The Canons of Dordt: Limited Atonement.

When the Council of Dordrecht or Dordt began on November 13, 1618 it sought to refute the teachings of Jacob Arminius and his followers. The council did so by specifically addressing five points Arminius’ protesters, or Remonstrants, proposed. These five points were that (1) Election unto salvation is conditioned upon foreseen faith and obedience; (2) Universal or an unlimited atonement is taught in the Scriptures; (3) Regeneration enables sinners to contribute good works toward salvation; (4) God’s grace is resistible; and (5) Believers may fall away or lose their salvation.

Previously, we briefly examined the doctrine of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election. Today we study the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

By far the most controversial of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. You have heard, I’m sure, sincere Christians call themselves Four Point Calvinists. They acknowledge and submit to the doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible or effectual grace and the perseverance or the preservation of the saints. But the point they have trouble with is the middle one: limited atonement. What exactly is meant by this phrase?

The doctrine of limited atonement is primarily concerned with the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross. For whom did Jesus Christ die? Was it for the entire human race that ever lived or would live? Was it God the Father’s intent to send Jesus Christ to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everyone, but with the possibility that His death would be effective for no one? This type of atonement would be unlimited but at the same time indefinite with the possibility that no one would trust and believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

As Dr. R. C. Sproul poses, “Did God simply send Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people? Was the atonement limited in its original design?

Limited, effectual or definite atonement means that God the Father provides a redemption for the elect in which Jesus Christ died for His sheep (John 10:1-11) and gave His life for those who the Father chose to give Him (John 6:35-66). The doctrine of limited atonement teaches that Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross was designed and intended only for the elect. Jesus Christ laid down His life for the sheep and only for the sheep. His atonement is therefore not a just potential work of redemption but an actual one.

While there is no way we can thoroughly examine this particular doctrine in this limited space, nor do we intend to, I do want to make the following observations.

First, while the death of Christ on the cross is sufficient or satisfactory for all sinners who ever lived, it is only efficient or effective for those God the Father gives to the Son. In other words, the death of Christ on the cross makes salvation possible for all but it is only effectual for the elect.

Secondly, the doctrine of limited atonement does not negate the responsibility of preaching the gospel universally. God calls Christians to share the gospel and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) knowing that only those who repent and believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ will be saved. Those who sincerely repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ alone for their justification are the ones for whom Christ died and therefore the elect.

Dr. Sproul continues by saying, “One of the texts that we often hear used as an objection against the idea of a definite atonement is 2 Peter 3:8–9: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The immediate antecedent of the word “any” in this passage is the word “us”, and I think it’s perfectly clear that Peter is saying that God is not willing that any of “us” should perish, but that all of “us” should come to salvation. He’s not speaking of all mankind indiscriminately; the “us” is a reference to the believing people to whom Peter is speaking. I don’t think we want to believe in a God who sends Christ to die on the cross and then crosses His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of that atoning death. Our view of God is different. Our view is that the redemption of specific sinners was an eternal plan of God, and this plan and design was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save His people is accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.

Another proof text cited against the doctrine of limited atonement is I John 2:1-2 which says, “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.”

The text is properly interpreted to distinguish between the words “our” and “whole.” John is contrasting that Christ’s atoning work is not only efficient for the Jew but also for the Gentile. The Gospel is extended to all kinds of people throughout the world. Christ is not only the propitiation for the sins of the Jewish elect but for the elect who God saves throughout the whole world who are not Jewish.

Dr. Scott Clark concludes by saying, “Christ’s death did not simply make salvation available for those who will, but rather our Savior actually secured the salvation of all His people. His death satisfied God’s justice for all the elect. Christ’s death is of infinite worth, but intended to satisfy God’s wrath for the elect. Therefore, the promise of the Gospel is that “whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life” Contrary to the caricature of Calvinism, the synod said that, by His death, Christ redeemed “out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father.” 

Let me encourage you to read John 6:35-66; 17:1-12; Romans 5:1-10; I John 4:1-10; and Revelation 5:1-10 for further study.

Soli deo Gloria!


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