For whom did Christ die? The biblical answer is that the death of Christ atoned for the sins of a definite number of people. This is the doctrine of definite atonement or limited atonement. This article explains the biblical ground of this teaching.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2009. 2 pages.

Definite Atonement

Having seen the faultiness of the Arminian position on atonement, let’s look at how the Calvinist view of atone­ment is biblical and more positive than many think. Then we will answer some common objections to the Calvinist view.

Biblical and Theological Support for Definite Atonement🔗

Biblical terms, tenses, and testimonies make a sure case for definite atonement. Consider the following.

Biblical terms🔗

The Bible vividly describes what Christ did on the cross: He made a sacrifice; He made propitiation; He reconciled His people to God; He guaranteed the redemption of His own; He gave His life a ransom for many (but not all); He bore the curse of those for whom He died.

But do the biblical concepts of sacrifice, propitiation, rec­onciliation, redemption, ransom, and curse-bearing support Calvinism’s assertion that Christ secured salvation, or do they support the Arminian notion that Christ made salvation pos­sible through His death?

Arminianism does injustice to the basic biblical concept of redemption, which has its roots in the deliverance of the people of God out of Egypt. Redemption did not merely make their release from Egyptian bondage possible, it brought them out of bondage into the place of God’s appointment. Likewise, with propitiation, God’s wrath is satisfied by the offering up of sacrifice, and once His wrath is satisfied, it turns away. A ransom releases the one for whom it is paid. Therefore, the onus is on anyone who says that Christ’s death did not actu­ally secure the salvation of a defined group of people to show that his view does justice to these biblical terms. Arminianism does not do that.1

Biblical tenses🔗

The very nature of Christ’s work is reconciliation. Hebrews 9 tells us that He has obtained redemption for us. Romans 8:29-30 speaks of Christ’s work with such certainty that Paul can use the aorist tense for all of his main verbs, speaking as if even glorification is already accomplished. Ephesians 5:25-27 tells us that Christ so loved the church that He gave Himself for it, not that He might make it a redeemable or perfectible church, but that He might redeem her in order to present her as His bride before His Father as a glorious church. Clearly, the intent of His death was nothing less than the completed salvation of every one of those for whom He died. Titus 2:14 says He “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”

Biblical testimonies🔗

The definiteness of the atonement of Christ can be affirmed irrevocably from biblical testimonies. The Bible speaks clearly of Jesus laying down His life for His sheep (John 10:11-13). In that context, He says of certain people, “Ye are not of my sheep” (v. 26). Scripture also speaks of Christ laying down His life for the children of God (John 11:51-52); dying for His church (Eph. 5:25-27; Acts 20:28); saving His people (Matt. 1:28); giving His life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28); seeing His seed (Isa. 53:10; Psalm 22); and redeeming His own from iniquity (Titus 2:14) — all as having already happened (Rev. 5:9).

In sum, Christ died to satisfy the justice of God for His people’s sins. He saved a definite number of people whom He refers to as His people, His sheep, and His elect (Matt. 1:21; John 10:11-15; Rom. 8:28-39). As with God’s election and the Spirit’s calling, Christ’s atonement is efficacious. His sacrifice of His life saves the life of His sheep. This precious life is not laid down in vain for just any sheep (John 10:10). Jesus did not die to make salvation possible for all; He died to make salvation of His sheep certain. He is the Good Shep­herd who knows His sheep and gives “his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). This little word for indicates a direct exchange; a definite one for a definite many. Not one part of the sacrifice was in vain. Here, surely, is the glorious truth of a certain, though limited, atonement, for Jesus also bluntly declares to some unbelieving Israelites, “Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep” (John 10:26).

The doctrine of limited atonement does not mean that Christ’s death is limited in power. A. W. Pink said, “The only limitation in the atonement arises from pure sovereignty; it is a limitation not of value and virtue, but of design and application.” Christ died for the people whom God the Father elected and for whom Christ Himself intercedes. John 17:9 says Christ intercedes specifically and exclusively for those people:

I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.

Christ died to save only His elect. That does not mean there is any insufficiency in His atoning blood. Because Christ is infinite God, His blood provides infinite satisfaction for the justice of God. If God had determined to save myriads more than He did, no more of Christ’s blood would have been required. Then, too, if He had died only for one, He would have had to suffer no less, since all sin is against an infinite God and demands infinite payment from the Mediator. But though Christ’s blood is sufficient for all, it is efficient only for the elect.2It accomplishes its purpose; whomever Christ died to save will be saved. “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11).

The good news of Christ’s definite atonement is that it means He is a complete Mediator. He both merits and applies salvation. Both are necessary because we are unable to do either. Christ must be a full Savior because sinners are spiritually dead and independently receive a Christ presented to them. Though Christ has merited everything, God’s people know that they have no legs to run to Him, no arms to embrace Him, no lips to kiss Him. He must do everything — both the meriting and the applying. Thus He receives all honor and glory as the Alpha and Omega for His own.


  1. ^  See A. W. Pink, The Satisfaction of Christ: Studies in the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001), 158 –226; W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (New York: Scribner, 1888), 2:378-409; and John Owen, The Works of Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 10:87-108.
  2. ^  See Belgic Confession of Faith, Art. 21; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 37; Canons of Dort, Head II, Art. 3.

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