One of the main grievances that professing Christians have against the doctrine of Limited Atonement is that it is “unfair.” In their mind, it stifles evangelism and makes God’s atonement unjust. One preacher even likened it to inviting someone to a feast with nothing at the table. To others, it is pointless to preach the gospel because not everyone has the real possibility to be saved. And their main point of contention is not just the idea that it flies in the face of man’s free will, but that it will be impossible for some in the world to believe because Christ’s atonement was intentionally made for the elect alone. Of course, this doesn’t seem very loving. But aside from the fact that without the gracious drawing and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit no man will come to Christ of their own volition, we are left to think that if the atonement of Christ doesn’t give an opportunity for every person on earth to be saved, then it is unjust, unfair, and unloving. This general idea that Christ’s atonement pays the penalty for sin on behalf of every human being is typically labeled Unlimited Atonement (UA). But can this doctrine realistically teach that every single person has an opportunity to be saved? In other words, can someone consistently believe that every human being has a possibility of being born again? Yes, but only if you make a few tweeks in your theology.
The Omniscience of God
The first that that has to be tweaked or denied is God’s omniscience. As I already alluded to, those who are proponents of UA understand that if Limited Atonement (LA) is true, then logically there are some in this world who will never receive eternal life. Despite all our preaching efforts and prayer to reach them, if they are non-elect, they will not be saved. And because the opportunity to be saved doesn’t seem real and genuine, then the gospel isn’t really good news for all. But whether you believe in UA or not, unless you are a universalist, isn’t it true that not everyone will be saved anyway? “Ah! But at least they had a chance, and they could have been saved if they just believed. The only reason why they are in hell is because they chose to continue in unbelief.” True. But I don’t know any who truly understand LA who doesn’t affirm sinners going to hell for their own sin and unbelief. And all these reasons concerning choice and possibility seem reasonable at first. But if God is truly omniscient (that is, He knows the beginning and the end of who will be saved), even if He did predestine some in accordance with their faith as some teach, that still means everyone is not really saveable. Because even if God, who knows who will be saved from the foundation of the world, never willed or intended to save only a particular people, it still doesn’t change the fact that only a particular number of people will believe. And it’s only those to whom the atonement is applied. And God knew that before we were born! Before we would or even could have the possibility to choose! So even if Christ’s atonement truly paid for the sins of every human being, it doesn’t really make every person saveable, nor does it present the “fair” and equitable opportunity for all to believe as advertised. Because unless God doesn’t know all that will come to pass, we are forced to fall square on the shoulders of LA whether we like it or not. Or at least some form of it. Unless you are an open theist, the whole idea behind everyone having a so-called genuine opportunity to be saved, or that Christ’s atonement made salvation possible for every single person that has ever lived is an illusion.
Universalism and Open Theism
Allow me to reemphasize the two sub-points above in case you just happen to be glancing through this article. They are the doctrines of universalism and open theism. If you’re a universalist, then you believe everyone will be saved after judgment no matter what. And if you believe that Christ’s penal sacrifice paid for the sins of every, single human being, then this would be the most consistent conclusion of your belief. However, if you are not a universalist, but still believe that Christ paid the penalty for sin on behalf of every human being, and that God intended to save everyone, and provided opportunity and possibility if only they would believe, then you are not just inconsistent, but untruthful. Because even if salvation were absolutely and utterly dependent on our will to choose Christ in order to have Christ’s atonement applied to us so that we might be born again, once again, the fact that God omnisciently knows who will come to Him by faith aeons prior to our choosing, seals the number of who and how many will be saved. Whether you call them elect or not, or whether or not you refrain from saying “limited” atonement doesn’t make a difference. In others words, although proponents of UA proclaim that salvation was purchased for every single person, and that faith is a condition to receive salvation (which LA’ers believe too), it is still a biblical reality that only some will choose to be saved. And the fact that Scripture even mentions only few will be saved, despite what some may say concerning opportunity and possibility, really reveals that God has made up His mind and the work of who will be redeemed is treated as if it is already complete. We are simply commanded to be faithful to preach and call those whom God foreknew to Christ. Which leads me to reiterate my second sub-point
If you’re an open theist who believes God chooses not to know the future, or that He only has some middle-knowledge by which He can calculate all the possible worlds which any given event can occur (like Molinism believes), only then is UA consistent. To put it another way, in order for this kind of real opportunity to be present for every single human, God cannot know what will happen from beginning to end. God cannot be truly omniscient! Because, as I said, if He knows who will be saved and who will not, regardless if He predestined us based upon our faith, that fact that He knows who these particular people are already leaves us to conclude that Christ’s atonement remains only possible for the elect. But if that word offends, then we can say it is only for those who would believe. Makes no difference really. And despite some open theist’s who say that God doesn’t have to know all things to be omniscient, or that His infinite wisdom and other faculties make Him omniscient, the point remains that UA is only consistent if you are an open theist or a universalist (Both being damnably heretical). And there are plenty of preachers who have understood this, and have abandoned orthodoxy and sought refuge in these heretical twins.
I am compelled to give a quick admonition before moving forward to the second point. Ascribing to UA simply because the alternative is a misrepresented view of Limited Atonement (LA) is not wise. Not only that, to believe in UA because some can present it compellingly is just a smoke screen. Even though the Scriptures mention Christ dying for “all” in various contexts, linguistic consideration to the kind of “all” that is meant needs to be taken into account. The one thing that I think that proponents of UA miss is that Limited Atonement does make all men saveable. That’s right, all men. But what I mean by that is that there are no ethic barriers as to who can be saved. Because of the atonement of Christ, there is a definite purpose and intention in Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. And that it will save a particular people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Ethnically and biblically speaking, that truly is anyone! But it cannot be everyone. To put it differently. It is anyone qualitatively. And everyone quantitatively. And in that sense, Christ died for all! And if it wasn’t for Christ dying and the Holy Spirit effectually working on the heart of sinful men, no one would believe! No one! And this is the next crucial point too important to pass up.
The second thing that would need to be tweaked or denied is original sin. Even if human beings had every opportunity and chance to come to Christ, and they had a thousand years to consider it, because of their love for sin and enslavement to it, they would not come. Because, as the Scripture says, they love darkness more than light (John 3:19). And they are slaves to sin (John 8:34-36). Unless Jesus makes us free, we will remain slaves. But, unless you are a Pelagian (another damnable heresy) and don’t believe the human will and their nature is totally ensalved to sin from birth, denying original sin, then you cannot truthfully and consistently say that every human being has real opportunity and possibility to be saved. Because it still requires a purposeful and intentional work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of the sinner to set them free. And how can slaves under their masters more powerful than themselves be truly free without someone stronger overcoming them? In this case, by the penal and limited substitutionary atonement of Christ of course! And if you are semi-pelgian, and believe that we are indeed enslaved to sin, but not so enslaved that we can still choose to be saved without some regenerative work on the heart first, you still have the same, nagging problem(s). That God still omnisciently knows who will believe. And that Christ’s atonement is still only going to be applied to them. And that God knew from the beginning, before anyone was born, who would be those people. And if God knew this, how can it be believed that the atonement was intended to be truly universal? Or how can God know this settled future, yet decide to fight against it by intending to save all, and yet failing to do so, miserably. This makes the Trinity into some greek demigod, internally conflicted, self-contradicting, and intending to save every single person, but powerless to carry out His intended purpose! So it comes back full circle to Jesus’ atonement being for the elect whether we would like to admit it or not.
Nevertheless, despite all the above, there is still a more precious doctrine that must be tweaked…no!…emphatically denied and manipulated in order for UA to be consistent. It is the necessary and essential doctrine of penal substitution atonement.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
In this last point, I hope you understand how important penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is. There are some that believe that Christ’s atonement was substitutionary, but not penal. Penal meaning Christ paid the penalty for our sins, in our place, instead of us. Satisfying the demands of God’s justice and wrath on our behalf. Making full payment for the debt of sin to God so that we might be justified and reconciled to Him! What a Savior! But there are some shady types that try to subtly deny the payment aspect of the atonement, and would deny this only because they logically understand this one aching problem. That if Christ did truly pay the penalty for our sins in full on the Cross (John 19:30), and that He did so for every human being, to punish them in Hell is truly a judicial problem. Knowing this, and being unwilling to let go of UA, some have cast off this important aspect of PSA. And I have seen and read more and more of these kinds of preachers advocating for this kind of atonement. An atonement that must change the nature of penal substitution made on our behalf just to make their view of Unlimited Atonement (UA) consistent. Not everyone who believes in UA does this, nor picks up on the logical demand. But those pseudo-apologists and preachers that do, slip this compromise in their sermons like a date rape drug, and the congregants are completely unaware of the heretical poison in their drink. But regardless if they realize it, the main point here is that UA cannot consistently teach penal substitutionary atonement without making some unbiblical modification to it to suit their position.
My only motivation in this article is to help us see that Limited Atonement isn’t just some doctrine contrived by only a few men in a dark room from the secret corners of a watchtower in Belize somewhere in the middle of nowhere. In the most crude sense, Limited Atonement can be understood as every Christian would understand it. That is, it will only be applied to those who repent and believe (but even for some, repentance is a problem too). But if you believe that, then you must believe only some will be saved, unless you’re a universalist. And if you believe not everyone will be saved, unless you’re an open theist, you cannot consistently conclude that every single person can possibly be saved. And if you can stomach that, then it will be much easier for you to see how our enslavement to sin is one of the central issues here. And that even though our wills are free to do as it pleases, because it is totally enslaved to sin, we will always choose sin over submission to Christ. Unless, of course, you’re a Pelagian. And if you can see our sin and enslavement to sin as not just debt, but an injustice against God, making us an enemy of His, unwilling to repent and believe, then the glorious gospel declared in the Penal Substitutionary model of atonement will be amazing grace to your ears! Where the debt has been paid! And justice has been satisfied! And if you are willing to believe in penal substitution, then you have no choice but to affirm Limited Atonement. Because, whether you realize it or not, they are both one and the same doctrine. And although this doctrine has been refined over the centuries, it is indeed a doctrine that our Reformed forefathers believed, our biblical church fathers, the apostles, the prophets of old, our father Adam, and of course, our blessed Trinity who planned it from eternity.
-Until we go home