Is Limited Atonement biblical? This doctrine states that at Jesus’ crucifixion, he only paid for the sins of those he intended to save. He purchased their salvation through his death, and it is guaranteed that each person for whom he died will come to saving faith and continue walking in faith until he or she safely enters into God’s presence. Jesus was able to atone for the sins of as many people as he wished, but he chose to pay only for the sins of Old Testament believers and those who would become Christians. Keep in mind, I am not trying to find verses that explicitly refute those who disagree. Instead, I am working from a neutral standpoint to learn what Scripture says about the extent of the atonement.
Clear Biblical Support
To start, let’s look at some of Jesus’ statements from the Gospel of John:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
– John 10:11, 25–28
In this passage, Jesus speaks clearly about his intentions to sacrifice himself for a specific group of people; his sheep. Not only does Jesus declare that he will lay down his life specifically for the sheep who will follow him, but in verse 26 he makes a distinction between his sheep and those who are not his sheep. Since Jesus committed to sacrificing himself for his sheep and he explicitly excluded some people from that group, it is only reasonable to conclude that he does not intend to die for those who are not included in the group of his sheep. In verses 27–28, he says that he will grant his sheep eternal life, they will never perish, and they will not be removed from his care. Because Christ only died for his sheep and only gives them eternal life, it can be said that Christ only died for Christians.
Despite Jesus’ clear statement, some may still object, “Well, the passage does not explicitly reject the idea that Jesus died for his sheep and those who would never repent and believe in him.” Those who reject Limited Atonement may want this explicit statement, but it is unnecessary. When one says they will perform an action for a specific group of people, they do not need to explicitly state that the action is not being performed for people outside the identified group. For example, if one says, “I will pay for the food of everyone in my house,” it is unnecessary to clarify that they will not pay for the food of people outside of their house. Similarly, Jesus’ assertion that he will lay down his life for his sheep is sufficient for communicating that the laying down of his life was only for his sheep. No additional statement is needed, but the fact that Jesus clearly says some people are and his sheep removes any ambiguity.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
– Romans 8:32
Following his discussion of God’s unstoppable plan to save and sanctify his people in Romans 8:1–30, the apostle Paul explains how these truths reveal the love of God to believers. Verse 32 emphasizes the great love demonstrated by God the Father in his sacrifice of the infinitely valuable Son of God, Jesus. According to this verse, all those for whom the Son was given up can rest assured that God will give them “all things.” Can those who will spend eternity in Hell for their sins (people who never repent and trust in Jesus alone) say that God has “graciously given them all things?” Absolutely not! All who do not repent and believe will suffer an eternity of weeping, moaning, and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:36–43). It will be evident that Christ died for someone by the spiritual blessings they receive from God (“all things”). “All things” are received by everyone for whom Christ died. Therefore, those for whom Christ died can only be those God chooses to save and bless with “all things.” Clearly, this excludes those who are not saved and consequently condemned to Hell.
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours… I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
– John 17:6–10, 20–21
In his prayer, Jesus identifies his apostles as individuals given to him by God the Father. He has revealed to them the truth that he is the Messiah, and they believe that he is the Christ. Not only does Jesus pray that the apostles would be saved and perfectly unified, but he prays for all future Christians who would believe through the proclaimed Gospel. While praying for this group, he explicitly states that he is NOT praying for the salvation of anyone outside of that group (John 17:9). Only the people he is praying for belong to God (John 17:10).
If Christ is not willing to pray for the salvation of these people, is it reasonable to believe he would be willing to die for them? It is clear that his intention is to save only those whom the Father has given him for the purpose of saving. Christ’s intentions in atoning for sins are not conflicting with the Father’s will because Christ perfectly did the will of the Father (John 5:19, John 6:37–44).
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
– Revelation 5:9–10
In this excerpt, we see that Jesus “ransomed people for God” by his blood. The word “ransomed” means to have purchased something, and the “blood” that was used to ransom the people for God refers to the bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus actually ransomed for himself, people by his sacrifice at the cross. This means that he did not merely make a provision for people to accept if they wanted to, but he actually secured certain individuals who would definitely become God’s people. If Jesus chose to ransom all people by dying for all people, they would be his and become Christians. However, this verse does not teach that he ransomed all people, but only some. Notice that the passage says that Jesus ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and not that he ransomed every tribe and language and people and nation themselves. Those who are ransomed are really his and will be made into a kingdom by God (Revelation 5:10).
Why Is This Important?
While acknowledging the truths above, we must not forget that God does all these things in love. Christ did not suffer with an indifferent attitude, but with a deep love for each individual that the persons of the Trinity agreed to save before creation (Eph 1:4). When I first understood that the doctrine of Limited Atonement was biblical, I almost shed tears because of how clearly it revealed God’s love for me.
If you are a believer, rejoice that Jesus had you in mind at the cross. He knew you by name, and he suffered the outpouring of God’s wrath on your behalf. And he did it out of love. The triune God demonstrates his love in this way: the Father gave up the Son for you, the Son suffered for you, and the Holy Spirit has sealed you for the day you will fully enter into God’s presence. All three persons of the Trinity are delighted to have fellowship with you through Jesus Christ.
If you have not yet received this blessing by repenting of your wicked rebellion against God, do that now. Ask the Lord for forgiveness, acknowledging that you have broken his commands, and come to him believing that Christ paid the penalty for your sins at the cross. There are no good works for you to do to please him. Although you should pursue these things in response to your relationship with God, they are not the foundation of your relationship. If you do repent, you can rest assured that he died for you and ransomed you for a relationship with him.