Understanding Limited Atonement

By Dr. Ken Matto

Matthew 1:21 (KJV) And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

One of the most hated and misunderstood biblical doctrines is entitled Limited Atonement. It basically teaches that when Christ went to the cross, He did not pay for the sins of every human being who was ever born but only those who were named from the foundation of the world unto salvation. Matthew 1:21 above states that Jesus came to save His people from their sins and not save everyone who ever lived from their sins. Those who advocate free will believe that Christ died for the sins of the whole world and all one has to do to become saved is to accept Christ as their Savior. However, the Bible teaches no such doctrine or practice, which means “accepting the Lord” is a fallacy which cannot be acceptable if it is not found in the Bible. It is a teaching of man based on the belief that those who hear the gospel and want to be saved can do so at their own leisure.

The Bible is very clear that one cannot exercise any type of will toward salvation because it is not in man to have the ability to believe unless it is granted them by God. John 1:12-13 (KJV) But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: {13} Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13 make it very clear that salvation is by the will of God and not the will of man. This is confirmed by Romans 9:15-16:

Romans 9:15-16 (KJV) For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. {16} So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.

Romans 9:15-16 teach very plainly that God is the one who makes the decision on whom He will have compassion and mercy on. Again we are told in verse 16 that it is not of any man that wills himself to have mercy from God but it is of God totally. Then in verse 16 we read “nor of him that runneth” which means that no one who works, desires, wills, or anything associated with any type of working for salvation will ever attain salvation. So we see in two places that man’s will cannot initiate salvation but only the Lord’s can. Another belief held by those who believe in free will is that all one has to do is believe.

Acts 16:31 (KJV) And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

Acts 16:31 is representative of all the verses that talk about believing on Christ. Based on what we read in John 1:12 & 13 plus Romans 9:15-16, we know without equivocation that it is not man’s will to be able to believe, that is, to initiate salvation. The word “believe” is the Greek word “pisteuo” which is a verb and in the case of Acts 16:31 it is in the Imperative Mood making it a command. Now if God makes a command to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then all should be obeying that command. However, that cannot happen because we saw in Romans 9:16 that the mercy of God is not given to those who run and we saw that meant any type of work. Now a verb represents an action, an action represents a work, and no type of work can ever initiate salvation as we saw. Therefore, it is God who holds salvation within His authority and because of this, salvation is given by God to whoever He selects. John 1:12-13 & Romans 9:15-16 teach without doubt that God is totally in control of salvation and He gives it to whomever He has named before the foundation of the world. That is why not everyone in the world will obey the command to believe on Christ because not everyone has been qualified by God to believe on Christ.

Another major biblical truth that those who believe in free will just totally ignore is the reality that unsaved man is spiritually dead. As the physical body without the spirit is dead, so the person without the Holy Spirit is spiritually dead. A dead person can do nothing but remain dead unless they are resurrected.

Ephesians 2:5 (KJV) Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)

In Ephesians 2:5, we read concerning the believer that we were (past tense) dead in sins. The word for “dead” in the Greek text is “nekrous” which carries with it the meaning of “lifeless” and if one if lifeless, then one is dead. So just as Jesus raised Lazarus from physical death to physical life, the believer is raised to spiritual life through salvation.

Revelation 20:5-6 (KJV) But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. {6} Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

We read in Revelation 20:5-6 that those who partake in the first resurrection, the second death has no power. The first death is physical death, the second death is spiritual death in the lake of fire. Every person who is saved will never see the second death because it lost its power by means of the salvation given to the believer in Christ. The believer is also given the title of priests of God and of Christ. Revelation 1:6 (KJV) And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. The thousand years represents the entire new Testament period as believers are born into the world during the first and second coming of Christ.

Just to summarize what we have learned so far is that an unsaved person is spiritually dead and has no ability to initiate salvation. We also saw this in the John and Roman verses that no type of work, including believing will initiate salvation. God is the one who gives salvation to those He has named before the foundation of the world. When God saves someone, then they will begin to believe but never before since a dead person can do nothing but remain dead until resurrected as we saw in Revelation 20:5-6. So atonement is limited to those whom God has chosen to save. Now I want to look at limited atonement from a legal standpoint.

The Death of Christ Placed into Force a Legal Document
Hebrews 9:16-17 (KJV) For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. {17} For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.

We are all familiar with last will and testaments and how they become unchangeable. In short, the one who makes out a will can continue to change it as long as they are alive but once they are dead, the will becomes a final document and cannot be changed. The testator is the own who makes a last will and testament preparing for his or her death. When the will is drawn up, the testator names all the beneficiaries along with what each one is to receive. For example, when my parents made up their will, they named my brother and I to inherit their entire estate to be divided up equally. Before my parents died, they could have changed the will around as much as they wanted to but once they both died, the final draft of that will became the legal, binding document. It was now in force.

Hebrews 9:16-17 speaks about a testament and a testator. The testator is the Lord Jesus Christ and the contents of the testament or will is salvation for His people. Remember Matthew 1:21! Revelation 13:8 (KJV) And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Revelation 13:8 states that the Lamb or Christ was slain from the foundation of the world. In other words, in principle Christ was already slain before the world was created which means that the testator died even before the world was created. This also means that all those He named in the will have been sealed and will come to salvation by means of election. 2 Corinthians 1:22 (KJV) Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.

Now we know that a will goes into force the moment the Testator has died. Since the Scriptures teach that in principle Christ was slain from the foundation of the world, this also means that those who were named in the last will and testament of Christ will become saved. This has happened all throughout recorded history. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Naboth, Peter, Paul, John, etc. All named before the foundation of the world and all became saved at the time the Lord decreed it.

Now here is the rub that free willers will not like but it is a reality which must be dealt with. When a will is made out, certain individuals are named as beneficiaries. Let us say that a certain man leaves an estate to his four children. In the will he has the estate divided up equally at 25% each. One of the children becomes a drug addict and abuses his father, so the father now changes the will to leave only 3 of the children as beneficiaries and the fourth one is left out. Now the drug addict goes for rehab and becomes saved and no longer desires drugs but desires to grow in the Lord. The father sees this and decides to put his son back into the will and goes to the lawyer. On the way the father is killed in an automobile accident and his death now places the last draft of the will in force. Unfortunately, the law in this case does not recognize intent and only recognizes the last draft of the will which included the three sons and excluded the fourth. Under the law, the fourth child receives nothing because that is how the will reads and since the testator has died, with the will in force, no names can be added after his death. It stands as is!

Another example. A man makes out a will and only includes his two children in the will. The man dies and the will is now in force. At that time, the neighborhood kids go to the lawyer and ask if their name could be added to the will. The lawyer rejects their plea because the will is now in effect and no names can be added. The only one who could have added their names was the man but he died.

It is the same situation with the testament of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since all were named before the foundation of the world and in principle Christ, the testator, also died before the foundation of the world means that all the names included in the will were sealed. This also means that there can be no additions or subtractions to the will. No one can add their name to the will of Christ because it is now a legal document in force. If a person was not named for salvation in the will, they will not become saved. No amount of mythical free will can ever change the testament of Christ and no additions or deletions of names are permitted. If a person who believes in free will becomes truly saved, it was only because they were included in the will and it was God who initiated their salvation.

To summarize this, the last testament of Christ went into force before man was even created thus naming all those who would be the beneficiaries of salvation. Since the will is in force, it cannot be changed by either adding names or taking away names. Therefore, the testament of Christ limits atonement to those named in that legal document before the foundation of the world and no amount of free will can ever change the amount of names in that document. It is a completed procedure!