In two previous articles, I introduced the Canons of Dort and considered the "first main point of doctrine," unconditional election. In this article we turn to the second, and perhaps most controversial of the "five points," the doctrine of "limited atonement," as it is most commonly known, or of "particular redemption," as I prefer to term it.1
Without any doubt this is the most disputed aspect of the summary of Scriptural teaching found in the Canons of Dort. It may have been the experience of some readers, as it has been mine, that you have encountered people who term themselves "four-point" Calvinists. These are people who are ready to confess unconditional election, total depravity, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. But they cannot abide the teaching that Christ's atoning work was designed and accomplished only for the elect. Typically, those who resist this component of Scriptural teaching argue that it is not consistent with the Biblical teaching that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." How, such objectors will frequently protest, can you preach the gospel to all people without discrimination, declaring that "God loves them and Christ died for them," when in fact God only loves the elect and gave Christ as an atoning sacrifice for them, but not for others?
Before prematurely responding to these objections, we need to begin with a summary of the teaching of the Canons on this point. Then, following the precedent of my previous article, we need to raise the all-important question: Is this the Bible's teaching? After having addressed these two matters, I will return to the two most common objections to this teaching.
The Position of the Canons
Of the five points of doctrine summarized in the Canons, the second is given the briefest treatment. Following the usual order, the framers of the confession begin with a positive statement of the Scriptural teaching and conclude with a refutation of errors.
In the first article the Canons begin with the basic Scriptural teaching that God, Who is not only "supremely merciful" but also "supremely just," demands that "the sins we have committed against His infinite majesty be punished with both temporal and eternal punishments, of soul as well as body." God, to be true to Himself, cannot abide sinful man's rebellion and defection from His just rule. There is no escape for the sinful creature from the consequence of this divine justice.
Within the setting of this fundamental and inescapable reality, the Canons affirm that the only possible way of escape for any sinful creature rests in the gracious provision through God's mercy of a Savior who has satisfied God's justice.
Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God's anger, God in his boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us.Article 2
No one can be saved unless Christ's satisfaction of God's justice through His work of atonement is credited to them.
Immediately after establishing the need for Christ's atoning work upon the cross, the Canons assert the infinite value and worth of Christ's satisfaction. There is nothing lacking in Christ's satisfaction. Indeed, it "is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins" and "is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world." The church, therefore, has the mandate to proclaim the gospel of salvation through Christ to "all nations and peoples, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel." In her discharge of this mandate, the church is called to proclaim indiscriminately that all who believe in Christ crucified and turn from their sins shall not perish but have eternal life. Consequently, those who do not repent and respond to this gospel call are themselves at fault, and they cannot charge the sacrifice of Christ offered upon the cross with any deficiency or insufficiency.
Having established the need for Christ's atoning work, and having affirmed its infinite value and sufficiency on the basis of which the gospel call is extended to all to repent and believe, the authors of the Canons set forth the central thesis of this second point of doctrine: God designed and Christ effected His atoning work for the elect in particular.
For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son's costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God's will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit's other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual ...Article 8
There is a perfect harmony in God's counsel and redemptive work, between His sovereign good pleasure to save His people and His gracious provision through Christ of the satisfaction required to redeem them. The Father wills to give to the Son those whom He purposed to save and whom the Son redeemed with His precious blood.
The Scriptural Support for this Position
In the text of the Canons, a number of Biblical texts are cited in support of the doctrine of limited atonement or particular redemption. Though by no means intended to exhaust the Biblical material underlying the Canons' affirmations, these texts reflect three prominent lines of Biblical evidence for the teaching of particular redemption.
1. The Nature Christ's Saving Work
The first line of Biblical evidence is found in those Biblical passages which describe Christ's atoning work as actually effecting and not simply making possible the salvation of His people. The Biblical terms describing Christ's atoning work can only be understood when they are taken to describe what Christ has done on behalf of His people, not what He would like to accomplish or make available to them.
Accordingly, when the Scriptures describe what Christ has accomplished on behalf of His people, they use expressions which enumerate blessings secured, not blessings yet to be obtained or hanging in the balance! We do not read that Christ made reconciliation obtainable; we read that Christ, by His redeeming work, secured reconciliation (compare Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18, 19; Ephesians 2:15, 16; Colossians 1:15, 16). We do not read that Christ made redemption possible; we read that He redeemed and purchased His people for Himself (compare Romans 3:24, 25; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Galatians 3:13). For example, in Colossians 1:13, 14 we read: "For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." Or again in Hebrews 9:12 Christ's sacrifice is described as one by which "He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption." Nor do we read that Christ came to initiate the salvation of His people; we read that He came to save them (compare Matthew 1:21; Luke 19:10; Galatians 1:3, 4; 1 Timothy 1:15).
If the terms employed in the Scriptures to describe the character of Christ's atoning work on our behalf — propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, salvation, and the like — only describe what He has made possible for all, then they lose their meaning! For example, if Christ propitiated the wrath of God against the sins of all men, then surely this means they are no longer under God's wrath and condemnation. Either Christ propitiated God's wrath for them or He did not; and, if He did, they have been delivered from any prospect of a wrath to come. The very nature of Christ's saving work requires that it either secure the salvation of those for whom it was done or be deprived of any saving effectiveness.
2. The Harmony between Father and Son
Another line of Biblical evidence supporting the teaching of particular redemption is found in those Biblical passages which reveal a harmony of purpose and work between the Father and the Son.2To put it more concretely, there is no evidence of a "working at cross purposes" between the Father, who purposed from before the foundation of the world to save His people, and the Son, whom the Father sent to redeem the elect and to whom He is pleased to give them as His rightful inheritance (compare Psalm 2).
In the gospel of John, Christ clearly reveals that He was sent by the Father into the world to save the people whom the Father would give to Him. Furthermore, those whom the Father gives Him will not fail to come to Him and none of them shall be lost. An emphatic declaration of this harmony of purpose and work between the Father and the Son is provided us in John 6:35-40:
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you, that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day."
In a similar vein, when describing Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep, Christ teaches that these sheep, whom He knows and who know Him, are precisely those whom the Father wills to give to Him.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep... I am the good shepherd; and I know My own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.John 10:11, 14-18
In these and other passages (compare John 10:24-29; John 17:1-11, 20, 24-26; Ephesians 1:3-12; Romans 5:12, 17-19), the priestly work of Christ in the redemption of His people accomplishes the purpose for which the Father sent and gave Him. There is not a hint of uncertainty about the objects (who are His sheep) or the perfection (will the Good Shepherd be able to save His flock) of Christ's saving work. The Father's will and purpose is invincible — He will give them to the Son. The Son's purchase of their redemption is certain — He has power to lay down His life and take it up again. There is a "regal" quality to the gospel descriptions of Christ's atoning purpose and work — like a conquering king He offers Himself a sacrifice to secure without fail the salvation of His people!3
3. The Particular Objects of Christ's Redemption
A third and final line of Biblical evidence supporting the teaching of particular redemption, is found in those passages which speak of Christ's atoning work on behalf of a particular or definite people.
The Scriptures do not present Christ's work as being done on behalf of an indiscriminate and indefinite people; they present His work as directed to the redemption of the elect, the "beloved" of God.
Before noting some of these passages, it should be acknowledged that there are also passages in Scripture which speak of Christ's saving work in very broad and general terms. Some of these passages speak of His work on behalf of the "world" (e.g.: John 1:9, 29; 3:16, 17; 4:42; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 John 2:1, 2; 4:14); others speak of His work on behalf of "all" men (e.g.: Romans 5:18; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; 1 Timothy 2:46; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9). Often critics of the doctrine of limited atonement will cite these passages as clearly refuting the idea that Christ's redemptive work was directed to the salvation of a particular people, the elect.
Unfortunately, I do not have the opportunity to provide a complete response to these objectors who appeal to these passages. However, it should be noted that these passages must be read in their immediate, Scriptural context. They must be understood according to the rule, "Scripture interprets Scripture." When these passages are interpreted in their context and according to this rule, it becomes evident that they only teach that Christ died for all men without distinction (that is, for Jews as well as Gentiles, for slave as well as free). Christ's atoning work effects the salvation of a new humanity, a people comprised of sinners from every tribe, people, nation and language. These passages do not teach that Christ died for all men without exception (that is, for the purpose of saving each and every sin sinner).4
In the context of the teaching of the whole of Scripture (totes Scripturae), there are a great number of passages which clearly delimit the design and effect of Christ's atoning work to a particular people whose salvation He secures. Consider the following passages as a sampling:
Matthew 1:21, "for it is He who will save His people from their sins";
John 10:11, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep";
John 11:51-52, "he (Caiaphas) prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad";
Acts 20:28, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood";
Ephesians 5:25, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her";
Romans 8:32-33, "He Who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect?"
Hebrews 9:15, "He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that ... those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance";
and Revelation 5:9, "And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."
In this connection, it is also instructive to observe how the language of Scripture restricts God's redemptive love in Christ to His chosen people. Consistent with those passages which speak of Christ dying for a particular people whose salvation He secures with His own precious blood, this language is particular and definite. To cite but two examples, notice the way the saints are addressed in 1 Thessalonians 1:2,4 ("We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers ...knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you") or in Colossians 3:12 ("as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved"). These kinds of expressions appear almost incidental to us, but they reflect a profound awareness of the particularity and definiteness of God's love in Christ for His own. Just as a husband sets his affection and love upon his own wife and upon no other, so the Lord, being a perfectly faithful bridegroom, sets his affection and love upon the church, His bride.
Two Common Objections
Earlier I referred to the fact that this point of doctrine, particular redemption, is the most disputed and often refuted of the five points of doctrine summarized in the Canons of Dort. Though we cannot enter into the full debate over this subject, there are two common objections to this teaching that we need to consider.
1. Christ's Atonement is Limited
The first of these objections is that the doctrine of particular redemption improperly limits Christ's atoning work. If Christ's redemptive work is limited in its extent to the elect, those whom the Father purposes to save and gives to the Son, then its value is diminished. Such a limitation upon the extent of Christ's atoning work belittles what He has accomplished for all men.
At first glance this objection seems to have some punch. However, upon closer examination it loses its persuasiveness.
In the first place, the Canons emphatically affirm the value and sufficiency of Christ's atoning work to save every sinner without exception. The authors of the Canons begin their treatment of this point of doctrine by underscoring just this truth — there is nothing lacking in Christ's atoning work.
Moreover, some limitation upon Christ's work of atonement is unavoidable, unless we become "universalists" and teach the salvation of all. The Remonstrant or Arminian position limits Christ's work of atonement in respect to its effectiveness and security. According to the Remonstrant position, Christ's saving work was designed to make salvation possible for all men, provided that they respond in faith and repentance. In itself the atoning work of Christ did not and does not secure or guarantee the salvation of any one in particular. Furthermore, since the Remonstrants admitted that not all are finally saved, they also were compelled to acknowledge that, however possible the salvation of all may be on the basis of Christ's atoning work, Christ's work was actually only an atonement for those who believe!
The Canons, summarizing the teaching of Scripture, affirm by contrast that the atoning work of Christ is fully and completely effective on behalf of all those for whom it was accomplished. Though this might be termed a "limitation" upon the extent of the atonement, this is not so much a doctrine of "limited" atonement as it is a doctrine of "definite" atonement. For this reason, I prefer the language of "particular redemption," for it removes any suggestion of deficiency with respect to Christ's saving work. The Reformed, Biblical position teaches that Christ's atoning work fully secures that for which it was designed. Or, to employ an analogy offered by Boettner, for the Canons the atonement of Christ "is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge that goes only half-way across."5
2. The Indiscriminate Preaching of the Gospel is Undermined
Another objection, perhaps even more common than this first one, to the doctrine of limited atonement, alleges that it undermines any motive for the indiscriminate preaching of the gospel. How, those who raise this objection ask, can the gospel be preached to everyone without distinction, "promiscuously" to use the language of the Canons, when Christ died only for the elect? How can the minister of the Word declare the good news of Christ's death on behalf of sinners, when many to whom the gospel is preached were not included in the design nor will they benefit from Christ's work of atonement?
Though this particular objection played a major role in the "love of God controversy" in the Christian Reformed Church during the 1960's,6I fail to see its force. Those who object to the teaching of particular redemption argue that this hinders an aggressive presentation of the gospel and prevents the minister from declaring to any and all, "God loves you and Christ died for you."
On both counts this objection fails. In the first place, the greatest possible encouragement to an unhindered proclamation of the gospel derives from the confidence that by this means Christ will unfailingly communicate the benefits of His atoning work to all those whose salvation that work secured! What a great encouragement to the missionary calling of the church — to be privileged to declare the unsearchable riches of God's grace in Christ, Who has ransomed for Himself through His atoning sacrifice a vast multitude whom no man can number from every tribe, tongue, people and nation! The preaching of this gospel does not have to labor under the impossible burden of persuading people to do for themselves what Christ has left undone. Rather, it can call all without distinction to believe in Him as a complete and perfect Savior of His people!
In the second place, there is no authorization, either by way of direct command or apostolic example, for any preaching of the gospel which indiscriminately declares to everyone, "God loves you and Christ died for you." Such a declaration is palpably false, even on an Arminian basis (for Christ finally dies only for those who benefit from His death). The gospel proclaims the death of Christ to all sinners, promising the benefits of this death only to those who believe and repent! Hence, the gospel is to be preached, not as a comfort blanket thrown over all assuring them of Christ's death on their behalf, but as an urgent appeal, commanding all to repent (Acts 17) and to turn to Christ in faith. Only within the framework of such a repenting and believing is the minister of the gospel authorized to declare with confidence the love of God and the riches of His mercy toward us in Christ.
When a Reformed believer reflects upon the Scriptural teaching of particular redemption, he realizes quickly that nothing less than the glorious perfection and effectiveness of Christ's saving work is at issue. However controversial and disputed may be this point of the Canon's summary of Scriptural teaching, then, the Reformed believer must cling tenaciously to this point as well as the others.7
Why? Because the gospel message is good news, not of a Savior who does what He can for us, but of a Savior who saves to the uttermost. Because the gospel message is focused upon a perfect Savior, the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and whose sheep hear His voice. These sheep belong to that precious flock whom the Father has promised to give to the Son and whom no one can snatch from His hand. This is a gospel whose Savior is worthy of praise unending and whose comfort is sure. Indeed, it is the only gospel that may be preached with confidence to the nations!