Definite Atonement, Particular Redemption

For me, one of the most comforting doctrines of grace is the biblical teaching that Christ’s death actually accomplished salvation for his people.  In other words, Jesus’ atoning death didn’t merely make salvation possible – it actually saved people from sin and misery.  In Calvinism this is called ‘limited atonement,’ though I prefer the terms ‘definite atonement’ or ‘particular redemption.’  In Jesus words, he said that he laid down his life for his sheep whom no one can snatch from his hand (cf. John 10).  Elsewhere in scripture his people are called the “elect” whom no one can bring a charge against because it is God is the one who justified them (Rom. 8.33).  I’ve been enjoying Mike Horton’s book, For Calvinism, to prepare for an upcoming sermon series on the doctrines of grace, and his chapter on definite atonement is a great explanation of this truth.  Here are a few excerpts.

“All orthodox Christians maintain that the atonement is limited either in its extent or its nature.  Calvinists believe that it is limited (or definite) in its extent, but unlimited in its nature or efficacy: Christ’s death actually saved the elect.  Arminians believe that it is unlimited in its extent, but limited in its nature or efficacy: Christ’s death makes possible the salvation of everyone, but does not actually save any.”

“As the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen observed, every position that recognizes that some will finally be lost places a limit on the atonement at some point – either it is limited in its extent or in its effect.  Owen summarizes the points: Christ died for (1) all of the sins of all people; (2) some of the sins of all people, or (3) all of the sins of some people.  If unbelief is a sin and some people are finally condemned, there is at least one sin for which Christ did not make adequate satisfaction.”

Horton then gives some explanations that help prove the doctrine of definite atonement (I’ve summarized them):

“First, this view maintains that Christ’s death actually saves.”

“Second, this view emphasizes the relationship between the Trinity and redemption.”

“Third, this view places the focus entirely on Christ rather than on the believer.”

Near the end of the chapter Horton writes this (with which I’ll conclude).  It brings us back to the application of this doctrine: it is a great comfort for the Christian.

“…The depths of God’s love are revealed in the fact that he sent his Son to accomplish everything necessary to our salvation, not merely to make humanity ‘savable.’  He did not come halfway, as if to say, ‘I did my part, and now you need to do yours.’  Rather, he has carried his loving purposes all the way, accomplishing and applying redemption to those who were ‘dead in… trespasses and sins’ (Eph 2.1).”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, chapter 4.

shane lems

2 Replies to “Definite Atonement, Particular Redemption”

  1. Olsen made (what I thought was) a peculiar comment at the Biola talk. In the Q&A time, he was asked “Is unbelief was a sin and, if so, did Christ die for it?” His response was, “Yes, it is a sin and yes, Christ died for it … that is what makes hell such a tragedy – because it is completely unnecessary!”

    I was quite perplexed … to say the least!


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