This is an expository piece on the doctrine of Particular Atonement (hereafter abbreviated as PA), also known as Actual Atonement or Limited Atonement. We examine what PA exactly is and what the bible says about it.
1. Why Should We Care
At the heart of the gospel is the atonement of Christ made on the cross. This alone yields sufficient reason for us to study the details of the atonement. Indeed, we find in the Book of Hebrews a great deal of space devoted in expounding on this subject matter. Borrowing Spurgeon’s words:
The doctrine of redemption is one of the most important doctrines of the system of faith. A mistake on this point will inevitably lead to a mistake through the entire system of our belief.
It should not, hence, surprise anyone that the study of Christ’s atonement involves a careful, comprehensive, and coherent reading of the scriptures. This is not to suggest that one needs some special knowledge to understand certain biblical truths. Nonetheless, not all biblical truths are easily accessible so as could be understood upon reading a couple of verses. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the author of Hebrews to speak out to the readers saying: “[T]hough by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,” (Heb 5:12). Our faith should be pure like that of a child, but our thinking should not be like children (1 Cor 14:20). Especially so in doctrinal matters, since the bible teaches that our doctrinal beliefs have profound consequences in our practice and piety (1 Tim 6:3-5).
Beyond everything, the doctrine of atonement is about Christ, our Lord, and what He meant when He said “It is finished.” This is the main cause for this article. Not for theology sake, but for Christ, His gospel, and His church.
2. What Particular Atonement is Not About
Unlike some claims that float around on the internet, the distinctiveness of PA does not lie in saying that Christ’s atonement is effective to, not all, but only a limited some. Because, regardless of his or her stance toward PA, every Christian confessing the Apostle’s Creed, who believes that not everyone’s sins are forgiven, believes that it is only to a limited number which Christ’s atonement is made effective.
That is why the term ‘limited atonement’, often used to refer to PA, is a misnomer. Every Christian agrees that not all but only a limited number are actually saved by the atonement of Christ.
It is not even the case that the distinctiveness of PA lies in its view on the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, nor is it on the availability of the gospel to all people. Because, PA confesses that the death of Jesus is more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world and that the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people — certainly there are people who agree with this and yet do not identify themselves as adherents of PA.
While we are pointing out some common misconceptions surrounding PA, let us make a remark that PA is not what John Calvin made up. As a matter of fact, Calvin did not expound on PA anywhere, although one can find it in the background of his theology. Probably other issues were more urgent to him. It was only later, after the Arminian Remonstrance came up, and through the Synod of Dort, that PA was crystallized.
3. What is Particular Atonement?
PA refers to that idea and confession expressed in the 2nd part of the Canons of Dort. The Canons was the response of the Synod of Dort (1618–1619) to the five articles published (1610) by the Arminian Remonstrance. I believe everyone, regardless of his or her stance towards PA, could benefit from spending a couple of minutes reading the actual statements of the Canons:
1. God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. This justice requires (as God has revealed in the Word) that the sins we have committed against his infinite majesty be punished with both temporal and eternal punishments, of soul as well as body. We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God’s justice.2. Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God’s wrath, God in 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.3. 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.4. This death is of such infinite value and dignity because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only-begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute Him a Savior for us; and, moreover, because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.5. 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.6. 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.7. But all who genuinely believe and are delivered and saved by Christ’s death from their sins and from destruction receive this favor solely from God’s grace—which God owes to no one—given to them in Christ from eternity.8. For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all the elect, in order that God might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that Christ should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death). It was also God’s will that Christ should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.
Three main points are:
- The death of Jesus Christ is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.
- The promise of the gospel, namely, that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people.
- Yet, it was the design of God the Father, in His entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention, that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of Christ’s death would work itself out in the elect only, thereby leading them without fail to salvation.
4. Not Much about ‘for Whom’ as ‘for What’
As pointed out in Sec. 2, all Christians agree that:
- The sacrifice of Christ is necessary and sufficient to save every single person, and hence, we preach the gospel to every people.
- Nonetheless, not all but only to a limited number of people (the believers) the atonement of Christ is applied, and thus, actually saved on account of Christ’s sacrifice.
In short, all Christians agree that the gospel is for everyone but Christ’s atonement is effective to, not all, but some. No matter how much one would like to say that Christ died for every person, a Christian agrees that Christ will say “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23) to some people on the last day. Every Christian knows that, at the end of history, Christ’s death will have nothing to do with some people, unfortunately.
Thus, approaching this issue by asking “all, or some” is not the most appropriate way. That is not where the real issue lies.
5. The Heart of the Issue
We have seen, in the previous section, that Christians agree on many points regarding the atonement of Christ, in particular, that not all but only some are actual recipients of the redemption in Christ. So, then, on what point does disagreement among Christians occur?
One place is in answering “why is that some got to believe Christ and receive salvation but some did not? Who made that call? God, or man?” If one says it is man, then he or she is saying that Christ, by His death on the cross, merely opened up a possibility for salvation to every man, and that it is up to us human beings to decide whether to be saved. In other words, Christ didn’t ‘actually’ save anyone on the cross, but He just ‘potentially’ saved everyone, and it is up to each person to be saved or not. Is that biblical, or is that even a good news?
Put in another way, does Christ call everyone in general, not in particular, to salvation and hope that someone will accept His call? Does Christ wait people to choose Him?
Now it is written that we didn’t choose Him, but He chose us (Jn 15:16). He calls His own sheep by name (Jn 10:3); His calling is a particular one, not a general one. He says ‘(your name here), come out’. And we follow Him because we are His sheep (Jn 10:27). We are His sheep because God the Father gave us to Christ (Jn 10:29). None of His sheep are lost (Jn 10:28); the sheep that are not saved are only the ones that are not of His own (Jn 10:25).
It is also written that Jesus laid down His life for His sheep (Jn 10:15). Then what did Christ actually achieve on the cross? This is the crux of the issue, wherein disagreement among Christian lies.
Now PA confesses everything which a non-PA person believes concerning what Christ achieved on the cross; it is just that PA believes more. In fact, by approaching the subject matter from this angle, we shall see that the Christians who deny PA are in the position that puts a limited view on the atonement of Christ (and thus, His glory).
Before we continue, it will be worthwhile to review what the scriptures say about Christ being our atonement, propitiation, and the guarantor (surety) of God’s covenant.
6. Christ, the Mediator and Guarantor of the New Covenant: He Guarantees that God Keeps His Promise
6.1 Christ Secured the New Covenant for the People Whom He Atoned for. We are covenant breakers by nature (Hos 6:7), and the righteousness of God demands His wrath upon us (Rom 1:18). But God chose for Himself a people out of this world and gave them to Christ (Jn 17:6); Christ knows His people and laid down His life for them (Jn 10:14-15), for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22). The sins of His people were imputed to Him while His perfect righteousness was imputed to them (Rom 4:25). The propitiation for the sins of His people were made on the cross (Rom 9:7, Gal 3:7, Heb 2:16-17), thereby securing once for all an eternal redemption (Heb 7:27, 9:12).
All this did not happen by accident. It was God who made a new covenant with His people (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 10:16-17; Joel 2:28; Acts 2:14-39; Ezk 36:21–28), and unlike the old covenant, God made sure that this covenant will be fulfilled, by making an oath that He will send a guarantor of the new covenant, that is, Christ (Heb 6:13-7:22; Ps 110:4; Jn 10:17-18, 6:36-40, 6:44). To that end Christ came in flesh, sanctified His people by offering Himself once for all time, and sealed God’s covenant eternally (Jn 10:14-17, Heb 10:5-18).
6.2 Christ Guarantees the Fulfillment of the Covenant upon the People Whom He Died for. None of the above are potential, but actual; God the Father planned it, and the Son fulfilled it, once for all in history. Christ did not say that what is necessary for salvation has been “prepared” on the cross, he said “It is finished.” God approved this by having Christ sit on the right hand of God (Heb 10:10-14). What remains, with absolute certainty, to those whom Christ made the atonement for, is the glorious fulfillment of God’s covenant.
Therefore, it is impossible for any part of the covenant not be fulfilled to those whom Christ died for. To say the contrary is to make God a liar. It is also impossible for anyone to access any part of the covenant outside the atonement of Christ. The death of seventy men in Beth-shemesh and that of Nadab and Abihu serves as a clear warning (1 Sam 6:19-20; Lev 10:1-3).
6.3 New Covenant Promises. Now what are the promises of the new covenant? To list a few (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 10:16-17; Joel 2:28; Acts 2:14-39 ; Ezk 36:21–28):
• God will pour out His Spirit and give a new heart to His people.
• The Lord will be their God and they shall be His people.
• He will remember their sin no more.
All of the above are brought about, without fail, to those, and only to those, whom Christ made the atonement for. If Christ died on my behalf, then Christ has bought me with His blood so that God will fulfill the above promises to me (Ps 50:5; 1 Cor 6:19-20, 7:23). On the other hand, if Christ did not die on my behalf, then none of the above blessings but God’s wrath would be ready for me (Ps 64:7).
6.4 It is All or Northing. Either I receive all or none of the promises of the covenant, depending on whether Christ made an atonement for me. It is in Christ and only through Christ that God keeps His covenant. Indeed, every promise in the covenant is “Yes” and “Amen” precisely because of the propitiation made by Christ on the cross (2 Cor 1:20-22; Heb 9:15-17).
Hence, Christians should have no doubt on why a new heart, which was promised in the new covenant, was given to us. It is not because we chose to believe Christ; nay, a new heart is a prerequisite to have faith in Christ. It is Christ’s propitiation made on our behalf that demands God fulfill the covenant promises to us and give us a new heart. Indeed, the scriptures say that Christ was sent by God with an oath to make it doubly sure that God will keep His new covenant with His people (Heb 6:17-18, 7:18-22; Jn 10:17-18, 6:36-40, 6:44). Thus, we may say with confidence that God chose us and sent His son so that He can keep His covenant with us, and that is why we have a new heart.
It is not just a new heart that was promised in the new covenant as we have seen above. To list a few more covenant blessings: all our sins — past, present, and future — are removed and we are counted righteous before God; the Spirit gave us also faith and repentance; the Spirit leads us in sanctification; God will bring to completion the good work He began in us. All this, and more, are ours, because Christ made sure that it be so on the cross.
6.5 It is Christ Who Chose to Save Us, Not Us Who Chose to Be Saved by Christ. Christ is in every sense of the word the mediator and the guarantor of the new covenant. Christ is not sitting on the right hand of God waiting for people to choose Him to be saved; He actively saves people by sending the Holy Spirit that was promised in the covenant which God made with His people, the covenant which Christ secured by His atonement (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:14-39). This is the essence of PA.
Every Christian agrees that not everyone receives the covenant blessings. What PA claims is that the covenant blessings are entirely due to, and was secured by, Christ’s atonement. Hence, if one maintains the position that Christ’s atonement was made for every person, then he or she is unavoidably led to the position that some of the covenant blessings were not secured when Christ made the atonement. Which particular covenant blessing could possibly be not accounted to Christ’s atonement? A person who denies PA must answer that question.
6.6 Christ — Eternal High Priest Appointed By God for His People. All of what we have said so far, the Book of Hebrews summarizes by saying that Christ was sent by God as an eternal high priest for His people, and shed His blood for the covenant of God with His people (Heb 5:5-6, 6:20, 7:15-22, 8:10, 9:15, 9:20, 10:7, 10:29; 13:20; Matt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). This is consistent with Christ’s high priestly prayer (Jn 17), wherein He says:
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. […] I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. […] I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. […] Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
This prayer clearly shows that Christ knew why He came to earth, namely, “to save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21); and that is what He did on the cross.
7. What About the “Whole World” in 1 John 2:2?
Here is 1 John 2:1-2 (ESV):
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
One possible reading is that “children” and “our” refer to Christians in general, and that “whole world” refers to, literally, all mankind. But the usage of the Greek language allows another possible reading, namely, that “children” and “our” refer to God’s people coming from the old covenant community, that is, the believing Jews, and that “whole world” refers to the gentiles called by God, who are now part of the new covenant community. We claim that the latter reading is more congruent to the rest of the scriptures. Let us see why:
First, the Greek word corresponding to ‘world’ (κόσμος) often do not mean ‘all people’, and this is confirmed in the bible. So we must always take into account the context in figuring out the proper sense this word is used. There are numerous examples to illustrate this, but here we quote only one. Later in the same letter, Apostle John writes (1 Jn 5:18-19):
[B]ut He who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
Here John is clearly drawing a contrast between the people of God and the “whole world” by saying ‘the evil one does not touch the people of God’ but ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.’ Hence, the people of God cannot be part of the “whole world” in this particular verse; otherwise the statement would just be nonsense. So, in this example, the context tells us that “whole world” is not to be understood in its literal sense. (No doubt this is a common feature found in many languages. For instance, when someone says ‘I was looking for you everywhere!’ does he really mean “everywhere”?)
Second, the primary audience of the First Epistle of John are the Jews in the new testament church. Hence, one cannot simply ignore the possibility that what John had in mind in 1 John 2:1-2 when he was saying “my children” and “whole world”, respectively, was the Jews and the gentiles in the church. Such usage can also be found in Romans 11:12.
Thirdly, Apostle John writes something similar in John 11:51-52. Let us compare it with 1 John 2:2 (the line breaks are intentional):
|1 John 2:2
|would die for
|is the propitiation for
|and not for the nation only,
|and not for ours only
|to gather into one
|for the sins of
|the children of God who are scattered abroad.
|the whole world.
The two sentences above, which are coming from the same author, are parallel in structure and similar in content.
To sum up, we have a strong argument to conclude that “whole world” in 1 John 2:2 refers to the people God called out of every nation, tribe, and tongues, and that “ours” refers to God’s people from the old covenant community, namely, the believing Jews. In contrast, the claim that “whole world” in 1 John 2:2 should be read in its literal sense has almost no ground.
If you would like to get some more food for thought, here is a sermon by John Piper: