It is, by far, the most contested of the Five Points. And confusion over the term makes it all the trickier.
“Limited Atonement” is the middle letter in TULIP, but as author and pastor Douglas Wilson explains, that name might give the wrong impression.
“The problem with ‘limited atonement’ is that it makes everybody think ‘tiny atonement.’” And, of course, no good Christian wants to cast the cross-work of Christ as diminutive.
The better term, says Wilson, with a growing number of voices, is “Definite Atonement.” Same doctrine, better name. This way of putting it emphasizes the extent of Jesus’s accomplishment, rather than its restriction.
He Died for His People
Definite atonement teaches that Jesus died to fully secure the salvation of his people, not just make the offer. Its anchors in the biblical text include, among others,
- John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”
- Ephesians 5:25: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”
- Revelation 5:9: The worshipers in heaven sing to Jesus, “Worthy are you . . . for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”
- Mark 10:45: “the Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many”
- John 11:52: Jesus died “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”
Jesus died not only to make a bonafide offer of salvation to all people indefinitely, but to actually secure the salvation of a definite group: his sheep, his bride, his people, the many, the children.
The Calvinist Centerpiece
In the story of the church, this particular expression of the doctrine emerged at the Synod of Dort in the early seventeenth century. Following the death of an influential teacher named Jacob Arminius — who had disagreed with several key points of the prevailing theology of the day — his followers published five specific objections to Calvinist teaching in 1610. The Synod, then, responding in 1619, re-articulated the five doctrines, which have come down to us in English in the floral acrostic.
“Definite atonement is the centerpiece,” says Wilson. The three middle points — unconditional election, definite atonement, and irresistible grace — demonstrate how the persons of the Godhead work together inseparably in our salvation: the Father elects, the Son atones, and the Spirit gives life. It is all one seamless garment. The Son dies for those whom the Father has chosen, and the Spirit regenerates those for whom the Son has died.
To compare the doctrine of definite atonement with the contrasting view of the Arminians, Lorraine Boettner observes, “For the Calvinist, it is like a narrow bridge that goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian, it is like a great wide bridge that goes only half-way across.” The question is not whether the atonement is limited in some sense, but how.
Yes, It Matters
Most significant, perhaps, is Wilson’s claim, “Penal substitution necessitates definite atonement.” To believe that Jesus truly substituted himself as the penalty for our sin implies some definite group for which he died, not just a potential group of individuals to be named later. One’s view on the definiteness of the atonement then is not far removed from the depth and surety of one’s understanding of the Christian gospel and its joys.
Whether you’re a young Millennial or an old post-millennial like Wilson, we think you’ll benefit from this new episode of Theology Refresh, which aims to help you tell the gospel, in public and in private, with precision and power. And it will challenge you not to be a “whispering Calvinist,” who carefully hides the Scriptural truths most offensive and confounding to our modern milieu, but to speak openly and honestly what the Bible teaches.