Limited Atonement

by Frank B. Beck

(Read Romans the Fifth Chapter)


Do you, my reader, believe that Jesus Christ died for the sins of all men without exception? Perhaps many who read this will answer, Yes. I then ask you, Why are not all men without exception saved? You will probably reply, Because they do not believe in Jesus Christ.

But, I say to you, if Christ died for the sins of all men He died for their unbelief, for that is part of their sins, and they will be saved nevertheless! If Christ truly died for their sins, they will not need to die for them.

There are only three answers that can be given to this problem.

First, believing that Christ died for the sins of all men without exception, you must believe that all men will be saved. This is the Universalist view, or at least this was the view with which the Universalist Church began under John Murray (about 1770, Vergilius Ferm, A Protestant Dictionary, pp. 266-267). This is consistent and logical with this view of the atonement, or death of Christ. However, it is not true. The Son of God tells us that "many" march the broad way that leads to "destruction" (Matt. 7:21-23); that "many" will hear Christ say in the day of judgment: "I never knew you, depart from me, ye cursed into everlasting fire" (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:41). Christ could not have died for the sins of those who die in their sins (John 8:24).

Secondly, those who hold the view that Christ died for the sins of all men and reject the Universalist view, claim that He died for all the sins of men except unbelief! This was held by the late Lewis Sperry Chafer, President of Dallas Theological Seminary (in his book, True Evangelism, pp. 34, 64). Then Christ did not die for all of our sins after all. Only for some of them! He never died for our unbelief. Of course the implication is that if we repent of our unbelief and believe on Christ we are no longer guilty of unbelief! Our unbelief has vanished. But "God requireth that which is past" (Ecc. 3:15), and the fact that we now believe, does not overlook the fact that we were for many years guilty of unbelief, and that sin has never been dealt with by Christ's death. Then we are all lost, from the least to the greatest, for we are still guilty of our old unbelief in Christ. Christ never died for that sin. It has never been atoned for. How better the view of 1 Corinthians 15:3, "Christ died for our sins" (all of them!); also 1 John 1:7, "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin." This second view cannot be right.

Thirdly, that Christ died for all the sins of all the elect. He laid down His life for the "sheep" (John 10:15); for His friends (John 15:13-14); He gave Himself for the "church" (Eph. 5:25); as a ransom for the "many" (Mark 10:45). These distinctions are not necessary if Christ died for all men without exception, and are meaningless. They make sense only when a limited atonement of Christ is upheld. This view we embrace and now set before you.


The Position of a Limited Atonement

"It will be seen at once that this doctrine necessarily follows from the doctrine of election. If from eternity God has planned to save one portion of the human race and not another, it seems to be a contradiction to say that His work has equal reference to both portions, or that He sent His Son to die for those whom He had predetermined not to save, as truly as, and in the same sense that He was sent to die for those whom He had chosen for salvation. These two doctrines must stand or fall together" (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 151).

We do not deny that many blessings have come into the world of the unbelievers because of Christ's passionate death on the cross. "The atonement of Christ secures for all men a delay in the execution of the sentence against sin ; together with a continuance of the common blessings of life which have been forfeited by transgression. If strict justice had been executed, the race would have been cut off at the first sin. That man lives after sinning, is due wholly to the Cross" (Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 772). In this aspect, God is the Saviour (Preserver) of all men (1 Tim. 4:10). In this manner, Christ's death brings benefit to all men.

By the limited atonement of Christ we must refuse the theory of Emery H. Bancroft (Elemental Theology, p. 123) that Christ as the Lamb of God in taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29), merely took away the "guilt which attaches itself to the world or human race through the sin of Adam ;," and that "no member of the human race is lost because of the guilt of Adam's sin, for that guilt was completely and perfectly removed by the death of Christ."

But if that means "Adamic sin" and it was taken away by the Lamb of God so that no member of the human race is guilty of it, how is it dying Stephen prayed for his murderers, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7:60, same Greek word, hamartia); that the Gentiles (or nations) are all under sin (Rom. 3:9, same word); that the believer is bidden not to continue in sin (Rom. 6:1, same word), nor to let sin (Rom. 6:12, same word) reign in his body; and that the "wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23, same word).

It does not appear as if this sin has been removed, either in its guilt among the Gentiles who know not God, or even in its influence among Christians! Again, if Christ took away the guilt of the Adamic sin what about our other sins? They are but the fruits of Adam's first sin. The guilt and depravity of that first sin extends from root to branch to fruit. If the Adamic sin is removed, then so are all the consequences brought about by that sin. But if Christ only took away the Adamic sin, then how are our other sins atoned for?


The Proof of a Limited Atonement

From the Record of Sacred Scripture:

"The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). Who "us" refers to is seen in verse 11: "many ; He shall bear their iniquities." Also verse 12, "He bare the sin of many."

"The Son of Man came ; to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28).

The blood of the new covenant was "shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:28).

"So Christ was once offered to bear the sin of many" (Heb. 9:28).

"Who gave himself for us." Whom? The redeemed (Titus 2:14).

"The Good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep" (John 10:11).

"Jesus himself limited the purpose of his death when he said: 'I lay down my life for the sheep.' If, therefore, He laid down His life for the sheep, the atoning character of His work was not universal. On another occasion He said to the Pharisees, 'Ye are not my sheep' (John 10:26) ; Will anyone maintain that He laid down His life for these, seeing that He so pointedly excludes them?" (L. Boettner, Ibid., p. 156).

He purchased the "church of God with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).

"Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8); God delivered up His Son "for us all" (Rom. 8:32). These references in Romans are addressed to the "called of Jesus Christ" (1:6), who are "saints" (1:7), who are "elect" (8:33).

"Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (1 Cor. 5:7). Again the reference is to the church of God and its sanctified members (1:2).

"Our Lord Jesus Christ ; gave himself for our sins" (Gal. 1:4). (Written to the "churches" (1:2).

In Christ "we have redemption through his blood" (Eph. 1:7). Written to the "chosen" and "predestinated" (verses 4 and 5).

Christ "His own self bare our sins" (1 Pet. 2:24). Written to the "elect" (1:2).

Christ "loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood" (Rev. 1:5). Written to the "churches" (verse 4).


Be sure you do not read somebody else's mail! These promises are directed to the elect believers on Christ.


From Reasoning

It is not wrong to reason in the light of God's Word! "Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord" (Isa. 1:18). Be no followers of Peter Damian or Tertullian when they say: "Since God has spoken to us it is no longer necessary for us to think!" (Anne Fremantle, The Age of Belief, p. 87).

"If Christ died for His sheep, His friends, and His church only, then He did not die for all (without exception) (John 10:11-15; John 15:13-14; Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25) ; Seeing those for whom Christ died are such as 'hear His voice and follow Him,' to whom He gives 'eternal life' (John 10:27-28); such as He sanctifies and cleanses and presents to Himself 'without spot or wrinkle' (Eph. 5:27); and such as He hath 'redeemed from all iniquity, to purify them to Himself a peculiar people' (Titus 2:14) ; it cannot be intended for all unless we say that Pharaoh, Judas, etc., were of the sheep, friends, and church of Christ!" (Christopher Ness, An Antidote Against Arminianism, p. 57).

"Every assertion, therefore, that Christ died for a people, is a denial of the doctrine that He died equally for all men" (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 549).

"Those for whom Christ's death was intended, to them it must be applied; but it is not applied to all, therefore it was not intended for all" (Christopher Ness, Ibid., p. 58).

We reason that the death of Jesus Christ was an actual substitution. A real transaction took place. "The sin of Adam did not make the condemnation of all men merely possible; it was the ground of their actual condemnation. So the righteousness of Christ did not make the salvation of men merely possible, it secured the actual salvation of those for whom He wrought" (Charles Hodge, Ibid., pp. 551-552).

Adam brings death to his own, Christ brings life to His own (1 Cor. 15:22).


From Relationship

Christ's work is not a hodge-podge, or a patch-quilt to cover anything, so that what one patch misses the other will cover. "Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints" (Rev. 15:3).

(1) Christ "loved" a certain people (and always loves them, Jer. 31:3, for that which God does once He does always, Ecc. 3:14, Heb. 13:8). "Having loved His own which were in the world ;" (John 13:1). He loves only them. His wrath is upon unbelievers! (John 3:36).

(2) Christ "called" this people to Himself. "My sheep hear My voice," said He (John 10:27). He calls no others.

(3) Christ "died" in the place of this chosen people. He laid down His life for the "sheep" (John 10:11). He died for no other. Christ paid a ransom for the elect. He gave His life a "ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

"The nature of a ransom is such that when paid and accepted it automatically frees the persons for whom it was intended" (L. Boettner, Ibid., p. 155).

That not all are free, but that many are in sin and Satan's bondage (John 8:32-36; 2 Tim. 2:26; 3:6) is evidence that Christ gave no ransom for them! Had he done so, they would be delivered. "God's justice demanded that Christ pay the exact penalty of the sins of those who are saved. His justice also demands that He save all whose penalty Christ paid" (Thomas Paul Simmons, A Systematic Study of Bible Doctrine, pp. 238-239).

That God does not save all, proves that Christ did not die for all. There is no disunity in the Godhead. "Whom the Father elects the Son redeems, and the Holy Ghost sanctifies ; That is evident from ; Scriptures (such as) John 5:23, which declares the Son must be honoured as equal with the Father; but, to say that the Son redeemed all, and the Father elected but few, is to give greater honour to the One than to the Other, and to make an inequality in Their operations" (Christopher Ness, Ibid., p. 53).

(4) Christ "arose" for the benefit of the elect. He "was delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). Surely at least, my reader will not argue that Christ's resurrection is of equal blessing to the Christless, when Christ arose to be their Judge! (Acts 17:30-31).

(5) Christ ascended to intercede as "Mediator" (1 Tim. 2:5), "Priest" (Heb. 7:23-25), and "Advocate" (1 John 2:1-2) "for us" (Heb. 9:24, that is, the "many; of verse 28).

Now "who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, Who is even at the right hand of God, Who also maketh intercession for us" (Rom. 8:33-34).

"The close connection between the atonement and the intercessory work of Christ furnishes us another argument for a limited atonement. The atonement and the intercession are simply two integral parts of His priestly work, of which the latter is based on the former in such a way that the two are, from the nature of the case, equally restricted as far as their objects are concerned ;" (Louis Berkof, Vicarious Atonement Through Christ, p. 160).

"The benefit of Christ's death and intercession are of equal extent in their objects; but Christ intercedeth not for all" (Christopher Ness, Ibid., p. 55).

Christ says: "I pray not for the world, but for them which Thou has given Me" (John 17:9).

"Christ neither prays for it (the world outside of Christ), nor dies for it" (Matthew Henry, Comm., Vol. V, p. 1154). Of course both go together! But did not Christ pray for the wicked on the cross? "Father, forgive them!" (Luke 23:24). But here the prayer is either (1) "simply a prayer that the Father shall not place the sin of the crucifixion to the special account of those who were actually engaged in it, since they were doing it in ignorance. It forms no part of His official intercessory work" (Louis Berkhof, Ibid., pp. 159-160); or (2) Christ prays for the elect amongst them who would in time repent and turn to Christ.

"The services of a priest are solely for the redeemed people of God. There was no tabernacle, no priesthood, no sacrifice, no worship, in Egypt. These were ordained solely for a people redeemed by the blood of the paschal lamb" (Philip Mauro, God's Apostle and High Priest, pp. 80-81).

(6) Christ "comes again" to receive His own (John 14:3). The rest He will cast away in flame and fury (2 Thess. 1:7-10).

Beloved, not only is Christ's atonement limited in salvation to the elect, but all of His ministry.


The Power of a Limited Atonement

We are bold to say that the view of Christ dying only for the elect in a saving sense is the only sense that gives effectual power to His death. We insist that the death of Christ really saves all for whom it was intended. Otherwise the death of Christ was but a great gamble, a venture, but not necessarily a victory; making salvation "possible" for all men, but not really positive for any man. For all men might have (indeed would have, 1 Cor. 2:14) rejected the Redeemer and Christ would have saved no one by His death! We repeat, the Son died in the stead of all those whom the Father elected to salvation, and the Holy Spirit regenerates all those whom the Father elected, and for whom the Son died. The Father chose no other. The Son died for no other. The Holy Spirit regenerates no other. There is no division, no confusion, no lopsidedness in the Trinity.

If Christ's death is in reality a substitutionary, vicarious death it saves all for whom it was exercised and no other. "If Christ really died in the place of those who are saved, it follows that He died in the place only of those who are saved. Christ could not bear the sins of men without actually saving them" (Floyd E. Hamilton, The Reformed Faith in the Modern World, p. 22).

Christ actually bore the sins of those for whom He died in His own body on the tree, and by those stripes they were "healed" (1 Pet. 2:24), and they return unto the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls (v. 25).

Christ "justified" them for whom He died (Rom. 5:9). "He shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities" (Isa. 53:11). "This tells how Christ justifies men, that is, by bearing their iniquities. And note that this justification is not made to depend on anything else. If Christ had to bear men's iniquities to justify them, then it follows ; that those whose iniquities He bore must receive justification" (T. P. Simmons, Ibid., p. 240).

If He bore the sins of all men without exception, then all men shall be justified, which is not so in the experience of all; therefore, Christ did not bear the sins of all men, but only the elect. "The design of Christ in dying was to effect what He actually does effect in the result" (A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 417).

Christ redeemed all those for whom He died (Eph. 1:7).

He "washed" them from their sins in His own blood (Rev. 1:5).

He reconciled them to God (Rom. 5:10), not imputing, or charging their sins to them but to Christ their Substitute (2 Cor. 5:19). To reconcile means to "restore to friendship," to "change from enmity to friendship." All for whom Christ died have been (or shall be) changed from enemies to friends of God. I need not tell you that this far from true with many. Therefore Christ died not for them.


The Problem of a Limited Atonement

(1) What about 2 Peter 2:1? False teachers shall be destroyed, who deny the Lord who "bought" them. Does this not teach universal redemption? Answer: "The 'false teachers' are described according to their own profession, not as they are in the eye of God. They claim to have been bought by the blood of Christ." They are so treated. By their heresies they deny the very Lord whom they say bought them (Wm. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. II, p. 481).

"The word in this passage for Lord is not 'kurios,' which is used either of God or of Christ; but it is 'despotes,' which is never used of Christ. Hence the reference here is to God. Peter wrote especially to Jews. Doubtless the false teachers were Jews also. And Deut. 32:6 explains how the Lord had bought them. God is here said to have bought the whole Jewish nation because He delivered them from Egypt" (T. P. Simmons, Ibid., p. 245).


(2) What about 1 Corinthians 8:11? "Shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" Answer: The perishing here refers to physical death. The believer cannot perish spiritually (John 3:16; 10:27-30). True the Greek word is used of spiritual death, but is also used again and again of physical death. For the reason stated above it is physical death. In the following references the same word occurs and speaks of physical or material death: Matt. 5:29-30, members of the body perishing; Matt. 8:25, "Lord, save us, we perish" in the sea; Matt. 9:17, wine runs out and the bottles perish; Matt. 26:52, he who takes the sword shall perish with the sword; Luke 13:33, a prophet cannot perish outside Jerusalem; Luke 15:17, the prodigal son was perishing with hunger; Luke 21:18, the hair of the head perishing; John 11:50, the nation of Jerusalem perishing; Acts 8:20, "Thy money perish;" 2 Cor. 4:6, "Though our outward man perish"; Heb. 1:10-11, the heavens and the earth shall perish.


(3) What about the Scriptures declaring that Christ died for the world? Answer: The world of the elect, or believers is meant: Christ taketh away the sin of this world (John 1:29), the sin of the rest of the outer world "remaineth" (John 9:41); God loves this world (John 3:16), His wrath is upon the rest of the world (John 3:36); Christ saves this world (John 3:17); is the Saviour of this world (John 4:42), the rest of the world (here called "the whole world") lieth in wickedness (1 John 5:19); it is this world that will believe and know that God sent the Son (John 17:21, 23); it is this world that is reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:19); it is this world for which Christ is the propitiation (1 John 2:2); or Christopher Ness' argument may be better: "John wrote to the Jews, and ministered unto the circumcision (see Gal. 2:9), and he says unto them, 'Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world,' that is, not for the Jews only, but for the Gentiles also" (Ibid., p. 65). Wm. G. T. Shedd thinks the Gentile world of believers is also meant in contrast to the Jews in John 3:16 (Ibid., p. 480). Notice that Christ is not merely offered as Saviour and propitiation, He is such (1 John 2:2; 4:14). He giveth life to this world (John 6:33). This is the world of the godly in contrast to the "world of the ungodly" (2 Peter 2:5).


(4) What about the Scriptures saying that Christ died for all men? Answer: 1 Tim. 2:6, Christ gave Himself a "ransom for all," cannot mean all men without exception, for all men would then be ransomed! Rather it means, all men without distinction, all classes of men (as in verses 1-2). If "all" must mean every man on the earth, how could Timothy offer prayers for every individual man ("for all men," v. 1)? The word must be limited.


(5) Hebrews 2:9 is also used against a limited atonement. Christ tasted death for "every man." The word "man" is not in the Greek, but just read the context: In verses 10 to 17 you will see that the writer is describing every man of God's "sons" (v. 10); Christ's "brethren" (v. 11); God's "children" (v. 13); "the seed of Abraham" (v. 16). If Christ tasted death for anyone else they would be saved and be in this number.


What good news all this is to the true believer, lover, and follower of Jesus Christ! Christ did take our sins away on the cross, He did save us by His death! God grant that you may be able to say: "The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).

If God has caused an unsaved person to read this article, how sad and tragic that you have no Saviour who died on the cross for your many sins. It is the same as if Christ never came and never hung on the cross for sinners. This is true of you, unless you prove yourself not to belong to the unbelievers, and by God's grace turn to Christ crucified and risen for you. Oh, that this might be the means of the salvation of some soul for whom Christ bled and died. Amen.