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Doctrines of Grace: Limited Atonement

L: Limited Atonement


In the acronym TULIP, L stands for “Limited Atonement.” In the context of reformed theology this term means that Christ’s death on the cross is limited in some way. Now it is essential that we understand what this limitation is. There are two ways to look at it in terms of scope/efficacy and application:

1. Jesus’ death on the cross is limited in its scope/efficacy and application.

When we say that Jesus’ death is limited in its scope and application then we are saying that Jesus died only to save the “elect” and no one else. Those that argue for this view say that the fact that not everyone is saved is evidence that Jesus didn’t die for everyone. In their mind, if Jesus died for everyone then everyone must thereby be saved. This is certainly one way of looking at “Limited Atonement.”

2. Jesus’ death on the cross is limited in application but not its scope/efficacy.

When we say that Jesus’ death is limited in its application but not its scope we are saying that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for everyone but will only be applied to those who believe in Him, hence those that are elect. It seems like a subtle nuance but it’s not. This way of looking at the atonement, in my opinion, harmonizes well with the fact that Jesus was given on behalf of the whole world (John 3:16) and that Scripture says He is the Savior for all men (1 Tim. 4:10)

I tend to lean toward the second of the two viewpoints. While the first viewpoint is the position of “real” Calvinists I find that the second viewpoint is more in line with how God has revealed Himself in the Bible and maintains the distinction between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

So, how does this doctrine of grace glorify God and His grace? It sure seems on the surface as if it doesn’t because it “limits” Jesus’ atonement. But in reality this doctrine goes quite a distance in glorifying God. If Jesus’ atonement is not limited to only those who believe then it is cheapened. If it just applies to any and everybody regardless of their opinion of God and Jesus then it would really be pointless.

But, because God has limited Jesus’ atonement to only apply to those who believe in Jesus, He is glorifying Himself by making faith in Him, through Jesus Christ, the exclusive means by which individuals are saved. A “Limited Atonement” also serves to show us just how valuable God’s grace really is.

God is determined to bring glory to Himself in His triune nature. And, by the Father limiting the application of the atonement to those who believe in His Son, our triune God is being glorified in all that He is.

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