The doctrine known as limited atonement, or in some circles ‘definite atonement’, isn’t talked about much; even among its proponents. It is ‘hard teaching’ who can hear it? If you’re unaware, limited atonement is the teaching that: God determined in Christ, in unconditional election, to only atone for, or to only die for those that God had previously elected to be his children; in the pre-temporal council of his inner/eternal life. The Post Reformation Reformed Orthodox theologians[1] reached back into the medieval past and took the logically-deductive phraseology of Peter Lombard that: Christ died ‘sufficiently’ for everyone, but only ‘efficaciously’ for the elect; i.e. they wanted to make sure to affirm God’s sovereignty in a dual-way. In other words, by claiming that what Christ did at the cross was sufficient for all, they could affirm that God’s work in Christ is effulgent enough to cover the sins of the whole world (thus he is sovereign in that sense — the reach of his Triune life); but in order to maintain the particularity of God’s sovereignty in salvation it was imperative for them to argue that those for whom Christ ‘efficaciously’ (or actually) died for will be “eternally justified” thus demonstrating the sovereignty of God’s choice in salvation.[2]

David and Jonathan Gibson in their edited volume From Heaven He Came and Sought Her define limited or definite atonement (as they call it) this way:

The doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. The death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone.[3]

They expand on what is involved in limited atonement further:

… the saving work of God is circumscribed by God’s electing grace and purpose. That is, God’s redemptive love and divine initiative shape and guide the other moments of salvation. God’s love toward his own in election and predestination is the fountainhead from which salvation flows. In this regard, there is an inescapable ordo within the divine decree…. before time, the triune God planned salvation, such that the Father chose a people for himself from among fallen human­kind, a choice that would involve the sending of his Son to purchase them and the sending of his Spirit to regenerate them. In the mind of God, the choice logically preceded the accomplishment and the application of Christ’s re­demptive work, and so in history it circumscribed them both. Louis Berkhof asks, “Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that only is the question.”[4]

The Gibson brothers, along with all classically Reformed people[5] answer Berkhof’s question in affirming that Christ only died for the elect. The Westminster Confession of Faith states this affirmation this way:

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin,  nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.  IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.  V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto;  and all to the praise of His glorious grace.  VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.  VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.  VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[6]

It is from this background theology that the more popular TULIP has taken shape.[7] What we are discussing in this post, primarily, is the ‘L’ in the TULIP. For the rest of this post we will attempt to offer an alternative account of Limited Atonement, but from a decidedly evangelical Calvinist perspective.[8]


Before we move onto an evangelical Calvinist alternative, let’s summarize where we’ve been so far. We have briefly sketched a definition of what Limited Atonement entails by noting that it is the belief that God elected certain individuals, of no merit of their own, for eternal life. We then touched upon the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and how that’s an important piece to understanding ‘why’ the classically Reformed, in particular, want to pursue the line of thought that leads to limited atonement. And then lastly we showed, from the history, how this theology and doctrine were articulated by the Westminster divines in the Westminster Confession of the Faith §Chapter Three.

Limited Atonement in Evangelical Calvinist Theology

Me and Myk Habets co-edited and authored a multi-author volume in 2012 entitled Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. We currently have a second volume forthcoming at the publishers entitled Evangelical Calvinism: Dogmatics&Devotion, be on the look-out for that in late 2016. In our first volume Myk and I co-wrote fifteen theological theses that he and I see as definitive for the type of evangelical Calvinism we endorse. Thesis eleven reads as follows (in full):

Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.

Evangelical Calvinism can genuinely preach the Good News to all that Christ has died for them and their salvation and has forgiven their sins. We affirm a universal atonement and forgiveness of sin through the finished work of Christ. This flows theo-logically from the implications of the Incarnation of Christ: the humanity he assumed was real ontological humanity, which included all of humanity.

According to Thomas Torrance:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity—that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact—nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not—even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it.

If we fail to accept this theo-logic, then we are left with the possibility that Christ could have assumed a particular (elect) humanity that was not truly representative of real sinful humanity which potentially injects Nestorianism into Reformed theology.

Torrance further surmises that there is no

suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that the perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: “not I but Christ”. . . .

This ties back into thesis 8, and the idea that Christ is primary over all creation; Colossians 1:15 is apropos, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The extent of the atonement is an interlocking reflection of the extent of his all encompassing life as the Triune God; no-one can escape the reach of God’s life of love and grace.[9]

This represents an evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement. It has particularity in the sense that it is limited to the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; i.e. the One for the many/all.

What will seem problematic for the critic of this is that it seems to suggest either a universalism (that all will be saved)—following the logical-causal-deductive reasoning that many in the classically Reformed wing think from—or on the flip side it seems to suggest an Arminian libertarianism wherein someone can reject God’s sovereign plan, thus thwarting God’s sovereignty in salvation. Thomas Torrance has a rejoinder to these ostensible quandaries:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[10]

But Torrance’s rejoinder most likely will not be persuasive to the critics of the modified Christ concentrated ‘limited atonement’ that evangelical Calvinists affirm. One of these critics is Kevin Vanhoozer; he writes in critique of evangelical Calvinism on this very point:

Torrance does not want to say that Christ died “sufficiently for all, but efficiently only for the elect.” However, what he does say, in agreement with John Cameron (1579–1625), is remarkably similar, namely, that Christ died “conditionally for all, absolutely for the elect.” The difference is important inasmuch as it describes two different ways of construing the plan of salvation, two different meanings of “the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). The outstanding challenge for Evangelical Calvinists is to explain, from Scripture, how God elects all but not all are saved, for at present there is a troubling incoherence between the ontological objectivity of incarnational redemption in Christ and the non-universal scope of salvation, as well as confusion in the way they conceive the place of human faith and its relationship to grace. Specifically, does divine grace take the place of freedom, enable libertarian freedom, or secure freedom? As we have seen, human freedom is a libertarian link in the chain of Evangelical Calvinism’s ordo salutis, the weakest link that reintroduces the very contingency into the ordo that the notion of incarnational union was de-signed to eliminate.[11]

If you haven’t noticed yet, evangelical Calvinism’s view of Salvation starts with Jesus Christ and his vicarious humanity rather than the classically Reformed’s, Augustinianly conditioned view which starts from below with an abstract ‘mass’ of humanity who are separated from God, not simply because they are sinners, but in their natural constitution as creatures (in a ‘pure nature’). This is the point that Vanhoozer is critiquing when he states, “…at present there is a troubling incoherence between the ontological objectivity of incarnational redemption in Christ and the non-universal scope of salvation, as well as confusion in the way they conceive the place of human faith and its relationship to grace.” As evangelical Calvinists we maintain that humanity are ‘images’ of the ‘image of God,’ that we were originally made in this image, in Adam and Eve, and that when Christ came as the ground of all human being, he recreated what it means to be human being, from the ground up, in his vicarious humanity. Because Vanhoozer, and other classically Reformed people, are committed to a logico-causal-deductive form of reasoning, to their minds, just as the Gibson brothers illustrated for us earlier: 1) If God in Christ elects to redeem humans in his pre-temporal council, 2) and thusly, if God executes that election in history in his incarnation dying on the cross for those he elected, 3) then, those individuals whom he sovereignly elected will respond in faith to his unconditional offer of salvation. Extrapolating from this kind of “golden-chaine,” folks like Vanhoozer, the Gibsons, et al. believe that if Christ enters into humanity and by virtue of that choice dies for all of humanity, then it logically must follow that all of humanity will respond to the ‘irresistible grace’ of God actualized for them in Christ—so Vanhoozer thinks this must either lead to universalism, or if we as evangelical Calvinists reject that, he believes that we must then fall on the horns of Arminianism since we have now given to human beings the libertarian choice to reject God’s sovereign offer of salvation to humanity.

But this is only a dilemma if evangelical Calvinists are committed to the same kind of theological optics and hermeneutic that the classically Reformed are; we are not. As I noted, and as Vanhoozer characteristically and astutely noticed, evangelical Calvinists are committed to an ontological theory of salvation versus the declarational theory of salvation that the classically Reformed are. In other words we place a heavy emphasis on what some would consider an Eastern theological locus; we place a heavy emphasis on a doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ. Thesis eight from our edited volume reads (in full):

Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

As a direct result of thesis 5 and its concomitant doctrine of God, Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a broadly conceived supralapsarian Christology along the lines of that famously propounded by John Duns Scotus. That is to say that, Evangelical Calvinists embrace the idea that who God is for us in Christ is grounded in the pre-temporal reality of his choice to be for us apart from and prior to the “Fall” or even the creation itself. This, theo-logically coheres with the Evangelical Calvinist conception of God’s life being shaped by who he is as love, and thus both chronologically and logically places his love and his self-determining freedom as the primary mode of God’s life; and thus the basis from which he acts, even in wrath. As such an Evangelical Calvinist may confidently assert that: “There is no wrath of God that is not first experienced as the love of God for you.”

As one of us has argued elsewhere: “The sine qua non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis.” It is through this matrix that Evangelical Calvinists can be said to hold to a “supralapsarian Christology,” that is that we believe in God’s primacy over all of creation; and thus his choice to be for us is in Christ is not contingent upon sin, but instead it is the result of the overflow of who he is as the God for the other—God is Love!

The election of the eternal Son for us that occurs pre-temporally becomes temporally externalized in the Incarnation of Christ, and ultimately finds its resounding crescendo in being actualized through the cross-work of Christ, exemplifying that God’s life of over-flowing love is in fact cruciform in shape as it is revealed within the conditions of a post-lapsarian world.

In salvation God accomplishes multiple things but perhaps four may be pointed out here: 1) God’s glory is revealed; 2) God’s salvation is accomplished, 3) God’s judgment is made manifest, and 4) God’s damnation of the sinner outside of Christ is realized. All four of these components find their extrinsic locus in the person of Christ as the primary exemplar and mediator of God’s life for humanity. Each of these—God’s glory, salvation, judgment, and damnation—take on significance as Jesus’ God-shaped humanity brings God and humans together in himself. The Father is glorified through the Son’s loving submission as the scapegoat, sacrifice, and representative for fallen humanity; and through this ultimate act of the obedient love of the Son, the Father brings reconciliation (salvation) to humanity as Christ enters into the wilderness of humanity’s sin, bears the weight of that sin in his “being” for us; and thus suffers the tragic damnation that rightfully belonged to sinful humanity. Through this mediation of life for life (substitution), Christ not only pays the penalty for sin; but as a corollary with who he is as love, he reconciles humanity’s non-being with his resurrected being of life and thus brought God and humanity together in a spiritual union such that reconciled and adopted sinners may now experience the love of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Abba, our Father, and our worship, by the Holy Spirit, may be acceptable to God.

Supralapsarian Christology, correctly understood, does not reflect an Amyraldian, or a hypothetical universalism; but rather an actualized universal atonement which recreates humanity through Christ’s humanity, and provides salvation for all who will believe through Spirit generated, Christic formed faith. A purview that genuinely can claim to be “Christ-conditioned.”[12]

Hopefully this helps to clarify the “ontological” reality we see in Christ’s humanity for all of humanity, and how that implicates our view of salvation. For the evangelical Calvinist, if God in Christ chooses to become human (which as modified supralapsarians, we maintain that this choice to be human was freely made by God in Christ pre-temporally or before creation), if God in Christ is the imago Dei, then both in the original creation where Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, who is Christ, it will hold that in the re-creation or resurrection all of humanity will be re-created in Christ’s humanity.

The apparent dilemma, the one presented by Vanhoozer, and by implication, the dilemma presented by the classical Reformed position in general, is that evangelical Calvinists still seem to at least have to offer an explanation of how their version of a Christ conditioned limited atonement does not lead to either Christian universalism, or to some form of Arminian “free-will” libertarian freedom (understood rather philosophically). Since this post is about the length of four long blog posts put into one, I will have to offer the evangelical Calvinist answer to this dilemma, of human agency in salvation, in the next installment. Stay tuned.

[1] The Reformed theologians who followed the so called magisterial reformers, like Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, Viret, Knox, et al., who sought to bring Reformed exegetical thought into codified and coherent form for the Protestant academic setting.

[2] I.e. Those who he elected for salvation will respond to his offer of salvation in the affirmative. In this schema, if someone rejected God’s salvation offer to them, then God’s sovereignty in salvation would be thwarted and the logic of salvation (according to God’s absolute decrees) would be undercut. There’s also the issue of ‘double jeopardy’ which we will have to leave for another time.

[3] David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, “Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word: Mapping the Doctrine of Definite Atonement,” From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Publishers, 2013), 33.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Although we need to qualify this a bit, there was the teaching of Moises Amyrault who some call a 4 Point Calvinist; see Brian Armstrong. And then even at the famed Westminster Assembly there was an Anglican contingent led by Anglicans such as Davenant who only affirmed hypothetical universalism and thus not full fledged definite or limited atonement.

[6] WCF/III.

[7] Really TULIP theology took its most pointed shape from the theology articulated at the Canon of Dort where those who held Westminster theology stood against what they believed was the heresy being promoted by the Remonstrants (Arminians) in the Netherlands.

[8] Which for me means following Karl Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation, as well as Scottish theologian, Thomas Torrance.

[9] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 444-46.

[10] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2009), 187-88.

[11] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism),” in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars, eds. Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Germany, Tubignen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). [I have a PDF copy of KJV’s chapter and pagination does not match the book’s pagination]

[12] Habets and Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” 437-39.