Saturday, December 21, 2013

Is "Limited Atonement" Problematic Terminology?

I cannot count how many times I have heard ministers who claim to believe in the five points of grace (TULIP) point out that the phrase "limited atonement" is either unfortunate, inaccurate, or otherwise less-than-ideal in describing the atoning work of Jesus Christ. This disclaimer seems to have become de rigueur among many who claim to teach  salvation by sovereign grace. For the most part I believe those who distance themselves from the phrase "limited atonement" fall into one of three categories. They are either purveyors of non-grace theology, baseless pontificators, or copycats.

Purveyors of Non-Grace Theology

In the first group are ministers who pour contempt upon this terminology because they intend to define the atonement in a manner that is completely inconsistent with a sovereign grace view. Many of them do this in order to support a philosophy of ministry that is based on the well-meant offer of salvation to all of humanity. They recognize that their position lacks any theological underpinning if it is sitting atop a sound definition of limited atonement. Stated more plainly, they end up defining "limited atonement" as "unlimited atonement" in one sense or another and thus end up outside the domain of sovereign grace theology from the standpoint of any reasonable observer.   

Baseless Pontificators

The baseless pontificators are those who after rejecting the phrase "limited atonement" turn right around and replace it with nomenclature such as "particular redemption" - a phrase whose implications have so much theological overlap with "limited atonement" as to make them virtually synonymous, given that there is no redemption apart from atonement, and there is no atonement apart from redemption. These men, while possibly well-meaning, end up right where they started and in so doing undermine the very premise for their rejection of "limited atonement" in the first place.


The copycats are those ministers who heard someone they admire reject the terminology of "limited atonement" and who subsequently chose to do likewise because it sounded nuanced and clever to them. Had they instead chosen to "prove all things [and] hold fast that which is good" (I Thes 5:21) they would have rejected this line of reasoning outright.  In the interest of full disclosure, EVERY minister I have ever known falls into this category from time to time, myself included. We are certainly admonished to teach the things that other sound ministers before us have taught (II Tim 2:2) but we should only do so provided we are following the admonition to "prove all things" in equal measure. (I Thes 5:21)


All that said, I'll close with a statement that should be sufficiently clear to avoid any misunderstanding on the matter. There is nothing wrong with the phrase "Limited Atonement." Primitive Baptists believe that the atonement of Christ was limited by the purpose of God in saving his people. While this terminology is not directly used in the scriptures, it is none-the-less an accurate depiction of the purpose and work of the Lord Jesus Christ at Calvary. The Lord Jesus Christ put it this way, "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." As surely as the giving of his life is the atonement, and the sheep are a subset of humanity, the atonement is thus limited.


  1. Good Point. I have lately been trying to use both terms, Limited Atonement and Particular Redemption, when appropriate. Probably what has influenced me to start using the Particular Redemption term has been reading A Defense of Particular Redemption by William Rushton. Both are good terms that go hand in hand. I also found it necessary recently to use the term Particular Redemption when a person I was visiting with did not quite understand what I meant by Limited Atonement. It lent itself as a way to explain the other to a person who had already confused on the meaning of Limited Atonement.

  2. Thanks for the kind comments. I guess my summary statement regarding Limited Atonement and Particular Redemption should be that:

    - Both are accurate statements.
    - Neither are inaccurate.

    It is an enormous source of comfort to me to know this great truth (largely rejected in Christendom today) as well as to know that others are laboring to teach it.

    May God bless your efforts,