Limited Atonement (1)
March 5, 2023 / No. 4183M
We are engaged in a study of the Five Points of Calvinism. These points were ably defended at an international meeting called the Synod of Dordt. It was a synod of over 100 theologians from all over Europe who came to the city of Dordt and met from November 1618 to May 1619 to lay out from Scripture alone what was the Bible’s teaching concerning the doctrine of salvation. This synod produced a document that became a creed of Reformed churches, a document called the Canons of Dordt—five chapters defending the five points of Calvinism.
Last time we finished our study of the first of those five points: Unconditional Election. Election, though, by itself, does not save God’s people. Election is the source, it is the origin of their salvation, but the ground of that salvation is the atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ. So now we move from eternity past, where we began, forward now into time to A.D. 33, and we come to a hill outside the northwest corner of Jerusalem. Beneath the cross of Jesus Christ there upon that hill, we look up and ask the question: “For whom, Lord Jesus, are you dying?”
The Arminian answer to that question in 1618 (and still today) was this: Jesus Christ died for all people, every individual, so that He merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all through the death of the cross. Yet, so that no one actually enjoys the forgiveness of sins except those who believe. And, that is, believe of their own free will.
The Synod of Dordt, however, rejected that answer and taught that there was, in fact, an inseparable connection between election in eternity and the cross of Christ in time, that those who were given to Christ eternally are those and those alone for whom Christ died. The Canons of Dordt, in chapter 2, Article 8 say this: “For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross…should effectually redeem…all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father.” All 109 delegates signed their names to this biblical truth, even though it took some heated debate to get there. In fact, this chapter of the Canons of Dordt took the most time and had the most debate to arrive to the point of biblical truth. The synodical air was so intense at one point that one of the delegates, taking things personally, got up off his chair, threw down his gloves, and challenged another delegate to a duel. This challenge was not accepted, of course, and things eventually calmed down, and through the process of discussion the cause of truth prevailed.
And well it did, for the answer that they gave, we will see, is indeed the answer that Jesus Himself gives to our question on the pages of Scripture. Our cry: “For whom did You die,” and Christ Himself answers: “For those whom the Father gave Me in eternal election. For them I atoned. I laid My life down for the sheep.” John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” John 10:15: “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd will love the sheep to the point even of being willing to give up his life for the sake of preserving his flock of sheep. If the wolf attacks, the shepherd will defend his sheep from that wolf to the point where he gives himself up for them so that the sheep may be preserved. That is the kind of spiritual Shepherd the Lord Jesus is and the kind of spiritual Shepherd we need. We are the sheep. We are under the oppression of the wolf of sin’s guilt and dominion. And when the Lord says in verses 11 and 15 of John 10, that “I lay down my life for the sheep,” He means that He gives Himself to defend the sheep from this wolf, giving Himself even to the jaws of that wolf—the wolf of sin—so that the sheep may live before God. He takes the consequences for that sin, the punishment for it upon Himself. He substitutes Himself that they might be preserved.
That is the meaning of that little word “for” in verses 11 and 15. “I lay down my life for the sheep.” It means “on behalf of, in the place of, and for the benefit of” the sheep. So that, when the Lord Jesus says in John 10 that He will give His life for the sheep, He is foretelling the supreme act He will engage in on behalf of the welfare of His sheep. He will go to the cross shortly and offer Himself as a substitute to the death that they deserve as the implication for their sins. That little word “for” means that same thing all over the New Testament when the Scriptures speak of Christ’s death. In Galatians 3:13, the apostle says, “Jesus became a curse for us,” He became a curse in our place, He substituted Himself, so that the curse that would fall upon us for our sins does not, but falls upon Him. Romans 5:13 says that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” in our place, on our behalf, and for our benefit. He takes the death that we deserve as the consequences for sin that we might have life. It is a substitutionary death. It is the great and final sacrifice.
The sacrifices of the Old Testament are described this same way, as sacrifices for the people. In fact, the repeated refrain throughout the book of Leviticus is the command: “You priests, you must make this sacrifice, and you must make that sacrifice. And you must make this sacrifice and that sacrifice for this purpose: to make an atonement for the people.” That phrase is repeated: “to make an atonement for the people.” The punishment for the sin fell upon the substitute. The sacrifice in the place of and for the benefit of the people.
And on His cross, the Lord Jesus makes there the full and final atonement for the people. He pays the price for them. Those lambs and goats and oxen never truly could atone. They could only point to the great sacrifice that was coming, the one that John the Baptist identified when he pointed at the Lord Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” He lays down His life for the people, to atone for them, to take away their sins.
That is what the word “atonement” means. It means to “pay the price for,” so there is no price left to pay. If I pay your parking ticket, I have atoned for your offense of illegal parking and you have nothing left to pay. I have paid the price for you. So, when the Lord Jesus says He lays down His life for His sheep, He is saying that He will be the ultimate sacrifice, paying the price for the implications of the sins of His sheep. A heavenly transaction is taking place upon that cross where Jesus is taking the punishment for our sins and we are being credited with His payment and His righteousness.
But who exactly are these sheep in John 10:11, 15, where He says, “I lay down my life for the sheep?” And who exactly is the “us” in Galatians 3:13 where it says, “He became a curse for us,” and in Romans 5:13 where it says, “Christ died for us”? For whom precisely is He substituting Himself, paying the price? In the same chapter (John 10), in verse 29, we learn that these sheep are the same people that, as we discovered in the last two messages, were given to Jesus by the Father in eternity, a specific number that God gave to Him. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand. My Father which gave them Me is greater than all. My sheep are, therefore, the ones which My Father gave to Me.” And we learn from the same chapter, that the Father did not give every single man or woman to be His sheep. Three verses earlier in John 10, Jesus points to a group of people and says (v. 26), “You are not of my sheep.” There are those who are not part of that number that God gave to Jesus before the foundation of the world. And, therefore, they are not part of the sheep for whom He laid down His life. His sheep are a limited number of people, determined by the Father, given to Him to represent, for them He dies. “I lay down My life for the sheep.”
In John 6:38, 39, Jesus says He came to do the Father’s will, and that the Father’s will is that He lose none of those whom the Father had given Him. In John 17:9, Jesus says, “I pray for them, I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.” If He does not pray for the whole world, surely the whole world was not part of His sheep. This is why He says that He came not for everyone, but for many. Matthew 20:28: “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 26:28: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” This is the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, then, concerning the question, For whom, Lord Jesus, did You die?
Ought we not listen to the Son of God, the one who is Himself offering Himself as this sacrifice? Ought He not be allowed to explain what He is doing on His cross? Ought He not be allowed to have a voice? Ought we not put whatever we think or feel or want aside and let the Shepherd speak? “I lay down My life for the sheep.” And what the Lord says about His own death is consistent with what the angel who had announced His birth said about His death. The angel who came and announced His birth in Matthew 1:21 said, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” He shall not save every last human being. He shall not make salvation merely possible. But He shall save His people from their sins.
That is consistent with what His disciples, too, wrote about His death. In John 13:1: “Now, before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.” This is why the Synod, even after tumultuous debate, came to the position it came to. And all 109 delegates signed their names to it. “It was the will of God that…Christ by the blood of the cross…should effectually redeem…all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father.” Those are those for whom He died.
What about the passages of Scripture that talk about Jesus dying for the whole world? There are many of them. The most commonly referenced ones are John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” John 1:29: “Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” I John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” All passages, of course, that were before the Synod of Dordt, too. First of all, we have to say that any honest examination of Scripture has to understand that the Bible uses this word “world,” or “cosmos,” in a surprising number of ways. In fact, in the inspired writings of John alone it is used in at least eight different ways. It is quite intellectually dishonest for a man just to put his fingers in his ears and say, “Well, it says world, so that’s the end of the story and the end of the debate.” I do not have the time to give you all eight different ways the word world is used, but let me give you just a few. In John 7:7 the word world is used to refer to all the unbelievers. The Lord says there, “The world cannot hate you.” Obviously, He is not talking about every last human being. He is talking about the world of unbelief: the world of unbelief cannot hate you, “but me it hateth because I testify that the works thereof are evil.” John 17:9 uses the word the same way, where Jesus says, “I pray not for the world.” Does that mean that He did not pray for anyone? It says world. No, just after that, He says, “I pray for those whom the Father hath given me.” World there refers to the world of unbelievers.
The word world can refer to the physical earth. John 13:1: “Jesus knew that his hour had come that he should depart out of the world,” that is, off of this earth, out of this world, unto God. The word can also refer simply to an indefinably large group of people. John 12:19: “The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how that ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him.” The Pharisees said, The world has gone after Jesus, and, obviously, they did not mean every last person has gone after Jesus. They knew as well as we that many did not. In fact, the majority did not. They simply meant a lot of people have gone after Him.
And then there is the use of the word world in John 29, and also in I John 2:2, where the word refers to people from all over the earth, from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Here we have to understand that the gospel is now going beyond the Jews, to the whole world, for the first time. And we have to understand that this is astounding to the apostles, and it is astounding to the early church. The gospel had always been for Israel and only for Israel. And now it is going beyond the borders of Israel to the whole world. So, frequently, the apostle will speak this way: “Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” not just the Jews but people all over the world. “He is the propitiation for our sins.” We, Jewish people here. “But not only ours, for the sins of the whole world.” Of people all over the globe. “God so loved the world.” He loved people, not just the Jews here, but He loved people from all over this globe. That was exciting to them. And it should be exciting to us. But you cannot, if you are honest in dealing with the Scriptures, press those verses to claim that Christ atoned for every single individual.
There is a unity in the work of God. There is a unity between what God does in eternity and what He does in time. Those the Father gave to Jesus are the same ones for whom He dies and makes atonement.
The Arminian doctrine that says Jesus died for every individual divides the Trinity of God. It really makes God into a being who cannot decide what He wants and where all three Persons are working against each other, as the Canons themselves point out. According to Arminianism, the Father wants to save a specific group of people. He wants to save those He has foreseen will believe of their own free will. But then, according to Arminianism, the Son comes along in time and says, “No, Father, I’m going to go for more. I’m going to go for all men.” And then, according to Arminianism, the Spirit comes even later, sent by Christ, and says, “No, I’m not interested in saving the ones that either of you are interested in. The Father wants to save those whom He has foreseen will believe. The Son wants to save all men. But I’m going to go a third way and try to save all those who come under the hearing of the Word.” Arminianism presents each Person of the Trinity as having His own idea of who should be saved and makes God inglorious, divided against Himself.
But the doctrine of Scripture and the five points of Calvinism show God a glorious God with a glorious plan and a glorious Son and a glorious salvation. It shows a God glorious in perfect unity, accomplishing His one purpose. Jesus said, “I come to do the will of My Father, I come in unity with My Father. I come to lay down My life for the sheep that the Father has given Me in election.” And the Spirit comes, later, and says, “I will go and grant the gift of faith to those same ones for whom the Father has given the Son.” Father, Son, and Spirit are one. There is a body that they are together determined to redeem. The Father chose that body. The Son goes to atone for that same body. And the Spirit comes to work faith in the hearts of that same body. They are unified in that same purpose, as they must be, for they are one. They were unified in their purpose to save you, believer, you as part of that one body.
O child of God, the joy of believing on Christ and coming to know yourself as one of the Good Shepherd’s sheep, one given to Him by the Father eternally to represent and, therefore, one for whom He went to the cross and substituted Himself and saved. For you, for you, He made the atonement. O, the joy of knowing, child of God, that He did not just die for a random, faceless, nameless mass of humanity with no idea if His cross would actually save any of them, and no effective intent to save a single one of them, but knowing that He died for His sheep, that He knew each one by name and desired their salvation and would accomplish it as a sovereign and great God would. If you are a believer, you may know that it was your name upon His mind 2,000 years ago when He uttered the words, “All which the Father hath given me, I will lose nothing, but shall raise it up again at the last day. I will not lose this one. I will not lose you. For this one’s life, I died and actually atoned. I will enter into the jaws of the world of sin and all of its implications that this sheep might rise again, this one, into life free of sin and any of its effects. Be with Me and the whole flock numbered and named, and grant that there may be for them no doubt about it.”
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we are thankful for the understanding of Thy Word. Give us faith to believe and humility in our hearts and the assurance of faith that we are part of this number, that Christ has died for us 2,000 years ago and that we live through Him. In Jesus’ name. Amen.