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The Doctrines of Grace: TULIP Revisited
by Carol Berubee

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Limited Atonement, Part I

We have covered Total Depravity and Unconditional Election, saying that because man is depraved and unable to choose God while in his depraved state, God has chosen whom He will save based not on anything man has done or will do. So, when the Son of God, Christ Jesus the Lord, gave Himself over to death on a cross, for whom did He die? All people, or only His elect?

The argument has been made that because God desires that all would be saved, then He must have died for all, so that all people could have access to that atoning sacrifice. All they need to do is make the decision to accept that atonement that is just sitting out there waiting for them. The counter-argument is that when Christ died on the cross, He actually accomplished salvation for His elect, rather than only make salvation possible for all people. This counter-argument is called Limited Atonement, or Particular Redemption.

What is Limited?
People on both sides of the argument limit the atonement of Christ. The "Calvinists" limit the "quantity" of the atonement, if you will, while the "Arminians" limit the "quality." The "Calvinist" would argue that when Christ died, His sacrificial death actually purchased the salvation of a limited number of people, His elect, whom He foreknew before the foundation of the world. This position recognizes the effectiveness, in quality, of the atonement; that is, Christ actually accomplished what He set out to do -- to seek and save that which was lost. The "Arminian" would argue that Christ died for all people, not just His elect, but in doing so, the "Arminian" must limit the "quality," or "effectiveness," of the atonement. According to this rationale, the sacrificial death of Christ did not actually save anyone, but only made it possible for people to be saved (if they would exercise their free will and choose Christ), thus limiting the effect of Christ's death.

Both sides limit the atonement in some way, but which limitation is the Biblical one? To get to that answer, we need to see what actually occurred when Christ died on the cross.

A Scriptural Basis
Romans 5:8
"...while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

When Christ died on the cross, He died in place of us; that is, He actually took the penalty that we would have had to pay. If that is what occurred on the cross, and it was done for all people, then all people would be saved because in His death, He actually paid the penalty for sins. If the penalty was paid on the cross, then God would have no justification to punish people for their sins when they die. If Christ already paid the penalty for all people, then all people would be set free from the penalty of their sins. Rather, we see here that Christ paid the penalty for sins when He died and since we know that not everyone will be saved, then that penalty was paid for only the elect.

2 Corinthians 5:21
"For He (Father) made Him (Yeshua) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (Yeshua)."

When Christ went to the cross, Father had appointed Him to take away the sins of the elect. The doctrine of expiation says that Yeshua takes away sins. Father removed the sin and guilt of the elect and put them on His Son. The sins of the elect were imputed to Christ on the cross and Father punished Him for those sins. This means that the elect are no longer legally guilty. God is not justified in punishing those whom He has already set free through the death of Christ. If Christ's death removed the sin and guilt of all people, then all people would go to heaven.

Hebrews 1:3
"...when He (Yeshua) had by Himself purged our sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high."

Again, we see that Christ, by His death, purged the sins of the elect, after which He ascended to heaven. When He died on the cross, He actually and effectively purged sins. If He had purged the sins of all people, then all people would be free from the guilt of sin. Rather, He purged the sins of the elect; His atonement was limited to only those whom He foreknew.

Romans 5:10-11
"For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation."

When we were still enemies, we were -- past tense -- reconciled to God. When? At the death of His Son on the cross. When Christ died, the elect were reconciled to God. Paul then says that it is through Christ that the elect receive reconciliation. At the cross, the elect were reconciled, positionally, and when God regenerates the sinner, he receives that reconciliation, practically. If, when Christ died, it was for all people, then all people, positionally, would be reconciled to God.

Galatians 1:4
"[He]...gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age..."

He had a specific purpose in His death. His death takes away the sins of the elect and delivers the elect from this evil age.

Titus 2:14
"[He]...gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us...and purify for Himself His own special people..."

He died specifically to redeem His elect and knit together His Body, the Church (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27).

Hebrews 9:12
"[Yeshua]...once for all...obtained eternal redemption."

At that one moment -- death on the cross -- Christ obtained eternal redemption for His people. He died to save His elect; He actually accomplished what He set out to do on the cross.

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