Sin — the word reverberates from the beginning of the Bible to the end. From Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit in Genesis to the sins of the seven churches detailed in Revelation, we see how our actions and beliefs, both intentional and unintentional, separate us from God.
But above all, the Bible is a love story from beginning to end, underscoring God’s great love for us. Over and over, God shows us ways to reconnect and reconcile with Him in spite of our sin so that we might have life instead of death.
During the times of the Old Testament, God invited his people to atone, or compensate, for their sins through sacrifice, whether of goats, sheep, and birds or grain, oil, and drink. In the New Testament, however, God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to pay our sin-debt and serve as our path to redemption. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But another term, “limited atonement,” can often be confusing to Christians. What is limited atonement, and what does it mean?
What Is Atonement?
Before diving into what is limited atonement, let’s first explore atonement. Atonement essentially means reconciliation of the guilty by divine sacrifice. Atonement, in the Old Testament, comes from the Hebrew words kippur (expiation, or making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing) or kâphar (to cover, placate, or cancel, as in a debt). In the New Testament, it comes from the Greek word katallagḗ, as in exchange, such as with money changers.
Before Jesus, God showed His people they could atone, or make amends, for guilt and sins by making an equivalent payment. Here, “atone” is seen much like covering over — like burying something foul or bandaging a wound. For instance, in Deuteronomy 21:1-9, God told the people they could atone for an unsolved murder in their community by breaking the neck of a heifer, atoning for one bloodshed with another and thereby purging themselves of guilt.
In essence, the offense is paid for and no longer a debt they owe. In Leviticus 16:29, God prescribes a Day of Atonement, also called Yom Kippur, establishing a henceforth an annual holy day of rest, prayer, sacrifice, and self-denial on the tenth day of the seventh month to atone for the sins of all people.
But God sent His son, Jesus, to do what animal and grain offerings never could. As we are reminded in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
As Peter put it, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
Hebrews describes it as the “sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). As the writer explained the difference,
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:11-14).
What Is the Difference Between Atonement and Limited Atonement?
But while atonement is more general, limited atonement is more specific — and exclusive. The concept of limited atonement is that only “the elect” are atoned for with Christ’s sacrifice.
The main argument for this notion of a “limited elect” comes from Jesus’ words in John 10:11, where He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” According to some theologians, particularly those of the Calvinist or Reformed Protestant tradition, “the sheep” doesn’t mean all people but only the elect — the particular sheep God has selected.
Jesus’ sheep (that is, the elect) hear His voice and respond by following Him, whereas sheep who have another shepherd (such as the Pharisees in John 10:26) do not hear or respond to Jesus. Jesus’ atonement in this theological view, therefore, is limited only to His sheep.
Calvinists, Reformed Protestants, and others who support the idea of limited atonement believe these people are the ones Jesus refers to as “His church.”
What Bible Passages Appear to Support the Concept of Limited Atonement?
In addition to the above, Jesus says in Matthew 26:28, during the Last Supper, that His blood is poured out “for many for the forgiveness of sins,” are also cited to support this limited atonement theory. That Jesus says “many” and not “all” is thought by limited atonement theologians to specify only His elect — that is, atonement for a limited group, His “church.”
It’s much the same with Matthew 7:13-14 when Jesus specifies that the gate is wide that leads to destruction, but only “a few” will find the narrow road with the small gate that leads to life. Again, they believe, that “few” are the limited elect whose sins He atones for on the cross.
Other passages cited by those who agree with the concept of limited atonement are Jesus’ words in John 17:9, where He says He is “not praying for the world, but for those You have given Me, for they are Yours.”
Is Atonement Possible for Everyone?
But those who disagree with the idea of limited atonement cite many of those same passages and more to refute the notion that Jesus did not die for some but all as long as they believe in Him. That concept has been termed “unlimited atonement.”
First, John 10:11 notes Jesus laid down His life for “the sheep.” His sheep, scholars argue, includes anyone who believes in Him. For, as Jesus said in John 3:16, “whoever believes in Him shall … have eternal life.”
That concept of who comprises Jesus’ church is constantly evolving as new believers are added daily as they, too, receive the gospel truth and accept Christ into their hearts. All of these new and future believers are “His people” and “His sheep.”
Further, His words that “only a few” (Matthew 7:14) will enter the gate that leads to life are not intended to mean those few are predetermined but merely are few in number compared to the majority who choose not to repent, believe, and follow Him.
For as Jesus says in John 14:16, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He is the small gate, but anyone who believes can enter.
Other passages offered to contradict limited atonement are Peter’s use in Acts 2:21 of the prophet Joel’s words: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Everyone means everyone — not a limited elect.
Likewise, in talking about God’s patience, Peter said the Lord is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
And John reminded us Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
All. Everyone. The whole world. These are inclusive statements, not exclusive, spoken both by Jesus’ disciples and Jesus, Himself.
An Intentional Atonement
Whether we believe Jesus’ atonement is limited or possible for everyone, however, does not negate what Jesus did on the cross. Christ’s sacrifice was not in vain. It was a purposeful act, offered willingly by the Son of God and the “Word become flesh” (John 1:14) to pay the sin-debt once and for all for those who believe. Faith is the dominant key here.
For as the Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Rome, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Romans 3:25).
And as it’s explained in Hebrews 2:17, “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
His sacrifice was an intentional atonement for those of us who believe. And while it is something we don’t deserve, a precious gift out of God’s great mercy and grace, we are grateful.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.