I unfortunately didn’t get to attend, but the recent “think” conference on Calvinism hosted by newfrontiers has generated some interesting debate on the What You Think Matters blog. Matthew Hosier posted to encourage us to read the Canons of Dort for ourselves, while Andrew Wilson responded with his misgivings about “limited atonement”. I attempted to interact with him in the comments, but I think I failed miserably to explain myself adequately. So here’s another brief (and doubtless unsuccessful) attempt.
To answer the question “is the atonement limited”, requires us first to define what we mean by the atonement. Is it just shorthand for “Jesus’ death on the cross”? Does it include some, or all of the accomplishments of Jesus’ death? Did it actually procure my forgiveness, or did it just make forgiveness available to me?
Similarly the question is sometimes rephrased as “did Jesus die for everyone”? But what does it mean that Jesus died “for” a particular person? Did his death achieve their salvation? Or did it merely open up the possibility of their salvation?
My opinion on “limited atonement” is that it is a logical deduction based on two premises. First is particular election, where God specificially elects certain people to be saved. The second is penal substitution, where on the cross Jesus takes the punishment in the place of someone.
In a system of penal substitution, it is often argued that on the cross, Jesus was on the cross in my place and bearing my punishment. That is to say that God designed the cross with me personally in mind, and Jesus bore the penalty for the exact sins God foreknew that I would commit. The logic behind limited atonement thus argues that if Jesus has paid the specific penalty for me personally on the cross, then it would be unjust of God to require that penalty to be paid a second time. But that would mean that for those who are not saved in the end, their penalty could not have been paid on the cross. So we might say that though the death of Jesus would have been sufficient to cover the sins of the entire world (or a hundred worlds for that matter), it in actual fact was only a substitution for the sins of the elect.
Is that indeed the correct biblical understanding of the atonement? I think it has a lot to be said for it, although I am aware that there are alternative interpretations of the biblical data. It seems to rely very heavily on a debt metaphor in which some kind of exact “price” can be put on everyone’s sin and then the cross becomes the settlement of a debt of the exact total. I think the sin as debt metaphor is a Scriptural one, but it is possible that too much has been read into it.
As opponents of limited atonement often and correctly point out, the writers of Scripture are happy to speak of Jesus dying for the sins of the world, and taking away the sins of the world (e.g. 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor 5:14). So to say that Jesus didn’t die for all, strikes me as being in danger of flatly contradicting Scripture, and is something that those who accept “lmited atonement” should be careful to avoid.
Maybe Paul hints at a resolution to this debate in 1 Tim 4:10:
That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, and especially of those who believe.
He’s saying there is one sense in which God is the Saviour of all people, but another sense in which he is the Saviour just of those who believe. In other words, it boils down to what exactly you mean by “Saviour” as to whether it is “limited” or not. So whenever someone asks me if I believe in “limited atonement” or not, I ask what they mean by atonement. And depending on their definition, I may say “yes” or “no”.