Reforming Calvinism, pt. 11: Limited Atonement (Critique & Reconstruction)

In this eleventh entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I intend to offer one last point of critique of the traditional view of ‘limited atonement’ which will then serve as the
segue into my own sketch of an Evangelical Calvinist revision. To begin, I would like to return once again to R.C. Sproul’s articulation of the Reformed position (which can be accessed in its entirety here):

This doctrine is chiefly concerned about the original purpose, plan, or design of God in
sending Christ into the world to die on the cross…God the Father designed the work of
redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Limited-Atonement-AVATARChrist died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him..

This does not mean that a limit is placed on the value or the merit of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s traditional to say that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for all. That is, its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly anyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement. It is also important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally. This is another controversial point, because on the one hand the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it’s not universally offered in the sense that it’s offered to anyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents. Obviously the merit of the atonement of Christ is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins.

The final problem that I want to highlight in relation to Sproul’s view is how it depicts the atonement in ‘transactional’ terms. This is evident in the way in which Sproul frames the atonement in terms of the ‘merit’ or ‘value’ obtained by Christ. Indeed, ‘limited atonement’ seems to require such a ‘transactional’ view, for it seems to be the only coherent way in which Christ’s death can be said to effectually atone only for the sins of a limited number of human beings. Using any other metaphor, it would be difficult to quantify how Christ’s death ultimately only ‘pays’ the ‘price’ or ‘penalty’ of the sins of the elect. The ‘transactional’ view, however, is rife with difficulty. T.F. Torrance explains:

[I]n Western Christianity the atonement tends to be interpreted almost exclusively in terms of external forensic relations as a judicial transaction in the transference of the penalty for sin from the sinner to the sin-bearer. In the biblical and early patristic tradition, however,…the Incarnation and the atonement are internally linked, for atoning expiation and propitiation are worked out in the ontological depths of human being and existence into which the Son of God penetrated as the Son of Mary…From his birth to his death and resurrection on our behalf he sanctified what he assumed through his own self-consecration as incarnate Son to the Father, and in sanctifying it brought the divine judgment to bear directly upon our human nature both in the holy life he lived and in the holy life he died in atoning and reconciling sacrifice before God.[1]

This is an important point to which I will return in subsequent entries, so here it is sufficient to note that when the atonement is understood primarily in ‘external’ or ‘transactional’ terms, it implies a rupture between the incarnation and the atonement, between who Christ is in his divine-human person and what he does to accomplish salvation as the divine-human mediator. Such a rupture is necessary, for ‘limited atonement’ must find a way to separate the humanity that Christ assumed in his incarnation from the atoning work that he accomplished in that humanity.

Why is this? It is because the atoning work that Christ accomplished in virtue of his humanity is ultimately intended only for a limited number of human beings, yet the humanity that he assumed in his incarnation is none other than the imago Dei in which Adam was created and from whom all human beings have descended. In other words, Christ bound himself to all human beings in his incarnation; therefore if his atoning work is intended to ultimately apply only to a limited group, then it is necessary to divide who Christ was (as the new Adam) from what he did (only for a limited number of Adam’s descendants). This, however, drifts into the territory of Nestorianism, the ancient heresy that introduced a similar rupture into the person of Christ by placing his divine and human natures in competition with each other.

If we divide Christ’s person from his work, then we have no choice but to understand his atoning work as occurring in manner external to his being – as something that he ‘pays’ or ‘earns’ – and from this results a ‘transactional’ view of the atonement. Thus, as Torrance points out, this view fails to see the atonement as taking place internally within Christ’s person, something that Paul explicitly teaches (God “condemned sin in the flesh” of his Son [Rom. 8:3]; “in [Christ] we have redemption through his blood” [Eph. 1:7]).

A significant problem with this is that a ‘transactional’ atonement based on ‘meritorious value’ would be efficacious to save only if human sin had consisted in a legal transgression that left human nature untouched. However, as we observed regarding total depravity, the fall also corrupted human nature; sin not only makes us guilty, but it also makes us sinners. Sin has deeply entrenched itself in who we are as human beings ontologically. This means that if Christ’s atoning work is defined merely in terms of a ‘payment’, a ‘transaction’, or a ‘merit’ that he offers on our behalf, then the guilt of our sin may be removed, but we still remain sinful in the inner recesses of our being.

Therefore, Christ’s death can be said to be effectual not if he only ‘paid’ for our sin but, as Torrance contends, if he also penetrated into the very depths of our human being and healed our nature from within by condemning sin in his own incarnate flesh. Yet if this is so, then it undermines the merely ‘transactional’ view that ‘limited atonement’ require. It also necessitates an unbroken union between who Christ was (incarnation) and what he did (atonement); but if so, then it means that we cannot distinguish between the universal sufficiency of Christ’s work (implied by his assumption of the humanity shared by all of Adam’s descendants) and the actual efficacy of his work. If Christ’s incarnation and atonement are indivisibly united, then the extent of the atonement’s efficacy must equal that of the incarnation’s scope.

Thus, I would argue that in one sense, the traditional view of limited atonement is actually not ‘limited’ enough. Althought it attempts to maximize its efficacy by limiting its full effect to the elect, it actually reduces its efficacy to an external, forensic transaction capable of exculpating sinners but not of actually freeing them from their sin. I believe wholeheartedly that Scripture includes such forensic elements in its teaching on the atonement, yet I also believe that it teaches much more. As mentioned above, it seems that Paul, for instance, locates the redemptive work of the atonement as occurring within the person of Christ himself rather than, so to speak, over his head.

I would suggest that the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ was on to something important but that it failed to take its own best insight to its biblical and dogmatic end. I want to propose, therefore, a view of the atonement that is even more ‘limited’ than that of classic Calvinism. I want to propose that Christ’s atoning work, properly speaking, was limited to Christ alone in the sense that it did not occur primarily as a transaction outside of and separate from his person but rather, as the Torrance quote above indicates, within his own incarnate constitution as the divine-human mediator. In a way similar to that of election, this strict limitation to the person of Christ alone actually has a universalizing effect: inasmuch as Christ represented all in his incarnation, so also the atonement that he accomplished within his own incarnate person can be said to apply to all. In following posts, I will try to explicate this more fully.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1992. The Mediation of Christ. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard. pp.40-41.