“Why Limited Atonement Is Not Part of the Gospel”

March 3, 2007

By Greg Gibson

(The following is an edited post I made to an email list.)

The question of the relationship between the gospel and Limited Atonement (a.k.a. “definite atonement” or “particular redemption”) arose when a brother linked to an article titled “Ernest Reisinger on the Importance of the Doctrine of Limited Atonement to Gospel Proclamation.” I objected to 2 major parts of that article…

    1. I objected to the title “Ernest Reisinger on the Importance of the Doctrine of Limited Atonement to Gospel Proclamation” because I knew that in the 49 gospel proclamations to Jews and Gentiles in Acts, the apostles never once proclaimed Limited Atonement.

    2. I objected to the conclusion: “His work specifically on behalf of those previously chosen to be His people- is clearly proclaimed and is foundational to a right understanding of the Gospel. If this pillar of the biblical foundation is removed, then the majestic Gospel of Grace will eventually crumble.” The word “foundation” seems to imply that it’s a necessary part of the gospel to the lost, and a fundamental of the faith.

(However, the brother later clarified his meaning, explaining that he rarely proclaims Limited Atonement to the lost.)

Now, I”m going to try to summarize my understanding of the “non-relationship” between limited atonement and the content of the gospel. Below, you’ll see why I believe we should not normally explain Limited Atonement to the lost in private evangelism or when specifically addressing the lost in a mixed audience of believers and unbelievers.

First, W.E. Vine rightly distinguishes between 2 definitions for “gospel”…

    The Apostle uses it of two associated yet distinct things,
    (a) of the basic facts of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1-3; (GG: and Acts)
    (b) of the interpretation of these facts, e.g., Rom. 2:16; Gal. 1:7, 11; 2:2.

    In (a) the gospel is viewed historically, in (b) doctrinally, with reference to the interpretation of the facts.” (Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)

The definition of the gospel we’re considering here is the historical facts of the gospel for the lost, not the gospel interpreted for the Church. And, the issue here is, “What were the audible words the apostles said, not what their hearers understood,” (since we’re not mind readers.)

1. Limited Atonement is the view that Christ died only for the elect (Calvinism). Universal Atonement is the view that Christ died for both the elect and non-elect (Arminianism). I believe that Limited Atonement is true, and Universal Atonement is false.

2. The only correct and complete definition of Limited Atonement must include limiting/exclusive language somewhat synonymous to this:

    A. “Christ died only for (one group).”
    or
    B. “Christ did not die for (another group).”

3. Substitutionary Atonement is not Limited Atonement (Many Arminians believe in Substitutionary Atonement, yet deny Limited Atonement.) Many Calvinists have erroneously tried to defend Limited Atonement with prooftexts about Substitutionary Atonement, such as “The Good Shepherd gives His life for His sheep.” However, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that Substitutionary Atonement implies Limited Atonement. Here is the fallacy defined…

The Logical Fallacy That Substitutionary Atonement
Implies Limited Atonement

    1st Premise: Christ died for His sheep specifically.
    Assumed Premise: (Specificity = exclusivity).
    Conclusion: Christ died for His sheep exclusively.

As you can see, the 2nd premise is assumed. In case there are still any doubts in your mind that Substitutionary Atonement doesn’t prove Limited Atonement, Galatians 2:20 settles it beyond question…

    “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Now, here’s the above logical fallacy using Galatians 2:20…

    1st Premise: The Son of God gave Himself for Paul specifically.
    Assumed Premise: (Specificity = exclusivity.)
    Conclusion: The Son of God gave Himself for Paul exclusively.

Now, can you see that Substitutionary Atonement does not logically imply Limited Atonement? Case closed!

At least 2 other Calvinist theologians have also conceded this point, Robert Reymond and Wayne Grudem…

    “It is true, of course, that logically a statement of particularity in itself does not necessarily preclude universality. This may be shown by the principle of subalternation in Aristotelian logic, which states that if all S is P, then it may be inferred that some S is P, but conversely, it cannot be inferred from the fact that some S is P that the remainder of S is not P. A case in point is the “me” of Galatians 2:20: the fact that Christ died for Paul individually does not mean that Christ died only for Paul and for no one else.” (Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 673-4. GG: Although, his following paragraphs seem a bit unclear.)

    “With regard to the verses that talk of Christ’s dying for his sheep, his church, or his people, non-Reformed people may answer that these passages do not deny that He died to pay the penalty for others as well. In response, while it is true that they do not explicitly deny that Christ died for others as well, their frequent reference to His death for His people would at lieast strongly suggest that this is a correct inference. Even if they do not absolutely imply such a particularizing of redemption, these verses do at least seem to be most naturally interpreted in this way.” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 600.)

4. Just as Christ and the apostles never once systematized the Trinity by stating that “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God,” so they never systematized Limited Atonement by stating that “Christ died only for…” or “Christ did not die for…” Like the Trinity, Limited Atonement is true by reasoning/systematizing multiple verses, not from any one, explicit statement/verse.

Another Calvinist who has conceded this point is Dr. Matthew McMahon…

    “But never do we find Jesus preaching on the hillside His limited atonement for some men in any explicit manner. He never says, “I only died for the elect.” A Brief Critique of Hyper-Calvinism by Dr. Matthew McMahon)

Conclusions

1. Since Christ and the apostles never stated in their gospel to the lost that “Christ died only for…”, then it can’t be a gospel norm or “foundation.” (Neither can it be a fundamental of the faith nor test of faith: Outside the Camp.) There is no evidence that the apostles understood, disbelieved, or believed Limited Atonement.

2. There’s no evidence that the the majority of apostolic fathers understood, disbelieved, or believed Limited Atonement. (Like many believers today, most of them probably never thought about the question or did the logic.)

Even Godfrey, Ferguson and Packer seem to concede this…

    “Limited Atonement…This view emerged clearly among the followers of Augustine as a consequence of his teaching of sovereign, particular grace in salvation. Throughout the Middle Ages Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine, Thomas Bradwardine and Joh Staupitz taught a limited atonement.” (Godfrey, Prof. Westminster Seminary, New Dictionary of Theology, IVP, Ferguson, Packer, Wright, Ed’s. p. 57.)

In my early, Christian life, I often claimed that the 5 Points of Calvinism were the universal faith of the early Church. And, I appealed to The Cause of God and Truth by John Gill as my proof. However, upon a closer look at his alleged Limited Atonement quotes by the apostolic fathers, most of them only prove Substitutionary Atonement, not Limited Atonement.

Limited Atonement was created in later in church history, not 30 A.D.

3. Calvinists should not use Limited Atonement as a test of fellowship.

4. Calvinists should not use Limited Atonement as a sign of Christian maturity.

5. Gospels that include Limited Atonement and other truths of advanced, systematic theology may be too confusing for the majority of hearers who have little understanding of logic or philosophy. If we want to see the masses saved, stick to the basics in evangelism.

Advanced, complex gospels appeal to only the 5% of hearers who are highly-educated, think analytically, logically, or philosophically (not many in this TV-brain culture.) But, the simple historical facts of the gospel the apostles preached can be understood by 100% of hearers, even children, retards, and high-school dropouts.

Those who preach a gospel including advanced, systematic theology really need to think about the milk vs. meat distinction in Heb. 5:12. Granted, this was addressed to believers, but notice that the milk they failed to outgrow was basic gospel-related truths…

“Therefore leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation
of…

  1. Repentance
  2. Faith
  3. Baptism
  4. Laying on of hands
  5. Resurrection of the dead
  6. Judgment

And, what is the meat for the mature in the context of Heb. 6? It’s the truth of apostasy/perseverance, related to the 5th point of Calvinism.

I repeat, if we want to see thousands saved, instead of a few, we would be wise to copy the content of the apostles “milk-gospel” as much as possible. Serve the milk for justification, then the meat for sanctification.

If we want to see the same results as the apostles, then we should preach the same gospel content as the apostles. They emphasized the historical facts about the Lord Jesus Christ, especially that…

  1. He lived.
  2. He died.
  3. He rose.
  4. He ascended.
  5. He reigns.
  6. He’s returning.

And, they told hearers, “Repent of your sin, and believe on Him.”

This is the powerful gospel that God used to change the 1st century world. And, this is the powerful gospel that He can use to change the 21st century world. “Preach the gospel.”

Comments (23) | Tags: , , , , , | More: Blog, Limited Atonement

23 Responses to ““Why Limited Atonement Is Not Part of the Gospel””

  1. Dennis says:

    I just finished reading your different articles concerning hyper calvinism, calvinism, limited atonement, ect, and I found them to be biblicaly healthy teaching. I have found myself falling into hyper calvnistic practices in the past and articles like yours have been very beneficial to me in reminding me of what it’s really all about, Christ! I do have two criticisms though. They are small but I do not believe they are irrelevant. First, you equate the terms recieve and accept in your analysis of John 1:12. Did you accept the color of eyes you recieved? Did you accept the cold you recieved last year? These two words have different meanings and should not be equated. Secondly You quote Joshua 24:15 as an example of people being asked to choose God, when in fact Joshua is giving them the choice between false gods and false gods ” choose this day the gods of your forefathers or the gods of the amorites”.
    Like I said before these are small issues and certainly in no way take away from your excellent articles. I will be sharing these articles with my friends and I hope that they bless them as they have blessed me.
    Soli Deo Gloria!

    Sincerly, Dennis

  2. Greg Gibson says:

    Hi Dennis,

    Thank you for your encouragement!

    P.S. Now about your email address, how about changing it from an anti-Arminian name to a pro-Christ (Christ-centered/gospel-centered) name?

  3. Bill Schmitt says:

    Your presupposition is that Matthew 1:21 is not the gospel message….WRONG it is and it is substututionary, vicarious, LIMITED ATONEMENT.

    Argue with God.

  4. Ed says:

    MP: God is not willing that any should perish
    mp: Some indeed do perish
    Conclusion: There is something God wills more than he is not willing that any should perish.

    Arminians –> man’s free will
    Calvinists –> God’s plan to show his entire character and glorify himself

    __________________________________________

    MP: Christ’s death fully accomplished salvation for those for whom he died
    mp: Not all are saved
    Conclusion: Christ’s death was not for all

    OR

    MP: Christ’s death did 99.9% of the work needed for the salvation of men
    mp: Not all are saved
    Conclusion: Man must provide the last little link to complete Christ’s work

  5. Tyler says:

    EXCELLENT set of articles! I have been though this theology systematically for about 9 years now, I used to be an Arminian, then became a hyper-Calvinist, and now I truly think am at the same basic premises that you lay out here. I was VERY staunch in both of my prior (false) positions, failing to see that it was my pride driving my Arminianism, and my pride-of-secret-knowledge that drove my Hyper-Calvinism. I truly appreciate all the hard work and discernment that went into this whole series. With brotherly love, Tyler

    For anyone to read, I have my testimony on this posted at: http://www.monergism.com/search?keywords=tyler+hand&format=All

  6. Tyler says:

    By the way, I think the crux of the matter is that it becomes a logic game for both (A) and (C)’s to explain some tough problems- for the Arnimian, how it is not them keeping or earning their salvaton, since Christ is the author AND perfecter, but for the Hyper to explain how it is not God sinning though them, forcing them, by eternal decree to commit sins, when he has stated in James that God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone, and that he always provides a way out! Thanks,
    Tyler E. Hand

  7. Chris says:

    I agree that a doctrinally sound and clear gospel message is what should be taught to all.

    Jesus seems to make this argument clear in His own prayer in John 17. Here we have a detailed prayer from the Son to the Father. What is the focus and content related to this issue? The clear message is that Jesus is praying for and thanking the Father for “those whom you have given me.”

    John 17:2 – “…since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”

    John 17:6 – “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.”

    John 17:7 – “Yours they were, and you gave them to me…”

    John 17:9 – “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”

    John 17:16 – “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

    John 17:20 – “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word…”

    John 17:22 – “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one…”

    I offer the entire chapter for your review so that you may read the entire context and wrestle with God’s word.

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%2017&version=ESV

    Here then, captured in Holy scripture, is Jesus praying for those the Father has given Him… He promises to glorify them through the impartation of truth (gospel) for the glory of the Father that they may be one and the world may know that the Father sent the son.

    So even though the world will know the truth, Jesus says “I am not praying for the whole world.”

    Rather:

    John 17:25-26 – “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

    God does the work of giving those who will be saved to the Son through the gift of the Holy Spirit for His glory alone.

    God grant us peace and love and unity… in truth.

  8. Chad says:

    I just wanted to thank you for these articles. I’ve just finished reading Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism and Limited Atonement and I find myself in agreement with your position. I’ve been raised Arminian, but over the last several months, I’ve been questioning this doctrine. As a result, at the age of 28, I’ve (sadly) begun to read the Bible daily and search the scriptures to see what God’s word teaches, rather than relying on man’s opinion.

    During this time, the Lord has been showing me that He indeed does give the gift of repentance and the faith to believe in Jesus and to receive salvation. I still have so much to learn and study, but your articles have helped me in my search to understand God’s truth.

    May God bless you and continue to use you to glorify His holy name!

  9. Greg Gibson says:

    Chad, thanks for your encouragement. Praise God that you’re following Christ wherever He leads.

  10. Matt says:

    I would have to say that Jesus’ sacrifice covers everyone’s sins in the sense that He is SUFFICIENT for everyone’s sin, but only EFFICIENT when we receive Him.
    Keep the articles coming… good work.

  11. Don says:

    As a student of the teachings of R.C. Sproul since 1980, I found your explanations of the true nature of the Gospel to be without peer; R.C., John MacArthur, John Piper and Charles Haddon Spurgeon should all be proud of your fine work on this, the heart of the Gospel.

  12. Calvinism, Arminianism, So What? « Kit’s Blog says:

    […] The apostles never once preached limited atonement in their gospel messages to the lost in Acts. Limited Atonement – Gospel […]

  13. lee says:

    interesting conversation…”seek and ye shall find,” however i propose: the gospel is a proclamation of the TRUTH and all are under necessity to believe, repent, have faith, etc. Issue at hand: a) romans 3 is clear that no man without GOD’ will ever will desire HIM in any way except as a god of their imagination, which is idolatry, b) “it is GOD who gives the will and to do of HIS good will” which is: repent,believe, have faith, do good (GOD inspired) works, c) except ye be born of the SPIRIT…, which is to be regenerated, which none can do without GOD, d) if CHRIST died for ALL men then why do millions go to hell when they’ve not heard the gospel?

  14. lee says:

    If i was wrong above then let all who “accept” CHRIST give themselves a big ol’ pat on the back for their work!

  15. Proto says:

    Great article. I too went from Arminian to Hyper-Calvinist.

    Iain Murray’s Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism was the genesis of my turn to balanced Biblical Calvinism….

    Limited Atonement is true……but so is the Universal Offer….and it’s not a contradiction.

    Armstrong’s Calvinism and the Amyraut heresy was also enlightening. Amyraut insisted he was saying the exact same thing Calvin did…..not that it should matter of course! But for the sake of historical discussion….

    And what is commonly called Amyrauldianism today….4 pt. Calvinism is not accurate. It’s not Calvinism minus Particular Redemption. Amyraut was arguing for a much more full orbed theology…more like a 20pt. Calvinism if you want to talk in terms of points……

    Logic is a big issue. Is Aristotelian type logic sufficient for metaphysics…for theology? What can we learn from the Bible itself regarding this? Does the dual natured Unity of Christ teach us something?

    How can we construct theology avoiding the abuses of Systematics…which is what I think leads to Hyper-Calvinism and other things…..

    And avoid mysticism by employing dualistic logic that allows us to see visible and invisible truths…decretive and revealed truths…

    Great comments by other folks here….

    Protoprotestant

  16. Pam says:

    Wow! Great articles! I have sent them out to many of my friends and plan on using them as a reference guide in the future. However, I would like to ask a question in reference to the 5% grasping, or desiring deeper doctrine. As someone who was an Arminian and not very book smart, but had a wonderful Sunday School teacher who challenged me with the Doctrine of Election. (I dug into my Bible to prove him wrong!)
    Could it be that there is more need of one on one discipleship? Or teachers that will take the time to challenge their classes to search scripture? I believe sound doctrine is so important because it effects EVERYTHING in your life. My walk with God is more solid, my love and trust of Him more strong than it ever was as an Arminian. The Lord gave me the opportunity to be present as He saved someone I knew, and to be their mentor. I have discipled her in sound doctrine from the beginning and she is really amazing. She was saved less than two years ago and is very sound in the sovereignity of God which influences her entire life. The church I went to before preaches free will and refuses to address the Doctrine of Election, and the Doctrines of Grace. So do you think it is people don’t want to learn, or they don’t have anyone to teach them? Thanks Greg! And thank you for the wonderful articles. You packed so much good stuff in!

  17. Greg Gibson says:

    Pam,

    Thanks for your encouragement.

    So do you think it is people don’t want to learn, or they don’t have anyone to teach them?

    Both. Whether it’s Arminianism, Covenant Theology, etc., I’ve seen brothers whose hearts are hard and insensitive to the Lord and His Word. And I’ve seen others who were ignorant but humble and teachable.

  18. Linda Bear says:

    How immature and offensive it was to read the word retard! Grow up. Repent!

  19. Theodore A.Jones says:

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    If the pipe dream of substitutionary atonement is true then the above statement is false. But the above is a direct contridiction of the pipe deam of substitutionary atonement.

  20. David Ouila says:

    “1st Premise: Christ died for His sheep specifically.
    “Assumed Premise: (Specificity = exclusivity).
    “Conclusion: Christ died for His sheep exclusively.

    Yet another example of another fool who hasn’t actually bothered to study the issue. This isn’t the argument at all! All you’ve done is present a false dichotomy! The doctrine of definite atonement does not begin at the assumption that Christ died for His sheep specifically. It begins by Scripturally asserting that Christ’s death actually accomplished all that is required for salvation. By logical inference, at the day of judgment, those who are not saved from judgment and eternal destruction, Christ did not die for. What about that do you not understand?

    The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. – Acts 2:39

    Either Peter preached limited calling or he preached limited atonement. Limited calling is unscriptural and does not hold up logically with the other facts of the gospel. That leaves us with the fact that Peter preached limited atonement in Acts 2, doesn’t it. Yes it does.

  21. Thanks for having a Biblical basis for your articles. I want to join the discussion about Calvinism vs Arminianism by noting 2 key Bible verses that plainly give more weight to Arminianism, but were not included in your article on this subject:

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that WHOSOEVER believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

    For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For WHOSOEVER shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Romans 10:12,13)

    I would love to hear your thoughts on these two verses and how they reconcile with the conclusions of your original article: “Calvinism, Arminianism, So What?”. Blessings to you!

  22. bill says:

    David Ouila could not have said it better. Limited atonement was preached the day the church was born at pentecost and the scripture cannot be broken. Peter under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit though it not folly to mention it, nor should we. The teaching of limited atonement is not confusing to the unconverted. They understand it very well and cry how unfair it is of a Sovereign God to make vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath rather than fall on bended knee and plead for mercy. Gods children love the truth and are drawn to it, they don’t run from it! The heart which God opens WILL desire and love the truth, the whole truth! Amen!

    Acts 2:38-39
    38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
    39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even AS MANY AS THE LORD OUR GOD SHALL CALL.(emphasis added)

    Ro 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to THEM that love God, to THEM WHO ARE CALLED according to his purpose.(emphasis added)

    Ro 8:30 Moreover WHOM HE DID PREDESTINATE, THEM HE ALSO CALLED: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.(emphasis added)

    1Co 1:9 God is faithful, by whom YE WERE CALLED unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.(emphasis added)

    1Co 1:26 For ye see YOUR CALLING, brethren, how that NOT MANY wise men after the flesh, NOT MANY MIGHTY, NOT MANY NOBLE, ARE CALLED:(emphasis added)

    Ac 2:47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And THE LORD ADDED to the church daily SUCH AS SHOULD BE SAVED.(emphasis added)

    Can you still honestly say that limited atonement was not preached on the birth of the church?

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