Limiting Friends Through Limited Atonement
So far, I have written about the Gospel as doctrine, and the doctrines of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election. Today, I am going to put myself out there knowing I run a risk in alienating a sizeable portion of my base. There has been no single doctrine that has caused me as much conflict than the doctrine of Limited Atonement. It seems that any time I so much as mention this doctrine it inevitably leads to passionate anger.
In one instance, I had a man look me straight in the eye and call me a damnable heretic over this issue. For some reason Limited Atonement brings out the most vitriolic reactions in many people. It ends friendships and prevents others from forming.
However, despite the hostility that is out there over this doctrine it is worth exploring it as a part of Gospel preaching. Moreover, understanding the way that Limited Atonement affects Gospel purity will broaden our preaching in a beautiful way.
I am incredibly thankful for the dear friends I have who disagree with me about Particular Redemption but remain true to our friendship. Heaven knows that someday you will see it the right way…
Everyone Believes in Limited Atonement
Yes. I stand by this statement.
None other than Charles Spurgeon, a man beloved by Calvinists and Arminians alike, said this:
“The Arminian insists that Christ died for all people thereby limiting its efficaciousness. The Calvinist insists that Christ died only for believers thereby limiting its scope.” (paraphrase)
So, yes, I stand by this statement.
However, I will not insist that everyone acknowledges that they believe in a limited atonement. As is so often true of our beliefs, more can be understood by what we say than by what we insist.
The person who insists that Christ died for all men, but states that the atoning work of Christ is only applied to those who believes is embracing a limited atonement. Moreover, many who insist that they believe in an unlimited atonement are not consistent.
Conversely, the Reformed Camp has their inconsistent folks as well. We have the Amyraldians. These folks, as much as I love them, are theologically inconsistent. Desiring to strike a middle ground between the orthodox Reformed camp and the Arminians, they have equivocated on limited atonement.
The Amyraldian position states that while God has chosen (Unconditional Election) all who will be saved, Christ’s death paid for all who sinned. Consequently, this means that if a non-elect person were able to muster up faith on their own, Christ will have died for them.
I struggle more with those in this camp than I do with those who insist that Christ died for all. Nothing is more irksome than theological compromise and inconsistency.
The Heresy that the Orthodox Agree On
No matter which position you take on Limited Atonement, the right one or the wrong one, there is one heresy that you must reject. (See what I did there?) This heresy is truly a damnable heresy.
What could this fell beast be? Universalism. Universalism takes the atonement of Christ and twists it so far beyond true as to be thoroughly un-Christian, even as many claiming to be Christian embrace it.
It may seem unnecessary to define Universalism for most of you my beloved readers, but I will do so anyway. Definitionally, Universalism is the teaching that all people ultimately end up in heaven. This is made a reality because Christ did indeed die for literally all people. This means that the sins of even those who spend their lives denying God, are paid for. God then applies this payment to all people. Therefore, having had their sins paid for, all people will be with God.
This heresy often finds its expression in statements such as, “We all find our way to God on our own path and that is all that matters to him,” or, “All roads lead to god.”
This heresy is rampant in our culture today. When, and not if, you encounter the Universalist, you must be prepared to defend against it. Therefore, knowing the doctrine of Limited Atonement well, will best prepare you to refute Universalism. It was none other than Christ who stated no one comes to the Father but through Christ. Additionally, Christ stated emphatically that He came to lay his life down for His sheep.
These two statements by Christ work in beautiful synergistic fashion to refute Universalism through the limiting of the scope of the Atonement. Simply put, Limited Atonement single-handedly kills this deadly heresy.
The Purifying Power of Limited Atonement
Throughout the entirety of the Scriptures we see example after example of the clean being offered for the unclean. When God institutes the first Pass Over in Egypt, a spotless lamb is slaughtered to cover the people inside of the home.
God orders Abraham to offer Isaac on the altar on Mount Moriah. God intervenes and provides a spotless, (read pure) ram for the sacrifice.
Over and over this theme appears throughout the Old Testament. Then the silence falls on Israel during the Intertestamental years. Still, the Israelites recognize the need for the pure to be offered for the remission of the sins of the putrid. Even during the silence, they practice the ordinance of blood sacrifice.
Then comes Christ erupting on the scene in the Gospels. The angel in Matthew 1 announces to Joseph that his step-son should be called Jesus (Jeshua) or Savior. Why? For He will save His people from their sins.
Similarly, John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness pointing to Jesus and announces, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”
As I stated in the previous section, Jesus Himself made it clear that He came to lay His life down for the sheep. He didn’t come for the goats. His self-sacrificial death at the hands of men under the wrath of the Father was meant to be sufficient for those who would believe.
He was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the earth. From eternity past Christ came to shed His blood for His people. Therefore, we dwell on this, not so that we can identify in a tangible way, who Christ died for. Instead, it’s so we can preach with confidence knowing that anyone who repents and believes will be washed in the blood.
The Ark as a Picture of Christ’s Limited Atonement
In Genesis 6 we sit back as passive observers watching God respond in righteous indignation as His creatures rebel. He, is disgusted by what has become of mankind and determines to destroy humanity and all the other life left on earth.
However, God mercifully calls on Noah and his family to be the only survivors of His righteous wrath. Consequently, He orders Noah to build the Ark. This isn’t some hobbled together floating barge. It is a calculated and precise design meant to house all the animal kinds and the sole surviving humans. The detailed account of the size of the Ark and its dimensions foreshadows the Tabernacle and the Temple. As with each of these structures the design of the Ark communicates things about God to us.
Scripture calls Noah a preacher of righteousness. For the 120 years that Noah built the Ark he was proclaiming the impending judgement of God against mankind for their wickedness. However, he didn’t stop there. He preached that there was salvation to be found from that wrath. Noah warned people to flee from the wrath of God and the means of that salvation was always before their eyes.
The Ark served as a staggering warning of what was coming. Furthermore, it is completely acceptable to speculate that the people of the Antediluvian era considered what Noah and his family were doing to be utter folly.
Yet, the fountains of the deep opened; the ground split along with the firmament, the wrath of God was clear. The only means of salvation was the Ark, and God had closed the door with His own hands. There was no climbing aboard the Ark from the outside and being saved from the wrath. The protection of the Ark was only for those God had placed onboard.
Limited Atonement in Exodus
Maybe the most stirring example of the doctrine of Limited Atonement is that of the Passover Lamb. Most of us are familiar with the account of the plagues of Egypt. We are almost so familiar that we tend to “pass over” the Passover with little thought. Here is this marvelous and awe-inspiring act of God used to eventually deliver His people from their captivity. Usually, we read it as a narrative to get to something better, more interesting if you will.
However, there is such rich depth to the story. We once celebrated a Seder dinner in our home for a unit that our children were doing in their studies. This dinner was full of rich depth and meaning. Moreover, it was moving to take part in something that has been celebrated for thousands of years. Perhaps it has lost its depth to those that celebrate it every year simply out of rote tradition. However, for our family it was poignant and emotional.
Each aspect of that meal is designed to signify something about the original Passover. Furthermore, each aspect points us to the Paschal Lamb as He was prophesied as far back as Genesis 3. The most powerful thing that I believe we can take away from the Passover account is the depth and the extent of the atonement.
Here is this lamb brought into the home to live with the family. Then on the appointed time that lamb was slaughtered and roasted. Its blood was caught in a bowl. Then a brush of hyssop was used to paint the blood of the lamb over the door posts. The angel of death passed over any home with blood applied.
Not one single person outside of the home was covered by that blood. The lamb died to protect those inside.
Limited Atonement and Preaching the Gospel
I will never insist that one must preach Limited Atonement to be able to preach the Gospel. Conversely, one must simply preach the atonement with a mind to glorify Christ. Here is my caution to you my beloved reader; please refrain from preaching the Gospel by boiling down the atonement to “Jesus died for you.”
I won’t say that I have never said that phrase. I am certain I have. However, if you listen closely to my evangelistic encounters and my open-air preaching, you will make note of something. I labor to reserve the death of Christ for those who believe.
I’m often be heard to say, “You can know Christ died for you if you come to Him in repentance and faith.” I simply cannot affirm Christ’s death on the part of those who die rejecting Him. I will never compel someone to turn to Christ and live by falsely appealing to the propitiatory work of Christ on their behalf.
Just as we cannot know who the elect may be before we see them repent and believe. We dare not tell an unrepentant sinner their debt has been paid. Some of you reading this right now are seething through your teeth at such a statement. You are so convinced that Limited Atonement is false you fail to see the danger in an ostensibly unlimited atonement.
To preach the Gospel consistent with an unlimited atonement, you must teach your hearers that their debt has been paid in full by Christ. Consequently, this makes God unjust as He punishes the unrepentant sinner a second time for sins already paid for by Christ.
Yet, may it never be that we wrongly, even if by accident or misunderstanding, make God out to be unjust.
In the mid-1800s Elvina Hall penned the words of one of the most beloved hymns of all time. This beloved hymn touches a bit on the doctrine of Limited Atonement. The following stanza and the subsequent verse are particularly poignant:
“For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.”
While I may take some exception with the thought that we wash our garments in the blood of Christ, I can allow for poetic license. However, the core concept of the atonement is there and set in place for us. It is the blood of Calvary’s Lamb that was shed for the believer and washes them clean of their sin against God.
Consequently, we do owe a large debt to Christ for what He did. He did pay it all on our behalf. Furthermore, the all he paid was meant to satisfy a very particular debt owed by those who God had chosen from before the foundation of the earth.
It is never wise to build one’s theological position off a song. Yet it is beautiful when we see doctrine saturate the music and lyrics we lift to our God in praise. Similarly, it is vastly more beautiful when those same doctrines permeate our Gospel preaching to the lost.
One needn’t believe in the doctrine of Limited Atonement to accurately preach the Gospel. However, the preaching of the Gospel takes on a beautifully narrowed focus when we understand the pin-point accuracy of that atonement.
Soli Deo Gloria!