Limited atonement

Limited atonement (or definite atonement or particular redemption) is a doctrine accepted in some Christian theological traditions. It is particularly associated with the Reformed tradition and is one of the five points of Calvinism. The doctrine states that though the death of Jesus Christ is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world,[1] it was the intention of God the Father that the atonement of Christ's death would work itself out in the elect only, thereby leading them without fail to salvation.[2] This is in contrast to a belief that it depends not only on God's election but also on individual human being's decision whether Christ's atonement will be effective to that individual.


The elements of the doctrine to be known as limited atonement were held by Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – 430), Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390 – c. 455), Gottschalk of Orbais (c. 808 – c. 867), Peter Lombard (c. 1096 – 1164), Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290 – 1349), and Gregory of Rimini (c. 1300 – 1358), though there was less precision regarding the extent of the atonement before the Reformation period.[3]

The Synod of Dort was convened in 1610 in order to decide a controversy between the followers of Jacobus Arminius (Arminians), and other Calvinists. One of the issues involved had to do with the reason for the limitation of the efficacy of Christ's satisfaction for sin (roughly, atonement). Both sides of the controversy agreed that this efficacy was limited to the elect, and that the death of Christ was sufficient payment for the sin of the whole world. The disagreement had to do with the grounds for this limitation. For Arminius, the ground was the free choice of people to believe, foreknown by God, with God predestining people based on this foreseen faith. For the opponents of Arminius, whose views are represented in the Canons of Dort, this efficacy was limited based on God's predestination, without any foreknowledge of human choice.[4] Calvin clearly taught this second view, and it is also the view of Reformed theologians following the Synod of Dort.[5]

The Canons also taught that God's intention in decreeing the death of Christ was the salvation of only the elect. Later in the 17th century, Moses Amyraut and several others (Amyraldists) proposed a system called hypothetical universalism, which taught that in God's decree for Christ to be a sufficient atonement for all sin, his intention was to save all on condition that they believe. This decree was prior to his decree to elect some people for whom the atonement was to be efficacious, and so the efficacy of the atonement was still limited to the elect. Most of the Reformed rejected this view because it envisioned a decree of God (the conditional decree to save all) that was intentionally not realized.[6] Though Calvin has been enlisted on both sides of controversies on this issue, he is somewhat vague, as are the Canons of Dort.[5]


The doctrine of the limited scope (or extent) of the atonement is intimately tied up with the doctrine of the nature of the atonement. It also has much to do with the general Calvinist view of predestination. Calvinists advocate the satisfaction theory of the atonement, which developed in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. In brief, the Calvinistic refinement of this theory, known as penal substitution, states that the atonement of Christ pays the penalty incurred by the sins of menthat is, Christ receives the wrath of God for sins and thereby receives in himself the penalty of the sins of men[2Cor 5:21][Rom 8:3b].

The doctrine of limited atonement is often argued from the theological argument of double jeopardy. In the limited view, Jesus Christ has taken the penalty of the elect - that Jesus died for those who would believe, so that those for whom Christ died must be saved and cannot be damned as it would be unjust for God to punish the same sins twice (double jeopardy). If Jesus died for all, they argue, then all must be saved. The penal theory of the atonement is therefore the basis of the necessity for a limited atonement.

The Calvinist view of predestination teaches that God created Adam in a state of original righteousness, but he fell into sin and all humanity in him as their Federal head. Those elected to salvation were chosen without a view to their faith or good works but by the sovereign will of God.

The Calvinist atonement is called definite by some because they believe it certainly secures the salvation of those for whom Christ died, and it is called limited in its extent because it effects salvation for the elect only. Calvinists do not believe the power of the atonement is limited in any way, which is to say that no sin is too great to be expiated by Christ's sacrifice, in their view. Among English Calvinistic (Particular) Baptists, the doctrine was usually known as particular redemption, giving its adherents the name Particular Baptists. This term emphasizes the intention of God to save particular persons through the atonement, as opposed to mankind in general as General Baptists believe.

Biblical passages

The classic Bible passage cited to prove a limited extent to the atonement is John 10 in which Jesus uses shepherding practices as a metaphor for his relationship to his followers. A shepherd of those times would call his sheep from a mix of flocks, and his sheep would hear his voice and follow, while the sheep of other flocks would ignore any but their own shepherd's voice.[Jn 10:1-5]. In that context, Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, ...and I lay down my life for the sheep,"[Jn 14-15] and he tells the Pharisees that they "do not believe because [they] are not part of [his] flock."[Jn 10:26] He continues, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." [10:27f] Since Calvinists (and many other Christians) believe that not all have eternal life with God, Calvinists conclude that there are only two possibilities: either Jesus was wrong in saying that he would lose none of his sheep (a conclusion they reject), or Jesus must not have laid down his life for everyone, as they understand John 10 to imply. Formally, the Calvinist position can be expressed this way:

  1. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep.[John 10:14-15]
  2. Jesus will lose none of his sheep.[John 10:28]
  3. Many people will not receive eternal life.[Mat 7:13-14]
Therefore, the Calvinist position is that Jesus did not die for everyone, but only for those whom the Father purposed to save.

Additionally, in the high priestly prayer, Jesus prays for the protection and sanctification of those who believed in him, and he explicitly excludes praying for all: "I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours."[Jn 17:9b]. Paul instructs the elders in Ephesus "to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood,"[Acts 20:28] and he says in his letter to the same church that "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."[Eph 5:25] Likewise, Jesus foreshadows that he will lay down his life "for his friends,"[Jon 15:13 cf. Jn 10:15] and an angel tells Jesus' earthly father Joseph that he "will save His people from their sins".[Mat 1:21] Calvinists believe that these passages demonstrate that Jesus died for the church (that is, the elect) only.

Confessional positions

Chapter 3, paragraph 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says, "Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only."

The Canons of Dort assert that "This death of God's Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world" (Section 2, Article 3). Article 8 of the same section says

For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son's costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God's will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit's other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.

Objections to the doctrine

Limited atonement is contrasted with the view popularly termed unlimited atonement, which is advocated by Arminian, Methodist, Lutheran, Messianic Jewish, and Roman Catholic theologians (among others) and which says Christ's work makes redemption possible for all but certain for none. (This doctrine should not be confused with concepts of universal reconciliation, in which God saves his entire creation.) Though Lutherans and Catholics share a similar doctrine of the nature of the atonement with Calvinists, they differ on its extent, whereas Arminians and Methodists generally accept an alternate theory of the nature of the atonement such as the moral government theory. The elect in such models are all the people who choose to avail themselves of God's gracious offer of salvation through Christ, not a pre-determined group. Thus, these systems place a limit on the efficacy of the atonement rather than on its extent, like Calvinists.

Some have contended that the doctrine of particular redemption implies that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, but Calvinists have universally rejected this notion, instead holding that the value of the atonement is infinite but that God intentionally withholds its efficacious availability only to the elect.

Comparison among Protestants

This table summarizes three different Protestant beliefs.

Topic Calvinism Confessional Lutheranism Arminianism
Justification Justification is limited to those predestined to salvation, completed at Christ's death.[7] Justification for all men (universal objective justification), completed at Christ's death and resurrection and received through faith alone [8][9][10][11][12] Justification made possible for all through Christ's death, but only completed upon choosing faith in Jesus.[13]

In the Lutheran confessions, the Formula of Concord on the article on the doctrine of election[14] states:

The eternal election of God, however, vel praedestinatio (or predestination), that is, God's ordination to salvation, does not extend at once over the godly and the wicked, but only over the children of God, who were elected and ordained to eternal life before the foundation of the world was laid, as Paul says, Eph. 1:4. 5: He hath chosen us in Him, having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ.

The Canons of Dort, one of the earliest Calvinist confessions, state in the Second Head, Article 8:[2]

[...]it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father;[...]

In contrast, James Arminius states in his works the following:[15]

[...]To these succeeds the fourth decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.[...]


  1. "Canons of Dort". Second Head: Article 3. Archived from the original on 2012-09-19.
  2. 1 2 "Canons of Dort". Second Head: Article 8. Archived from the original on 2012-09-19.
  3. Clark, R. Scott (2011). "Limited Atonement". Westminster Seminary California. Retrieved 30 August 2013.
  4. Muller, Richard A. (2012). Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Ebook ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p. 52.
  5. 1 2 Muller, Richard A. (2012). Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Ebook ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p. 53.
  6. Muller, Richard A. (2003). After Calvin. Oxford: Oxford University Press(subscription required). p. 1415.
  7. The Westminster Confession , III:6, says that only the “elect” are “effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved.” However in his Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Baker, 2012), 45, Richard A. Muller observes that “a sizeable body of literature has interpreted Calvin as teaching “limited atonement,” but “an equally sizeable body . . . [interprets] Calvin as teaching “unlimited atonement.”
  8. "IV. Justification by Grace through Faith". This We Believe. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Retrieved 5 Feb 2015. We believe that God has justified all sinners, that is, he has declared them righteous for the sake of Christ. This is the central message of Scripture upon which the very existence of the church depends. It is a message relevant to people of all times and places, of all races and social levels, for "the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men" (Romans 5:18). All need forgiveness of sins before God, and Scripture proclaims that all have been justified, for "the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men" (Romans 5:18). We believe that individuals receive this free gift of forgiveness not on the basis of their own works, but only through faith (Ephesians 2:8,9)...On the other hand, although Jesus died for all, Scripture says that "whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). Unbelievers forfeit the forgiveness won for them by Christ (John 8:24).
  9. Becker, Siegbert W. "Objective Justification" (PDF). Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. p. 1. Retrieved 26 Jan 2015.
  10. "Universal Justification". WELS Topical Q&A. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Retrieved 5 Feb 2015. Christ paid for all our sins. God the Father has therefore forgiven them. But to benefit from this verdict we need to hear about it and trust in it. If I deposit money in the bank for you, to benefit from it you need to hear about it and use it. Christ has paid for your sins, but to benefit from it you need to hear about it and believe in it. We need to have faith but we should not think of faith as our contribution. It is a gift of God which the Holy Spirit works in us.
  11. "Justification / Salvation". WELS Topical Q&A. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Retrieved 29 Jan 2015. Romans 3:23-24, 5:9, 18 are other passages that lead us to say that it is most appropriate and accurate to say that universal justification is a finished fact. God has forgiven the sins of the whole world whether people believe it or not. He has done more than "made forgiveness possible." All this is for the sake of the perfect substitutionary work of Jesus Christ.
  12. Augsburg Confession, Article V, Of Justification. People “cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake. . . .”
  13. ”Faith is a condition of justification.” Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford University, 2012), 136.
  14. "The Book of Concord, Formula of Concord". XI. Election, paragraph 5.
  15. "Works of James Arminius, Vol. 1". Sentiments on predestination, paragraph IV.

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