Home > The Doctrines of Grace > Limited Atonement, Part 3

Limited Atonement, Part 3

Okay, a quick recap. limited atonement has been defined as the amends for the sin of specific humans made by the redemptive life and death of Jesus that brings about reconciliation between God and those specific humans. I have also given biblical support for this doctrine. Now let us turn towards a historical background for this doctrine.

Historical Background

At this time, there is dearth of information regarding limited atonement up until the Reformation. I am hoping this deficiency is due to a lack of availability of materials on my part. I would like to put out an open request for anyone who may know of pre-Reformation sources for this doctrine to either email me or note any such sources in the comments section.

However, John Owen, in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (p. 310-312), gives a short listing of early sources for limited atonement, which I will reproduce in part here. Any emphasis in these first five has been added by me.

1. The confession of the church of Smyrna: in it’s letter to the churches of Pontus concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp, they wrote, “Neither can we ever forsake Christ, him who suffered for the salvation of the world of them that are saved, nor worship any other.”

2. Ignatius, in his epistle to Philadelphia, wrote, “…for whom, instead of a dowry, he poured out his own blood, that he might redeem her.” Owen comments by saying, “Surely Jesus Christ gives not a dowry for any but his own spouse.”

3. Cyprian in his epistle to Demetrian writes, “This grace hath Christ communicated, subduing death in the trophy or his cross, redeeming believers with the price of his blood.”

4. Ambrose, writing about 370, states that If thou believe not, Christ did not descend for thee, he did not suffer for thee.”

5. Prosper around 440 says that “He is not crucified with Christ who is not a member of the body of Christ. When, therefore, our Savior is said to be crucified for the redemption of the whole world, because of his true assumption of the human nature, yet may he be said to be crucified only for them unto whom his death was profitable. Diverse from these is their lot who are reckoned amongst them of whom it is said, ‘The world knew him not.'”

And again from Prosper: “The death of Christ is not to be so laid out for human-kind, that they also should belong unto his redemption who were not to be regenerated.”

Owen also quotes Augustine, which ostensibly gives the origin for the Roman Catholic view that there is no salvation outside of the Church: “He often calleth the church itself by the name of the world; as in that, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself;’ and that, ‘The Son of man came not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’ And John in his epistle saith, ‘We have an Advocate, and he is the propitiation for [our sins, and not four ours only, but also for] the sins of the whole world.’ The whole world, therefore, is the church, and the world hateth the church. The world, then, hateth the world; that which is at enmity, the reconciled; the condemned, the saved; the poluted, the cleansed world. And that world which God in Christ reconcileth to himself, and which is saved by Christ, is chosen out of the opposite, condemned, defiled world.”

Owen comments that more could be said from Augustine, but that Augustine’s “judgment in these things is known to all.” Hmm. I gotta break out my Augustine stuff. But it seems clear that Augustine, and by extension Roman Catholics, believe in a limited atonement to the effect that only those saved (for the RCC read: baptized and confirmed) in the (Roman Catholic) Church are those for whom Christ died. I invite anyone with a better knowledge than my superficial one on that issue to comment.

There is also the testimony of Theodorette of of Cyrus, who lived in 393 to 466. He wrote this about Hebrews 9:27-28. He said: “It should be noted, of course, that Christ bore the sins of many, not all, and not all came to faith. So He removed the sins of the believers only.”

Jerome, who lived from 347-420, a contemporary of Augustine, wrote about Matthew 20:28: “He does not say that He gave His life for all but for many, that is, for all those who would believe.”

In any event, the doctrine of limited atonement was not really developed (to my woefully incomplete knowledge) until the Reformation; and as such I must plead ignorance and point the reader towards more learned men who may know better than I do.

Let us now briefly examine a statement from John Calvin that I think establishes that he believed and taught this doctrine: “The first thing to be explained is how Christ is present with unbelievers, to be the spiritual food of their souls, and in short the life and salvation of the world. As he [i.e. Hesshusius] adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins? [Calvin: Theological Treatises trans. J. K. S. Reid (1954) p. 285]”

It was not until the Synod of Dort that Calvin’s view was formalized in response to the Remonstrants (Arminians), who held the view of unlimited atonement, that is, the view that Christ died savingly for all and that the benefit was imputed only upon the choice of the individual. As such we see in the Canons of Dort, Second Head, Article 8:

For 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, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, 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; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever (emphasis added).

The details of this article have been debated within Calvinist theology since, but none whom hold limited atonement reject that the atonement is limited only to the elect.

The Puritans, in general, were staunch Calvinists and produced a large body of work regarding the atonement which is likely unparallelled today.

Skipping ahead from the Puritans, Charles Spurgeon had this to say about limited atonement:

Many divines say that Christ did something when he died that enabled God to be just, and yet the Justifier of the ungodly. What that something is they do not tell us. They believe in an atonement made for everybody; but then, their atonement is just this. They believe that Judas was atoned for just as much as Peter; they believe that the damned in hell were as much an object of Jesus Christ’s satisfaction as the saved in heaven; and though they do not say it in proper words, yet they must mean it, for it is a fair inference, that in the case of multitudes, Christ died in vain, for he died for them all, they say; and yet so ineffectual was his dying for them, that though he died for them they are damned afterwards. Now, such an atonement I despise — I reject it.I may be called a Calvinist for preaching a limited atonement; but I had rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than an universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of man be joined with it. Why, my brethren, if we were only so far atoned for by the death of Christ that any one of us might afterwards save himself, Christ’s atonement were not worth a farthing, for there is no man of us can save himself — no not under the gospel; for if I am to be saved by faith, if that faith is to be my own act, unassisted by the Holy Spirit, I am as unable to save myself by faith as to save myself by good works.

And after all, though men call this a limited atonement, it is as effectual as their own fallacious and rotten redemptions can pretend to be. But do you know the limit of it? Christ hath bought a “multitude that no man can number.” The limit of it is just this: He hath died for sinners; whoever in this congregation inwardly and sorrowfully knows himself to be a sinner, Christ died for him; whoever seeks Christ, shall know Christ died for him; for our sense of need of Christ, and our seeking after Christ, are infallible proofs that Christ died for us.
[Spurgeon, C. H. — The Death of Christ: Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 4: #173]

Thanks to the crazy guys at Fide-O for this quote.

It has been argued by some that once Spurgeon leaves the scene, Calvinism enters its decline with the rise of Methodism and the influence of Arminianism on the churches of the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, the late 20th and early 21st centuries (in which we obviously live, for those aren’t following me clearly) we are seeing a resurgence of Calvinist beliefs, notably within the Southern Baptist Convention and conservative Presbyterian churches. Only time will tell if this is a new Reformation or if it is yet another theological fad.

Well, since this is a bit long, I will hold off on implications, my view, and a conclusion until tomorrow, as it’s late and it’s time to go to work at UPS. Feel free to leave any additional information, thoughts, corrections, etc. in the comments section. Come back tomorrow!

  1. April 8, 2006 at 8:31 am

    No disrespect, but I took down that post, as I think now I was too transparent. It will go back up in good time, along with another that I wrote in the immediate “aftermath”. Any questions, send me an email: gmonayatgmaildotcom

  2. April 9, 2006 at 4:25 pm

    As far as pre reformation literature on limited atonement I highly recommend the New Testament.

  3. Flynn
    October 15, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Hey there,

    What is your source for Proper?


  4. October 16, 2007 at 4:52 am

    As I said in the post itself, it was John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, pages 310-312.

  5. Flynn
    October 16, 2007 at 9:40 am


    ah sorry I didnt read the post. I was searching on Prosper and saw the comment. Do you think Owen is reliable there? Prosper himself clearly said:
    QUALIFICATION ARTICLE 9: Likewise, he who says that the Saviour was not crucified for the redemption of the entire world does not take into account the power of the mystery of the cross, but considers only the portion of mankind who have no faith.

    Owen is wrong on Augustine too. I can post the link to that too if you are interested. And regarding Calvin, do you think that the fact that he says wicked and not reprobate (or non-elect) may make a difference in what he was saying?

    Anyway, I was searching on Prosper and came across the comments. Owen is clearly incorrect there. But I will track the citation down through Owen.

    a few mins later… The quotation from Ignatius does not prove the necessary claim to negation, Christ only died for, or Christ did not die for… Ditto for Clemens and Cyprian. He is just flat out misleading on Athanasius. Anyone can consult his Incarnation and see what he taught: Athanasius on the Incarnation.

    Ambrose clearly had Christ died for all men, in one sense, and for the believers in another sense. He is the father of the expression, Christ died for all men, but especially for believers (my paraphrase). On Augustine he is wrong too: Augustine on the Death of Christ

    And Prosper the man cited by so many early Reformers as teaching that Christ died for all men, in one sense, but for the elect in another sense. I have been documenting the early Reformer’s use of Prosper for some time now.

    I have always skipped that part of Owen’s death of death. But what he says there for the most part is just plain wrong. Most of this stuff is online now and can be checked if you search for some of these works. If you get stuck, I can supply copies of some of the material.


  6. October 16, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    After reading your Prosper source, I actually agree with it because it’s my own personal view on Limited Atonement. That is to say, I hold a limitation in effect, not in scope (“sufficient for all, efficient only for the elect”); and it seems that is what Prosper is saying there. I don’t think Owen is wrong in using the quotation from Prosper that he does.

    As far as Ignatius, I can’t really tell you what Owen was trying to do, other than making a comment on that particular statement.

    I’m not sure what Athanasius has to do with this set of quotes from Owen.

    As to your last source on Augustine, after reading it I feel that the source is actually misusing Augustine’s quotes. Nothing in those quotes actually refutes Owen.

  7. Flynn
    October 16, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    Hey there

    I would encourage you to think more about the sufficiency-efficiency formula. It was revised by men like Owen. Owen denied that Christ shed his blood for all men, even with respect to the sufficiency side of the formula.

    But Prosper did:
    “the Redeemer of the world shed His blood for the world…”

    For Prosper, the whole world is redeemed, Christ shed his blood and died for the whole world. All this is true, notwithstanding that not all in world actually derive and partake of that redemption.

    In Owen, the scope and the substance, as it is in itself, of the redemption is limited.

    As to Augustine, he had Judas redeemed: “For he [Judas] threw down the price of silver, for which by him the Lord had been sold; and he knew not the price wherewith he had himself by the Lord been redeemed. This thing was done in the case of Judas.”

    The source was Augustine himself. I was not citing a secondary source there.

    I mentioned Athanasius because Owen did: “VI. Athanasius, of the incarnation of the Word of God [a.d. 350]:—… — ‘He is the life of all, and as a sheep he delivered his body a price for the souls of all, that they might be saved.’ All in both places can be none but the elect…”

    David: Owen is just plain being dishonest here. Athanasius on the Incarnation These excerpts are very clear. Its really bad that Owen tried to pass that off as serious argument. Gill does something similar in his Cause of God.

    If you care to follow some more links, these may help explain how it was that the formula was redefined later:

    Sufficient for all, Efficient for the elect

    Sufficent for all, efficient for the elect: abused and misused

    Owen’s Trilemma and Ursinus: a case study in comparison

    Owen’s Trilemma and Ursinus: a case study in comparison (part 2)

    Thanks and take care,
    I would encourage you to check out the history and development of the theological expressions some more.
    Anyway, thanks for the interaction.

  8. Flynn
    October 16, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    here there,

    I think my reply to you got bumped into the spam box: word press does that at times.


    Note from Stephen: Comment recovered. Thanks for the heads-up.

  9. October 17, 2007 at 5:18 am

    David, the view you attribute to Prosper here is pretty much what I myself subscribe to. It is also held by contemporary 4- pointers such as Bruce Ware, who has a much, much more developed view of it than I do. I simply cannot, at this point in my studies, get around the “universal” passages as “full” Calvinists do.

    I have, however, been somewhat moving away from a view that posits atonement for the non-elect as it lends itself to the same problem Arminians have with prevenient grace. Namely that there are people whose salvation is not completed due to the fact that faith in Christ has not taken place. Makes it kind of a worthless atonement in my mind. Ware has no problem with this and actually has a different take on it than I do. I think his argument is compelling but I’m not yet convinced. Maybe I’ll post on it eventually.

    Thanks for the links, I’ll spend a couple of days looking at them. I’m going out of town this weekend so it will be the perfect time to mull over them properly instead of just reading and reacting!

  10. Flynn
    October 17, 2007 at 10:16 am

    G’day Stephen:

    David, the view you attribute to Prosper here is pretty much what I myself subscribe to. It is also held by contemporary 4- pointers such as Bruce Ware, who has a much, much more developed view of it than I do. I simply cannot, at this point in my studies, get around the “universal” passages as “full” Calvinists do.

    David: Ware is actually not a 4 pointer. The 4 point thing is a bit of a myth. I dont speak for those outside the Reformed tradition, but there has never been any 4 points. Let me define this so I dont miscommunicate. The idea is that 4 point calvinism teaches that Christ died for all men in exactly the same way, that is, for no one especially or in particular.

    The problem is, no one has taught that. It is falsely attributed to Amyraut but he rejected that idea and affirmed that Christ died for all men in one sense, but for the elect in an especial sense, so as to secure, infallibly, their salvation. This has always been the classic position. If you get a chance scope out David Paraeus and Kimecondoncius at the C&C blog. Paraeus was Ursinus’ student colleague and successor at Heidelberg, and then publisher of Ursinus’ works (after Ursinus had died). Kimedoncius was the chancellor of the Hiedelberg University and colleague of Ursinus.

    Stephen: I have, however, been somewhat moving away from a view that posits atonement for the non-elect as it lends itself to the same problem Arminians have with prevenient grace.

    Namely that there are people whose salvation is not completed due to the fact that faith in Christ has not taken place. Makes it kind of a worthless atonement in my mind. Ware has no problem with this and actually has a different take on it than I do. I think his argument is compelling but I’m not yet convinced. Maybe I’ll post on it eventually.

    David: I am not sure why it is worthless. I think it all hinges on whether you see the atonement as properly penal or pecuniary (Owen at al). Like this, if you pay the fine for a man, and yet that man refuses to do something about his languishing in jail, you could say your payment was worthless.

    But now, if you suffer the condemnation of the law that is the same condemnation and which is due to every sinner, and yet some sinners refuse to acknowledge your substitution, that is not worthless. They may void it for themselves, but that does not make what you have done worthless. If you can, check out Dabney, Shedd and C Hodge on the double-payment/jeopardy fallacy. All three of those men affirm an unlimited expiation/atonement/sin-bearing of on the part of Christ, and yet all affirm a limited decretal intention to save the elect, effectually, and them only by this unlimited sin-bearing and representation on the part of Christ.

    Stephen: Thanks for the links, I’ll spend a couple of days looking at them. I’m going out of town this weekend so it will be the perfect time to mull over them properly instead of just reading and reacting!

    David: No worries. I would encourage you to read Dabney and Shedd on this, they are brilliant, and with a couple of other writers, pulled me out of seeing the substitution as if it was a pecuniary satisfaction as Owen does.

    One last thing, keep and eye to both sides of the argument. That is something that is not being allowed or encouraged nowadays.

    Take care,

  11. March 5, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    I prefer articles like this becaus they continually seem to provide to you a totally different perspective on things. I’m no expert during this area however prefer to expand my information by reading things of this nature.

  12. February 17, 2014 at 7:17 pm

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  1. April 14, 2007 at 1:34 pm
  2. October 16, 2007 at 9:54 am

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