Doctrines of Grace: Explaining Limited Atonement

I was listening to RC Sproul on RefNet this weekend. He was preaching John 17, the High Priestly prayer where Jesus asks to be glorified.

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (John 17:6)

Pastor Sproul went backwards for a moment to relate another verse in John, No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:44)

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Sproul briefly explained that their church (St. Andrews Chapel) was Reformed, noting the citation on the back of their church bulletin. He said that for those who were visiting or who had not gone to the new members class yet, he outlined the Reformation in a few sentences and quickly stated the five doctrines of grace that the Reformers (beginning with Martin Luther) had stood upon. It is widely known as an acrostic that spells the name of a familiar flower T – U – L – I – P.

T — total depravity. This doesn’t mean people are as bad as they can be. It means that sin is in every part of one’s being, including the mind and will, so that a man cannot save himself.

U — unconditional election. God chooses to save people unconditionally; that is, they are not chosen on the basis of their own merit.

L — limited atonement. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross was for the purpose of saving the elect.

I — irresistible grace. When God has chosen to save someone, He will.

P — perseverance of the saints. Those people God chooses cannot lose their salvation; they will continue to believe. If they fall away, it will be only for a time. (source)

A fuller explanation of unconditional election from the same source is as follows:

The second point inescapably follows from the first: since one is born totally depraved and enslaved to sin, one’s ELECTION cannot be dependent or CONTINGENT on any spiritually worthy actions one commits. According to this point, God predestines or chooses to soften the hard, sin-enslaved hearts of certain fallen individuals and liberate them from their death not because of any merit they have but despite their demerits–i.e., He ELECTS to change their hearts (and thereby join them to Christ and His saving work) DESPITE the fact that they hate God and oppose Him and have hard hearts, not soft hearts, and have sin-enslaved wills, not free wills. Thus, believers have no reason to boast about themselves or their own actions: the only thing that differentiates them from Judas, Esau, or others who never respond in faith is that God gave them grace that He withheld from such reprobates (Calvinists cite, e.g., Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:26-27; Rom. 9:11-18; 1 Cor. 4:7; Eph. 2:8-10; cf. Jn. 1:13; 15:16; Acts 13:48; 16:14; 18:27; Phil. 2:13).

In a Q&A on RefNet after the sermon, Pastor Sproul was asked if it was “fair” that God chooses to elect some to salvation and not all.

What is “fair” is that we all deserve hell for our sins against God. Fair (justice) would be that all sinners would go to hell.

Alternately, taking the “fairness” issue to the extreme other end of the spectrum, what if God chose to elect all human beings to heaven, and none to hell? Is it fair that all humans who sinned receive a pardon? Where is the display of His justice? His wrath? His hatred of sin?

The middle road is that He elects some to heaven and some He leaves in their state of sin. Sproul posed the following question back, and I’ll paraphrase:

If God decided to save all people, pardoning all sins for all people for all time, and leaving the person himself to decide whether to ‘accept Jesus’ or not, would that include the sin of unbelief? Yes, it would. So if the sin of unbelief has been paid for by Jesus, and a person dies without having believed, is it fair to punish them in hell for their sin that Jesus paid for?

Robin Schumacher wrote an essay titled, “Unlimited or Limited Atonement?” Schumacher said, “John Owen wrote what is perhaps the most definitive work on Christ’s atonement in “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”,

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved.

… If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, ‘Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.’ But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it?

If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will.” (page 61).

So once again, if God leaves salvation up to the individual’s choice, and they do not choose Jesus, then Jesus paid for their sins for naught, and they are paid for twice. Yet…nothing God does is imprecise. Not a drop of blood that Jesus spilled is wasted. Not a moment of punishment in hell for the unbeliever is unwarranted. God is precise, fair, and just.

Not only is God fair, because God does it, it is fair. He is the very definition of fairness, the epitome of justice.

Schumacher concludes his essay this way,

>Dr. James White speaks to the simplicity and beauty of limited atonement when he says, “In its simplest terms the Reformed belief is this: Christ’s death saves sinners. It does not make the salvation of sinners a mere possibility. It does not provide a theoretical atonement…Christ’s death saves every single person that it was intended to save.”

Calvin’s doctrines of grace are in fact an answer to Jacobus Arminius, for whom the opposing viewpoint is named, Arminianism. In Arminianism, one can lose their salvation it is not secure.

Some Arminians, however, believe that mankind has so much influence in their own salvation that their actions can cause God to revoke it. They believe we must continually reject sin and live a godly life in order to maintain our position with God. (source)

Hence RC Sproul’s wit regarding the daisy. He said,

“If you went to the new member class, you’ll know the Reformed view. But if you don’t, the acrostic flower stands for, Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the saints”. This flower differs from the Arminian flower, the DAISY. Which is, ‘He loves me, He loves me not…”

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Dear friends, if you are saved, it was not your choice, but Father God through Jesus. He saved you through no merit of your own, but to glorify Jesus. No one can snatch you from His hand, and your salvation is securely sealed within you, the Spirit being the deposit of this guarantee, until the Day. Our sovereign and merciful God is the author and finisher of our faith, and He keeps us in it until the time when all men are glorified in heaven. Then as Jesus prayed in His high priestly prayer,

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)

O, Jesus, we long to be with You, our High Priest, too!
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Further reading:

FMI: Calvinist Corner

Why I am a Calvinist, Part 1 (of 5)

What is Calvinism? Is Calvinism biblical?