Limited Atonement: Practical Ramifications

In light of Jerry Falwell’s recent statement that he and Liberty University consider the doctrine of Limited Atonement to be heresy, it would be beneficial for us to reflect on the doctrine of Limited Atonement, and why it is such a beautiful, important, scriptural truth.

Specifically, many people may question why it is necessary whether one believes in Limited Atonement or not. Is it really worth arguing over? Obviously, Jerry Falwell believes it to be a serious issue. But our view of the atonement has many basic, practical and theological applications to our Christian walk. Here are just a few of the issues that are at stake here:

A few theological ramifications of Limited Atonement:

  • Only the doctrine of Limited Atonement captures the intimate, personal aspect of the atonement and of the gospel. With a general, non-specific atonement for all men without distinction, the intimate, special love that Christ has for His elect is lost. Christ gave Himself for you specifically; you’re not just another face in the crowd. Christ is your mediator; He is not yours just the same as He is for the wicked. You have been crucified with Christ; you have been cleansed by His blood. Christ died for your specific sins in a way which the lost world cannot claim. Christ laid down His life for His sheep, they hear His voice, He knows His sheep and His sheep know Him. This is vital to understanding the depth of the love of God towards His bride -and ultimately our infinite unworthiness as objects of His gracious love.
  • Limited Atonement purifies Christ’s work on the cross. His sacrifice is perfect; He did not fail as Mediator. Christ did not go to the cross with the intention of perfecting people whom the Father had not chosen out of the world; His mission was accomplished in full. There is no dissention in the Godhead between Christ offering a sacrifice for someone and the Father refusing to receive it. God was sovereign in planning the cross (Acts 4:27-28), and God is perfect in all that He does. This enforces the reality of God’s sovereignty in all things, including the atonement. He perfected whom He chose; He did not attempt to reconcile the world, only to have the majority of His creation reject His sacrifice. Christ’s work is perfected, purified, and He certainly has sat down at the right hand of the Father, having accomplished all that He was given to do.

These theological ramifications also play a role in Practical Application:

  • In our evangelism, only the doctrine of Limited Atonement captures the reality of the wrath of God against personal sin. Limited Atonement is the only consistent safeguard against universalism, particularly from a witnessing and apologetics standpoint. If you’ve ever discussed the atonement with an unbeliever who has taken the time to think through the issues, then you understand that theological inconsistencies are hindrances to convicting them with the truth. If Christ died for all men without distinction, then why are there some who are punished in hell? Repent of what if Christ died for all my sins? Why would I worry about punishment if Christ already died in my place? Without a proper understanding of the wrath of God against sin, there can be no true conversion. Limited Atonement allows us to emphatically proclaim that God will punish sin, all of their specific sins, if one is not clothed in the righteousness that only comes through faith in Christ. Limited Atonement rightly and properly keeps the wrath of God as a prominent part of the gospel proclamation.
  • The doctrine of Limited Atonement affects how we read scripture. This is vital when we come to scriptures such as Romans 8:31, “If God be for US, who can be against US…who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?” And Titus 2:14, “…Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good works.” He redeems US, He teaches US, He produces a PEOPLE. How we read scripture affects our level of growth and sanctification. Thus, the doctrine of Limited Atonement affects our sanctification in our fight against besetting sin.
  • The doctrine of Limited Atonement affects our holiness. Again, Titus chapter 2 brings this out beautifully: Christ’s death redeemed us from lawlessness and purified us as people zealous for good works. Christ’s death has already accomplished the sanctification and obedience for those whom He died for. We are not left to our own devices, we can know and understand that Christ has purified His chosen, that sanctification has been accomplished (Eph 2:10; 1 Cor 6:11), and with that knowledge we are armed to go out and fight against sin and the flesh. If Christ’s death is for all without distinction, then all men have been ‘attempted’ to be made pure and zealous for good works, and we are left to our own devices in rising up above and beyond the world as pertains to holiness. Jesus Christ has ‘perfected for all time those who are being sanctified’, Heb 10:14. He has perfected and will indeed sanctifiy those whom He died for on the cross.

In summary, the ultimate issue here is, what do the scriptures teach? Obviously there are two sides to this argument, but they can’t both be right. This doctrine’s most practical outworking is found in whether the scriptures teach Limited Atonement, or whether they do not. We cannot fully see why it matters what we believe in this area, but the scriptures clearly teach one way or another, and because they do, we are most obligated to find out the truth. From a Limited Atonement perspective, Jesus seemed to emphatically nail down the point that there was a certain group of people to which the Father sent Him to redeem, and since Jesus placed so much emphasis on teaching about this group, then we should certainly pay attention the depths of truth behind His words: John 6:35-40; John 10:11,14-18; John 10:24-39; John 17:1-11,20, 24-26).

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6 Comments on “Limited Atonement: Practical Ramifications”

  1. Barry Says:

    What a wonderful world this would be if we could all have calm discussions over a cup of coffee and debate viewpoints on limited and unlimited atonement, prevenient grace and works, literal inerrancy and limited inerrancy.

    That would be nice. And, maybe we could draw more people into our community and church.

    Where is the sense of balance, love and tolerance with some of our pastoral leaders today?

    Is there any wonder that people get weary and put off by religion when we talk of wanting to single someone out in 2007 as a heretic?

  2. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    You are right Barry. This all started with that Paul fella. Just imagine where we would be if he had not started all that turning people over to Satan for the distruction of their flesh and all. Just imagine what peace we would have if he had left those alone who were anouncing that the ressurection had already taken place. What presumption on his part to think that erroneous teaching could actually over-through the faith of some!


  3. A lot of this comes from people like Falwell hurling the H-word around the place carelessly. We must distinguish what is heresy (historically regarded by the Church as an error that puts one outside the Christian fold) from what is simply bad theology. As an example, Pelagianism is heresy. Pelagius was a heretic. Wesleyanism is bad theology. John Wesley was not a heretic but a man whose heart was better than his head (a good example of this muddled theology is that John Wesley taught substitutionary atonement AND universal atonement. Now, if Christ has died in the place of all, then all will be saved. But John Wesley wasn’t a universalist!). John Stott has taught the anihilation of the finally impenitent. Does that make him a heretic? Or just a man with a muddled theology?

    And then there’re the whole ‘primary/secondary’ thing.
    With secondary issues (‘in-house’ disputes, as it were) discussion ought to be entered in to, based squarely on the Bible. With primary issues (e.g. deity of Christ, personality of the Holy Spirit, the atonement, Divine Sovereignty), we must be firm and unyielding.

    Of course, then you’ve got to define the primary and secondary issues!!!
    But what really gets my goat is those who say that ‘Calvinism is harsh and unloving’ acting in THE most hash and unloving way possible towards Calvinists!!!


  4. P.S.
    As I see it one of our main problems today is that you have some people who are unwilling to call ANYONE a heretic and others who are willing to call just about anyone they disagree with a heretic. Both are wrong. The first has forgotten that Christianity has a content of propositions, the denial of which has consequences. The second forget that all teachings of Scripture are not equally clear, and these effectively believe that perfect doctrinal understanding (whether on all points, five points, or one point) is necessary to salvation (whether Calvinistic or Arminian or (ironically) confused free-willer).

    Balance and tolerance (in the TRUE sense) are indeed needed. And of course, in ALL THINGS, love. But the love must be Biblically defined, loving those in error too much to leave them there, and too much to make like the Street Screechers and just yell insults at them. The balance must be a Biblical balance, and the tolerance a Biblical one. False teachers are by nature intolerable!

  5. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Maybe a good discussion on the different meanings of heresy is due. It would also help to discuss the various meanings of blasphemy.

    In the days of the “fundamentalist” discussions, even though “the five” were spelled out, there were those who believed that there was no such thing as secondary issues and that all doctrines were necessary and fundamental and in need of being clearly spelled out. Perhaps as a Convention it is time to revisit the idea. Mullinsism and latitudinarianism is at the root of the problems we have today. Another few decades of decline and there will be no SBC.

    I have discussed periferrals like marriage and divorce with people. For me it is doctrine that is periferral but has an affect on the core doctrine of perserverence and affects also doctrines of forgiveness. Like the rim of wheel is to the hub, if one is out of balance, it will affect the performance of, and eventually, wear out the other. Certain eschatological doctrines can affect the core. The pre-tribulation rapture doctrine for instance affects perserverence also. It can also affect the need for doctrinal knowledge and can turn Ephesians 4-6 into an unnecessary pursuit. Issues like the atonement are at the core and the effects of the spilled blood of Christ is an issue that, as is testified to by Falwell’s statement and the reaction to it, necessarilly fundamental affecting everything from its efficacy to its extent and durability. We need answers to just what is the true Christian view. If it does not matter that the answers become a factor of fundamental exclusion, then we have an even deeper problem, for we do not believe that the Truth is important.

    As we are seeing with the abuse issues, there is very little that can be done in our current conventional form of association. Though I do not believe that a presbyterian hierarchy be erected, some mechanism within the SBC needs the authority to investigate and render binding decisions on doctrinal and ethics levels. I am not sure what the function of the Ethics group with in the SBC is, but it would seem to me the one thing that it should be about is calling Convention members to accountability. Name calling can only harm if it is left unaddressed. Falwell comments amount to an accusation. He either needs to apologize or defend his assertion. The rhetoric will continue to accelerate and the volume will increase. Perhaps it is time to call for a convocation within the SBC that will hammer out the doctrinal and historical issues.

  6. Barry Says:

    I think that there is another factor.

    The big suit pastoral leaders, I believe, often times feel impinged by events today and rather than apply rational logic as a causal explaination they go biblical. After all, they’re pastoral leaders of long standing–what would you expect?

    Although he apologized (weakly) later, when the events of 9-11 unfolded what did Mr. Jerry have to say about the matter? Was it a lack of understanding between peoples, or mis-comunication, or a dis-connect, or administrative policy, or blind hatred from a small group of terrorists? No.

    It was lesbians and gays and pro-choicers and every other deviant form of person who made God very upset and that was what caused the attack.

    Using the wrath of God as a knee-jerk for everything that happens or deciding a group has fallen into a category deserving of a special appelation tends to make people, in general, to want to shy away.

    I think it is less the theological minutiae or differences of opinion on scripture or interpretation which causes people to get upset today, I think it is the blanket mis-statements made by administrative heads which makes us re-coil the most.


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