Home > Brian's Blogs, Theology > The Canons of Dort Part 6: Limited Atonement

The Canons of Dort Part 6: Limited Atonement

There is no question that the issue of limited atonement is a major divide between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. The significance of this issue is even debated between Calvinists. In my previous post I outlined how the Canons of Dort explain limited atonement, now let me give some of my own commentary.

Let’s begin by defining “atonement.” I’ll use Wayne Grudem‘s definition: “the atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.” Grudem acknowledges that his definition is much broader than some who focus only on Christ’s death on the cross, but I like it. Now that definitions are out of the way…

Now let me make a couple of important points about doctrine. First, I believe in limited atonement. But, second, I do not believe that limited atonement is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Good Christians disagree on this issue and, if someone puts a gun to my head asking me to deny limited atonement, I will deny it in a second. So if you disagree with limited atonement, I have no problem with that. Third, lots of good Calvinists disagree on the significance of limited atonement. Some, such as Richard Mouw (President of Fuller Theological Seminary and former professor at Calvin Theological Seminary), believe it but doesn’t think it is all that important (he calls it a “shelf doctrine”). Neal Plantinga (President of Calvin Theological Seminary), on the other hand, believes it is very significant.

The point is this: let’s love one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ and not hate one another because of our views on limited atonement. This issue should not divide the church. So let’s enjoy a healthy debate over the issue, but let’s keep it in perspective!

With that definition and disclaimer out of the way, let’s get started.

Overview Thoughts

The issue of limited atonement was a very crucial issue in the debate between the Calvinists and the Arminians in the early 1600s. The two camps had a very significant difference of opinion on the effectiveness of Christ’s work. Notice the words of the Arminians:

  • “God the Father appointed his Son to death on the cross without a fixed and definite plan to save anyone by name, so that the necessity, usefulness, and worth of what Christ’s death obtained could have stood intact and altogether perfect, complete and whole, even if the redemption that was obtained had never in actual fact been applied to any individual.” In other words, Jesus’ death didn’t necessarily save anyone because he would have died on the cross if no one was saved.
  • “the purpose of Christ’s death was not to establish in actual fact a new covenant of grace by his blood, but only to acquire for the Father the mere right to enter into a covenant with men.”
  • “Christ, by the satisfaction which he gave, did not certainly merit for anyone salvation itself and the faith by which this satisfaction of Christ is effectively applied to salvation, but only acquired for the Father the authority or plenary will to relate in a new way with men.”
  • “God, as far as he is concerned, wished to bestow equally upon all people the benefits which are gained by Christ’s death; but that the distinction by which some rather than others come to share in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life depends on their own free choice.”

So the real issue is this: did Christ’s death effectively save anyone or merely make salvation possible? Calvinists believe it effectively saved some individuals, Arminians do not believe it effectively saved anyone. To quote the words of my former professor Dr. Bierma: “For the Calvinist, the atonement is a narrow bridge that goes all the way across the water. For the Arminian, the atonement is a wide bridge that only goes half way across the water.”

Sin Must be Punished

This section is really a repetition of the first main point of doctrine (unconditional election) and looks forward to the third man point of doctrine (total depravity). It is significant that the first two main points of doctrine begin with sin. Why is this significant? The five points of Calvinism are really based upon a high view of sin. Calvinists believe that sin is very, very severe. So severe, in fact, that it completely renders people incapable of returning to God on their own or avoiding God’s punishment on their own.

I agree with this view of sin. It is much more significant than many are willing to state today.

Christ Takes the Punishment for Our Sin

What I love about this section is the frequent “unlimited” talk about the atonement: the atonement is “entirely complete,” “is of infinite value,” and is “sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” In other words, Christ didn’t need to do anything more to save each and every individual that ever has or ever will live. He did it all! Limited atonement does not mean that the atonement (Christ’s work) is limited, it simply means that the application of the atonement is limited. The real debate is about application not accomplishment. Let us never dare limit the magnitude of Christ’s work on the cross!

But I think this speaks to some “four-point Calvinists.” There is a technical category for four-point Calvinists called Amyraldism. However, there are also many non-technical, popular four-point Calvinists who say something like this: “I believe that Christ’s work is sufficient for all but only applied to the elect.” I think this comment is made under the assumption that they are a little more gracious and theologically correct than five-point Calvinists. Well, sorry. You are simply repeating the exact theology of the Canons of Dort. Stop being ashamed and call yourself a five-point Calvinist!!!

Calling for Faith in Christ’s Work

There is also a common criticism directed against five-point Calvinists that a strong view of election and limited atonement limits the need for evangelism. The authors of the Canons of Dort would have none of this. In fact, they specifically mention the need to proclaim the gospel “without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people.” I think their theology is this: tell everyone about Christ, challenge everyone to believe in Jesus Christ, but only the elect will respond.

Christ’s Work Not Applied to Everyone

Here is the critical issue, so let’s review. The Canons of Dort believes:

  1. All people are sinful. All sinners deserve God’s wrath. Sin is so severe that no one can overcome sin on their own. Because of this, they reject the Arminian view that a person can use their free-will to come to faith in Christ.
  2. God sent Christ to overcome sins. The work that Christ did (the atonement), was effective. In other words, it DID something. It actually saved people! Because of this, they reject the Arminian view that it does not effectively save people.

So why is the atonement limited? Because, if you believe that the atonement is effective, you have to ask yourself, “for whom is it effective?” If the atonement is effective for everyone, then you have universal salvation. Most Christians do not believe in universal salvation. Therefore, you have to conclude that an effective atonement is applied to a “less than universal” number of people. Therefore, it is limited.

This makes sense to me.

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  1. a voice in the pew
    April 26, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Brian,
    do you think that we should change the words to that great old hymn to now read
    “Christ has for sin (limited) attonement made, what a wonderful Savior.” “(Some) are redeemed the price (for some) is paid, what a wonderful Savior.”

  2. April 27, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    A good observation on our hymns!!! But no, they don’t need to be changed for a couple of reasons: 1) the hymns merely speak of the sufficiency of the atonement, not the application of the atonement and 2) when they do speak of application, it is usually Christians (the elect) singing the hymns that are about Christians. So no problem with that one!!

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