The second of the doctrines in the Canons of Dordt that teach and defend the gospel of salvation by grace alone is the truth of the death of Jesus Christ as effectual atonement of God’s elect people, and of the elect only. Atonement is the reconciliation of sinful humans to God by the satisfying of the justice of God. This satisfaction is the payment to God of the suffering of the punishment of sin that God’s justice demands and the rendering to God of the obedience to His law that His justice requires. The lifelong obedience climaxing in the obedience to the will of God that brought the Savior to the cross and the lifelong suffering of Jesus Christ climaxing in His death by crucifixion were His atonement of the chosen people of God.
This atonement was limited with regard to those humans for whom Jesus obeyed and suffered.
In the popular mnemonic (memorizing device), “TULIP,” this truth is remembered by the third letter, “L,” for “limited atonement.” The Reformed doctrine of the atonement of the death of Christ is that Christ died in the stead of, and on behalf of, a limited number of humans. What limited the number is God’s decree of predestination. By the eternal will of God of election, Christ died only for some, the elect. He did not die for all humans. He did not die for those whom God did not choose unto salvation, that is, for the reprobate.
The doctrinal enemies of limited atonement proclaim that Christ died for an unlimited number of persons, indeed, for all humans without exception. In 1610, the Arminians, or Remonstrants, stated their doctrine of the atonement in these words:
Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer… (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 3.546).
This doctrine of the cross is that of “universal atonement.” Since according to the Arminians the death of Christ failed to atone for, and save, many who perish everlastingly, also these enemies of limited atonement limit the atonement. In their doctrine, what limits the atonement is the will of sinners, who refuse to believe on Christ. Necessarily implied is that the reason why the cross atoned for some is that these sinners distinguish themselves by choosing to allow it to do so, by their own allegedly free will. The explanation of the atonement of the cross, which is salvation, is the will of the sinner. The Reformed faith, confessed in the Canons of Dordt, explains the limitation by the will of God in election. This origin of the cross and its atonement ascribes the glory of the cross to the gracious God, rather than to the sinner himself.
Defense of “limited”
It is common and popular today on the part of those who profess allegiance to the truth that the term defends to express strong dissatisfaction with describing the atonement as “limited.” Other terms are preferred, for example, “definite” and “particular.” Reasons are given, some of which admittedly commend themselves to the Reformed Christian. One wonders, nevertheless, whether aversion to “limited” is not, in reality, dislike of the strong message of the term, “limited,” that the cross was not for everyone and that the salvation of the cross is determined by the counsel of election. “Limited” is offensive to theologians who like, in one way or another, to extend the grace of God more widely than election and who are determined as much as possible to avoid the offense of the denial of universal, common grace.
Whatever the reasons for opposing the term “limited” in the Reformed confession of the atonement, the atonement of the cross of Christ was limited. That which limited the saving nature and power of the cross was the gracious, electing will of God in the decree of predestination. This is the language and teaching of the Canons of Dordt in the fundamental article explaining the death of Christ, Article 8:
This was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect…that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross…should effectually redeem…all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to him by the Father. (Schaff, Creeds, 3.587).
“Those only,” in the creed, is limitation of the atonement. What limits the atonement is not the will of sinners, but the “sovereign counsel and most gracious will…of God.”
In its historical reality in the past, the cross was not universal, but limited. In the gospel today, the cross is not universal, but limited.
An essential aspect of the death of Christ’s being limited is that it was effectual. It accomplished something, then and there, when and where Christ suffered and died. Canons II, 8 teaches, as official, authoritative confession of Reformed Christianity, that the death of Christ did “effectually redeem” humans, namely, all those whom God elected. The death of Christ did not merely make redemption possible for humans, but it effectually redeemed all those for whom Christ died. It bought the elect out of the state of guilt, condemnation, and damnation by the price of the death of the Son of God. By payment of the price of His suffering and death, thus fully satisfying the justice of God, the crucified Jesus bought the elect as His own.
According to the Canons, the cross of Christ did something. Indeed, it did several things, all of which make up salvation. It “confirmed the new covenant.” It “effectually redeemed.” It “purchased” faith and “all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit.” It assured the purging from all sin of every one for whom Christ died. It made certain that Christ “should at last bring them [all those for whom He died] free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.” The death of Christ did not make salvation possible. It saved. It did this because by His death the Son of God “was made sin and became a curse” for the elect (Canons II, 2, in Schaff, Creeds, 3. 586; the biblical basis for the confession is II Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13).
The cross accomplished all this inasmuch as it was the atonement for a limited number of persons.
The doctrine of universal atonement denies all this. According to it, the death of Christ accomplished nothing.
The heresy of universal atonement
The opposing doctrine, which the Arminian heresy teaches, is that Christ died “without a certain and definite decree to save any” (Canons II, B, 1, in Schaff, Creeds, 3:563). The Arminian heresy teaches that Christ died for all humans with a death that merely made possible atonement for sin, on condition that humans will believe in Christ, by their own supposedly free will. In this theology, the cross was not atonement. It accomplished nothing in reality. In the words of the Canons, this doctrine judges “too contemptuously of the death of Christ” (Canons II, B, 3, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.563). It is contemptuous of the death of Jesus!
At the Synod of Dordt, Reformed churches in all the world condemned the Arminian doctrine of the death of Christ as heretical. Today, Calvinistic theologians urge that Reformed churches judge the Arminian doctrine less severely, indeed, as a legitimate, even acceptable, form of the Christian religion. In the recent book, Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views, Andrew D. Naselli denies that the Arminian doctrine of universal, ineffectual atonement is heresy. He contends that the doctrine of limited atonement is not essential to the Christian faith.1
And Carl R. Trueman, while himself giving a good defense of what he prefers to call “definite atonement,” grants to a proponent of universal atonement that the Arminian doctrine is not Pelagianism, or even semi-Pelagianism.2 Trueman denies that the issue of the atonement is “preclusive of Christian fellowship” between Reformed believers and Arminians.3 Evidently, Dordt’s banishment of the Arminians from the Reformed churches in the Netherlands was a mistake, indeed, sin against the oneness of the church. In the end, therefore, the controversy over the doctrines of grace as confessed in the Canons was “much ado about nothing.” Then, virtually conceding the controversy over the atonement to Arminianism, Trueman declares that “I do not think we should rush to criticize an evangelist who tells an audience of unbelievers, ‘Christ died for your sins…’”4 His qualifications in no wise mitigate the gravity of the declaration.
Dordt condemned universal, ineffectual atonement as heresy: a subtle bringing “again out of hell the Pelagian error” (Canons II, B, 3, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.563) and an instilling into the people “the destructive poison of the Pelagian errors” (Canons, II, B, 6, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.564).
Dordt was right. Universal atonement, which denies the efficacy of the cross as determined by God’s electing will, makes the death of Christ dependent for its saving efficacy upon the will of the sinner. It is a form—an especially wicked form, in view of the centrality and preciousness of the death of the Savior—of the false doctrine that the salvation of the cross depends upon the will of the sinner, contrary to Romans 9:16: “[Salvation] is not of him that willeth…”; of the false doctrine that the cross of the Son of God was an impotent failure; and of the false doctrine that the cross depends for whatever benefit it may offer upon the will of the sinner.
Contemporary forms of universal atonement
The heresy of universal atonement has been craftily introduced into Reformed and Presbyterian churches in our day by the false doctrine of the “well-meant offer” of the gospel. This is the teaching that the proclamation of the gospel is an offer to all sinners on the part of God, motivated by the love of God for all and with the sincere desire on God’s part to save them all. Since the saving call of the gospel is founded on the cross of Christ, the inescapable implication of the “well-meant offer” is that Christ died for all, to make salvation possible for all, dependent on the sinner’s acceptance of God’s offer.
In the 1960s, the Christian Reformed theologian, Harold Dekker, openly and boldly argued this case for universal atonement on the basis of the “well-meant offer.”5 There was neither discipline of Dekker for public criticism of the second head of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt, nor refutation of his argument basing universal atonement on the Christian Reformed Church’s doctrine of the well-meant offer.
Of late, there has been a spate of books, some of them highly regarded by the evangelical community, by professing Calvinists arguing (rightly) that the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel implies and demands the doctrine of universal atonement.6 Even those disposed to defend, to some (meager) extent, the truth of limited atonement cannot escape the conclusion that if God lovingly offers salvation to all humans in the sincere desire to save them all, Christ must have died for all without exception.
Noticeable has been the failure of Reformed theologians to come to the defense of limited atonement, much less to re-examine the popular theory of the well-meant offer.
The result is that Reformed churches in fact renounce their own creed, the Canons of Dordt; deny the cross of Christ; and make themselves responsible for bringing again “out of hell the Pelagian error” (Canons II, B, 3, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.563).
1 Ed. Andrew David Naselli and Mark A. Snoeberger (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H, 2015), 213-227.
2 Perspectives on the Extent, 127.
3 Perspectives on the Extent, 127.
4 Perspectives on the Extent, 60.
5 See “The Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel,” in my Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids: RFPA, rev. ed. 1994), 29-65.
6 See The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review, by David L. Allen (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016) and He Died for Me: Limited Atonement & the Universal Gospel, by Jeffrey D. Johnson (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2017).