Series On Calvinism

Limited Atonement

by Gene Taylor

The third basic tenet of Calvinism is that Christ died only for the ones God had unconditionally chosen to save.

The doctrine of Limited Atonement is a natural outgrowth of the doctrine of Unconditional Election coupled with the idea that everything God does has purpose. (See Isaiah 55:11) Calvinists rationalize that God would not waste the sacrifice of Christ on those whom He had determined not to save. They believe that since God chose only some to be saved, it would be foolish to think that He sent His Son to shed His atoning blood for the sins of all people. Their conclusion: Christ only died for the elect.

In this article we will look at this doctrine by seeing how its proponents express it, examining the proof texts used to support it, and citing Scriptural objections to it.

Limited Atonement Expressed

David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas in their book The Five Points of Calvinism, Defined, Defended, Documented, said, "Christ's redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary sacrifice of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ's redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith, which united them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, thereby guaranteeing their salvation." (p. 17)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism contains the following series:

"Ques. 17. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?

"Ans. The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.

"Ques. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?

"Ans. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

"Ques. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?

"Ans. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.

"Ques. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

"Ans. God, having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.

"Ques. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God's elect?

"Ans. The only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ,…"

(The Westminster Shorter Catechism, via. The Protestant Faith, p. 280)

Proof Texts Used to Support Limited Atonement

John 10:15. The argument made on this passage is that Jesus died only for His sheep which Calvinists take to mean the elect. The answer to that argument is that in verse 16 Jesus taught that there are "other sheep I have which are not of this fold" who would come into the fold. Calvinists deny that one can change from "sheep…not of this fold" into "sheep" of the fold or from "goats" to "sheep." (See Matthew 25:31-46) But there are many examples of those who had changed from "goats" to "sheep." They include the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:9-11) and the apostle Paul. (1 Tim. 1:13-14)

Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 5:25. The argument based on these texts is that Christ died only for those who are saved, the elect. The answer here is that there is no doubt that the church is composed of the saved and that Jesus died to purchase the church. The Scriptural truth that Calvinists overlook, though, is that any person can become a part of that church. (Rev. 22:17) The church consists of:

Romans 9:13. The argument Calvinists use in relation to this passage is that the love of God in giving Jesus as a sacrifice was not a general kindness to all creation. John Gill in Five Points of Calvinism, says, "But it is a special and discriminating love, the favor which he bears to His own people, as distinct from others." To answer this argument, we say that "special and discriminating love" sounds quite different than the Biblical teaching that "there is no partiality with God." (Rom. 2:11) Romans 9:13 simply shows the righteousness of God—that God was not unrighteous in His selection of Jacob to be an ancestor of the Messiah. Admittedly, this passage shows that God preferred Jacob over Esau even before their birth—not in reference to their salvation but in regards to the election of the descendants of Jacob as the people through whom the physical Messiah would come. In commenting on this passage, Robertson L. Whiteside in A New Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Saints at Rome, said,

" … Jacob and Esau were full brothers; and though they were twins, Esau the first-born was the natural heir of the promise. Yet of the two, God selected Jacob, even before they were born, and therefore before they had done anything good or bad, 'that the purpose of God according to election might stand.' The purpose inhered in the promise. God was selecting his own instruments to work out his own plans.

"In choosing Jacob, God chose his descendants; and every Jew gloried in that choice. But the selection of Jacob and the rejection of Esau had nothing to do with their salvation. If it had pertained to their salvation, there would have been no point in mentioning the fact that the younger was selected instead of the older; for even the most dogmatic predestinarian would not say that the oldest son is the natural heir of salvation and all the other sons reprobates. The fact is that the selection of Jacob was the selection of a people rather than an individual. Had it been the election to salvation, then the nations descending from Jacob were all elected to salvation, and Esau's descendants were all lost." (p. 199)

Scriptural Objections to Limited Atonement

The gospel is for all. (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16) While Calvinists rationalize that God would not waste Christ's sacrifice on those whom He had determined not to save, they do not seem to realize the waste that occurs by Calvinist preachers who preach the gospel to all people including those so totally depraved that they cannot understand it. Consider also the waste of preaching the gospel to those God will save whether they hear it or not.

Jesus died for all people.

The blood of Christ can wash away anyone's sins. (1 John 2:1, 2) "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." Propitiation is "...akin to hileos ('merciful, propitious'), signifies 'an expiation, a means whereby sin is covered and remitted.' It is used in the NT of Christ Himself as 'the propitiation,' in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, signifying that He Himself, through the expiatory sacrifice of His death, is the personal means by whom God shows mercy to the sinner who believes on Christ as the One thus provided. In the former passage He is described as 'the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.' The italicized addition in the KJV, 'the sins of,' gives a wrong interpretation. What is indicated is that provision is made for the whole world (emphasis mine - GT), so that no one is, by divine predetermination, excluded from the scope of God's mercy; the efficacy of the 'propitiation,' however, is made actual for those who believe. In 4:10, the fact that God 'sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins,' is shown to be the great expression of God's love toward man, and the reason why Christians should love one another.# In the Sept., Lev. 25:9; Num. 5:8; 1 Chr. 28:20; Ps. 130:4; Ezek. 44:27; Amos 8:14." (Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985)


It would be extremely difficult for us to devise a doctrine which would be more out of harmony with plain Biblical teaching than the doctrine of Limited Atonement. The doctrine of Limited Atonement stands in direct opposition to the death of Jesus for all (John 12:32) and the Father's desire for all to be saved. (1 Tim. 2:4)

For further study

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Calvinism Analyzed and Answered. This is a six lesson study which considers the doctrines of Calvinism then compares and contrasts them with Scripture to see whether or not they stand or fall in light of God's word. It can be used in a class study or presented from the pulpit (PDF file size: 430k).