Whose Limited Atonement?

“We are often told (I mean those of us who are commonly nicknamed by the title of Calvinists—and we are not very much ashamed of that; we think that Calvin, after all, knew more about the Gospel than almost any man who has ever lived, uninspired), we are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not.

The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.” We ask them the next question—Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer “No.” They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, “No; Christ has died that any man may be saved if”—and then follow certain conditions of salvation.

We say, then, we will go back to the old statement—Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did He? You must say “No;” you are obliged to say so, for you believe that even after a man has been pardoned, he may yet fall from grace, and perish. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as to infallibly secure the salvation of anybody.

We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, “No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.” We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.

Now, beloved, when you hear any one laughing or jeering at a limited atonement, you may tell him this. General atonement is like a great wide bridge with only half an arch; it does not go across the stream: it only professes to go half way; it does not secure the salvation of anybody. Now, I had rather put my foot upon a bridge as narrow as Hungerford, which went all the way across, than on a bridge that was as wide as the world, if it did not go all the way across the stream.” – C. H. Spurgeon

(HT: John Samson)

6 comments on “Whose Limited Atonement?

  1. Emily Williams says:

    I sounds as though you are saying that all who are not Calvinist believe that you can lose your salvation, and that this is how those who are not Calvinist limit Christ’s death. Am I understanding you correctly?

    • John Gardner says:

      Technically, in this post I’m not saying anything at all, since it’s a quote from Spurgeon. But his main point isn’t about losing salvation (though consistent Arminians believe this). It’s about what exactly Christ accomplished on the cross.

      There are plenty of people who identify as neither Calvinist nor Arminian, who believe in the perseverance of the saints (the “P” in TULIP) but deny the doctrine of limited atonement (the “L” in TULIP). What Spurgeon says will apply to those believers as well.

      Calvinists believe that Christ’s death fully accomplished the salvation of a limited number of people (the elect). Those who believe in general atonement (including Arminians, but also many others) teach that Christ’s death was “for” everyone, but that only some (who may or may not have been predestined to salvation, depending on who you ask) will attain it, through some act of will (could be a list of works, or simply a “personal decision”, again depending on who you ask).

      Spurgeon’s point is that the belief that Christ left something undone which required any human action to complete the work of redemption limits Christ’s death, while the doctrine of limited atonement does not, because it teaches that salvation was completely and infallibly finished on the cross.

      The ironic thing is that, with the exception of universalists (who believe that Christ’s death accomplished salvation for everyone that ever lived), just about every Christian agrees with the statement that “Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of all, but efficient only for those who come to faith”. So unless you believe everybody goes to Heaven, then by definition atonement is applied to a “limited” number of people. Then it’s just a question of debating in what way it is limited… by God’s choice or by man’s?

      • Emily Williams says:

        Well, let’s just say then that it sounds as if you agree with Spurgeon. Regardless, believing that man has a choice in whether or not he is saved does not limit Christ’s death, nor does it teach that salvation was not completely and infallibly finished on the cross.This seems to be a misrepresentation of the non-Calvinistic view of salvation and Christ’s work on the cross (as well as a misrepresentation of Scripture in my opinion). It is not my desire to argue over the definition of “limited atonement”, and I know we will have to agree to disagree on this subject so I’m not looking for a discussion on the subject necessarily.

        I did want to make sure I understood what you were trying to say, and by your response it seems that those who do not take a Calvinistic interpretation to scripture are being misrepresented in your post. I agree that both the Calvinist and non-Calvinist view can be said to “limit” Christ’s atonement by your broad definition, but this is a redefining of terms which you seem to use to try and “turn the tables” on non-Calvinists. Non-Calvinists believe that they are limiting Christ’s atonement by God’s choice and standards as well, not man’s. You take terms, redefine them, and then present them as logical reasons to believe Spurgeon’s view, or your own. It seems that in trying to dispel a common misunderstanding of Calvinism (which, by the way I agree that saying that Calvinists limit the atonement of Christ, because they say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved is a misrepresentation of Calvinism), you do the exact same thing to the other side.

        • John Gardner says:

          Honestly, I think the word “limited” was an unfortunate choice made for the sake of fitting into the TULIP acrostic, because it is so easily misunderstood. I prefer the term “particular redemption” myself, which just so happens to be the title of the sermon from which this quote comes.

          I personally don’t think there’s nearly as big of a practical difference in the understanding of the atonement between Arminians and Calvinists as most would like to argue. See, for instance, this conversation between the Calvinist pastor Charles Simeon and the Arminian John Wesley.

          I also suspect that if you read the Spurgeon sermon in its entirety you won’t find too much in it that is troubling. He might phrase things differently than you would, or interpret Scripture differently (and yes, I do agree with Spurgeon’s teaching on particular redemption), but when it comes to the point of application (Who can be saved? What must I do to be saved?) it’s hard to argue. Funny how that works, since it is in the application where Scripture is clearest. Faithful ministers of the Word tend to agree on the main points, which is why Spurgeon could say the following about Wesley:

          Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley.

          The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one “of whom the world was not worthy.”

          Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find the entire Spurgeon sermon here. If you do, I’d be interested to hear what you think. I may go ahead and post the last part of it tomorrow, as that’s the point where it gets really good!

          • Emily Williams says:

            I agree with most of what you said and think it is true that there is not “nearly as big of a practical difference in the understanding of the atonement between Arminians and Calvinists as most would like to argue.” But I still think you run into the same problem as you did before with using the phrase “particular redemption”, if you then turn that around to say that Arminians believe in “non-particular redemption”. Calvinists and Arminians both believe in “particular redmeption” it’s just a matter of the “particulars” of each belief system with respect to the redemptive process.

            I have listened to many Calvinist preachers and obviously disagree with them from time to time, but that happens with preachers in my own church as well! I don’t think of myself as being in one camp or the other as a matter of identity. My identity is in Christ and the Bible. I think you would agree. But it just bothered me that you seemed to be misrepresenting the Arminian beliefs in order to clarify a misunderstanding of Calvinistic beliefs.

  2. […] “Particular Redemption” (which happens to be the same sermon from which the excerpt I posted last week was taken). While the doctrine of limited atonement may be somewhat controversial, I hope that the […]

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