Anyone who knows me or has read my blog knows that I believe very strongly in Reformed theology, including the doctrines of grace (or, as they are sometimes termed, “Calvinism”). There has been a bit of a resurgence of interest in the doctrines of grace in the past few years, and many younger evangelicals have come to agree with these teachings. However, there also many who want to accept most of them, but who reject one of the tenets of Calvinism known as “Limited Atonement.”
Limited atonement, or as it is sometimes called, Particular Redemption, teaches that Jesus came intentionally to save those whom God has chosen to be saved, and that therefore his death on the cross paid for the sins of those people only. Thus it would not be accurate to say that Jesus died for every single person, but rather for his people. Obviously, we don’t know all of who those people are, and so we proclaim the good news of Jesus to all people. But nonetheless, we believe that those for whom Jesus died will truly be saved.
My point today is not to defend that doctrine. That is an important discussion, and I do believe that the Scriptures are clear on the issue. However, I am often faced with this question about limited atonement: why does it matter? In other words, what’s the big deal? Why should we care?
There are, I think, significant theological reasons that make this doctrine very significant, but those also are not my purpose now. I want to look at simply one practical implication of limited atonement.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is talking about the issue of brothers and sisters in Christ who have different convictions about issues, using the language of “weak consciences.” He encourages the believers to not be a stumbling block to others in their own choices. And then in verse 10-12, he makes an interesting point:
For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
Notice the reason that Paul gives for not being a stumbling block to a brother: he is one for whom Christ died. In other words, how can you trample on another brother so as to cause him to sin when he is one of the very people for whom Christ’s precious blood was spilt? How can you not take great care to love and build up that brother rather than tear him down?
Thus limited atonement, the teaching that Jesus died for his elect, ought to be one of the greatest motivators of church unity that we have. Jesus died for our brothers and sisters. That fact ought to give us great pause in the midst of conflict, in the midst of division, in situations requiring reconciliation. The doctrine ought to be a motivator to greater love and kindness for those who name the name of Christ.
Ironically, those who hold to limited atonement have at times had the label of being ungracious and unloving in the way they present their beliefs. All we can say to that is what Paul says about sin abounding in Romans 6: may it never be! Perhaps one way to see whether or not we have really understood limited atonement is to see if we can present in such a way that our love for the brothers and sisters for whom Christ died simply shines through. And perhaps, when we Reformed people explain what we believe to be Scripture’s teaching on this topic, this ought to be a repeated reminder to make sure that right beliefs are ever accompanied by right behavior.