Limited Atonement


This is for our universalist friends who believe that because of Jesus’ death on the cross everyone goes to Heaven; even the wicked. It’s not so, and here’s why.

As someone who is always exploring various topics of theology, I find myself attracted to certain concepts. One of them is the idea of limited atonement. What is limited atonement? Simply put, limited atonement is the idea that the sacrifice of Christ for sin only applies to the church, those chosen by God who will receive Jesus as Savior and Lord. So while in one sense Jesus’ sacrifice is enough for the world, in actuality, it only applies to the church.

In the Old Testament’s Mosaic Law a person who sinned was required to bring a blood sacrifice for the atonement of his sin.

“If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity. He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven. It is a guilt offering; he has indeed incurred guilt before the Lord” (Leviticus 5:17-19).

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11).

If a man sinned, he brought the animal, it was killed, and the blood was sprinkled on the altar (Leviticus 9:12). If the man was repentant, then the sacrifice was efficacious and the man could experience forgiveness.

However, if the man brought the sacrifice but was not truly repentant, then his sacrifice meant nothing 

“Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand” (Malachi 1:10. See also Jeremiah 14:10-12, Hosea 8:11-14).

The sacrificial system was not meant to be a heartless ritual. It carried genuine value and meaning—as long as the person was repentant. If he was not, then the blood that was shed was not applied to him in terms of atoning for his sin. Thus, atonement was limited only to the repentant.

Let’s zoom forward in time to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus shed his blood as the final sacrifice for sin. “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7). For the person who repents of his sin, the blood of Jesus washes him clean. Jesus’ sacrifice is, therefore, efficacious in atoning for the man’s sin. But if the man is unrepentant, then Jesus’ sacrifice does nothing for him. The blood of forgiveness doesn’t apply to him. Just like the sacrifices of the Mosaic system, the blood of Jesus is only effective for the one who repents.

What do we call a group of people who repent of their sin and receive Christ? We call them, the church. Ergo, limited atonement.

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Tom Terry is a broadcast specialist serving with Campus Crusade for Christ. He has served in talent and management positions for over 35 years in radio and TV in the US, Turkey, and Mongolia. He currently manages Global Broadcast Strategy for Jesus Film Project, and as a consultant for radio and TV projects in multiple countries. The author of 12 books, Tom and his wife, Diane, live in Orlando, Florida. The views expressed by Tom are solely his own and may not reflect the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.


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