Perhaps no doctrine has caused more controversy in the western church than definite atonement; indeed, so much so that many in the church today vehemently oppose it without actually taking the time to understand what it says and what biblical defense has been put forward in support of it. It is the stated intention of this blog post to provide a cohesive definition of the doctrine known as definite atonement, particular redemption, or limited atonement; to defend that definition biblically; and to glorify God in doing so.
Definite atonement is the biblical doctrine that God’s intention from all eternity in the atonement of Jesus Christ was/is to purchase for Himself a particular people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, by electing them unto salvation from before the foundation of the world, for His own eternal glory; and, when the fullness of time had come, to send His Son Jesus to die for that elect people, and that elect people alone, as a substitutionary atonement, a propitiatory sacrifice to appease the wrath of the Father — not as a potential atonement activated by the will of the sinner, but an actual atonement secured by Christ and applied to His elect by the work of the Holy Spirit, who causes them to be born again and repent and believe in the gospel; and, His Son having thus accomplished eternal redemption for His elect, to so purpose that the risen Lord Jesus Christ should ascend to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father, from where He shall forever make intercession for those for whom He died, so that all those who turn in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ may find him to be a perfect Savior.
This, I believe, is a cohesive and biblical definition of what we mean by “definite atonement.” The careful reader will note that not only is definite atonement defined here, but to a certain extent, but the entirety of the gospel is wrapped up in that statement. The doctrines of grace stand or fall with the acceptance of definite atonement; four or three point “Calvinists” are not Calvinists at all.
As with many doctrines of the Christian faith, definite atonement is not rightly defended from any one text of Scripture, but rather from multiple texts throughout the canon of Scripture that, when properly exegeted, prove that it is a biblical doctrine. Definite atonement is also, however, the logical conclusion of a number of other doctrines.
Before we go any further, we must ask the question, “What is atonement?” Simply put, the atonement is the primary mechanism by which God reconciles fallen human beings unto Himself through the death of Christ. Various and sundry “atonement theories” have been presented throughout church history, but by and large, the most biblical of any of these is the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. This doctrine is most clearly expounded in Isaiah 53, the passage about the suffering servant of Yahweh. It is picked up later in the New Testament by the author of Hebrews in his lengthy discussion on the supremacy of Christ to the old covenant sacrifices. I encourage you to listen to Sinclar B. Ferguson’s sermon on Isaiah 52:13 through the end of 53.
Essentially, “Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and He, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard” . Immediately, in this definition, one might notice that particularity is required for this to make sense; if Christ died for every human being who ever lived, then each and every person would have their sins paid for, and there would be no need for anyone to go to hell to pay for sins yet again – that would be “double jeopardy.” This, I believe, is a strong argument for the particularity of the atonement from the very nature of the atonement itself.
However, we must understand, before even attempting to formulate a doctrine of the atonement, both God’s nature, and our nature. God is infinite, we are finite; God is holy, we are fallen and sinful; God is righteous, “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 KJV). As we walk through the defintion of particular redemption that I’ve already provided, we must keep these facts in mind.
Definite atonement is a biblical doctrine
I intend to defend this statement throughout this blog post, so I won’t bother trying to do so all at once. By the time you’re done reading this, I hope that you can affirm with me that definite atonement is indeed biblical in nature.
Not only is particular redemption concerned with the extent of Christ’s atoning work, it is primarily concerned with God’s intention in providing atonement. Before we even begin to talk about the extent of the atonement, we must understand what God was thinking when he sent his Son to die. Luckily (or providentially, whichever term you prefer), the Bible gives us a pretty good idea of why God wanted to save his fallen creatures from their sin.
God loved the world
In John 3:16, we read that “God loved the world in such a way as to send His unique Son, that all those believing in him might not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16, author’s paraphrase). God’s motivation for sending His Son to save those who believe was His love for His creation. The love of God is something that is beyond comprehension, that He would sacrifice His beloved Son for wretched sinners, who were beyond all hope of saving themselves.
God wanted to glorify Himself
God’s ultimate goal in the salvation of sinners is not to glorify men, but to glorify Himself. Men are glorified, in order that they may turn around and give all praise and glory back to the Glorifier. I have noticed, that the notion that God’s intention in providing atonement was to glorify Himself, is a great stumbling block to many. They retort that this makes God “egotistical” and “selfish.” I simply reply, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20). It is amazing that we, as fallen, sinful human creatures, would dare to question the almighty God, maker of heaven and earth. We are dependent upon Him for the very air that we breathe; were it not for His mercy and grace, none of us would live, and all would be justly condemned to hell. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, by nature children of wrath, before God made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10)
Consider carefully these passages that are fraught with statements concerning the ultimate result of our salvation:
- Ephesians 1:3-6 — “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved.” The ultimate reason for God’s predestination and adoption of us fallen sinners is plainly stated; it is all “to the praise of His glorious grace.” Just a few verses later, in verses 13 and 14, Paul makes the same claim: “In Him [that is, Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.“
Romans 3:23-26 — “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Before I comment, I commend to you John Piper’s excellent sermon on this passage. But the point is clear: God provided atonement to make his righteousness plain, to vindicate Himself (a divine theodicy, if you will).
This blog series will continue next week (I hope). Stay tuned…