Rev. Gise Van Baren
One great truth which has ever been emphasized by the
faithful church of Christ is the truth of the atonement. To define
further the scriptural idea of "atonement," churches of Reformed,
Calvinistic backgrounds speak of "limited" atonement. It is vital for
the child of God to understand what is involved in the truth of "limited
atonement." This truth concerns the very heart of one's spiritual life.
The word "atonement" is used many times in the Old
Testament but only once in the New Testament: in
Romans 5:11—that is, in the King James Version. The word "atonement"
is a theological term which is rather unusual. Most of the terms or
words used to describe scriptural doctrines in the English language are
words which have been derived either from the Greek or from the Latin.
But that is not true for the word "atonement." This word is of English
or Anglo-Saxon origin. It is composed of two words: "at" and "one." The
word "atonement" suggests, therefore, a dwelling-together, a making one
out of that which had been divided.
One of the basic ideas of the Hebrew and Greek words
for "atonement" is that of covering. The atonement is that which
covers or hides. "Atonement" represents a debt which is paid, and thus
"covered." One might illustrate this idea by speaking of a debt at a
bank. If a person is unable to make payment on the debt which he owes to
the bank, and if a friend volunteers to pay this debt for him, then that
debt is covered and the man is free from all obligation. Such is the
idea of atonement.
The word "atonement" as a
theological term treats the relationship which exists
between God and man. The word suggests, in the first place,
that there is a unity or oneness between God and man—an
"at-one-ment." Secondly, however, the word implies that
there once was something which divided these two. That
something was the sin of man in which he walked in rebellion
against God. Thirdly, atonement reminds that a way has been
found to unite the two, God and man, by means of a payment
which removes the guilt of sin. Finally, there is implied in
the word "atonement" a consciousness within a person that
the evil which formerly divided has now been removed.
Atonement That Is "Limited"
The second word we ought to understand is the word
"limited" as it is used to describe the atonement. The word is somewhat
unfortunate since it can easily be misunderstood. When we speak of the
"limited atonement" of Christ, we do not mean that the atonement is at
all limited as far as its power is concerned. The word "limited" is used
rather to describe the scriptural truth that the atonement does not
cover all men, but only a certain group—the elect of God chosen before
the foundation of this world. It is this truth that we must consider.
The atonement refers to the death of Jesus Christ on
the cross, which death serves as payment for the guilt of sin.
The question arises repeatedly, "For whom did Christ
You may know that there are those, sometimes called
"Arminian" (or "free-willists"), who teach that Christ died for all men
without exception. This idea has become very popular—even within
Reformed circles where historically it was condemned. It is popular
because it appeals to man—though it is not based upon Scripture.
The second of the "Five Points of Arminianism,"
written in 1610 in the Netherlands, declares this about the atonement of
That agreeably thereto Jesus Christ, the Saviour of
the World, died for all men and for every man, so that He has obtained
for them all by His death on the cross redemption and forgiveness of
sins, yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except
the believer according to the Word of the Gospel in
John 3:16: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten
Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have
everlasting life." And, in the First Epistle of
John 2:2, "And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours
only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
The Arminian understands the atonement of the cross
thus: it is universal, i.e., for all. A large number of gospel hymns
include this same idea. These portray a Christ who died for all men—and
now He awaits the reaction and response of the sinner.
This error of the Arminian, however, is not taught in
the Bible. That Christ died only for a specific group, called in
Scripture "the elect," is evident from many passages in Holy Writ. A
clear statement concerning the extent of the work of Christ was given to
Joseph, the husband of Mary, in a dream. The angel said to Joseph, "And
she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he
shall save his people from their sins" (Matt.
1:21). The name "Jesus" itself is derived from two words meaning
"Jehovah saves." The name "Jesus" is therefore an extremely beautiful
and descriptive name. It reminds of that scriptural truth that if a
people are to be saved from their sins, it is Jehovah who must save
them. No dead sinner can deliver himself from his sins. Jehovah, the
unchangeable God, alone can do that. Now the angel specifically informs
Joseph that the babe to be born of the Virgin Mary is to be called
"Jesus," for He shall save His people from their sins. His work will be
to deliver a specific people, His people. The work of salvation,
then, does not cover all men, but is limited to His people.
Another passage of Scripture which indicates the
extent of the atonement of the cross is
John 10. In verse 11 Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd; the good
shepherd layeth down His life for the sheep." Again in verse 15 Jesus
declares, "I lay down my life for the sheep." And in contrast to
this willing sacrifice for His sheep, there is the fact presented in
verse 26 that some are not Jesus' sheep. Jesus says, "But ye believe not
because ye are not of my sheep." The distinction which Jesus makes is
very clear. He speaks of two groups of people: His sheep, and those
which are not His sheep. For the former group, Jesus lays down His life;
He dies for His sheep. For the latter group, Jesus does not die; they
are not His sheep. Therefore, too, they do not believe on Him. Again
here it is very clear that the payment which Jesus made for sin upon the
cross is a payment for a specific group of people—not a payment for the
sins of everyone.
Again we read in
John 17:9, "I pray for them; I pray not for the world; I pray for
them which thou hast given me, for they are thine." Jesus is
speaking here not only of His disciples, but also of all those who
believe on His Name through their word (see v. 20). Jesus insists that
He prays only for those whom the Father had given to Him. He will not
pray for the world. The conclusion ought to be obvious. Those for whom
Jesus prays are those for whom presently He will on the cross. He does
not pray for the world because He did not die for them. Surely, had He
died for every man, He would pray for them too.
To one final passage I call your attention. We read
Romans 8:32, "He spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us
all—how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?" Notice
that the apostle emphasizes that God gave not His Son for all,
but for us all. There is an obvious difference. The "us"
refers to the church at Rome—and by extension, to the church of all
ages. The "all" in this text represents the total number of the church
of God. Christ died for them.
What of Certain Scriptural Texts?
There are, however, a group of passages in the Bible
that seem to substantiate the idea of a universal atonement. One of the
most often quoted is
I John 2:2: "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for
ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." Or there is that
well-known text of
John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only
begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have
everlasting life." And in
John 6:51 Jesus says, "And the bread that I will give is my flesh,
which I will give for the life of the world." There are other passages
which express a similar thought.
The question in each of these texts is the proper
interpretation of the words "all" and "world." One who studies Scripture
even superficially soon finds that these two words do not always mean
every individual who lives or has lived on the earth. Repeatedly the
words are used to point to a definite and limited group. I give only a
few illustrations of that. I have already quoted from
John 17:9 where Jesus declares, "I pray for them; I pray not for the
world." Obviously the term "world" in this passage refers only to the
total number of the reprobate wicked. Jesus does not pray for that
"world." But also in Scripture the term "world" refers to the totality
of God's chosen people. That is true in
John 3:16 and similar passages. Or one reads in
Romans 5:18, "Therefore, as by the offence of one, judgment came
upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the
free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." Now obviously,
the "all men" who receive the free gift of justification does not
include every man on the earth. This is a particular group; it is every
member of the body of Christ. So also one must interpret
I John 2:2. Christ is presented there as the propitiation for our
sins, that is, for the sins of the apostle and of those whom he
addresses; but also Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole
world—for all those of all ages who have been given Him of the
Because the doctrine of "limited" atonement is a
scriptural truth, we find it expressed also in the confessions of the
Reformed churches. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, says
this in Question and Answer 40: "Why was it necessary for Christ to
humble Himself, even unto death? Because with respect to the justice and
truth of God, satisfaction for our sins can be made no otherwise
than by the death of the Son of God." And the Westminster Confession,
chapter 8, paragraph 5, says, "The Lord Jesus by His perfect obedience
and sacrifice of Himself which He through the eternal spirit once
offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father and
purchased not only reconciliation but an everlasting inheritance in the
Kingdom of Heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him."
The Importance of Limited Atonement
This truth is significant and important in the life
of the church and in the lives of its individual members.
In the first place, it gives to the child of God the
full assurance of his salvation. If Christ did indeed die for every man
that ever lived, I could never be certain of my own salvation. If Christ
died for all, and so very many perish, what certainty do I have that I
shall be saved? You see, such a view, which is also unscriptural, can
only leave one in doubt about his salvation.
But now, in light of the testimony of Scripture
itself, one can know with certainty whether he is saved and will enter
into heavenly glory. Jesus died for the sins of His own people—those
given to Him by the Father. When Jesus dies for them, they also receive
His Spirit, Who works in their hearts that life which Christ merited for
them. Such are converted, confessing before God and man that they belong
to Christ. These are they who cry out in heartfelt repentance, "Oh, God,
be merciful to me, the sinner!" And these have the assurance of the
forgiveness of sin and the certainty of eternal life in heaven. None can
take that certainty away from them. None can destroy their faith. These
will not fall away from that grace of God once given to them. These do
find comfort and assurance in their confession, "Jesus died for me."
But even more important, this truth of Scripture that
Jesus dies only for the sins of His own people, is the only truth which
exalts the power and glory of the Name of God. Any other divergent view
detracts from the glory of His Name. Any view of the atonement which
suggests that the ultimate decision concerning one's salvation rests
with man, detracts from the power and glory of God. God does not share
His power and glory with any! He is God alone! He has absolute power. He
determines the beginning from the end. He determines the final destiny
of every creature—and He does so in harmony with His perfect
When one properly considers the fact of the
atonement; when one understands that he for whom Christ died shall
surely be saved—he cannot help but glorify the Name of God who has
worked such wonders!