04 August 2002

I'm taking a break from Thomas Aquinas and nominalism today. Instead, I'll post a few comments about the much misunderstood Calvinist doctrine of "limited atonement." This post is not designed primarily as a defense of the doctrine, but is merely an attempt to communicate precisely what that doctrine is.

The doctrine of "limited atonement" is best understood in light of several other doctrines: that Christ's work is infinitely sufficient, that God is omniscient and sovereign (including the doctrine of election), and that not all are finally saved. Together these doctrines pose a difficulty to which "limited atonement" is constructed as a resolution.

The "limit" on Christ's atoning work is not one of sufficiency. Sometimes some Calvinistic persons speak popularly as if the very quality and/or quantity of Christ's sufferings are somehow almost ecomonically limited so that, if God were to have chosen to elect more persons to salvation, the quality and/or quantity of Christ's sufferings would have to commensurately increase. But this is false and not the position any reputable Reformed theologian, who all maintain the infinite sufficiency of Christ's atoning work. As A.A. Hodge writes in his classic work, The Atonement:All Calvinists agree in maintaining earnestly that Christ's obedience and sufferings were of inifinite intrinsic value in the eye of law, and that there was no need for him to obey or suffer an iota more nor a moment longer in order to secure, if God so willed, the salvation of every man, woman, and child that ever lived...We unite with all other Christians in glorying in the infinite sufficiency of the satisfaction of Christ to reach and to save all men who have been or who will be created or creatable. (356)Christ's work is not limited in itself but in the omnisciently known and sovereignly ordained benefits that it was intended to effect. Thus the "limit" on Christ's atoning work, in Reformed thought, is one of divine intent. Christ's work, while infinitely sufficient and thereby providing a foundation for his genuinely offering grace to all, only accomplishes, in the end, precisely what God knew, ordained, and therefore intended for it to accomplish.

This does not mean, however, that Christ's atoning work accomplishes nothing within the intention of God for those who are not finally saved. In mainstream Reformed views, Christ's work accomplishes everything that God intends for it to accomplish, including a great many benefits for those who do not benefit from that work unto final and eternal salvation. Thus John Murray (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary) writes in his essay, "The Free Offer of the Gospel," that "...all the good dispensed to this world is dispensed within the mediatorial dominion of Christ...he is given this dominion as the reward of his obedience unto death (cf. Phil. 2:8, 9), and his obedience unto death is but one way of characterizing what we mean by the atonement" (63-4).

Given this fact, there is a sense in which a Calvinist can truly affirm that Christ died for all people, even those who are not elect. Thus Murray writes, "even the non-elect are embraced in the design of atonement in respect of those blessings falling short of salvation which they enjoy in this life...it would not be improper to say that, in respect of what is entailed for the non-elect, Christ died for them" (64). This too, then, falls within what God intended Christ's atoning work to accomplish.

Given biblical texts such as Hebrews 10:29 (which speaks of a "sanctification" experienced by those who come to faith only for a time), there are even benefits of Christ's work included within the intent of the atonement that are analogous to those same benefits that the elect experience unto final salvation. Again, Murray writes:Whatever may be the particular complexion of the sanctification in view [in Hebrews 10:29], there can be no question but that it is derived from the blood of Christ and, if so, it was designed to accrue from the blood of Christ. The benefit was only temporary and greater guilt devolves upon the person from the fact that he participated in it and then came to count the blood by which it was conveyed an unholy thing. But, nevertheless, it was a benefit of the blood of Christ procured, and procured for him. We must say that, to that extent Jesus shed his blood for his benefit. (64-5)Nonetheless, Reformed theologians are reticent to describe these benefits experienced by the non-elect in terms of "salvation," at least most strictly speaking, with reference to complete and final salvation. So, Murray writes:...the fruits of the atonement enjoyed by some non-elect persons are defined in very lofty terms..In this sense, therefore, we may say that Christ died for non-elect persons. It must, however, be marked with equal emphasis that these fruits or benefits all fall short of salvation, even though in some cases the terms used to characterize them are such as could properly be used to describe a true state of salvation. These non-elect persons, however reforming may have been the influences exerted upon them and however uplifting their experiences, come short of the benefits accruing from the atonement, which the truly and finally saved enjoy. (68)This is where the "limit" in "limited atonement" emerges, in terms of the final efficacy of the atoning work of Christ for salvation. Thus Murray goes on to qualify his remarks, adding that "the non-elect do not participate in the benefits of the atonement and the elect do...non-elect enjoy many benefits that accrue from the atonement but they do not partake of the atonement" (69). The atonement, threfore, "was designed for, and for those only, who are ultimately the beneficiaries of what it is in its proper connotation..." and in that strictly defined sense Christ "did not 'die for' the non-elect" (69).

Thus, clearly "limited atonement" is a theological term of art, with the term "atonement" being used in a specialized way. But as with many systematic-theological concepts, we cannot simply assume that the way it functions within a dogmatic system exactly maps onto how the same term functions within particular biblical authors. Nonetheless, the underlying truth that the doctrine is designed to protect is clear: God is ominscient and sovereign and what he accomplishes through the infinitely sufficient work of Christ happens in accordance with his intent in election, which is not thwarted by the freedom of the creature (though that freedom is not violated either).

Though I've quoted John Murray at length, similar teaching can easily be found in A.A. Hodge, Ussher, Witsius, Turretin, and other Reformed theologians, representing, therefore, the mainstream of Reformed thinking on the topic.