Testing Doctrines: Limited atonement

In this post, I will try to apply the Testable Doctrine Theory to the doctrine of limited atonement.

Testable Doctrine Theory is an idea I put forward that says that a sound doctrine should be able to stand up to a series of tests and that only sound doctrine would pass these tests.

Limited atonement is the idea that Christ only died for some people and not others.

The scriptural basis for Limited Atonement.

From the glossary entry for atonement.

Limited atonement states that through the death of Jesus Christ is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, it was the intention of God the Father that the atonement of Christ’s death would work itself out in the elect only, thereby leading them without fail to salvation. According to Limited Atonement, Christ died for the sins of the elect alone, and no atonement was provided for the reprobate.

I have identified three primary scriptures that act as the root of this doctrine.

  • John 10:14-15 – Jesus lays down his life for the sheep (only).
  • John 10:28 – Jesus will lose none of his sheep.
  • Matthew 7:13-14 – Many people will not receive eternal life.

I am aware there are others that build on but it from these that the Calvinist position is that Jesus did not die for everyone, but only for those whom the Father purposed to save. Here are some of the others.

  • John 17:9b – Jesus prays only for His own
  • Matthew 1:21 – He will save His people…
  • Acts 20:28 – the flock was purchased by Christ’s blood
  • Ephesians 5:25 – Christ gave himself up for the church
  • John 15:13 – love is giving up your life for your friends

I will be honest with you. That is a compelling doctrinal case. Well, it is until you apply the tests – it falls apart quite quickly when given the context of scripture.

The tests

The fire of scripture (NT)

Under this test, there should be few if any passages that are at odds with the teaching of Limited Atonement.

Here are a few that seem to say otherwise.

  • John 3:16 – Whosoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life.
  • Acts 2:21 – Everyone who calls upon Jesus will be saved.
  • Acts 17:30 – All must repent
  • 2 Peter 3:9 – God grants people the time they need to repent
  • 1 Timothy 2:4 – God desires all people to be saved.
  • 1 Timothy 2:6 – Jesus is the ransom for all.
  • 1 John 2:2 – Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
  • James 2:13 – Mercy triumps over judgement.

(My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.) But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2

I count eight instances already of passages that require special pleading, reinterpretation, or outright ignoring in order for this doctrine to stand. However, I think you will agree that it is true to say that we cannot simply ignore passages of the Bible that do not line up with our doctrines.

Limited atonement fails.

The fire of scripture (OT)

These new testament passages build on a foundation from the old testament. The strong message of the OT is that God is the Father of all, we are all the inheritance for his Son, and God cannot be turned from his purpose (that all should be saved).

  • Malachi 2:10 – Do we not all have one father?
  • Ezekiel 18:4 – All lives belong to God.
  • Psalm 2:8 – God offers nations as an inheritance to His Son.
  • Psalm 24:1 – Everything is God’s already.
  • 2 Peter 3:9 when it meets Job 23:13.

Limited atonement fails.

The fire of reason

I raised some serious concerns about this type of doctrine in my post “The demands of an evil god“. Not least among these were that this Doctrine leads to blaming the victim and a sense that God loves everyone but not you, God hates you.

I did not even get into the morality of a god that chooses who he will save and then punishes the ones he did choose for failing him. Somehow we are supposed to believe that this is the act of a loving god. I don’t think so.

If we were to apply that same standard within our community what would that look like? A country where every crime merits the death penalty – whose death is not important as long as someone dies. That would not be a just community.

Reason raises many questions that limited atonement implies but cannot answer. Not least of which is the question of why more scriptures oppose limited atonement than can support it.

Limited atonement fails in my opinion.

The fire of existing doctrine

Limited atonement, as far as I know, requires a full Calvinistic framework. Please correct me if I am wrong on this. In few other doctrinal frameworks would this doctrine even work, let alone naturally compliment.

This is because, as far as I can see, limited atonement is a band-aid on the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. It is a special pleading to please ignore the man behind the curtain. In short, limited atonement is, when laid side-by-side with other doctrines, symptomatic of other broken doctrines that do not sit well with scripture, existing doctrine, or reason.

Limited atonement fails.

The fire of fruits

This test takes a look at the fruits the doctrine creates and the teachers thereof.

While I would never condemn all Calvinists – indeed, Calvinists are still family – those whose behaviour condemns them have, in my experience all been Calvinists.

Preachers like Mr Hutton and David are happy to condemn everyone who differs from them and declare them sinners bound for hell. They are especially cruel to fellow Christians who they will tear apart without mercy while claiming to be loving.

This doctrine lends itself to encouraging Christians to view the unsaved as lessor and “unworthy” which leads in all cases I have witnessed to pride, lack of compassion, and haughtiness all the while claiming love, humility, and righteousness. Proponents of this doctrine (that I have encountered) have tended to most vocally condemn others for being “so stupid as to chose hell”.

This disparity in claims of love and outworkings of hate speech is a natural by-product of a doctrine at odds with itself, with Christian values, with the love of God, with the Christ nature, and with the Bible too. It produces preachers that seem to possess a form of disassociative disorder manifesting two distinct personalities – one loving and kind, the other full of hate – just like the god their doctrine describes.

I have to conclude that limited atonement (along with the doctrines it props up) is bad for your mental health and general spiritual well-being. It is to be avoided at all costs.

Limited atonement fails.

Fire of the early church

I admit that I do not know all of this before I started. I had to look up the early church thinkers such as Gottschalk of Orbais (about whom I know nothing).

The earliest proposers of doctrine with elements of limited atonement was Gottschalk of Orbais. This fellow was around from roughly 808 to something like 867. Yes, 800 years after Christ. But it would not be until the Synod of Dort was convened in 1610 that limited atonement became official. Just 408 years ago.

Limited atonement was not an official church doctrine for 1,600 years. By comparison to some of the others, it is a new invention.

Limited atonement fails due to having few historical roots and none going back to the first few generations of the church.

Conclusions on limited atonement

Limited atonement failed to shine in any of the tests that I applied to it. It did not hold up well to scripture requiring far too many verses be explained away, demoted in importance or ignored in comparison to the number of supporting verses it was able to raise.

In terms of biblical soundness, there was very little to commend this doctrine to me outside of the very limited verses used to construct it. Even then, only with a very specific interpretation of those scriptures.

In terms of fruit produced, I have seen nothing to justify it as a sound doctrine outside of an existing Calvinistic framework. Even inside, it struggles. This doctrine lacks roots, and it raises more questions than it answers. I cannot recommend this doctrine to any student of The Word and, if asked, would say “you should not touch this doctrine with an extra-long barge-pole.”

There is no other way to put this – I find the doctrine of limited atonement morally repellent, intellectually bankrupt, and utterly without a redeeming feature. I would go so far as to classify it, based on these tests, as a work of darkness.

If you hold to this doctrine, I can only admire the amount of effort you are willing to put in to overcome its ill-fit with so many scriptural passages. It is certainly not for me. Be blessed in your chosen doctrine but understand that I fully and unequivocally disagree with it.

I have no choice but to categorically reject limited atonement as a viable Christian doctrine.

The image in this post is by Toby Hudson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

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