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Is Christ's Atonement Limited?

posted Dec 7, 2013, 11:55 AM by Joe Wagnell   [ updated Dec 7, 2013, 11:56 AM ]
Reformed understanding of Romans 5 
This post is in response to an article titled Limited atonement—is it biblical?

My brother posted the picture to the left on Facebook, and in reading through the comments, I decided to write a blog post rather than responding on Facebook.

Firstly, I would comment that the doctrine of limited atonement is actually a red herring. The scope of Christ’s atonement does not equal the scope of salvation as the author of Limited atonement—is it biblical? argues. John makes it abundantly clear that our salvation is based on our position in Christ: those that have (believe) the Son have life (John 3:16,18,36, I John 5:21.) In fact, it’s not limited only to John’s writings but is found throughout the Old and New Testaments (Habakkuk 2:4, Mark 16:16, Romans 1:17, Hebrews 3:18-19). Look specifically at John 3:36 and Hebrews 3:18-19. Both of these texts make it abundantly clear that people are condemned because they did not believe in Christ, which DIRECTLY contradicts the doctrine of limited atonement. “A major problem with unlimited atonement is that i[t] makes redemption merely a potential or hypothetical act. An unlimited atonement means that Christ’s sacrifice is not effectual until the sinner does his part in believing… In effect, it [unlimited atonement] makes God unjust. Either God punishes people for the sins that Christ atoned for, or Christ’s atonement was somehow lacking in that it does not sufficiently cover all the sins of those for whom He died.” 

Secondly, I would add that the picture is an accurate representation of Limited Atonement, along with all the negative connotations. Romans 5:18-19 reads "Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous." The irony of the picture is that it completely encapsulates the false conclusions of limited atonement. Reformed theology vigorously defends the depravity of all human kind but completely ignores the redemptive work of Christ for ALL humankind, even though both doctrines are so clearly linked in these two verses.

The author of Limited atonement—is it biblical? quotes a bunch of verses which talk about Christ dying for “the elect” but plays word games by saying that the word “all” does not mean "all" for the verses which make a clear distinction between believers and non-believers. For example, in 1 John 2:2 and John 4:41, “world” is translated from the Greek word κόσμου (cosmos) which literally means the whole world or all of creation. However, in Luke 2:1, “world” is translated from the Greek word οἰκουμένην (oikoumenay) which means inhabited world and was used to draw a distinction between the “Greek inhabited world” and the “barbarian inhabited world." My biggest problem is that there are many Greek scholars in the reformed camp, yet deceptions like this readily abound. Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 and 1 Timothy 2:6, " who gave himself as a ransom for all," are mentioned in the article but are included with the “world” argument. The usage of the Greek word πασ (pas) is completely ignored, which incidentally means individually, each, every, or all.  How can Reformed theology explain/translate/reconcile the "all people" as sinners in Romans 5:18a and a "righteous act...leading to life for all people" in Romans 5:18b? 

Consider the following quote from the article: "The vicarious atonement of Christ means He was acting as a representative for a specific group of people (the elect) who would receive a direct benefit (salvation) as the result of His death. This concept is clearly seen in 2 Corinthians 5:21 'He [God the Father] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.' If Jesus actually stood in my place and bore my sin on the cross as the Bible teaches, then I can never be punished for that sin. In order for Christ’s atonement to truly be a substitutionary or vicarious atonement, then it must actually secure a real salvation for all for whom Christ died." I would agree with this quote right up to the concluding sentence. At this point, the author abandons scripture and attempts to draw a logical conclusion to support his theology.

We can see that scripture does not support this conclusion by looking at the verses previously mentioned. However, let us look at Hebrews chapter 10, particularly verses 10, 14, and 29. In verse 10 we read, “we are sanctified” and in verse 14 we read “them that are sanctified.” I looked at nine English translations, and they all use either the phrase "sanctified" or "made holy," and the context clearly refers to the sanctification of believers which was made possible by Christ’s sacrifice (or atonement, see vv 11-12, 17-18,19). Now look at verse 29: “How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace?” This verse has in mind those that have rejected the gospel (v26) and thus have no hope of salvation (v26) and are reserved for fiery judgment (v27) but have still been sanctified (made holy) by Christ’s blood (v28). The same Greek verb (ηαγιαζο) is used in all three verses, regardless of whether the believer or the unbeliever is in view. Christ’s atonement was even for those who rejected the gospel.  How can Reformed theology explain/translate/reconcile these verses if they equate Christ's atonement of sin with salvation? 

The problem with arguing about TULIP (Reformed theology) is that it turns into just that, arguments based on man’s logic rather than adhering to the Word of God (truth). Reformed theologians cannot give a SINGLE verse that unequivocally states that Christ’s sacrifice was/is limited only to the elect. The author talks about “unlimited atonement” not being logical. But what is not logical is that a holy God would send His one and only Son (One wholly undeserving of death) to die on the cross for our sins (the ones who crucified Him) and that God knew and planned all of this before He created this cosmos (John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Acts 2:23).