The Doctrines of Grace: Limited Atonement, Part 1
Finally. At long last. We have arrived at Limited Atonement. Buckle up! Introduction I want to begin by firstly making clear that this post and the post to follow is not an attack upon limited atonement nor its supporters, nor is it the reverse concerning unlimited atonement. As the stated purpose of this series is to present the doctrines of grace clearly and accurately as possible, to the best of my understanding, that is exactly what I am attempting to do in this treatment. Limited atonement is quite possibly the most controversial of the five points of the TULIP. Some would say unconditional election is the most controversial (though I think to argue about election is barking up the wrong tree), whereas the limited atonement position is just deluded. I say people who would naively and stubbornly argue against any point from any perspective, Arminian or Calvinistic are nothing more than theological curmudgeons. Let us make any assent or dissent from a perspective that is studied and informed, as I am attempting to do so here. The proper point of dissent for one must be the limited atonement position, as each point treated thus far is clearly and convincingly articulated by the witness of Scripture, as is each point that will be treated subsequently. Limited atonement, in my estimation, is the hub of the Calvinist wheel. One's position on the atonement is a more accurate estimator of whether one is fully Reformed; each of the other four points of the flower can and have been staunchly held by non-Calvinists. Now, with these introductory remarks concluded, let us turn to a definition. Definition We might wonder why we need to define these words. Don't we all know what limited means? Don't we all know what atonement means? I would hope so. But in the interest of clarity and certainty, let us define these words. Dictionary.com gives several definitions of limited that I think are crucial to our subject matter. The verb means: 1) To confine or restrict within a boundary or bounds; 2) To fix definitely; to specify. The adjective, which I think is the one we want here, means: 1) Confined or restricted within certain limits; 2) small in range or scope; 3) having a specific function or scope. So limited in our context means something that is definitively fixed within a specified boundary and having a specific function or scope. Something that has been fenced in, so to speak, for a specific purpose. Now, atonement is defined as: 1) Amends or reparation made for an injury or wrong; 2) compensation for a wrong. It goes further to define atonement religiously as reconciliation or an instance of reconciliation between God and humans, epsecially as brought about by the redemptive life and death of Jesus. So atonement in our context means the amends made for our wronging of God that brings about reconciliation between humans and God by virtue of the redemptive life and death of Jesus. Let me try to put these two definitions together to make an uber-definition. Limited Atonement refers to amends for the sin of humans made by the redemptive life and death of Jesus that brings about reconciliation between God and humans. Further, these amends have been definitively fixed within a specified boundary and scope, for a specific purpose. Yes, I agree with you--this definition sounds very clunky and cramped. But it is exactly what is meant by limited atonement; namely the atonement has a specific purpose and scope to it. (There, that was simpler.) Now, before anyone decides to get riled up, notice that there is nothing in my definition that says anything about what that purpose and scope is. That comes later. We have to flesh out exactly what this definition tells us from the witness of Scripture. An Alternate Definition However, in the interest of accurately describing this doctrine, I need to say a few words about an alternate label for this doctrine. Many Calvinists prefer, instead of "limited atonement," the term particular redemption, feeling it to more accurately present what is meant by this doctrine. Dictionary.com, in the context we are using it here, defines particular with 1) of, belonging to, or associated with a specific person, group, thing, or category; not general or universal; 2) Logic. Encompassing some but not all of the members of a class or group. So, then, to define it using particular, we find that limited atonement refers to amends for the sin of specific humans made by the redemptive life and death of Jesus that brings about reconciliation between God and those specific humans. Yes, I think that is much better, clearer, and more accurate. And with that, I think this is a good place to stop. Tomorrow we will examine the biblical support for this position and the historical background of this doctrine.