Limited Atonement

November 1, 2009 / No. 3487

Dear Radio Friends,

Salvation from sin through Jesus Christ is entirely of God’s grace. This is something that Jonah learned when he was in the belly of a whale. We read in Jonah 2:9, Jonah’s confession: “Salvation is of the LORD.” Salvation in its plan, that is, in its eternal election; in its accomplishment, in the actual payment for sin upon the cross; in its application, the giving of this salvation into the human heart; in its consummation, when at last one is taken before the presence of God—all of it is of God. Salvation is of the Lord.

This is especially true of the doctrine of the Bible called “Limited (Particular) Atonement.” The truth is that Jesus Christ, in His atonement, saved by grace all those given to Him of the Father. And they shall never perish, because Jesus died for them upon the cross.

Limited or definite atonement of Jesus Christ upon the cross is the heart of the precious gospel of Jesus Christ. Here we sinners will see our Savior in all of His beauty. Through all eternity we will know Jesus as the Lamb who was slain and has redeemed us unto God. Throughout all eternity we will see Him as the One by whose stripes we are healed. We will rejoice in Him as the crucified one. And this is how we know Him today. In every trial, in every heartache, in every moment, in joy or in death, old and young, those who have walked with Him all their life, and those who have learned His secrets only recently in their new conversion—all of us will know Jesus as the One who died for us, who laid down His life for us.

In John 10:15, Jesus says: “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In John 10 Jesus was contrasting Himself with the false leaders and teachers of His day, whom He calls intruders, hirelings among God’s people. They did not love the sheep. They fleeced the sheep. They used the sheep for themselves. They were hirelings who would run at the first sign of danger.

In contrast to that, Jesus says, in John 10:14: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” He calls Himself the Good Shepherd because He knows His sheep and will keep those sheep. And He calls Himself the Good Shepherd because He lays down His life for them. “I lay down my life for the sheep.” In those words Jesus Christ taught the truth of a limited, particular atonement.

We consider that today.

The question is: For whom did Jesus Christ die? And the answer of the Bible is: Jesus Christ died for the elect, for all those throughout all ages and races, chosen eternally and loved graciously by God. The atonement was limited. That means that Jesus Christ died on the cross for a definite, particular number of persons. Revelation 7 refers to this as a multitude that no man can number—a great number known and chosen of the Father.

His death was an atonement. That is a biblical word that refers to a payment or a covering for the sins of men and women. It was redemption. That is another word that is used in the Bible: redemption from sin. It was the purchase of men and women out of the guilt and bondage of their sin to the state of pardon and adoption as the sons and daughters of God. This atonement or redemption was limited. Not in the sense of what He suffered, that what He suffered was limited. No. He suffered the full and the eternal wrath of God against our sins. But it was limited in the sense of for whom He suffered. He was definite or particular. He did not die for all human beings, but only for some, for those given to Him of the Father. His death on the cross was for a definite, particular group of men and women, each one of whom He knew personally, in divine, particular, gracious, saving love.

Now it is this truth, this truth of a limited or particular atonement, this truth of all the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace, that becomes so offensive to many. The response is that it is hated. “What,” people will say, “did not Jesus die for all? Does not Jesus love all? How can we possibly do mission work?” This truth will be assaulted and hated, and those who confess it will be accused of denying the gospel, and of denying the love of Jesus for sinners. It will be assaulted with a host of Bible verses: I Timothy 2:4, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

But what seldom happens is that men and women listen to the biblical exposition of this truth. Listen to Jesus, who taught this truth. Jesus Himself will answer the question: For whom would He die upon the cross? In John 10 He says, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (v. 15). When He says, “I lay down My life,” He is talking about the cross. He is not simply talking about a sacrificial desire that He has to serve other people. But He is referring to the cross of Calvary. John 13:1, Jesus knew that His hour was come, and in the Scriptures we go on to read that at that night He said, “The cup that My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?” Jesus knew that He had to go the way that the Father had willed. True, the Son of man goeth as it was determined of Him (Luke 22:22), but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed. And He says that that death, that predetermined death on the cross that He had come to suffer, had a definite intention or purpose. On the cross He would lay down His life, He would die for a definite number of persons. “I lay down My life for the sheep.” He does not lay down His life for all humans, but for the “sheep.”

In John 10, He makes that very plain when in verse 26 of the chapter He refers to some (the unbelieving Pharisees) as not being of His sheep. “But ye believe not, because ye are not of My sheep,” He says to them. “I will not lay down My life for you.” Sheep does not include all men. But sheep includes all those whom the Father had given to Him.

Jesus goes on to say that in John 10 as well, verses 27-29: “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….” My Father gave the sheep to Me. He is “greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” Jesus teaches that He lays down His life for everyone whom the Father, out of mere grace, out of free election, gave to Him.

The ones for whom He dies are the ones He knows in that gracious, unbreakable bond of love. John 10:14, 15: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knowethme, even so know I the Father.” He is referring there to a knowledge of gracious, personal, intimate love. He says, “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father.” He brings us there to the point of intimacy beyond our ability to comprehend—the tender, the personal, the intimate love of the triune God. The Father loves the Son, knows the Son; and the Son knows the Father. Jesus says, “In like manner, even so I know My own and My own know Me. I know them intimately. I know them personally. I know them exhaustively. There is nothing in these people that will startle Me.” There is nothing that can suddenly come up and He would say, “But I didn’t know that about them.” “I love them graciously and unchangeably. I know who My own are. I know the sheep given to Me of the Father. They will hear My voice and they will come to Me. And I will die on the cross, for the ones chosen from before the foundations of the world, whom I have loved with an everlasting love and whom I will draw to Myself.”

The death on the cross of Jesus Christ extends to all the elect. God’s gracious and eternal election determines who Christ died for on Calvary’s cruel cross.

The question, of course, is: “Who determines the extent of Christ’s death? Who determines who it will be for whom Jesus will die?” The answer is: Not man! Not yourself! John 10:26: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.” Jesus did not say, “You are not of My sheep because ye believed not.” He did not say, “You’re unbelief has excluded you from the sheep.” But Jesus said, “You do not believe because ye are not of My sheep.” The cause of their unbelief was that they were not His sheep. God did not elect them. God did not give them faith.

So also those who believe do not make themselves sheep by their faith. You are not one of the sheep because you believe. No. You believe because you were made one of His sheep. God determines the sheep in the decree of election. “My Father gave them Me” (v. 29). And the fruit of that election is faith. For these elect of God, to whom God gives faith as a result of His election, for these Jesus dies.

The atonement of the cross is in harmony with divine election. In Jesus’ words (John 6:38, 39): “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” Again, in John 17:2, in His prayer on the night before He went to the cross: “As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.”

But there is an even more important question. It is this: What was Jesus death? We must see that the question, For whom did Jesus die? is related to this other crucial question: What was His death? The difference between the truth of saving, sovereign grace and the teaching of free will is not that sovereign grace has Jesus dying for a few, and free will has Jesus dying for many. Or, to put it bluntly, the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is not that the one (Calvinism) is stingy and the other (Arminianism) generous and more loving. But the difference between them is this: A Christ who dies for some (the elect) and a Christ who dies for all. The difference is, what is the nature of Jesus’ death? The Christ who dies for all those given to Him of the Father saves them so that they shall never perish. A Christ who dies for all saves no one.

Did Jesus, then, intend or want to save all? Does God’s love mean that He wants all to be saved? Then, of course, there is a question to be put to that: All, clearly, are not saved—unless one wishes to throw out the Bible, for the Bible does not teach a universal salvation. It does not teach that all are saved. Jesus Himself spoke repeatedly of hell. He said, “Fear Him who is able to cast the body and soul into hell.” There is a hell. Not all are saved. Well, if Jesus died for all, did Jesus fail? And the answer that is given by those who believe in the free will, or the Arminian heresy, is that, “No, He didn’t fail. You see, on the cross, what Jesus did was to make it possible for everybody to be saved if we add something to that, namely, our decision for our faith. He cannot (even though He died on the cross—supposedly for sin) He cannot save unless we help. We save, then, ourselves—with Jesus’ help.” But this does not exalt the cross. This cheapens the cross. This limits its power. Then the cross does not save any. It is a Christ who does not save unless He is helped. It is a love that cannot keep anyone from hell unless he helps God. And then sinners are flattered. Sinners are assured that it is in their power to repent and to believe. To make the cross of Jesus Christ actually effectual depends upon them. God cannot save them, even though His Son suffered on the cross. They can keep God at bay. And the gospel is trivialized. This is not the gospel. This is not the biblical, wonderful truth of the gospel.

The gospel proclaims that the cross truly saves. It saves everyone for whom Jesus laid down His life. The cross does not fail. By His death, Jesus has made certain that all for whom He died shall go to glory. There is power in the cross.

Look upon the cross. It is flanked on the one hand by the total depravity of the sinner. The sinner cannot save himself. On the other had it is flanked by unconditional and free grace of election. Jesus Christ died to save a certain number of helpless sinners upon whom God set His free and electing love. Christ’s death insured not only that they would all be saved, but that, because Jesus died for their sins, they would also be called. And the Holy Spirit would work faith in their hearts. The cross saves. And the cross saves because Jesus laid down His life for you, for everyone given to Him of His Father.

What does the Bible teach about the nature of Jesus’ cross? It says that this cross was, first of all, a precious death. The One who died upon Calvary was God’s Son in the flesh. He was the Holy Son of God without spot or blemish. His blood is the blood of God in the flesh. The value and the power of that blood is mighty.

Still more. It was a willing death: “I lay down My life.” His death was not an accident. His death was not a misunderstanding or tragedy. He was not forced to this cross against His will. It was a deliberate and intentional action. It was a willing sacrifice. He laid it down.

And His death was substitutionary. “I lay down My life for the sheep.” “For,” that is, “in the place of, instead of, as a substitute for.” We were guilty before God in the judgment. We deserve to be bound over to the torments of hell. But Christ, by grace, was sent of the Father, and upon the cross He said, “Father, I have been sent to stand in their stead that they might not be condemned. Let the condemnation that they deserve fall upon Me. That they might never be forsaken or cast out, forsake and cast Me out.” He died for sins. For whose sins? Not His own sins, but for the sheep. He was wounded, Isaiah says in chapter 53, “for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities.” What you deserved was given over unto Him. Romans 5:6: “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” Therefore, the death of Jesus Christ accomplished something. It availed. It redeemed everyone for whom He died. Ephesians 1:7: “In whom we have redemption through his blood.” Revelation 12:10: “Who has redeemed us to God by his own blood.” Colossians 2: “God has forgiven you your trespasses, blotting out the handwriting of your sins, nailing them to the cross.” Our Lord’s crossword: “It is finished.”

All for whom He died—their debt is paid. He has obtained eternal salvation for the sheep. He obtained their faith. Faith is not the key in your pocket to open salvation. Faith is a gift that Jesus earned on the cross. It is the power of the cross. The power of the cross does not wait for the dead sinner, but it breathes into the dead sinner new life. To teach that Jesus died for all is to deny His cross. It is to present the cross as a failure. It fails to save those whom it intends to save. Indeed, it cannot save them at all unless they first help. It did not pay any debt. It did not obtain righteousness. It has no worth. It has no power. It has no comfort.

But the truth of sovereign, saving grace is this: Jesus is no failure. Jesus, on the cross, conquered. Jesus paid for the sins of all His sheep.

Did Jesus then die for me? This question must be answered in our souls. We cannot leave this unanswered. If Jesus died for you, then you will never die, you will never be condemned by God, you will never be forsaken. And if Jesus did not die for you, if you live impenitently and without faith, in your sins, if there is no fruit of sorrow for your sin, no desire after Christ, you are going to stand accountable to God for your sin.

How do I know that Jesus died for me? Everyone for whom He died, in them, by the power of His cross, He sends forth the Holy Spirit. By this Holy Spirit, He gives you to know that you are in Christ. He gives you to know your sin, your unworthiness, your deep pain of heart of having offended God.

Still more, He gives you to see yourself, to see Jesus as your Savior, your hope, your good. You marvel at the love of God, that He would give for you, a sinner, His own Son. He gives you to believe on Him, to trust Him, to desire to obey and follow Him. You feel His grace working in you. Jesus works spiritual life in everyone for whom He died. By the power of the cross, He works in them a sorrow for sin, a repentance, a trust in Him, a hiding in His blood, and a deep personal love for Jesus. Then I know that something happened on Calvary long ago, on the hill outside Jerusalem—something happened that cannot be undone. Jesus died for me. He paid for all my sins. He obtained the right to God’s presence.

Why did He do that? Because He loved me purely, graciously. God so loved, that He gave His only Begotten Son. Christ loved me and gave Himself for me. I will not perish.

This is the Jesus we preach. This is the Jesus we love. This is the Jesus we obey. And all who put their trust in Him, by God’s grace, shall never be ashamed. And we say, “This alone my plea shall be: Jesus Christ who died for me.”

Let us pray.

Father, we thank Thee for Thy holy word. It is a truth that gives comfort to our souls and glory to Thee. We praise Thee for Jesus who died for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.