Biblical Defense of the Doctine of "Limited Atonement"

The following is from an email conversation I was having with a Christian brother. He asked me if I was a 5-point Calvinist and if I believe in "Limited Atonment." The following was my response.

I am definitely a 5-point Calvinist. Also, like you, "Limited Atonement" was the hardest one for me to come to terms with.

We so often hear about John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." and 1 John 2:2 "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" and 2 Peter 3:9 "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" and of course 1 Timothy 2:3-4 as you quoted.

The issue is, what is "the world?"

Does the "world" mean "every single person?"

Let's look at John 15:18: "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you." Does "the world" here mean "every single person? Of course not. Christians do not hate Christ, therefore "the world" is limited in scope. It means "all of a type of people" in this case "non-Christians."

In the same way, the term "the world" is used a number of ways in the Bible, and the context must be used to tell us which one is which.

A.W. Pink nailed it in his book The Sovereignty of God when he wrote:

"Thus it will be seen that "kosmos" has at least seven clearly defined different meanings in the New Testament. It may be asked, has then God used a word thus to confuse and confound those who read the Scriptures? We answer, No! nor has he written his Word for lazy people who are too dilatory, or too busy with the things of this world, or, like Martha, so much occupied with "serving", they have no time and no heart to "search" and "study" Holy Writ! Should it be asked further, But how is a searcher of the Scriptures to know which of the above meanings the term "world" has in any given passage? The answer is: This may be ascertained by a careful study of the context, by diligently noting what is predicated of "the world" in each passage, and by prayerfully consulting other parallel passages to the one being studied."

Did I tell you that I'm a Jewish believer in Jesus? Anyhow, as such, I am fascinated by the Hebrew roots of the Bible. During Jesus' day, there was a strong heresy that God would only save Jewish people. You see Paul battling this in Galatians when he tells the Galatian Jewish Christians that Gentile converts DO NOT HAVE TO BECOME JEWISH first in order to be saved. But during the first Century, the Jewish leaders were heavy proselytizers. They tried very hard to make Gentiles become Jewish. Jesus and the Apostles taught otherwise - that God saves Jews and Gentiles the same way - through faith in Christ. That's whay Paul uses terms like "first for the Jew, and for the Gentile" in Romans. Contrary to popular misconception at the time, God saves Jews and Gentiles the same way.

In John chapter 3, you have Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, and Jesus taught him, "For God so loved the world..." What Jesus was saying was, "For God so loved JEWS AND GENTILES that He gave His only begotten Son, that if Jews or Gentiles believe in Him, they should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Jesus was saying that the same gospel that saves Jews also saves Gentiles. Thus "the world" is a reference to salvation being offered to all tongues and nations and tribes and peoples - not just Jews.

The same is the case in 1 John 2:2: "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." Here John is talking to saved Jews, and he tells them that Jesus is the propitiation not just for Jews, but for Greeks, and Syrians, and Egyptians, and Romans, etc.

2 Peter 3:9 "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." This is commonly mistaught to mean that God wants everyone to be saved. But that's not a legitimate way to understand this passage. Peter is writing to new baby Christians who were being persecuted and kicked out of their land. Then they started dying - some by the sword, and some by old age. And it really bothered them. "What happens if we die before Jesus returns?" Peter comforted them with the truth that God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Or said another way, "God is not willing that any of you Christians who are being persecuted and dying should go to hell. Despite what happens to you, God will see to it that you remain in your faith and are truly saved."

This verse actually argues FOR the "P" in "TULIP" - Preservation of the Saints. God wil keep us in His hand and bring us to heaven. The context of Peter shows that the "all" is clearly "all Christians."

Finally, the verse you brought up, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 says " ...God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." If "al men" meant "every single human being" then what about Judas? What about Pharaoh? What about Ahab? We must conclude that "all men" means "all types of men."

Please consider the following:

Isaiah 53:8 says: "He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken." Did you see that? "for the transgression of MY PEOPLE." It does not say "for the transgressoins of every people." Christ's sacrifice was only for HIS PEOPLE, and HIS PEOPLE, Scripture tells us, are those who have faith in Christ. (Romans 9:6-8).

Also, the Father chose the church, and the Holy Spirit sealed the church. If Jesus died for every single person, then He is out of union with the rest of the Trinity. Rather Jesus died for the church, not every single person.

The atonement most certainly IS limited, either:

  • limited in power, or
  • limited in scope.

If Christ died for every single person, but not every single person gets saved, then the atonement is limited in power. It did not accomplish fully what Christ meant it to do.

If Christ died only for the church, then the atonement did EXACTLY what Christ wanted it to. It was fully powerful, but limited in scope.

I believe the Bible teaches the latter, not the former. The atonement is limited in scope, and NOT in power.

With all that said, whether one believes in Calvinism or Limited Atonement or not is secondary next to submitting to the true gospel.

If a man bursts into an emergency room of a hospital complaining of a splinter in his finger, all the while loosing tons of blood out of a gash in his neck, the doctor will IGNORE the complains about the finger, because the doctor knows the neck wound MUST be dealt with first.

In the same way, if someone is struggling with whether or not they are saved by water of a certain church (baptismal regeneration) as the ICOC teaches, and that same person also is interested in TULIP and limited atonement, I think it's MUCH MORE IMPORTANT to deal with baptismal regeneration rather than limited atonement.

Don't get me wrong, I think limited atonement is a worthy discussion (I spent a lot of time writing about it above) but salvation is infinitely more important.

God bless you!

in Christ our Hope,


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