This is the third blog in my T.U.L.I.P. series. I am only briefly skimming the very controversial and complicated doctrines of the reformed acronym. My intention is that they would serve as an introduction, not that they would be the presentations to end all debates. However, I do believe the doctrines expressed in the acronym are thoroughly and clearly biblical, and would like to lay out a semblance of a case for them.
The “L” in T.U.L.I.P. stands for Limited Atonement. Limited Atonement (if you’re new to this discussion then brace yourself) is the doctrine that Jesus did not die for every single person in human history. The doctrine teaches that the atonement Christ accomplished on the cross was limited in scope. In other words, Jesus died for His bride, for His elect, for His Church, not for every single human individual.
There is so much to say about this doctrine that is outside the scope of this blog. Thousands of pages have been written on both sides of the debate over this. I do not plan on addressing every issue, every related text, or solving any disputes.
I wanted to provide a cursory explanation of why I maintain, what even many Calvinists are allegedly leaving.
A Doctrine Without a Text?
Dr. James White is a hero of my faith. His apologetic ministry has blessed the Christian church immensely. On one of his radio/online podcasts, called The Dividing Line, he addressed this issue.
He once played and responded to Dr. David Allen, who said something haunting to me personally. Dr. Allen called Limited Atonement “a doctrine in search of a text.”
I have always believed in Limited Atonement. It has great explanatory powers, it is logically far more sufficient when dealing with the accomplishment of the cross, and it flows logically from and to the other letters within the important acronym.
I had, in the past, felt that Dr. Allen was right. I used to feel that all I had to support this doctrine was logic and deduction. Although these are completely valid ways to prove and come to conclusions about theology, on something this crucial and controversial I want more than that. I want text.
When dealing with all of the other doctrines within the T.U.L.I.P. acronym, I always felt prepared to immediately turn to texts that I believe clearly teach the doctrines. I was always ready to go to Romans 8 and John 6 to prove that man is totally depraved, and does not have a will free enough to choose Christ. I have always been excited to walk through Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 to demonstrate the concept of election so many of the reformers held to. I have always felt that all of the above passages also fully demonstrate that the grace of God in salvation is irresistible in changing and drawing the sinner to Christ. And on top of all of that, I have many verses memorized that speak to the Holy Spirit securing and persevering the faith of the elect.
I now know that Limited Atonement is a doctrine with a text. In fact, it has quite a few in support of it.
The Shepherd and His Sheep
The most convincing proof-text I can come to is from John 10. In this chapter, Jesus is refuting the Pharisees, and teaching precious New Testament soteriology, Himself being the center of man’s salvation (which is why they try to stone Him at the end for blasphemy).
Jesus is teaching about His salvation through His famous analogy of shepherds and sheep. He says in verses 11-18,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
The emphasis is mine. Jesus is dealing directly with the issue of the atonement here. He is talking about laying His life down, and who He is laying it down for. And He identifies that group in a limited capacity: His sheep.
Not only this, but Jesus further delineates this group when He tells the Pharisees why it is they reject Him as being the Messiah,
“…but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (26-27).
Here Jesus explicitly excludes the Pharisees from being among the group He died for. He died for the sheep, of whom the Pharisees are not. Thus, it seems like all Christians need to at least exclude this group from the atonement!
However, Jesus also reveals that His sheep will eventually hear Him, follow Him, and be known by Him. Thus, anyone who dies in unbelief was never a sheep to begin with, and anyone not a sheep, was not included among those Jesus died for.
This is a strong text in my estimation, however, I believe there is a text even more persuasive.
Jesus, Our High Priest
Far from being a doctrine in search a text, Limited Atonement is most thoroughly understood, not through the power of a proof-text, but through an understanding of the High Priestly role of Jesus and His fulfillment of the Priesthood authority established in the Old Testament.
The atonement cannot be separated from the high priestly duties of Christ Jesus, which is exactly what an unlimited atonement does.
If Jesus died for every single person, then this means one of two things: He lives as every single person’s mediator, or atonement is not a function of His high priestly duties.
The former certainly cannot be true. If Jesus is everyone’s mediator, then I would hope universalism is true. For in what way is Jesus the mediator of the reprobate?
For all those people in hell, how did Jesus fail in His mediation? Either the Father simply rejected His mediation, causing a great break in the Holy Trinity, or Jesus simply was not able to be an effective mediator. Certainly Jesus is not and never was mediating on behalf of the lost, lest we believe Jesus can fail in His mediation duties.
And, if Jesus can fail, what terror and dread then must fall upon us? We have no hope of salvation. For we can die, in faith, and still be rejected by the Father if Jesus’ mediation is not ultimately accepted in every case. The idea of Jesus being a failed mediator is too absurd to accept on any biblical or philosophical level.
This seems that the only solution is to therefore try and separate Jesus’ atonement from His mediation. In other words, Jesus can atone for someone’s sins, but not be serving as their mediator. However, this simply cannot be done. Hebrews 5: 1,
“For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
The above text directly links the role of the high priest with the act of atonement on behalf of his people. It is part of the high priestly job description. Thus, if Jesus is to fulfill the role, His offering and sacrifice for sins is a crucial element to his intercessory role.
The author of Hebrews elaborates on this in chapter 9.
Hebrews 9: 11-26, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Emphasis mine).
Again, the author of Hebrews makes clear the act of atonement is the cornerstone action of Jesus’ role as high priest; it is His defining function.
Thus, the strongest argument for limited atonement is the concept laid out in the book of Hebrews that the act of atonement is part of Jesus’ role as a High Priest and Mediator. Therefore, anyone whom Jesus is atoning for, He is also the Mediator for.
And if Jesus is the Mediator and High Priest for all those damned, then we are left to conclude He is an insufficient mediator who is not able to guarantee to cleanse and purify those whom He represents. The Father rejects His mediation on behalf of billions of people. What hope and confidence then do you have that the Father will accept His mediation on your behalf? Jesus has tried and failed with millions of souls, why do you suppose He will be successful with you? So, it seems that Limited Atonement is the hope of the salvation itself. Jesus came and actually saved His people. He saves those whom He intercedes for, and He does not fail in His intercessory work.
Limited Atonement is far from a doctrine in search of a text. It has found an entire chapter of Scripture dedicated to it.
For a further and much more edifying discussion of Limited Atonement, listen to the brilliant, anonymous internet theologian & apologist, Turretinfan: