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It is sad to say that the precious doctrine of limited atonement is reviled by some. John Wesley and company used to refer to Calvinism as the “doctrine of demons,” and surely limited atonement was seen as the crown jewel in Satan’s coronet. This is a tragedy because this doctrine reveals to us the heart of Christ as He lay upon the cross. It is a window into God’s very goodness, not the lack thereof.

Without limited atonement, Christ’s work on the cross is always theoretical. Repentance is required to say that Christ died for a particular sin. Though His death was “for everyone,” this universalization requires limitation if we are to remain orthodox. Therefore, proponents of unlimited atonement, like Wesley, must limit not who Christ died for but the effect of Christ’s work. If Christ died for every single person and every single sin, there would be none in hell. But the reality of hell is explicit in the Bible, and it was a theme often on the lips of Jesus Himself (Matt 3:12, 10:28, 18: 6-9, 25:41-46; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 13:23-25, 16:23-24; John 3:36). Therefore, since Christ died for everyone, some say, our repentance is the key to unlocking that work.

The problem with this line of thinking is that our sins are not atoned for until we confess them. For those, especially holy saints, this does not pose much of a problem. But, for wretches like me, it is a horrifying thought. Before his dramatic conversion, Luther was constantly in the confessional because he believed Christ’s atoning work was not for him until he named every sin he had ever committed. The problem is that the very moment every sin is named, more must be added to the list. When repentance is required to unlock atonement—which is the necessary condition of unlimited atonement—the result is slavery to sin. It is no wonder that John Wesley taught that Christians can and should become perfect in this life. The only way for him to live with unlimited atonement was to claim that he stopped sinning. This is called the doctrine of perfectionism, which may actually be a doctrine of demons because it bars us from acknowledging sin.  

This is why the doctrine of limited atonement is so precious. Christ did not conditionally die for all people and all sins so long as they repent; He died unconditionally for the elect (Eph 1:4-7). This means that the death of Christ upon the cross was the payment for each and every one of the sins of the elect before they were able to repent (Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:21). Christ paid the price for our sins in advance of our repentance. Yes, we must repent to be saved, but if we forget to repent for this sin or that sin, it is still paid for. If you are a Christian, Christ’s atonement was for each and every sin you have ever committed or will ever commit, even if you fail to repent on a case-by-case basis. The Father chose you and sent His Son to actually—not theoretically—die for every single sin of yours. The wrath of God He experienced was not some nebulous wrath for theoretical sins which was conditioned on future repentance. Rather, the just and perfect wrath of God that Christ experienced was tailored for each and every sin you have ever or will ever commit.

Jesus didn’t just experience God’s wrath generally; He experienced the specific hatred God has for that particular sin you commit. God’s wrath is not general (Amos 5:21; Rev 2:6). He hates more loathsome things with a greater distaste than He does less loathsome things (Matt 10:15; 11:21, 24). If feeble humans can dislike the sound of a father being a little harsh with his child, yet they can hate the sight of a father physically abusing his child, God can have varying degrees of judgment for varying degrees of sin, too. Christ experienced this precise wrath of God that was perfectly fitted to the sin. God was not an iota too wrathful or not wrathful enough for the sin Christ bore. Therefore, limited atonement teaches that Christ’s death has already paid exactly what I owe, down to the most infinitesimal drop (Matt 26:39). Even the slightest sinful thought that occurs for no longer than a millisecond was exactly paid for on the cross.

Therefore, the Christian can rest in God’s perfect grace, knowing that we are completely forgiven (Eph 2:1-9). Though our sin nature negatively affects our ability to repent for all of our sins, Christ’s blood does not. He died for our unrepentant hearts. Our failure to repent perfectly is the same as our failure to perfectly follow Him. Though we must repent and we must follow Him, we will never do so without straying like sheep (1 Pet 2:25). But His blood on the cross remedied our state before we came into existence. This is the doctrine of limited atonement that drove the likes of George Whitefield across the globe, spending himself for the sake of making it known to all who would hear. Indeed, is there anything more precious than this? Those who understand it truly cannot help but share the good news of the one who made it happen through His unlimited love.

This was originally posted on The Fight of Faith.


This article is convoluted, unclear and unhelpful.  Imposing this kind of strict rationalism on the Scriptures is a misuse of the Word of God. And we may find, in the end, it is just plain not the "way it is."

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