Definite/Limited Atonement

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 2 One of the doctrines of grace is the biblical teaching that Jesus died to redeem his sheep, God’s people, the elect.  For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism says that “redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it, who are in time by the Holy Spirit enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel” (WLC Q/A 59).

Not all Christians agree with this statement.  And, of course, the words of the WLC are neither inspired nor infallible, nor are they of highest authority.  What does the Bible say?  That’s the main question.  I do believe that the WLC phrase, though not inspired, accurately echoes the truth of Scripture: Christ died to actually redeem the elect.  Francis Turretin (d. 1687) wrestled through this issue, and found some great Biblical proof for it.  I’ve put the biblical proof below (though I have edited Turretin’s words for length).  The fact that Christ died for the elect is shown…

  1. From the restriction of his death to certain ones.  The mission and death of Christ are restricted to certain ones: his people, his sheep, his friends, his church, his body (Mt. 1:21, Eph 5:23, John 10:15, John 15:13, John 11:52, Eph. 5:25-26).  If Christ died for each and every person, why do the Scriptures so often restrict his death to a few?  True, some Scriptures extend his death to all.  However, that universality is not absolute, but limited – one which respects the classes of individuals, not the individuals of classes.

  2. From the restriction of his death to those given to him by his Father.  Christ was given and died for no others than those who were given to him by the Father.  Christ was given to men for the purpose of saving them and men are given to Christ that through him they might be saved (Is. 9:6, 49:6, John 6:37, 17:2, 6, 12).  Those given to him by the Father are called the people whom he foreknew (Rom. 11:2), heirs and children of promise (Rom. 9:8), the spiritual seed of Abraham (Rom. 4:13, Gal. 3:8, 16, etc.), vessels of mercy prepared for glory (Rom. 9:23-24), those chosen in Christ and predestined to adoption and to conformity to his image (Rom. 8:30, Eph 1:4-5).

  3. From the connection between his satisfaction and intercession.  Christ as priest makes intercession for those whom he made satisfaction.  Just like he died for those whom the Father gave him, so he intercedes for the same and not for all people (John 17:9).  Just like his satisfaction was effectual, so is his intercession.

  4. From the inseparableness of the gift of the Son and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For since these two gifts are given by God to us for our salvation are always joined in Scripture as cause and effect, they must be of equal extent and go together so that the Son is not given to acquire salvation for any others than those to whom the Spirit was given to apply it (John 16:7, Gal. 4:4, 6, Rom. 8:9, 1 John 3:24).  The Son died for the elect alone, and the Spirit is given to the elect alone.

  5. From the supreme love of Christ.  He so dearly loved those for whom he died that a greater love cannot be conceived (Jn. 15:13, Rom. 5:7, 8).  This cannot be said of each and every person, since all can see that Peter was more beloved by Christ than Judas.  It is inconceivable how it can be said that he loved those most dearly whom as an inexorable Judge he had already delivered up (or was about to by decree) to Satan to be eternally tormented.

  6. From the nature of Christ’s surety.  This truth implies that Jesus died in our place.  He was our surety, and he transferred to himself all of our debt, and wiped it away completely.  It cannot be said that some whom he died in the place of still are subjected to eternal punishment for sin.  For if the debt has been paid by Christ our surety, we are forever free from it (Is. 53:5, 6, 2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 3:13).

  7. Because he procures salvation for those only to whom he applies it.  He procured salvation for and applies it to the elect alone.  Jesus’ death was appointed by God in order that he might obtain salvation for us, and the procuring of salvation cannot be separated from the application of it.  If salvation is not applied to all, but only to the elect, then it was not obtained for all, but for the elect only.

  8. Because he did not merit faith for all.  Christ died for those only for whom he merited salvation and with salvation all the necessary means to obtain it – especially faith and repentance and the Holy Spirit, the author of both.  Jesus is called the author and finisher of our faith, he is the cause and foundation of all spiritual blessings, and he promised to give his people the gift of the Spirit (Heb. 12:2, Eph. 1:3, John 16:7).  As the Canons of Dort say, ‘Christ acquired for us faith and all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, by his death.’

  9. From the expiation of all the sins of those for whom he died.  If Christ died for all, then he expiated all their sins and therefore must have made satisfaction for unbelief and final impenitence, and so they will no longer stand in the way of such an application.  In other words, if Christ died for everyone, all their sins are forgiven, including the sins of unbelief and unrepentance.  But since this cannot be said of the reprobate, it is clearly inferred that Christ did not die for them.

  10. From various absurdities.  (Note: I’ll visit this one at a later date.)

Again, I’ve summarized Turretin’s helpful explanations.  And I’m not typing these out just to win a debate.  The truth of definite atonement is a comforting and practical truth!  Jesus didn’t just die to make salvation possible for me if I respond rightly.  He died to actually save me and my wandering heart.  He died to not only wipe away my sins, but give me his Spirit, faith, and repentance (he enables me to respond rightly!).  The salvation of my body and soul is not in my hands, but in Christ’s.  And for that I’m thankful; if Christ’s atonement were not definite, I’d screw it up and wrest it from his hands.  So the teaching of limited/definite atonement keeps me humble and makes me want to live for the One who saved me!

The above (edited) quotes from Turretin are found in volume 2 of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology (question #14).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

5 comments on “Definite/Limited Atonement

  1. DebbieLynne says:

    I’ve been making some feeble (and sporadic) attempts at blogging about Limited Atonement, so I found this helpful. I may reblog it and save myself some time!


  2. DebbieLynne says:

    Reblogged this on The Outspoken TULIP and commented:
    I came across this blog post Monday, and appreciated how much it brings to the conversation on Limited Atonement. I hope the included Scriptures prove helpful as you study this difficult doctrine.


  3. […] Presbyterian Church and services as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]


  4. […] Presbyterian Church and services as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]


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