus to save it. The call is sufficient for all, even if not effectual for all. One of the first things we need to look at is the way “the world” is used in scripture and in the book of John, specifically. If you take the time to read through the book of John one day, you’ll notice that John speaks of the world in a figurative way. Typically, when the world is used, it’s used to mean that it applies not to Jews, but also to Gentiles. It is not talking about every individual person in the world. An example of this is John 1 speaking of Jesus being in the world. When we read that, we don’t think that Jesus’ human body is physically at every spot in the world.  

An Old Testament example of the Bible consistently referring to “the world” in this way is when writers speak of “all of Israel” doing something. We typically don’t read that as every man, woman, and child in the whole country individually doing something, many times we read it figuratively. 

In John 10:14-15, Jesus lays out the case that he is for his sheep saying:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay my life down for the sheep.

2 Timothy 2:10 is probably the most explicit in stating this:

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

Another aspect of objections to limited atonement/definite redemption is whether or not Jesus’ death atoned for all sin or did his death make atonement possible for any sinner. The general Arminian argument is that there are no (or little) limits to who Jesus’ sacrifice is for because Jesus made a way for man to become right with God. I think many don’t mean it in such a way to indicate that this somehow makes the responsibility of the person to make themselves right with God, but it effectively does end up that way and that is the actual argument of the Remonstrants. The Calvinist would argue that the atonement was for the sins of the elect because if there was a person that Jesus died for that was not elect, that would mean that his death did not accomplish what Jesus set out to do (Luke 19:10, “the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost,” if he did not save, then the work is not finished).

The question really comes down to (in my eyes) did Jesus atone or did he make atonement attainable?

Scriptural Support for Limited Atonement:

  • John 1:13, 6:37-39, 10:1-30, 17:2
  • Mark 13:20
  • 1 Corinthians 1:3-8, 27-29
  • Revelation 13:8, 17:8
  • Ephesians 2:1-10
  • 2 Timothy 1:9-10
  • Romans 9

John Calvin Speaks About it in the Institutes:

  • Book 2, chapter 15-16
  • Book 3, chapter 21, sec 5-7
  • Book 3, chapter 23, sec 1

More Resources to Learn:

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