The Practical Importance of Limited Atonement
All too often, when the doctrine of limited atonement is considered, people only see it as a theological debate over the extent of Christ’s atonement. Rarely is a direct connection drawn between this doctrinal divide and its implications in the Christian life. Of course a biblical study on the atonement is foundational for what we believe, but we must also remember that what we believe impacts how we live. Our theology drives our practice. In other words, living the Christian life flows out of the doctrinal truths that we believe. This is why we are not to be conformed to this world but transformed by the renewal of our minds. When our minds are renewed by the Word of God, then our lives will be transformed in living a life according to the will of God. So what difference does limited atonement make in our lives?
My Salvation is Accomplished by Christ
Christ fully accomplished my salvation on the cross. As one chosen by God, He sent His Son to save me from my sin. In love, He sent His Son to live a life of righteousness for me. In love, He sent His Son to receive my condemnation in my place through His death on the cross. In love, He sent His Son to exchange my sin and unrighteousness for Christ’s obedience and righteousness. I have been saved through the sacrifice of Christ!
Now let’s consider what happens when we deny limited atonement. If Christ’s atonement is unlimited, then He universally dies to save every human being. So is my salvation fully accomplished by Christ? Not completely, since I can still suffer the judgement of condemnation for my sins in unbelief. Christ’s offer of salvation becomes provisional, depending on my response. As one well-known contemporary theologian has written: “all are savable, but only those who believe will be saved,” “everyone is potentially justifiable, not actually justified,” “reconciliation of all (‘the world’) did not guarantee the salvation but the savability of all,” and “reconciliation by Christ makes salvation possible.”
By denying limited atonement, Christ does not actually save me—He makes salvation possible. But I need Christ as my actual Savior, not as my potential Savior! My hope of eternal life depends completely on Him. Apart from Christ, I have no hope of salvation. His limited atonement accomplishes my salvation, which gives me eternal life.
My Salvation Does Not Depend on Me
Since Christ accomplishes my salvation, then my salvation does not depend on me. This truth is the flip side of the coin of an atonement that guarantees my eternal life. And what a glorious truth it is! If my salvation in any way depends on me, then I am doomed. Outside of Christ, I am dead in my trespasses and sins. I am a slave of sin. I will not seek God because I love my sin too much. This is why Christ’s atonement is so glorious. He has done everything for me.
However, if Christ died to save all universally, then the difference between those who are saved and those who are not saved resides in us. The dividing line between salvation and damnation is found in me. My salvation ultimately depends on me through my act of faith. But this undermines my assurance of salvation, since in some sense receiving eternal life depends on me. I cannot bear this burden! I do not have the ability to come to faith in my sinfulness. So I thank God that Christ’s limited atonement forgives me of my sin of unbelief and purchases for me my faith. All of salvation (including my faith) is the gift of God, not a result of my works. Praise God for this precious gift!
My Evangelism is Confident in Christ’s Work
Furthermore, with Christ’s limited atonement accomplishing the salvation of all those whom God the Father gives to Christ, I can freely proclaim the gospel to all. I have confidence that all those for whom Christ has died will turn from their sins in repentance and turn to Christ in faith. Since repentance and faith are twin gifts of grace, then their belief in Christ is not dependent upon my abilities or my persuasiveness. The Holy Spirit empowers my words of hope in Christ to draw a sinner to believe in Christ.
God’s Word will not return to Him void, but it will accomplish what He pleases in the salvation of His people. And Christ has accomplished the salvation of a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages. As a result, I boldly bring the good news of Jesus Christ to my neighbors, knowing that those for whom Christ has died will certainly be saved.
Now do you see the practical importance of limited atonement? The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon recognized the importance of this doctrine, which is why he proclaimed in his sermon “The Death of Christ”:
“They believe in an atonement made for everybody; but then, their atonement is just this. They believe that Judas was atoned for just as much as Peter; they believe that the damned in hell were as much an object of Jesus Christ’s satisfaction as the saved in heaven. . . . Now, such an atonement I despise—I reject it. I may be called Antinomian or Calvinist for preaching a limited atonement; but I had rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than an universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of man be joined with it. . . . Oh! glorious doctrine! I would wish to die preaching it! What better testimony can we bear to the love and faithfulness of God than the testimony of a substitution eminently satisfactory for all them that believe on Christ?”