Limited (Definite) Atonement

R.C. Sproul

The most common view of the atonement of Jesus is that Jesus died for everyone—that is, all people from all places in all times, every single human being that ever existed. But in order to take advantage of the benefits of the cross, one must first believe to be saved. Such a view is attractive, until we take a closer look at it. Dr. Sproul will look at this view in light of Scripture in this message entitled “Limited Atonement.”

We continue now with our study of the core doctrines of Reformed theology. We’ve been looking at the controversial “five points” of Calvinism. We’ve already looked at the T and the U in TULIP and all that’s left now is the LIP part. In this lesson, we are going to look at the L of TULIP, which stands for “limited atonement.”

Of all the five points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the most controversial and perhaps engenders the most confusion and consternation. Our friends in the dispensationalist camp have a tradition by which they call themselves “four-point” Calvinists. If you’ve heard that expression, “four-point Calvinism,” it usually means that there is a willingness to affirm four of the five doctrines of TULIP, and the one in which they demur is the L, limited atonement.

Sufficient for All, Efficient for Some

There is a lot of confusion about limited atonement. To try to straighten the confusion, let me say what limited atonement does not mean. Limited atonement does not mean that there is a limit placed upon the value or merit of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s traditional to say that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for all. That is, the meritorious value of the atonement is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly, anyone who puts their trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement.

It is also important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally. This universal offer of the gospel is another controversial point. On the one hand, the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of its preaching. On the other hand, it’s not offered universally in the sense that it’s offered to everyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents. And the merit of Christ’s atonement is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins.

One of the traditional ways of talking about this is to say that the atonement is sufficient for all but efficient for some. That is, not everyone actually receives the full benefits wrought by Christ’s saving work on the cross; namely, those who do not believe.

So far, all of those distinctions simply distinguish our theology from universalism. All who are particularists, that is, all Christians who are not universalists, would agree that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all and efficient only for some. So, that distinction between sufficiency and efficiency doesn’t really get to the point of this doctrine.

Definite Redemption

The doctrine of limited atonement is chiefly concerned about this: What was the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross? Was the Father’s intent to send His Son to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everybody, but also with the possibility that it would be effective for nobody? That is, did God simply send Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people? That’s what this doctrine has to do with: Was the atonement limited in its original design? Because of that, I’m going to have to fool around with our little acrostic TULIP again. As I did with the T and with the U, I’m going to mess with the L as well.

We prefer not to use the term limited atonement because it is misleading. We would rather speak of definite redemption or definite atonement, meaning that God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect. And even though Christ’s death is valuable enough to meet the needs of everybody, there was a special and unique sense in which He died for His sheep. He laid down His life for those whom the Father had given Him.

The problem that emerges from this technical point of theology in terms of God’s eternal decrees and His ultimate design for the atonement is often discussed in light of several passages in the New Testament, such as when it says that Jesus died for the sins of all the world, and so on. Incidentally, these difficult questions have been treated masterfully in what I think is the best treatment of this doctrine ever written, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by the Puritan theologian John Owen. If you have never read John Owen’s The Death of Death, I strongly commend it to you. It is a magnificent treatment of the grace of God, rich in biblical exposition, and deals with some of the difficult passages we encounter in the New Testament in great detail and with great brilliance.

“Not Willing That Any Should Perish”

One of those texts that often gets raised as an objection to the idea of definite atonement is found in the book of 2 Peter. In chapter 3, we read these words: “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8–9).

Do you feel the weight of this text with respect to the idea that, in some sense, God wills from all eternity that only the elect will receive the benefits of the atonement, as definite atonement teaches? The text seems to suggest that God is not willing that any should perish, but that He’s willing the salvation of everybody.

This text is handled in different ways by different theologians. I have a friend who is a theologian in another camp who has popularized the idea that God saves as many people as He possibly can. He’s done everything He can do to effect the salvation of the entire human race—He’s provided an atonement in Christ and an offer of the benefits of that atonement to all who believe. But in the final analysis, whether the atonement of Christ effects salvation rests upon some kind of human response, and God will not intervene in any way to sovereignly bring a person to faith in Jesus Christ. He made an appeal to this text that God is not willing that any should perish.

There are some ambiguities in this difficult text that have caused many biblical scholars and interpreters to scratch their heads. In fact, if you get ten commentaries on 2 Peter, the chances are you’ll get ten different interpretations of this particular passage. The problems have to do with understanding precisely two different words in this text. The first is the word “willing” and the second is the word “any.” Let’s look at the first one.

Three Ways of Speaking about God’s Will

“God is not willing that any should perish.” This is a specific reference to the will of God. In the New Testament, there are two Greek words that can be translated into English by the word will. Unfortunately, each of these words is capable of several different nuances. So, when you’re asking specifically what kind of willing is in view, you can’t settle the question simply by looking up the Greek text and looking at a Greek lexicon to find the meaning.

There are six or seven different ways in which the Bible speaks about God’s will or His willingness. For purposes of time, let me just take a few minutes to look at the three most frequent ways in which the Bible speaks of the will of God.

The Decretive Will

The first way the Bible speaks of the will of God is in terms of the decretive will of God. Some people call it the “sovereign efficacious will” of God; others call it the “ultimate will” of God.

This meaning for will has to do with that will of God by which God sovereignly brings to pass whatsoever He chooses to do. When God wills the world to come into existence, His willing of it makes it so. It is a sovereign decree that must come to pass. It can’t not come to pass, and it cannot be frustrated by any outside force. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the sovereign decretive will.

Now, let’s suppose 2 Peter 3:9 is using this meaning or nuance for the will of God. What would it mean that God is not “willing” that any should perish? If the “any” refers to “any person,” and if we translate it to mean that God decrees that no human being will perish, what would be the obvious conclusion? If God sovereignly decrees that no human person would ever perish, then manifestly no human person would ever perish, and this text would become the classical proof text for universalism.

But again, the debate about the text is not between particularists and universalists; it’s between parties who both affirm particularism, that not everybody is saved. So then, we look to other possible nuances for the word “willing.”

The Preceptive Will

The second most frequent way in which the Bible speaks of the will of God is what we call the preceptive will of God.

A precept is a law or a command. The preceptive will of God refers to the commands that God gives to people. The Ten Commandments would be an expression of the preceptive will of God. When God says, “Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me,” and so on, He’s setting forth His law. We cannot disobey the preceptive will of God with impunity, but we do have the power and the ability to break this law. So, there is a sense in which the preceptive will does not always come to pass because people don’t always obey it.

Now let’s apply this possible meaning to this text, that God is not willing in the preceptive sense that any should perish, meaning He doesn’t allow or give His sanction or His moral permission to people when they perish. There’s a sense in which that’s true. Since He commands all people to come to Christ, the failure to obey that command would be to violate His preceptive will.

I would say that is a possible interpretation of this text, and there are reputable theologians who assume this meaning of “willingness” to this particular verse. I personally think it’s somewhat awkward and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say, “You’re not allowed to perish.” And I don’t think that’s in the context. With the context, it seems all the more awkward.

The Will of Disposition

The third way in which the term will is used biblically with respect to God is what we call His will of disposition.

This is one of those anthropomorphic expressions that talk about the emotions of God, what pleases God, what causes God to be delighted, what causes God to grieve, and so on. We’re told elsewhere in Scripture, for example, that God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). He doesn’t get some great personal thrill out of sending people to hell, even though He wills to do it, just as a judge in the court may be required to send his own son to a life term in prison for the sake of maintaining justice. He would do it because it was the right thing to do, but he would do it with tears. He wouldn’t get any personal pleasure out of it other than the pleasure that justice is being maintained.

In the case of 2 Peter 3:9, the “willing” would be a reflection of God’s disposition. As the Bible says elsewhere, He takes no delight in the death of the wicked. This would mean that God is not willing in a dispositional sense that any should perish, but that all would come to repentance.

So, those are the three basic ways in which word willing can be used in Scripture. For me, finding which of these is most appropriate in 2 Peter 3:9 will be determined by the reference to the second questionable word, the word “any.” If Peter is talking about “any” as referring to all human beings in this world, then I would come to the conclusion that it could only mean the dispositional will of God. But I don’t think he is talking about “any” in this absolutely unrestricted sense.

Any What?

Any time we use the word any, we’re assuming some reference—any what? Any of which group? Peter doesn’t say that God is not willing that any “person” perish. We would have to supply that “person” as if it were tacitly understood. But is there any other possible reference to the “any” besides “any human being”?

There are other possibilities, not the least of which is a particular class. I’ll draw a circle here on the board and put the word people inside of it. If the word people makes up a distinctive class, then if I said, “Any of that class,” I would mean, “Any person.” Or I could have another class, a class called “Jews.” And if I spoke of that class, it would refer to anyone who is Jewish. I could do the same thing with Americans or any other group I could incorporate within that circle.

I think that Peter is talking about a group that is mentioned frequently in his epistle by the designation “elect.” Certainly, the Bible speaks frequently of the elect, and the elect make up a distinctive group. The question is this: Is Peter speaking about people? Is he speaking of the body of disciples of which Peter is a member? Or is he speaking of the whole number of the elect?

We remember in John’s gospel when Jesus mentions that none of those whom the Father has given Him will perish (John 10:27–29) and that they will all come to faith (John 6:37) so that everybody in that group of the elect is certainly going to be redeemed.

Peter is not specific about the group to which he’s referring with the word “any,” but he’s not utterly silent. If we look back at the text carefully, we read this in verse 9 of chapter 3: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering,” toward whom? “He is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

Grammatically, the immediate antecedent of the word “any” is the word “us.” I think it’s perfectly clear that Peter is saying, “God is not willing that any of us should perish, but that all of us should come to salvation.”

We’re still not finished with the problem because now we have to ask, Who is the “us”? In the broader context of his epistle, I don’t think he’s speaking of all mankind indiscriminately. Rather, the “us” or the “we” is a reference to the believers to whom Peter is speaking, believers in Jesus Christ.

Redemption Accomplished

I don’t think this text in 2 Peter 3:9 gets rid of the idea that God designed the atonement for a purpose which, by His design, must come to pass. I don’t think we want to believe in a God who is a spectator of the drama of redemption, who sends Christ to die on the cross and then stands there, crossing His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of it. Our view of God is different than that. Our view is that the plan of redemption was the eternal plan of God, which was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save His people is accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.