Limited atonement is the teaching within Calvinism which states that Jesus only bore the sins of the elect (those chosen for salvation by God) and that He did not bear the sins of every individual who has ever lived. This teaching is also called "particular redemption" and "definite atonement." This doctrine is known within Reformed theology and is also considered one of the five points of Calvinism known by the acronym TULIP. T = Total Depravity. U = Unconditional Election. L = Limited Atonement. I = Irresistible Grace. P = Perseverance of the Saints.
The argument used to support limited atonement is found in both Scripture and logic.
- “For I have told him that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them. 14 And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
The question is that if Jesus bore the sin of everyone who ever lived, then why is the house of Eli's sins never to be atoned for? (1 Sam. 3:13-14).
Jesus said in John 10:15 that he laid his life down for the sheep. Furthermore in John 10:26 Jesus said that people did not believe because they are not his sheep. The argument goes that if Jesus lays his life down for the sheep and there are people who were not his sheep, then he did not lay his life down for those who are not his sheep.
Another argument is that since sin is breaking the Law of God (1 John 3:20), then there is a legal punishment due to all who break his Law. After all, a law is not a law if it has no punishment. Jesus equated sin with legal debt.
- "So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. 9 “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. 11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread. 12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen,'" (Matthew 6:8-13).
- "And He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. 3 ‘Give us each day our daily bread. 4 ‘And forgive us our sins, For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation,'" (Luke 1:2-4).
In Matthew 6:12 the Greek word for debt is ὀφείλημα, opheilama. It means . . .
- "(1) literally, what is owed debt, sum owed; in a broader sense of what is due obligation (RO 4.4); (2) morally, of guilt incurred sin, offense (MT 6.12; cf. τὰς ἁμαρτίας [sins] in LU 11.4)"1
- "Debt, that which is owed, which is strictly due (Rom. 4:4). Also an offense, a trespass which requires reparation (Matt. 6:12, equivalent to paraptṓmata , transgressions of 6:14 and hamartías , sins of Luke 11:4). The suffix makes it that which is owed and makes it syn. with opheilḗ (3782), a debt or obligation (Matt. 18:32; Rom. 13:7 [cf. Matt. 18:30, 34])."2
In Luke 1:4 the Greek word for sin is ἁμαρτία, hamartia. It means "of an act, a departure from doing what is right, equivalent to ἁμάρτημα sin, wrongdoing (1J 5.17); (2) as the moral consequence of having done something wrong sin, guilt (AC 3.19; 1J 1.7); (3) as the nature of wrongdoing viewed as the rejection of God by self-assertive human beings sin, evil (RO 5.12, 13; cf. 1.21); (4) especially in Johannine usage as a moral condition of human beings in revolt against God sin, being evil, sinfulness (JN 9.34; 15.24),"3
So, we can clearly see that Jesus equates sin with debt.
In Romans 6:23, Paul the apostle says that the wages of sin is death. So breaking the law brings death as well as separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). However, Jesus was made under the law (Galatians 4:4), and he never sinned (1 Peter 2:22) because he kept the Law perfectly. So, since he lived a perfect life, then he is righteous. When he was crucified he bore our sins in his body and the cross (1 Peter 2:24); that is, our legal sin debt was transferred to Jesus. Furthermore, he canceled out the certificate of debt due to our sin against God (Colossians 2:14). So the logic goes that if Jesus was made under the law and never sinned, that he bore our sins in his body on the cross, and that he canceled our sin debt, then logically it would follow that he would only cancel it for those who are going to be saved. Otherwise, it would require universalism which is the false teaching that everyone will be saved.
Limited atonement is debated within Christian circles. It is not one of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. We are free to agree with it and not agree with it. But it is worth noting that every true Christian believes in a form of limited atonement. Within the Reformed camp, the limit on the atonement is in the scope. In other words, the atoning work of Christ is so powerful that all for whom the atonement has been made, will be saved. On the other hand, the universal atonement position limits the power of the atonement since it says that not everyone who is atoned for will be saved. Where Reformed theology broadens the power of the atonement, it also limits the scope. "Arminian" theology, on the other hand, broadens the scope but lessens the power. Either way, a form of "limited" atonement is held by all Christians. Nevertheless, typically "Limited Atonement" is associated with Calvinism.
Finally, we should be careful not to pass judgment on others who disagree with us on this particular doctrine. Romans 14:5 tells us that each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. So, look to the Scriptures, study both sides, and make up your own mind. But, do not be judgmental towards Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with you.
The Reformed perspective would hold that Christ's blood was sufficient for all, but not all sin was imputed to Christ. Christ's blood is sufficient to cover all people. But the sufficiency relates to his divine value which is different than our legal debt. Sin is a debt (Matt. 6:12 with Luke 11:4) since it is breaking the Law of God (1 John 3:4). In limited atonement, Calvinists are saying that there was a limit to whose sins were imputed to Christ--in a legal sense. They are not denying the sufficiency of Christ's blood to cover all people. Instead, they look at the legal aspect of the sin debt. Peoples' sin debts were transferred to Jesus (1 Pet. 2:24) and were canceled on the cross, not when we believe (Col. 2:14)--even as Arminians teach that peoples' sins are "paid for" even though they are not yet born. But, in Reformed Theology God will infallibly bring all whose sin debt Christ canceled on the cross so that they might then be justified by faith (Rom. 5:1). Furthermore, legally speaking, those canceled sins cannot be held against the sinner because their quality of being a debt has been canceled by being paid on the cross (John 19:30; Col. 2:14). Since people are damned, then it cannot be that their sin debt was canceled. Therefore, Christ only legally bore the sins of the elect even though his blood was sufficient to cover all.
- 1. Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker’s Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.
- 2. Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000.
- 3. Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker’s Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.