Sheldon Clowdus

Disciple . Husband . Father


Limited Atonement
Sorry this post has taken so long for me to publish.  This is without doubt the reformed doctrine that I have wrestled with the most.  The struggle has not been that I don't like it or don't want it to be true but that I want to believe what is true.  To wade through the arguments and interpretations of scripture on both sides of this issue has been hard for me.  

Simply put the doctrine of limited atonement (also known as particular atonement) states that when Christ died on the cross, He died for the elect. It also states that His sacrifice actually purchased salvation for the elect, not just made it possible.  He did not atone for the sins of everyone in the history of the world, but only those whom He had chosen to save. Thomas Schreiner at is much more eloquent than I am so I will allow his words to explain:

The view of Christ’s death presented here has frequently been called the theory of “penal substitution.” Christ’s death was “penal” in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a “substitution” in that the was a substitute for us when he died. This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelical theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement part from the idea of the wrath of God or payment of the penalty for sin. This view of the atonement is sometimes called the theory of vicarious atonement. A “vicar” is someone who stands in the place of another or who represents another. Christ’s death was therefore “vicarious” because he stood in our place and represented us. As our representative, he took the penalty that we deserve.
Wayne Grudem from Systematic Theology
The theory of penal substitution is the heart and soul of an evangelical view of the atonement. I am not claiming that it is the only truth about the atonement taught in the scriptures. Nor am I claiming that penal substitution is emphasized in every piece of literature, or that every author articulates clearly penal substitution. I am claiming that penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole. I define penal substitution as follows: The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy his justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested. The riches of what God has accomplished in Christ for his people are not exhausted by penal substitution. The multifaceted character of the atonement must be recognized to do justice the canonical witness. God’s people are impoverished if Christ’s triumph over evil powers at the cross is slighted, or Christ’s exemplary love is shoved to the side, or the healing bestowed on believers by Christ’s cross and resurrection is downplayed. While not denying the wide-ranging character of Christ’s atonement, I am arguing that penal substitution is foundational and the heart of the atonement.

It seems to me that if you believe in the penal substitutionary atonement then you also have to believe in limited atonement.  Otherwise, those whose penalty Christ paid on the cross and who are not saved must then pay the penalty for their own sins.  This would lead to sins being punished twice (once by Christ and once by the individual) and God not being just.
The scriptures used to form this doctrine include the following:
  • Matthew 1:21 - Mary is told that her son will save His people from their sins.
  • John 10:15 - Jesus says that He lays down His life for His sheep.
  • Isaiah 53:8 - In this prophetic passage concerning the messiah it is said that he will be stricken for the transgressions of His people.
  • Isaiah 53:11 - continues by saying that the messiah will justify many (not all).
  • Isaiah 53:12 - the messiah will bear the sins of many (again, not all).
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 - Paul states that Christ  became sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God (supporting the substitutionary atonement).
  • Colossians 2:13-14 - Our sin is said to have been nailed to the cross and our debt to God cancelled by the sacrifice of Christ.
In reality, everyone believes in some form of limited atonement.  Either you believe that God limited the atonement in scope and that only those who God chose were atoned for or you believe that the atonement is limited in effectiveness in that it didn't actually save anyone but only made salvation possible.
For more information on this doctrine check out 

I am a follower of Jesus, a husband, and a father. I teach 5th grade in my hometown of Rome, Georgia.


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