How could the perfect atonement won for us by Christ ever be considered “limited?” Today, Barry Cooper unpacks the precious meaning of a much-misunderstood phrase.
Have you noticed how unpopular it’s become to suggest that human beings might have any limits?
I don’t know about you, but I’m regularly informed—by TV, music, movies, and ad campaigns—that there are literally no limits to what I can achieve. If I can dream it, then I can be it. Which is great news, because since watching a recent documentary about Michael Jordan, I’ve decided I want to be the MVP of the Chicago Bulls. So what if I’m a 48-year-old with a dodgy knee who consistently struggles to throw balled-up paper into a trash can three feet away? Stop limiting me with your words and your facts.
I suspect this “limitophobia” partly explains why some of us react against the theological concept of “limited atonement.” How could the perfect atonement won for us by the eternal Son of God be in any sense “limited”? Mindful of this unhelpful implication, some theologians have wisely taken to calling it “definite atonement” instead.
But, whichever term you use, what it means is simply this: Jesus died to fully secure the salvation of His people, not just to make the offer.
Limited or definite atonement is rooted in biblical texts such as Mark chapter 10, verse 45, which says, “The Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many.” That is, Christ didn’t die merely to make a ransom offer; His death actually was the ransom, and it was completely effective for the many to whom it applies.
That truth is reinforced by Revelation chapter 5, verse 9, where the worshipers in heaven sing to Jesus, “Worthy are you . . . for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Or think about Ephesians chapter 5, verse 25: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Again, though Christ freely offers salvation to all, His death actually achieved salvation specifically for His bride, “the church.”
Or consider John chapter 10, verse 11, where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The sheep here are those who hear Christ’s voice and follow Him. So, again, Christ doesn’t give His life for all people indiscriminately in the hope that some might decide to follow Him. The Good Shepherd lays down His life specifically for all those who actually follow Him.
John chapter 11, verse 52, says that Jesus died “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” His death wasn’t simply to enable the possibility that God’s children might be gathered into one; the gathering was actually accomplished by Christ’s death.
At stake, then, is the effectiveness of Christ’s death. Did Jesus only succeed in making an offer of salvation which might be freely accepted or freely rejected? Or did He succeed not only in making an offer but also in actually securing salvation for His people?
Limited atonement—or definite atonement—says that yes, Christ’s offer of salvation really is held out to all people, for all time, and just because some reject that offer does not mean that His death was weak or ineffectual. On the contrary, His blood, shed on the cross, really did succeed in saving, ransoming, and gathering the people He intended to redeem. It was not shed in vain.
So is the term limited atonement unhelpful? Yes, if you think of limited as meaning “small” or “miserly.” But that is not what limited means here. Christ’s atonement is limited only in the way that a devoted husband’s marital love is limited to his bride.
What difference does this make? An awful lot, especially if you’re the bride.
God the Father didn’t send God the Son to give His life in the hope that a vague and hypothetical group of people might accept His offer of salvation at some point in the future, but then again might not.
He didn’t die as a potential substitute but as an actual one: your sin was paid for at the cross if you’re a follower of Jesus. He actually died specifically for you. He had you in mind in eternity before history began, He had you in mind as He went to the cross, and He has you in mind now as He sits at the Father’s right hand making intercession.
Just as God’s word never returns to Him empty, but always achieves precisely what He has sent it to do, so too does the blood of Christ: poured out to save His sheep, His people, His children, His bride.