Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement is Limited Atonement

Limited AtonementHistory & Definitions

With the continued debate on Calvinism raging on in many denominational circles, especially within the Southern Baptist Convention, and with the 3rd point of Calvinism (Limited/Particular Atonement) perhaps being the most rejected and debated of the 5 points (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints), I think it is important to devote particular (no pun intended) focus on this 3rd point.

The T.U.L.I.P. acronym has its roots in the Canons of Dort (with the synod meeting from 1618-1619), which was written in response to the Arminian position laid out in the Remonstrance, which were five points written in opposition to the Belgic Confession and the teachings of Calvin (and those in his theological stream).  This being the case let us consider the non-Calvinist view (as I will refer to it)[1] of the atonement in relation to the Calvinist view of the atonement.

Non-Calvinist: “The atonement was made universally for all, including those who refuse to believe.  The effects of Christ’s redemption depend upon man’s believing or not.”

Calvinism: “The atonement is limited to the elect.  A definite redemption was made.”[2]

According to these definitions it is quite obvious that the majority of Evangelicalism today aligns with the first, non-Calvinist, definition given.  However, nearly all Evangelicals profess to believe in the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ.  Wayne Grudem provides a definition for us:

“The view of Christ’s death presented here has frequently been called the theory of ‘penal substitution.’  Christ’s death was ‘penal’ in that he bore a penalty when he died.  His death was also a ‘substitution’ in that he was a substitution for us when he died.  This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelical theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment of the penalty for sin.

This view of the atonement is sometimes called the theory of vicarious atonement.  A ‘vicar’ is someone who stands in the place of another or who represents another.  Christ’s death was therefore ‘vicarious’ because he stood in our place and represented us.  As our representative, he took the penalty that we deserve.”[3]

Basically, this means that when Jesus died on the cross he both bore our sins and the guilt and punishment of those sins (the wrath of God).

The Inconsistency of the Non-Calvinist Position

Let us now consider why the Non-Calvinist perspective of the atonement, as defined above, is inconsistent with penal substitution.  The essence of the error is expressed here: if Jesus’ sacrifice was truly penal and substitutionary, as defined above, and if Jesus died for every single human being, then by necessity every single human being will be saved (i.e. universalism).  To deny this is not only to be inconsistent, but to bring into question the justice of God.  Why?  If God already punished Christ for everyone’s sins, then everyone must be pardoned/forgiven of those sins.  For God to send to hell people for whom Christ died is an affront on God’s justice.  Further, it places a disconnection between the work of Christ and the work of the Spirit.  After all, the Spirit applies the redeeming work of Christ.  So, if Christ died for all, and yet not all are saved, then there must be something lacking in the Spirit’s application of Christ’s work. In short, the Non-Calvinist position merely views Christ’s atonement as making salvation a possibility, whereas penal substitutionary atonement goes above and beyond a simple concept of possibility, to the biblical concept of being effectual and necessary (i.e. the salvation of the elect is guaranteed).  The only acceptable position here is limited or particular atonement; for limited atonement teaches that all those for whom Christ died will inevitably come to saving faith.  It teaches that God had a unique purpose in sending His Son to die on the cross (the redeeming of a people for His glory).  The problem with those who deny limited atonement is that they show their misunderstanding and misuse of the term and meaning of penal substitution.  They want to have the orthodox and evangelical term, but not its logical and theological conclusion.

Is Limited Atonement Taught in Scripture?

While many passages could be considered, let us just look at two very key texts.

John 10:14-16 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Note the relation Jesus presents of the intimate communion of the Father and Son with the intimate communion of Christ and His sheep.  His emphasis too is that He lays down His life for His sheep, and He has sheep of another fold (Gentiles) to be brought in.  There is clearly a sense of particularity in this passage, and it is tied to His sacrifice.  Further, Jesus goes on later in this passage to teach Perseverance of the Saints (vv. 27-30), thus establishing the relation between Limited Atonement and Perseverance of the Saints.

2 Corinthians 5:14-15 “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

I actually heard a pastor reference this text in support AGAINST Limited Atonement! Of course, the argument goes, “All always means all, and all means every single human being.”  Ok, well, yes, “all” does always mean “all,” but all of what?  All of these?  All of those?  You see, we can speak of all in the sense of a particular group.  Now, if we believe that “all” in this passage refers to every single human being, then we must, again, by necessity believe in universalism. Why? Because in this passage Jesus’ death guarantees the death of “all,” and Jesus’ life guarantees the life of “all.”  It’s an “if/then” argument.  If this is true (Jesus died for all), then this is likewise true (all have died).  In other words, Jesus’ death and resurrection guarantees the spiritual death and resurrection of the elect. Lastly, the text specifically says that Jesus died and rose for “their sake”.  Whose sake? Every single human being?  If so, then every single human being will be saved.  I think it’s rather clear that there is a particular aspect to this atonement passage as well.

Final Thoughts

The very definition of penal substitution requires that we embrace the doctrine of limited or particular atonement.  Our only other options are to embrace universalism (which is contrary to our faith, as the Bible teaches in the existence of hell and people going there), or denounce the doctrine of penal substitution (which is not orthodox and evangelical, but goes against the clear teaching of Scripture and the biblical gospel).  I fear many reject limited atonement because they find it to be unloving or unfair.  Let me point out a couple things in response to that.  First, God’s grace cannot be demanded; otherwise it is no longer grace, but something we deserve or something God owes us.  Second, God did not have to redeem anyone from their fallen state.  He could have condemned all to hell, and justly so.  So limited atonement is not unloving, but does in fact demonstrate the extreme love that God has for His people (Rom. 5:6-11).  Lastly, limited atonement demonstrates the consistency and wisdom of God’s plan of salvation.  A proper understanding of the meaning of penal substitution helps us to be consistent in our theology of the atonement, and it leads us to truly exult in the glory of God’s grace (Eph. 1:3-14).

[1] Classical Arminianism is very different from what is commonly called Arminianism today.  For this reason I will simply refer to the non-Calvinist position as that (“non-Calvinist”).  The definition given of the non-Calvinist view of the atonement is found in the majority of denominations today.

[2] These definitions are taken from the Introduction of The Canons of Dort by Chapel Library.  You may order a copy of this booklet here: http://www.chapellibrary.org/literature/title-catalog/.  It should be noted that Calvinism does not deny the necessity of repentance and faith, as is sometimes wrongfully assumed by non-Calvinists.  Rather, the atonement of Christ guarantees the elect’s faith, as the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to His people.

[3] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (MI: Zondervan, 1994), 579.


19 thoughts on “Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement is Limited Atonement

  1. If I may ask, what do you do with those early Augustinian Reformers like Bullinger and Musculus and many others, who held to both a vicarious *and* universal satisfaction for all sins of all men? The documentation for this is undeniable. I can provide it for you if you like?

  2. Thanks David. Just curious, what exactly are you wanting me to respond to? Are you wanting me to respond to their arguments? Or are you pointing this out because I present the relation of penal substitution and limited atonement as specifically a Reformed perspective (though not all Reformers agreed with this, as you point out)?

  3. Hey Drew,

    The key problem with your essay is accuracy, primarily in terms of history, and then secondarily in terms of categories.

    1) Richard Muller has argued well, along with others, that TULIP is not Dort. According to Ken Stewart (Ten Myths about Calvinism) TULIP was invented about 1915, and actually does not even reflect previously existing schemas in late 19th C Reformed theology. Muller points out that TULIP does not reflect Dutch or Continental Reformed theology, but is wholly original to America and then the UK.

    2) At Dort, as Muller and others note, there were many Reformed theologians who held to unconditional election, depravity, effectual call, etc, along with a universal satisfaction for all sin. The British and Bremen delegates along with other individuals from the various delegations. Muller argues that Dort allows for this diversity because it does not speak to the extent of the satisfaction issue, but only its efficacy with regard to the elect.

    3) In Reformed history, the doctrine of limited satisfaction is generally unknown, with the possible exception of 1 or 2 exponents, wherein, tho, the evidence is very sketchy. Luther, Calvin, Musculus, Bullinger, Haller, Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, and many others held to an unlimited extent to the satisfaction, alongside unconditional elect, and so on.

    4) In Reformed history, what was called by “the middle way” position in the early and later 17th C was held by many Westminster delegates (Scudder, Calamy, Seaman, Vines, Marshall, Harris, Ford, et al, and Puritans, Charnock, Howe, Baxter, Polhil, and so on.

    5) In the 19th C, there arose a distinction that claimed that the expiation or atonement was universal, for all the sins of all men, while redemption was limited to the elect. Redemption, according to this distinction was the effectual application of the satisfaction. Leonard Woods, Henry B Smith, WTG Shedd, RL Dabney, Cox, and many others. For these theologians, the idea of a limited “atonement” was incoherent.

    6) It was not until the systemic popularization of TULIP, primarily initiated by Boettner, that all these historic distinctions and developments were erased from our historical consciousness. Hence Muller and others are trying to more accurately unfold Reformed theology in terms of its historical diversity.

    To sum up the historical accuracy aspect, the doctrine of a limited satisfaction for the sins of the elect alone was but one trajectory within Reformed theology historically considered. The problem is, TULIP has eclipsed all our historical awareness and so blinded and skewed much of populist historical and theological analysis. As Muller says, its really best to abandon it as a tool to open up Reformed historical theology prior to 1915.

    All the above leads to the truth that there was in Reformed theology, at many points, a doctrine of unlimited or unversal satisfaction for all the sins of all men, but yet did not entail a limited satisfaction for the sins of the elect alone.

    7) In terms of exegesis, John 10:14-16 does not teach or imply a limited satisfaction. Rather, it only says, Christ lays down his life for the sheep. Dabney is correct to note that one cannot infer the negation or converse from a simple positive, but all that Christ is stressing here is emphasis. For as the hireling runs away, Christ is the true shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. In its correct context, this passage says nothing about the extent of his death.

    8) As to 1 Cor 5:14-15 there are also good exegetical reasons why this does not limit the satisfaction. For material on this I will refer you to my site: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=8038 Shultz is good, and Dabney proffers a critical rebuttal as well. Harris’ commentary on 2 Cor 5 is very good but so extensive that I have not been able to blog it.

    Again, feel free to comment or disagree with anything I have said, as this is definitely not something I will get bent out of shape over. My interest here is historical accuracy and honesty as we stand before a reading public.


    • David,
      Thank you for the clarification. I always appreciate being challenged on my positions. After all, as Christians we are lovers of truth, and God’s word is truth. It will take me some time to respond, as you brought up many things and I have a lot to look at from your website (i.e. the quotations you have documented). Plus I work full-time. However, I will respond as soon as I can.

      Grace and peace.

  4. Sure no problem.

    I should have been clearer on the “bent out of shape” comment. I mean, I dont find disagreement with me a problem, as its not about posturing, kill or be killed, or anything like that. For me its all about the historical facts and our honesty relative to those facts in our formulations and arguments. It’s best to agree to disagree with someone like Musculus, or whoever, but yet represent the facts as accurately as possible so our readers can make better informed judgements. Over the years Ive learnt that a lot of our present theological and historical categories actually serve to disinform rather than inform.

    Anyway, thanks for your patience and kind replies.


  5. David,

    Just letting you know that I haven’t forgotten about you. I have begun to type up a response, but it may be a week or so until I complete it and post it. I still have some other things to look into.

  6. David,

    Haha! No, brother, I’ve truly just been really busy. Believe me, I have been thinking about this post and your comments. I’ve just been really involved in other things (e.g. doing some major prep to engage in street evangelism). It has taken a lot longer for me to respond to you than I thought it would. Thanks for the comment though, you’ve given me a much needed nudge. I hope to respond with something soon.

    In Christ,

  7. If it helps any, you could try this:What do you think is the strongest argument for limited satisfaction? Put it on the table and then we can have a conversation. Of course its totally up to you, but it might make some of it a little more chewable.

    As to the history, that has more to do with leg-work, ie., reading the source material.

    Thanks for your time and good-natured approach to me in this topic.

  8. Well, I’ve already begun to write a response to you, so I will keep with that. However, I do intend on supplying further Scriptural support for LA, to include a critique of your exegesis on the original passages I referenced. Part of my response will include looking at a few key Reformed figures that you believe did not teach LA, but I believe did.

  9. Hey David,

    I know you’re probably thinking I completely forgot you. I haven’t. Other things have just been coming up. I give you my word that I’ll have a comment posted sometime next week (if not by the end of this week). While I won’t be able to comment too much on the historical figures aspect, since that will take a lot more time of investigation, I at least want to respond on the Canons of Dort and the Scriptural basis for Limted Atonement. Thanks.

  10. Hey Drew,

    Sure that’s fine. Part 2 of my article on Calvin on the extent of the satisfaction was finally published in the Southwestern Journal of Theology, I can send it along to you if like. You need to forward to me, via email, your email addy, tho, if you want it.

    Are you aware of the English and Bremen delegates at Dort and their opinions? And have you seen this:

    Christ therefore so dyed for all, that all and every one by the meanes of faith might obtaine remission of sins, and eternall life by vertue of that ransome paid once for all mankinde. But Christ so dyed for the elect, that by the merit of his death in speciall manner destinated unto them according to the eternall good pleasure of God, they might infallibly obtaine both faith and eternall life.
    George Carleton, The Suffrage of the Divines of Great Britaine, Concerning the Five Articles Controverted in the Law Countries, (London: Robert Milbounre, 1629), 47-48.

    Upon returning to England, the English delegates received some antipathy to Dort, so Carleton put together a brief defense. It was then hand signed by all the delegates. As you can see, they were pretty clear about it. The original English submission as a committee can be read here: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=11317

    It would be pretty impossible to credibly argue that Dort was meant to exclude the position of the English, Bremen and various other delegates.

    Jonathan Moore has an essay on all this too in: Haykin, Michael A.G., and Mark Johns, eds. Drawn into Controversie. Oakville, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011. I have a pdf copy if you want to read that. More and more now, folk are coming to see that Dort does not actually preclude unlimited satisfaction.


  11. David,

    Yes, please send me your article. My email is dmery1689@yahoo.com. And yes, you can send me a pdf copy of “Drawn Into Controversie”.

    Also, could you briefly explain here, or link up to an article on your site, the concept of unlimited satisfaction or expiation? It seems to me like this position, which you hold to, affirms that while Christ bore the sins of every single human being, the atonement was still ULTIMATELY for the elect, for it only assured the eventual faith of the elect. This also seems to be what is being said in the quote you wrote above (as far as I can tell). Is this correct? I can respond better if I fully understand the position you are affirming/defending.

    From my reading of Dort, I don’t see how one can say it affirms unlimited satisfaction (though I will look into the things you have suggested). I guess I’ll just go ahead and post my thoughts on Dort, and Calvin, right now. Here you go:

    1: Dort
    Obviously, in order to best understand Dort we must consider the Remonstrance (five articles written in opposition to theological positions within the Reformed Churches, particularly laid down in the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism). This I have done. Let us therefore look at the statement on the atonement from the Remonstrance: “Jesus Christ the Savior 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” (Article 2). Clearly, the Remonstrance puts forth a doctrine of universal atonement, and this in opposition to the view of the atonement within Reformed Churches. Again, we know that the Canons of Dort were written in response to the Remonstrance, and therefore both opposes this concept of the atonement and establishes the perspective of the Reformed Churches. Let us then look at the pertinent statements on the atonement from Dort, found under the Second Head of Doctrine (Emphasis is my own):

    Article 3: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” [see Article 4 for elaboration]

    Article 7: “but as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own.”

    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.”

    Article 9: “This purpose, proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has from the beginning of the world to this day been powerfully accomplished, and will henceforward still continue to be accomplished, notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell; so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one, and that there never may be wanting a Church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ; which may steadfastly love and faithfully serve Him as its Savior (who, as a bridegroom for His bride, laid down His life for them upon the cross); and which may celebrate His praises here and through all eternity.”

    The only time the Canon refers to “the whole world” in relation to Christ’s atonement is when speaking of the sufficiency of the atonement. Article 4 goes on to express this abundant sufficiency as being bound to the infinite value and dignity of Jesus, as the Son of God, not in regards to its scope. From the italicized statements in the other articles it is abundantly clear (as I see it) that the Canon affirms that Christ’s atonement had a particular purpose of redeeming the elect. It seems that the Canon only presents the sacrifice of Christ as being efficacious (that is, in saving the elect), and nothing else. In other words, Dort does not take the statement of the Remonstrance and add on to it another aspect of the atonement (that it had a purpose of redeeming the elect), but rather that its only purpose was for the redeeming of the elect. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing Dort is lacking is the express words, “limited atonement,” but the concept is clearly there.

    2: Calvin (with focus on 1 John 2:1-2)
    Calvin comments:

    “He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel. Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.”

    I do believe Calvin’s words align with those who believe in LA, who are quick to affirm that “Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect” (see comments on Dort above). Calvin agrees with this view, even noting its common acceptance “in the schools.” However, he goes on to essentially say that this is beside the point of the text, that John has the Church only in mind in regard to the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice. According to Calvin, therefore, John is assuring the brethren that there are many more from around the world to be partakers of the spiritual blessings in Christ.

    I believe this interpretation is only proper for the nature of Christ’s sacrifice, that of propitiation. It is theologically inconsistent to say that Christ propitiated the wrath of God for every single human being’s sin, and yet not all who have had their sins propitiated will be saved. It is erroneous to say that Christ’s propitiation is for all, yet only effectual for the elect. Such severs the relationship of the accomplishment and application of redemption. The application is directly proportional to the accomplishment, lest we place the persons of the Trinity at odds. This single purpose and scope is evident in Ephesians 1:3-14. Also, we must not ignore the fact that Christ’s mediation or intercession for His people is directly connected to His propitiatory work (1 Jn. 2:1-2; Rom. 8:31-34). If His death was for every single person, then of necessity He must mediate for all of mankind. Lastly, I believe this text directly correlates with another, which I believe is absolutely indisputable in regards to the LA nature of Christ’s sacrifice, and that is Revelation 5:9 “…for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The concept of “world” is obviously present here, spelled out by “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” And we have here a particular focus in regards to Christ’s sacrifice: “you ransomed people for God”. In other words, there was a particular people, from the whole world, that Christ had in view when He hung on that cross. What is more, we see here another aspect of Christ’s sacrifice, that of purchasing or ransoming (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19-20). Such language does not allow us to view the cross as being for every single human being, unless of course we are universalists.

    I also point you to an article that directly speaks to this debate about whether or not Calvin taught, or at least was in line with, LA: This guy gives extensive consideration to the position you are making, and responds in favor that LA fits better in Calvin’s overall theology and commentaries.

  12. Ah, I found the view you are speaking from. Berkhof gives a brief overview of its history and key proponents. I’ll quote the whole section that it is found in [from Systematic Theology. 1941. pg. 394]:

    “Statement of the Reformed Position. The Reformed position is that Christ died for the purpose of actually and certainly saving the elect, and the elect only. This is equivalent to saying that He died for the purpose of saving only those to whom He actually applies the benefits of His redemptive work. Various attempts have been made in circles that claimed to be Reformed to modify this position. The Dutch Arminians maintained that Christ died for the purpose of making salvation possible for all men without exception, though they will not all be saved. Salvation is offered to them on lower terms than it was to Adam, namely on condition of faith and evangelical obedience, a condition which they can meet in virtue of God’s gift of common or sufficient grace to all men. The Calvinistic Universalists sought to mediate between the Reformed position and that of the Arminians. They distinguished a twofold decree of God: (a) A decree to send Christ into the world to save all men by His atoning death on condition of faith in Him. However, because God saw that this purpose would fail, since no one would accept Christ by faith, He followed up the first by a second decree. (b) A decree to give a certain elect number special grace, in order to engender faith in their hearts and to secure their salvation. This dubious and very unsatisfactory view was held by the school of Saumur (Cameron, Amyraldus, and Testardus), and also by such English scholars as Wardlaw, John Brown, and James Richards. Some New England theologians, such as Emmons, Taylor, Park, and Beman held a somewhat similar view. The Marrow-men of Scotland were perfectly orthodox in maintaining that Christ died for the purpose of saving only the elect, though some of them used expressions which also pointed to a more general reference of the atonment. They said that Christ did not die for all men, but that He is dead, that is, available, for all. God’s giving love, which is universal, led Him to make a deed of gift and grant to all men; and this is the foundation for the universal offer of salvation. His electing love, however, which is special, results in the salvation of the elect only. The most important of the Marrow-men were Hog, Boston ,and teh two Erskines.”

    While Berkhof certainly notes that this viewpoint found itself among some Reformed theologians, or at least those who called themselves Reformed, he presents this viewpoint as in the minority. Further, it appears that certain versions of this viewpoint isn’t far off from the Limited Atonement position.

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