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The Meaning of TULIP: What is Limited Atonement? (Part 3 of 5)

Updated: Mar 16, 2023


In the previous post, we discussed the second letter of TULIP. If you haven't read that article, you can find it here. This article explores the third letter of the acronym, Limited Atonement.



Limited Atonement


Of the five points of Calvinism, this one is the most misunderstood due mainly to how it's worded. Limited atonement sounds restrictive. It sounds like it's limiting God. The point, however, is that the redemptive work of Christ was actually effective. God accomplished his purpose and did not fail in any way. The important point is not the wording of the doctrine but what the Bible teaches. Let's take a closer look.


Every Christian understanding of the atonement views it as limited to some extent, except for universalism. Universalism would be unlimited atonement, which teaches that everyone is going to heaven regardless of what they do or whether they have faith. A cursory reading of the four gospels makes it clear that salvation is not universal. Therefore, our understanding of the atonement is that it is limited to some extent. The question is, in what way is it limited?


The atonement accomplished by Jesus was applied to a particular people, namely, God's elect (John 6:37-40; Eph. 1:3-14). The atonement was not applied to those who would ultimately reject Christ, for if Jesus had died for someone's sins, paid the price, and they were still condemned, that would mean that a person's sins were punished twice, once by Jesus and once by the individual condemned. This would be unjust on God's part.


This is not to say that the death of Jesus would not be sufficient to save everyone in the world. It would be, but his death on the cross was not meant to save the whole world. It was meant to save his elect. Jesus was not a universalist (Matthew 25:31-46). He talked about hell more than anyone in the Bible.[1]


"While Christ’s atonement was limited in its intent or purpose, it was unlimited in its power."[2]

Question


If Christ died only for the elect, is it pointless to preach the gospel because the elect will be saved regardless of what I do? Answer: it's not pointless to preach the gospel, for God uses the preaching of the gospel to draw his elect to himself.


"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?" - Romans 10:14-15

The gospel call needs to go out to everyone, but not everyone will receive it (Mat. 22:14). This is not because God has refused to save them. It's because the lost refuse to listen. The doctrine of total depravity shows us that people reject Christ not because he has rejected them but because they have rejected him. Further, because of our total depravity, all of us reject him. The only reason that some are saved is that God chose to be gracious and call them by his irresistible grace.


Imagine a vulture flying over a wheat field. He is looking for one thing, dead meat. This is the only food he will eat, but there is a problem. He cannot find anything to eat. He flies and flies, searching until he falls to the ground in the middle of the wheat field, exhausted and starving. Eventually, he dies surrounded by the food he refuses to eat. This is a picture of every person. The gospel is readily available, but we won't receive it. This is why Christ died for a particular people: to redeem them and make them into new creatures, ones that will eat the wheat, ones that will receive the gospel.


Summary


Every biblical understanding of the atonement sees Christ's work as limited to some extent. The Bible does not teach universalism. Therefore, the atoning work of Christ has been applied to a particular people, specifically, those whom the Father has given him. If God had not given a people to Jesus to be drawn by the Father, no one would have come to him. But because God never fails in what he plans to accomplish, he has ensured that the blood of Jesus on the cross did and will atone for all of God's elect.


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