THE STUBBORN LOVE OF DEFINITE ATONEMENT
Article by Marshall Segal
Staff writer, desiringGod.org
What happened for you at the cross?
Jesus died for my sins, many might rush to say (and rightly so). However easily those five simple and beautiful words come, though, they are often misunderstood and unexplored. Who was Jesus, and what had he planned to do? And if he is God the Son, the Word become flesh, what would it mean for him to die? And how do we understand sin, and what does it really cost?
If we’re not careful, our gospel can easily become a shallow and superficial anthem to relieve guilty consciences and dismiss fears of hell. The cross is no longer really about reconciling us to God, but about calming God and skipping punishment. We end up clinging to a sentimental and superficial cross, not the cross of Christ. We need greater and greater clarity, through the eyes of Scripture, to know the real wonders of the cross.
Perhaps the most controversial word of the five, though, is my. What does it mean that Christ died for me? When he was pinned to that wood in my place, his lungs collapsing and blood spilling, what did he achieve for me?
What happened for you at the cross? Jesus did not just die so that you might be saved; he died to save you. Christ did not die so that you might have him, but so that he would, without a doubt, have you. When he died, your salvation was not only made possible, but made sure. That is the beauty and promise of definite atonement. If it feels peripheral or unimportant, like theological hairsplitting, we have not yet felt just how dead and hopeless we really were in our sin.
Definite atonement (or limited atonement) says that Christ died for a definite people — a definite church, a definite flock, a definite and chosen bride. “Husbands, love your wives,” the apostle Paul says, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Not for everyone, but for her.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). For his own, for the sheep, for his friends (John 15:13). For all those whose names were “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8).
“I have been crucified with Christ,” the apostle Paul says. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Not just for anyone, but for me — and everyone who lives by such faith.
John Piper says, “You will never know how much God loves you if you continue to think of his love for you as only one instance of his love for all the world” (From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, 640). When Jesus received the nails, the thorns, the spear in his side, he was not saving everyone in the world, but securing those he had chosen from all over the world. He did not die wondering if you would believe; he died so that you would believe.
The doctrine of limited atonement arose as part of a five-part response (now remembered by the acronym TULIP) to a theological revolt four hundred years ago. In the Remonstrance, followers of Jacob Arminius falsely taught, “Jesus Christ the Savior of the world died for all men and for every man.” They sought to make the atonement “unlimited,” applying to all and not only those chosen by God for salvation. Ironically, by doing so, they limited the atonement far more than they realized. By trying to preserve, feature, and widen the glory of the cross, they unwittingly restrained and diminished it.
Perhaps no better place exists to discover the certainty of God securing salvation for his people than by going to the heart of the new covenant promises, literally. These precious promises show that the cross not only makes salvation possible, but actually creates in us what salvation requires of us. Through the cross, through “the blood of the covenant” (Hebrews 9:20), God sovereignly forms the faith in us by which he saves us.
The prophet Jeremiah declares,
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31–33)
What is different about this new covenant? God will not merely give his people the law to obey, but he will write his law on their hearts. He will put it within them. He continues in the next chapter,
I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:39–40)
God will not wait for them to fear him, but he will put the fear of himself in their hearts. Or, as the prophet Ezekiel says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
These are not pictures of a God waiting for us to let him in by faith, but pictures of a God who levels all the walls of our resistance to cause us to repent, believe, rejoice, and obey. And this spiritual heart surgery happens because of the blood of the new covenant (Matthew 26:28) — the death of Christ for his bride, his sheep, his church. Those who argue for unlimited atonement, far from extending the atonement, rob the atonement of its deepest, most vital purchase: the gift of faith for all who would believe.
But didn’t Jesus die for the whole world? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Arminians base their argument for unlimited atonement on a handful of familiar verses in the Bible, verses we dare not set aside or minimize. No debate over Scripture should be settled by which proof texts are more true, but instead by what holds the utter truthfulness of every verse together.
So, while John 3:16 may seem to contradict definite atonement, we must stop to ask what Jesus means by “the world” and what he means by “love.” Does world really mean every person everywhere at all times, or might he simply mean people from everywhere in the world (and not only Jews)? The same question applies to other similar texts: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Paul may provide the key for some texts like these when he calls Jesus “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). Jesus does love all in some real sense and offer himself as the only possible Savior. If it were not for the death of Christ, we all, without exception, would have been immediately buried in wrath. If it were not for the death of Christ, we could not genuinely offer the gospel to all people everywhere. Jesus is the Savior of all in some sense, but not in the same sense. There is an especially: “especially of those who believe.” He not only covers them in common grace, as he does with all people, but he also raises them with saving grace. As J.I. Packer says, “God loves all in some ways” and “God loves some in all ways” (From Heaven He Came, 564).
God does love the whole world, though, and everyone in it. He desires, at one level, that all would be saved (Ezekiel 18:23; Matthew 23:37), even if he decrees that only some ultimately are. The world in John 3:16 is the world without exception. In giving his own Son, God loved the world, the whole of sinful humanity. And because he crushed his Son, whoever believes in him, without exception, is covered by the blood of Christ. Through Christ and only because of Christ, God is offered to all.
And yet, even in that very same chapter, we learn that we must be born again (John 3:7) and that the Spirit blows where he wishes (John 3:8). God loves all, and desires all to be saved, and yet he chooses some (Romans 9:18). He loves them more — in all ways. Jesus is the Savior of the world, especially of those who believe.
Whatever texts like the ones above mean by world or all, they cannot mean Jesus truly dies for everyone in the world. Otherwise, no sin would ever be punished in hell. If Jesus died for those who reject him in the end, how then could they be sent to hell? What more is there to pay? While his death, as the sinless Son of God, surely could have hypothetically covered the sins of the whole world (and many more worlds beside), his death could not have literally covered all sins in this world, or all would be saved.
And if he meant to cover the sins of all, did he then fail in his mission? Or, if he meant to cover the sins of all, did that set him against the Father, who elects some to salvation (Ephesians 1:3–4), and against the Spirit, who regenerates some to new life (John 3:3–8)? As Jonathan Gibson writes, “The works of the Trinity in the economy of salvation are indivisible. That is, the works of Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct but inseparable. Each person performs specific roles in the plan of salvation, but never in isolation from the others” (From Heaven He Came, 366).
In the end, perhaps the most serious danger of unlimited atonement is that it appears to divide God, to put the Godhead at odds with himself, to separate what God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — has planned, executed, and achieved, from before the foundation of the world, together.
But if Jesus only died for the elect, can we tell anyone and everyone we meet, “Jesus died for you”? In some ways, this is where the rubber of this debate meets the streets where we live. Many Arminians and Amyrauldians (those who affirm the other four points of Calvinism, but reject definite atonement) simply want to preserve the freedom to preach the gospel to all people. They want to preserve a “universal offer” of forgiveness and eternal life. Again, while trying to unleash the atonement, so-called unlimited atonement strangely limits it, because unlimited atonement shortens the saving arm of God — first for us, and then for all we love and want to come to Jesus.
When we go to the lost, believing that Jesus not only bought the opportunity for them to believe, but bought the very faith of all who would believe, we can have far greater confidence in our sharing — and far less insecurity and anxiety about rejection. This person’s salvation does not ultimately hang on our persuasiveness, but on Christ’s purchase. Not on our argumentation, but on his propitiation. Not on their decision-making, but on his life-creating, soul-overturning, death-defeating, joy-producing love.
The definite atoning work of Christ is a significant part of the glory of God’s grace. And to know this, by the working of God’s Spirit, inflames the cause of world missions and enables us to preach in such a way that our people experience deeper gratitude, greater assurance, sweeter fellowship with God, stronger affections in worship, more love for people, and greater courage and sacrifice in witness and service. (Piper, 637)
If Christ died for all in the same way, we forfeit one of the most precious blessings he purchased — the faith by which we are saved — and we rob God of the full glory he deserves. Definite atonement, far from dulling love or blunting evangelism or blurring assurance, sets each ablaze with new confidence and zeal. The blood he spilled “is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). For many, even you, if he has made you his own.Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis.