Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Humble Little Case for Particular Atonement


The doctrine that goes by the name “limited atonement” is often associated with the five points of Calvinism, and is most commonly situated as the third point (representing the L in the acronym TULIP). Simply stated, limited atonement refers to the belief that Christ, by his death on the cross, bore the sins of only those who would become believers in him, namely the elect, and not the sins of every member of the human race. This post will set forth a biblical case for what I will call “particular atonement,” which will be understood as virtually synonymous with what has historically been known as limited atonement. One reason to prefer the term “particular atonement” is that “limited atonement” has the ill effect of highlighting those for whom Christ did not die, which makes for a distorted emphasis on the ones who are not included. “Particular atonement” rightly shifts the focus onto those for whom Christ did die, and places the emphasis on Christ’s powerful and effective work on behalf of his people.

Particular atonement comprises two key concepts: (1) definite efficacy, and (2) limited extent. Definite efficacy refers to the idea that Christ’s atonement on the cross infallibly accomplished the salvation of those for whom it was made. This means that those for whom Christ died are saved and will certainly be saved. Perhaps no one could express definite efficacy more clearly than did Charles Spurgeon: “We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.”1

The issue of the atonement’s efficacy inevitably raises questions related to the extent of the atonement. For whom did Christ die? Whose sins did Jesus bear in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24)? Advocates of particular atonement argue that Christ bore the sins of a select group of individuals and not every member of the human race. Jesus did not die for the sins of every human being, but for those in particular who would believe on his name. This notion is referred to as the limited extent of the atonement.

Over against particular atonement is the view known as general atonement. General atonement is the belief that Christ died for every member of the human race (i.e. he died for all in general). According to advocates of general atonement, Christ’s death on the cross atoned for the sins of every human being, and not just the sins of those who would be saved. Thus, against the limited extent of the particular atonement view, those who hold to general atonement contend for an unlimited extent. They likewise argue against the notion of definite efficacy with an alternative that one might call provisional efficacy. Provisional efficacy means that Christ’s atonement provided the possibility of salvation for all individuals, though it did not guarantee or make certain the salvation of anyone in particular. Norman Geisler summarizes provisional efficacy when he argues, “Christ’s payment for the sins of all mankind did not automatically save them; it simply made them savable.”2

The argument I will make here is that particular atonement, with its understanding of both the definite efficacy and limited extent of Christ’s work on the cross, is the consistent teaching of Scripture. A biblical case will first be made for the notions of definite efficacy and limited extent, which will be followed by an examination of a number of biblical texts often leveled against particular atonement.

Definite Efficacy

Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement infallibly secured the salvation of those for whom it was made. If the work of Christ was foreshadowed in the levitical priesthood and sacrificial system (Heb. 7-10), then naturally we should allow the levitical pattern to shape our understanding of atonement as a basic category. Throughout the text of Leviticus, acts of atonement are almost invariably followed by the formulae, “and they shall be forgiven” (4:20, 5:10) or “and they shall be clean” (14:53, 16:30). These consistent and recurrent phrases point to a very simple truth, namely, that an atonement results in the actual forgiveness or cleansing of the person for whom it is made; not a possible forgiveness or cleansing, but a real one. To be clear, animal sacrifices could never wash away sins in a permanent sense, so that no atonement would be needed in the future (Heb. 10:4). Nevertheless, when the levitical priest made atonement for the sins of the people, actual forgiveness was the result. While this observation alone does not prove the definite efficacy of Christs atonement, it does teach us about the basic end (or outcome) of atonements in general, and ought to make us puzzled by and suspicious of the claim that Christ’s atonement, far superior to those of the levitical system, does not necessarily result in the actual forgiveness and reconciliation of those for whom it is made. In other words, one should naturally assume that the superior atonement of Christ will be at least as efficacious as the inferior atonements of Leviticus.

So it is no surprise to read the author of Hebrews speak of Christ’s powerful and permanent atoning work in terms of definite efficacy: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come . . . he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11-12). And again, “he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15). Christ’s death on the cross made certain an actual redemption, an actual reconciliation (Rom. 5:10), and an actual forgiveness of those for whom he died; and that is the notion of definite efficacy. Anything less should strike the Bible reader as exceedingly odd, and could hardly be called an atonement at all.

In the first chapter of Matthew, the angel of the Lord tells Joseph about the child that will be born to Mary: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). We learn from this angelic message that the aim of Christ’s work was to save a particular people who belonged to him, and this is the very reason he would be named Jesus (Іηςουνfrom the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves”). Yet we also see that this salvation is not merely the goal of Christ’s work, but also the certain outcome. The point of the verse is not that Jesus will make possible the salvation of all people, but that he will make certain the salvation of this people. Matthew does not reserve the possibility that these Christ came to save might end up not saved. Christ will infallibly save all of his people, else the verse is not true. In keeping with the levitical standard (Lev. 17:11), Jesus accomplished the redemption of this multitude by pouring out his own blood for the forgiveness of their sins (Matt. 26:28); and anyone acquainted with Leviticus would intuitively add the familiar formula: “and they shall be forgiven.”

In the latter half of the chapter that is perhaps the pinnacle of the whole Bible, Paul offers a series of rhetorical questions to his Christian readers that speaks strongly to the definite efficacy of Christ’s work: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). The phrase “all things” probably refers to what Peter elsewhere describes as “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Notice that Paul does not speak as though these blessings are ultimately contingent on a response of faith (though faith is certainly the means of application). Rather, he grounds the certainty of these benefits on the singular fact that Christ has died on their behalf. If one were to convert Paul’s rhetorical questions into positive statements, they might look like this: “If God gave up his own Son for you, then he will certainly also give you all things (v. 32). Moreover, if Christ died on your behalf, then you will certainly not be condemned (v. 34).”

These points are problematic for those who would contend that there are many people for whom God gave up his Son that will never be given these benefits. Those who reject definite efficacy must believe that there are a large number of those for whom Christ was condemned that may also be condemned themselves. But Paul stresses that this cannot be the case; it is not possible. John Owen made this point well: “Upon [Christ’s death] the apostle infers a kind of impossibility in not giving us all good things in him; which how it can be reconciled with their opinion who affirm that he gave his Son for millions to whom he will give neither grace nor glory, I cannot see.”3 If it were true that many for whom God gave up his Son will never be given “all things” and may in fact come under the wrath of God, then any comfort or assurance that Paul here intends to give his readers would fall flat.

In the fifth chapter of Revelation, John recounts an apocalyptic vision of the four creatures and twenty-four elders worshiping the Lamb with a new song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). From this song of praise, we learn that Christ, by his own blood (i.e. his death), secured the redemption of a particular people made up of individuals from all parts of the earth. John uses the preposition εκ to indicate that this is a group of individuals drawn out of (c.f. NASB, NKJV) every people group. He goes on to describe these who were ransomed by Christ as being “made a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (v. 10). The heavenly song that John here records testifies to the definite efficacy of Christ’s atoning work. Those Christ ransoms by his blood are made members of the kingdom and priesthood of God.

The above passages demonstrate some of the biblical evidence for definite efficacy, the first key component of particular atonement. But what about the second component, i.e. limited extent? Is there any evidence in Scripture that Christ died for a specific and limited group? To this question we now turn.

Limited Extent

Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement was made for a particular people. The passages in which Christ is said to die for a select group of individuals are abundant. John states that the purpose of Jesus’s death was “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52). Paul teaches the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). He also writes that husbands should love their wives, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Peter, while encouraging his readers about the imperishable blood of Jesus by which they were ransomed, writes that Christ was sent for the sake of those who believe (1 Pet. 1:18-21). While these passages do not explicitly say that Jesus died only for the group specified, it is difficult to understand why the New Testament authors would so frequently use restricted language in these contexts if they believed that Christ actually atoned for the sins of all human beings alike. Wayne Grudem writes, “Even if they do not absolutely imply such a particularizing of redemption, these verses do at least seem to be most naturally interpreted in this way.”4

Even stronger evidence for the limited extent of Christ’s atonement is found in John 10. Jesus makes the following statement: “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Several verses later, Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews, “but you do not believe in me because you are not part of my flock” (10:26). Concerning this text, Edwin Palmer writes, “[The unbelieving Jews] were not included in His flock, for whom, He had said earlier, He would lay down his life.” The logic here may not comport with strict formal standards, since Jesus does not explicitly say that he lays down his life only for his sheep; yet the informal force of Jesus’s statements makes it difficult to avoid this conclusion. When we put together verses 15 and 26, Jesus says, in effect, “You are not those for whom I lay down my life.”

Lastly, it deserves to be noted that limited extent is logically necessary for anyone who affirms the biblical teaching of definite efficacy but denies the unbiblical notion of universalism. In other words, if one holds that all for whom Christ died will be saved, but also believes that some will not be saved, then the irresistible corollary is that the atonement is limited in its extent. The following syllogism illustrates this point:
  1. All persons for whom Christ died will be saved. (definite efficacy)
  2. Not all persons will be saved. (non-universalism)
  3. Therefore, Christ did not die for all persons. (limited extent)
Answering Objections

Those who hold to general atonement cite a number of biblical texts against the claims of particular atonement. These passages appear to contradict either definite efficacy or limited extent, the two components of particular atonement for which a case was made above. While space does not allow a response to all of these texts, three passages will be examined that represent the most formidable textual challenges to particular atonement.

1 John 2:2

Advocates of general atonement often cite 1 John 2:2 against the notion that Christ’s atonement is limited in its extent. John writes, “Jesus Christ . . . is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Kenneth Keathley cites this verse as support for the idea that “Christ provided redemption for all universally.”5 Colin Kruse, in his commentary on 1 John 2:2, writes, “When the author says that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice ‘for the sins of the whole world’, that includes not only our sins (i.e., the sins of believers) but the sins of the unbelieving world as well.”6

There are several points to be made in response to this interpretation of 1 John 2:2. First, advocates of general atonement often ignore the implications of the word ιλασμος (propitiation) when they contend that this verse teaches an unlimited extent of the atonement. For Christ to be called the propitiation for any sins at all, he must actually propitiate those sins; that is, he must actually satisfy and avert the divine wrath deserved by those sins. Therefore, anyone whose sins have been propitiated by Christ will by no means come under the wrath of God (else their sins were never really propitiated). The definite nature of propitiation is problematic for advocates of general atonement, who would make Christ’s death merely provisional in nature.

Second, the phrase ολου του κοσμου (the whole world) should be understood as all believers scattered throughout all parts of the earth. Of the 186 occurrences of κοσμος in the New Testament, never does the word unequivocally refer to all members of the human race. Most often, κοσμος is used to indicate the natural sphere of creation (John 1:9, Rom. 1:20). Additionally, whenever κοσμος is modified by the adjective ολος (all, whole), it refers without exception to the earth in all its parts, nations, or kingdoms (Matt. 26:13, Mark 14:9, Luke 9:25, Rom. 1:8, 1 John 5:19). This is the sense in which John uses the phrase ολου του κοσμου in 1 John 2:2.7

Thus, Christ is the propitiation not only for the sins of John’s immediate Jewish audience, but for the sins of every nation. Christ’s atonement satisfies the wrath of God against all Christians in every part of the earth, irrespective of race or nationality. Since Christ actually turned away God’s wrath against the sins of believers in every part of the earth, he is rightly called the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. John Calvin, who may or may not have held to limited/particular atonement, interpreted 1 John 2:2 precisely in this way: “John’s purpose was only to make this blessing common to the whole Church. Therefore, under the word ‘all’ [‘whole’] he does not include the reprobate, but refers to all who would believe and those who were scattered through various regions of the earth.”8 Interpreting 1 John 2:2 in this manner allows us to preserve the definite nature of  ιλασμος (propitiation) while at the same time understanding ολου του κοσμου (the whole world) in a way that is entirely consistent with John’s writings and the rest of the New Testament.9

1 Timothy 4:10

First Timothy 4:10 is another text commonly used to discredit the belief that Christ’s atonement is limited in its extent. Paul writes, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Laurence Vance argues that this verse teaches that Christ made a universal provision of salvation.10 Similarly, Dave Hunt contends that this text indicates that Christ died for all human beings, but his death “is only propitiatory for those who believe.”11 Thus, 1 Timothy 4:10 appears to be strong evidence for general atonement.

However, when one takes a closer look at this text, it becomes clear that it does not support general atonement as strongly as it might initially seem. First, it must be noted that Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross is not directly in view. Paul speaks of the “the living God” in a general sense commonly used as a reference to God the Father (Matt. 16:16; Acts 14:15; Heb. 9:14). So we should not assume that 1 Timothy 4:10 speaks singularly of the atoning work of the Son. Second, Vance’s category of provision is entirely absent from the verse and must be read into it. God is the Savior of these people; he is not their potential Savior.

With these points in mind, there are at least two reasonable interpretations of 1 Timothy 4:10 that advocates of particular atonement may put forward. One interpretation involves understanding the word σοτηρ (Savior) as a reference to the common grace and mercy that God the Father shows to all living beings, as in Psalm 36:5-8 where God is said to save “both man and beast.” Along these lines, John Gill argued that Paul here speaks of God “as the preserver of all men, in a way of common, and particularly of believers, in a way of special providence.”12 In other words, Paul is teaching that God is Savior in two senses: one sense that is truly universal in extent, and another sense that is particular to those who believe. The former can be understood as God’s common grace and kindness toward all creatures, while the latter can be understood as his special and effective work of redemption accomplished through his Son for all believers.

A second alternative interpretation of 1 Timothy 4:10 involves the proper translation of the word μαλιςτα. In most English versions of the Bible, μαλιςτα is here translated “especially,” but the word can also be faithfully rendered as “namely” or “that is.” Even I. Howard Marshall, who advocates general atonement, prefers this rendering of μαλιςτα since he believes it better suits the surrounding context.13 If one takes this to be the correct translation, then what Paul says here is perfectly consistent with the particular atonement view: “God is the Savior of all people, namely of those who believe.”

2 Peter 2:1

A third text often cited against particular atonement is 2 Peter 2:1, where Peter writes the following: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Those who advocate general atonement contend that this verse plainly demonstrates that there are some who are bought by the blood of Christ who nevertheless reject the faith and experience the wrath and judgment of God. This is the most important textual objection leveled against particular atonement, because it strikes directly at the conviction that Christ’s atonement actually and effectually saves those for whom it is made. In other words, if this text does in fact teach that those for whom Christ died run the risk of being lost forever, then the notion of definite efficacy is false and the particular atonement view, as stated and defended above, completely falls apart.

Fortunately, interpreting 2 Peter 2:1 in this way requires two unnecessary assumptions. First, one must assume that the word δεσποτης (Master) here refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, one must assume that the word αγοραζω (to buy or purchase) here refers to the redemption accomplished by Christ on the cross.

As for the first assumption, δεσποτης occurs ten times in the New Testament, and it is almost never used in reference to Christ.14 The word κυριος (Lord) is much preferred by the New Testament authors when speaking of Jesus, and is especially frequent as a title of Christ in 2 Peter (1:2, 8, 11, 14, 16; 2:20; 3:2, 18). Therefore, it is unlikely that 2 Peter 2:1 would be the one place where Peter uses δεσποτης (rather than κυριος) to refer to Christ. Moreover, δεσποτης is used elsewhere clearly in reference to God the Father (Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24).

As for the second assumption, the word αγοραζω does not have to be understood as a euphemism for the atonement of Christ.15 Considering the rich and constant Old Testament imagery in Peter’s letters, and seeing that the immediate context is a clear allusion to the false prophets of Israel, it is best to understand αγοραζω to refer to Yahweh’s redeeming his covenant people out of captivity. So the theological imagery echoed by Peter’s use of αγοραζω is that of Exodus 15:16: “Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O Lord, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.” The apostasy and subsequent destruction of these false teachers of Peter’s day should call to mind Deuteronomy 32:5-6: “They have corrupted themselves; they are not His children, because of their blemish: a perverse and crooked generation. Do you thus deal with the Lord, O foolish and unwise people? Is He not your Father who bought you?”.

In this light, Peter’s flow of thought calls for a better interpretation of 2 Peter 2:1 than the one posited by those seeking to negate particular atonement. Peter is here claiming that the false teachers creeping into the church will reject God as their redeemer and deliverer in the same way that the false prophets of Israel did. Grudem even suggests that Peter here has in mind Jewish false teachers who will lead the New Testament church astray.16 If he is correct, then the words δεσποτης and αγοραζω certainly have special covenantal connotations that are uniquely applicable to these particular apostates. In any case, there is no clear indication that Peter is here speaking of the atoning death of Christ on the cross. When we consider the most common usage of δεσποτης and understand the contextual meaning of αγοραζω, it becomes clear that 2 Peter 2:1 does not by any means overthrow particular atonement.


The preceding paragraphs have sought to demonstrate Scripture’s consistent teaching that the substitutionary atonement of Christ is both definite it its efficacy and limited in its extent. Moreover, the texts to which opponents of particular atonement often appeal are inconclusive and do not warrant a rejection of these truths. Every person who has repented of his sins and believed on the Lord Jesus can have unshakable assurance in the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection. In Christ, God was reconciling to himself men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation (i.e. the world); all of whom will be present and accounted for on the last day when they join the worship of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:9).


1. Charles Spurgeon, sermon entitled “Particular Redemption” (no. 181), in The New Park Street Pulpit Vol. IV (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1981), 135.

2. Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1999), 85.

3. John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 183.

4. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 600.

5. Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 196.

6. Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, New Testament Pillar Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 74.

7. Kruse has some justification for here interpreting κοσμος as the entirety of the unbelieving world, since John does regularly use the term to indicate fallen, unrighteous humanity as opposed to righteous humanity; but considering the context and the modifying adjective ολος, it is best not to understand κοσμος in that way here.

8. John Calvin, Commentaries: The Gospel according to St. John 11-21 and The First Epistle of John, eds. David Torrance and Thomas Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 244.

9. See also the conspicuous parallel text in John’s gospel (11:51-52).

10. Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 1999), 428.

11. Dave Hunt, What Love is This? (Sisters, OR: Loyal Publishing, 2002), 242.

12. John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth (Lafayette: Sovereign Grace, 2002), 244.

13. I. Howard Marshall, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 1995), 55.

14. The one exception is Jude 4, where δεσποτης does appear to refer to Christ if the Granville Sharp rule is applied.

15. To be sure, αγοραζω is unequivocally used of Christ’s atonement in other parts of the New Testament (Rev. 5:9), but one should not readily assume that a word to which one writer attaches a distinct theological concept will always be used by other writers in the same way. For example, Protestants recognize that the word δικαιοω (to justify) does not carry the same theological import for James as it does for Paul (James 2:24; Rom. 3:28).

16. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 599-600.

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