Limited Atonement (Repost from 2007)

As R L Dabney points out in his Systematic Theology, the very term “atonement” is unclear. What do we mean by this word? It comes from the older English, literally at-one-ment, which would imply reconciliation. We can also recall various “atonement models,” which include Christus Victor, the ransom theory, and penal substitution. Dabney, as well as Warfield, also include postmillennialism in many of their understandings of the “world” passages, and thus we could add the cosmic eschatological atonement to our list.

Most people, however, (at least in Reformed circles) usually mean “expiation” when they say atonement. If this is the definition, then we most certainly do not hold to “limited atonement.” Dort is clear on this matter:

Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God’s anger, God in his boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us.

It continues:

This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

And it gives a reason for this infinite value. It is not due to an amount of deeds, but rather the value of the single divine person:

This death is of such great value and worth for the reason that the person who suffered it is–as was necessary to be our Savior–not only a true and perfectly holy man, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Another reason is that this death was accompanied by the experience of God’s anger and curse, which we by our sins had fully deserved.

This is, consequently, one reason why we need to have proper Christology prior to engaging in the question over the “extent of the atonement.” Christ’s “merit” or his “worth” ultimately stems from his deity, a fact that Calvin was keenly aware of (see here and here).

This infinite satisfaction is to preached to the whole world:

Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

Notice that the call is to believe in Christ crucified. The Marrow Men of a later period would implore people to believe that “Christ is dead for you.” Similarly, Luther, Calvin, and the vast majority of the Reformed orthodox taught that to believe the gospel was to believe that you were forgiven. Faith is a particular thing. To doubt is not to believe, and thus the inclusion of assurance within the definition of faith by the early Reformed and Continental Confessions is fully consistent with their understanding of the free offer of the gospel. It really was for everyone.

Dort squarely places the blame for damnation on the unbelievers:

However, that many who have been called through the gospel do not repent or believe in Christ but perish in unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because they themselves are at fault.

At this point is important to review the 1st head of doctrine. So far I’ve been in the 2nd, but at this point we need the context. Dort initially begins with this:

Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God (Rom. 3:19), All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

It then gives the message of God’s love:

But this is how God showed his love: he sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

And again, Dort states the free offer:

In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends proclaimers of this very joyful message to the people he wishes and at the time he wishes. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).

We must note once more that the faith is in Christ crucified. That is what, or perhaps who, sinners are called to put their trust in. The very fact that you are preaching to them gives the implication that the message is for them.

And to prevent any impious and blasphemous doctrine from cropping up around the truth of particular election, which all Calvinists and Augustinians affirm, Dort adds this qualifier:

The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man.

Also:

The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision. For all his works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us his act–unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just–of distinguishing between people equally lost. This is the well-known decision of election and reprobation revealed in God’s Word. This decision the wicked, impure, and unstable distort to their own ruin, but it provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words.

Dort adds more:

Moreover, Holy Scripture most especially highlights this eternal and undeserved grace of our election and brings it out more clearly for us, in that it further bears witness that not all people have been chosen but that some have not been chosen or have been passed by in God’s eternal election– those, that is, concerning whom God, on the basis of his entirely free, most just, irreproachable, and unchangeable good pleasure, made the following decision: to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish them (having been left in their own ways and under his just judgment), not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice. And this is the decision of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!) but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger.

In the later section on “rejecting the gospel,” Dort states:

The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life’s cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13).

Let us clearly note that Dort says that Christ is offered through the gospel. Christ is the gospel. And reprobation is a way of describing the truth that certain people will reject the gospel (or never hear it- in the absence of preacher, in which case their sin is ample ground for condemnation).

When dealing with assurance it is worth noting that Dort begins with the the promises of God. The gospel is the primary ground of assurance:

Accordingly, this assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God which he has very plentifully revealed in his Word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children and heirs (Rom. 8:16-17), and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works. And if God’s chosen ones in this world did not have this well-founded comfort that the victory will be theirs and this reliable guarantee of eternal glory, they would be of all people most miserable.

It seems that Dort understands the testimony of the Holy Spirit to be directly associated, if not fully identified, with the revealed Word of God, since it excludes private revelation. Thus we are not relying on how we feel the Spirit to be working, but rather in the Spirit’s objective testimony in the Word.

This is why assurance is included in the definition of faith. Dort later acknowledges that believers can fall into times of doubt, but assurance is still objective, and it is part of what doubters are called back to. Believe it because it is the case.

This understanding of the atonement is consistent with Dabney’s teaching, and I think it is of immense importance that we understand this today.  The decree to call specific individuals is limited, but the expiation provided by Christ’s death is unlimited.  Since Christ’s death infinitely satisfies God’s wrath and the decree is secret, thus we have no access to it, we should point all men to Christ crucified.  We should ask them to believe that Christ is for them.  They must repent and believe, and the thing that they are to believe is that Christ has brought them salvation.  Whenever doubt arises, the gospel is there to combat it.

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, FL. He is also a founder and general editor of The Calvinist International. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), a full-time minister, and occasional classical school teacher, Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, and daughter.

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