Original source here.
Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge University) is associate minister at Cambridge Presbyterian Church and assistant professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of historical and biblical articles in Themelios and Journal of Biblical Literature and regularly speaks at conferences in Australia and South Africa. Jonathan and his wife, Jackie, have two children.
There are four things that put people off the doctrine of atonement:
1. It is defined incorrectly.
J.C. Ryle said that the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy. Often people reject definite atonement because they haven’t heard it properly defined, they don’t understand it, or they think if they believe in it then they have to reject a whole bunch of other doctrines like God’s common grace, his love for the nonelect, and his salvific stance to the world. So if the doctrine is accurately defined, then people won’t be as put off by it.
2. Unfortunate terminology is used.
Historically, definite atonement has been known as limited atonement, and I think the adjective limited is particularly unfortunate. It is unfortunate because, in redemptive history, we’ve been waiting for an atonement for Jew and Gentile, and here it is in the death of Christ, and now we’re trying to limit it? That’s why I prefer the term definite atonement.
3. It is not seen as a biblical-systematic doctrine.
Some people feel that there are too many biblical texts that seem to speak against definite atonement.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16)
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6)
So, people think that a single biblical text knocks the doctrine over, or does away with it. But if you understand the doctrine as a biblical-systematic doctrine, then you see that no one text proves it, and no one text disproves it.
4. It is believed to stifle evangelism.
The final reason people are put off by definite atonement is they feel it becomes a deterrent to evangelism and mission—if Christ didn’t die for everyone, then how can they go and evangelize and preach the gospel indiscriminately to everyone?
Those are reasons why people are put off by it, but if we accurately define definite atonement, give it it’s proper terminology, see it as a biblical-systematic doctrine, and see that definite atonement doesn’t hinder evangelism, but motivates us to evangelism, then more people will be encouraged to embrace this important doctrine.
Related Article: 10 Things You Should Know about Definite Atonement
1. Definite atonement is a way of speaking about the intent and nature of Christ’s death.
The doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. In a nutshell: the death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone; and not only was it intended to do that but it effectively achieved it as well. Jesus will be true to his name: he will save his people from their sins. In this regard, the adjective ‘definite’ does double duty: Christ’s death was definite in its intent—he died to save a particular people; and it was definite in its nature—his death really does atone for sin.
2. Definite atonement has courted controversy in the Christian church.
For some, definite atonement is a ‘grim doctrine’ (Karl Barth), containing ‘horrible blasphemies’ (John Wesley); for others, it is a ‘textless doctrine’ (Broughton Knox), arrived at by logic rather than by a straightforward reading of the Scriptures (RT Kendall). Pastorally, definite atonement is viewed as the Achilles’ heel of the Reformed faith, quenching a zeal for evangelism and inviting despair rather than assurance for the believer. With such a checkered history, one may well ask why we should even discuss the doctrine, never mind believe it. But just because a doctrine is controversial does not mean it should not be discussed, defended or embraced. Were that the case, we would not be Trinitarian Christians who hold to justification by faith alone!
3. The Bible itself asks the question of the intent and nature of Christ’s death.
As you read the Bible, you see that it speaks of Christ’s death being for many, for all, for the world; and yet it also speaks of Christ’s death being for me, for us (believers), for a people, for his church. So whether we like it or not, the Bible forces us to think about the intent and nature of Christ’s death, by presenting us with an apparent tension. It is our task to work out how to handle that tension as we interpret these different texts.
4. No one Bible verse answers the question of the intent and nature of Christ’s death.
Christian doctrine is not arrived at by providing a few proof texts here or there. If we treated doctrine like that, then we would have to affirm justification by works and not justification faith alone, as there is a text clearly stating the former (James 2:24) but no such text stating the latter. The same may be said about other important doctrines like the Trinity or the two natures of Christ in one person. These doctrines are arrived at by holding together a range of biblical texts, while at the same time synthesizing internally related doctrines that relate to the doctrine in view. In the case of definite atonement, this includes doctrines such as union with Christ and the Trinity. For example, when we consider the atonement in light of our union with Christ, then locating the particularity of the atonement at the moment when Christ died begins to make sense; or when we consider that the work of each person of the Trinity is always performed in harmony with the other persons of the Trinity, we realize that when Christ died there could not be ‘cross’ purposes (pun intended) in the Godhead.
5. Definite atonement provides us with personal assurance.
Martin Luther said that the sweetness of the gospel is found in the personal pronouns: “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Definite atonement helps to personalize Christ’s death and deepens our appreciation of his love for us. Precisely because he died as Someone for some people, when he died on the cross, we were on his mind (cf. John 17). But more than that, because Christ’s death propitiated God’s wrath for all of our sins, it means that we cannot experience God’s wrath on the future day of judgment. The price has been paid, the penalty borne, the law satisfied, and condemnation removed.
Definite atonement helps to personalize Christ’s death and deepens our appreciation of his love for us.
‘Payment God cannot twice demand—
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand
And then again at mine.’
6. Definite atonement motivates us for evangelism and mission.
The gospel we proclaim is one in which Christ has propitiated God’s wrath against sinners—not potentially or hypothetically—but actually. And since he has definitely done this for all kinds of people, we should preach the gospel indiscriminately to all, knowing that Christ will save those for whom he died. Revelation 5:9 is our motivation: “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation . . . .”
7. Definite atonement does not exhaust the meaning of the cross.
Definite atonement says something essential about Christ’s death, but it does not say everything there is to say. There are many aspects of the atonement which need to be affirmed alongside its definite intent and nature: the sufficiency of Christ’s death for all; the free and indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel to all; God’s love for the non-elect and his salvific stance toward a fallen world; the atonement’s implications for the entire cosmos and not simply the church.
8. The doctrine of definite (or indefinite) atonement will not save us.
Christians who belong to the Reformed tradition love their doctrines, not least the ‘doctrines of grace’, of which definite atonement is one. But there is always the danger that we slip into thinking that doctrine—especially, pure doctrine—is what saves us. But we can be a card-carrying biblical inerrantist, and still end up in hell. Just look at the Pharisees. We can be a member of Christ’s church, covenantally signed and sealed, and still end up in hell. Just look at Judas. And the same goes for ‘5-point Calvinists’. The danger is that we end up loving the Scripture, or the sign, or the doctrine more than the Saviour. When our faith is in something other than Christ, then there is no salvation.
Definite atonement does not save us, just as faith does not save us. Jesus Christ, who provided a definite atonement, saves us through faith. “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15)—not a definite (or indefinite) atonement.
9. Definite atonement is wonderfully displayed in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In the word that accompanies the two sacraments of the Christian church, two words highlight the truth of definite atonement.
French Reformed Baptismal Liturgy—
For you, little child,
Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered.
For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary.
For you he uttered the cry, “It is finished!”
For you he rose from the dead
and ascended into heaven
and there he intercedes—
for you, little child, even though you do not know it.
But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true.
“We love him, because he first loved us.”
The Lord’s Supper Liturgy—
“This is my body, which is given for you. This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19–20).
10. Definite atonement is a beautiful doctrine because it spotlights the unity of Christ’s person and work.
Definite atonement displays the person of Christ performing his work in union with his people for the glory of his Father by the help of his Spirit. Definite atonement tells the story of the Warrior-Son who comes to earth to slay his enemy and rescue his Father’s people. Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, a loving Bridegroom who gives himself for his bride, and a victorious King who lavishes the spoils of his conquest on the citizens of his realm. He is the Head who sacrifices himself for the body, the Master who dies for his friends, the Firstborn who gives himself for his brothers and sisters, the Last Adam who falls into a deep sleep and from his riven side, as with the first Adam, comes his bride.
Why would you not want to believe the doctrine of definite atonement?
Related Article: What It Means that Christ Died for God’s Elect
Christ’s Death Really Did Atone for Sin
I think a helpful way to understand the doctrine of definite atonement is that in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past and to apply the accomplishments of his salvation to each of them by his Spirit.
In other words, the death of Christ was intended to achieve the redemption of God’s people alone. But not only was it intended to do that, it actually achieved it as well. So, in a nutshell, Jesus will be true to his name, he will save his people from their sins.
With contributions from a number of well-respected Reformed theologians and church leaders, this volume offers a comprehensive defense for the doctrine of limited atonement from historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral perspectives.
In the phrase definite atonement, the adjective definite does double duty. The death of Christ is definite in its intent. Christ died in order to redeem a specific group of people, his elect. And it’s definite in its nature. Christ’s death really will atone for his people’s sins.
Does Definite Atonement Undermine Our Zeal for Evangelism?
The Achilles Heel of Reformed Theology?
The doctrine of definite atonement, known historically as “limited atonement” or “particular redemption”, has always courted controversy. It has been called a grim and textless doctrine, the Achilles heel of Reformed theology (see, for example, Karl Barth and Broughton Knox). Of the many objections to the doctrine, one of the strongest is that definite atonement undermines a zeal for evangelism. If Christ died only for the elect, can we sincerely offer the gospel to everyone?
However, when definite atonement is placed alongside other biblical truths, the question does not follow. Particularity of grace in election or atonement does not mitigate a universal gospel offer. This is where we should follow Christ’s example.
In Matthew 11, Jesus explains that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (v. 27). The particularity is explicit. Yet in the very next verse, Jesus gives a universal offer to everyone to come to him and find rest (v. 28).
In John 6, Jesus claims that he has come from heaven to do his Father’s will, which is to lose none of those given to him but to raise them up on the last day (v. 39). This is actually the reason why (“For”) whoever comes to him will never be turned away (v. 38). The Father’s will is that “everyone” who looks to the Son and believes will have eternal life (v. 40). Christ’s purpose in coming was particular; the work he performed in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension was particular (cf. John 17); and yet his invitation was universal. It was also sincere.
Did Christ know all those whom the Father had given him as he encountered the many crowds during his ministry? Of course. Did he still sincerely offer himself to everyone in the crowd? Yes. So we should be like Christ in relation to this issue. Calvin put it well: “Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined, and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace.”
Why It Matters
But here’s the take-home value in definite atonement. When we offer Christ to sinners, we aren’t offering them the mere opportunity or possibility of salvation (as those who hold to an unlimited atonement can only do if they are consistent); rather, we offer them a Christ whose first name really means “Savior” (Matt. 1:21). And this is only so because God presented him as a propitiation for sinners—not potentially or possibly or hypothetically, but actually.
Let’s get even more practical. If one believes in definite atonement, can we say to people, “Christ died for you”? What’s interesting is that the phrase “Christ died for you” does not appear in the NT and yet the Apostles turned the world up-side-down with their preaching, as did many “Calvinist” ministers and missionaries: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, David Brainerd—to name but a few. So the efficacy of gospel preaching is not dependent on including the phrase “Christ died for you”. J. I. Packer is most helpful here:
The gospel is not, ‘believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,’ any more than it is, ‘believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours.’ The gospel is, ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for sins, and now offers you Himself as your Saviour.’ This is the message which we need to take to the world. We have no business to ask them to put their faith in any view of the extent of the atonement; our job is to point them to the living Christ, and summon them to trust in Him.
Embracing the Tension
When it comes to definite atonement and evangelism, it’s not either/or but both/and. Christ made a definite atoning sacrifice for those whom the Father had given to him; and we are commanded to proclaim Christ indiscriminately to all people.
How should we live between these two points of tension? On our knees, as we plead with our triune God to do for others what he has so graciously done for us.