The third of the five points of TULIP (Calvinism theology) is limited atonement. This was a direct response to the Arminian view of unlimited atonement. I will say that I think limited atonement is the most difficult of the five points to understand. When a person first hears that term, it is almost like, “Whoa! Are you limited Christ’s atonement?” That is in fact not what we [Calvinists] are doing.
I would say that this term is better described as “particular atonement.” What we mean by limited atonement is that Christ died for the many, or for the elect. That is, it’s limited to those who believe and were chosen by God.
The Arminian view is that Christ died for the world. (“For God so loved the world…”) Unlimited atonement is the belief that Jesus died for all, but that His death is not effectual until a person receives Him by faith. Ask the Arminian, “Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men?” They would say no. Ask them if Christ died to secure the salvation of a particular man? They would again have to say no if they were to remain consistent. So in this sense, Arminians also hold a limited atonement view.
The Arminian view of the cross is that the intention was to simply make salvation possible for any person who would, of his or her own free will, repent and believe. The Arminian view of the atonement can be compared to a wide bridge that extends most of the way across the river; that the believer must take the last and final step. Calvinists, however, believe that the bridge, while narrow, did in fact extend all the way to the other side. The sinner does not and cannot take any steps. The regeneration of the sinner is the work of Christ alone.
Arminians use as proof texts those that include the words “all” “whole” and “world” interpreting it to mean every single person. For example,
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. [taxed]” – Luke 2:1
No it didn’t. You have to realize that it is figurative language. How much were the Chinese taxed? How many taxes did they pay to Caesar? The decree went out that all of the Roman world should be taxed. Or how about the more famous, John 3:16: “for God so loved the world…” In this sense, John was not referring to the whole world, but rather to ethnicities, Jews and Gentiles alike.
We all say “all” all of the time when we don’t mean it. No we don’t. We must distinguish between the figurative use of language. There are so many different figures of speech found in the Bible, and they are found in most any large novel or even newspapers. They’re everywhere. No they are not. They are not everywhere. But you see, we do that all the time even though we don’t realize we are doing it. No we don’t; we don’t do that all the time.
When we read scripture, we must not forget who it was written to, when it was written, historical context, and the Jewish mindset.
Study verses for this section: Isaiah 53:11, Matthew 20:16, 28, Revelation 5:9, John 10:11, John 10:25-26, John 17:1-9
– Adam Smith