Reforming Calvinism, pt. 13: Limited Atonement (Limited to One, Unlimited for All)

In the previous entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ did not go far enough in limiting Christ’s atoning work in order to maximize its efficacy. I proposed that a better and more biblical doctrine would indeed limit the atonement, but it would do so in terms of a single human being: Jesus Christ himself. This would result in a revision of limited atonement that could also be called ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ inasmuch as it locates the atonement within Christ’s own incarnate person who in himself actualized the full extent of human Limited-Atonement-AVATARredemption, passing through death and rising in the eternal life of the new creation. Such a view would be drastically limited and yet fully maximized in its ability to account for not only humanity’s aquittal from sin’s penalty but also humanity’s purification from sin’s corruption and resurrection from death.

Paradoxically, however, such a drastic limitation not only maximizes the atonement’s power to a seemingly infinite degree, but it also has a universalizing effect. When we come to understand, on account of the indissoluble connection between Christ’s incarnate being and salvific work, that the atonement took place in Christ himself, we discover that the atonement is likewise unlimited in its extent. This is what Athanasius meant when he stated that by becoming flesh, the Word was able to die “in the stead of all…that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection”.[1] Athanasius sounds very much like the apostle Paul here in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “One has died for all, therefore all have died.” What Christ has done, he has effectually done; yet what Christ has done, he has done for all. In other words, the atonement is both fully efficacious in power and universal in extent.

There are two primary reasons for this. First, when Scripture identifies Christ as the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-49), as the imago Dei (Col. 1:15), and the Son of God who came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3), it indicates that the Word assumed the same flesh that we have in order to share in our humanity. As Hebrews 2:14-17 clearly teaches, Christ was made like us in every respect (though, of course, he remained sinless), for only in this way could he, through death, destroy death and become our perfect and faithful high priest. Yet if this is so, then it makes no sense, given the indivisible connection between Christ’s incarnate person and atoning work, to say that the atonement is ultimately effectual only for a limited group of human beings. If the atonement was the work that Christ wrought in the depths of his own incarnate person, and if he became that incarnate person by assuming a humanity no different than that of all human beings, then how could his atoning work ultimately be limited to only some?

As my friend Bobby Grow once asked in a blog post: “Is there a separate ontology for our humanity that is indeed distinct from the kind that Jesus assumed for us in His incarnation?” This question is incisive because it penetrates to the heart of the issue. If Christ assumed a humanity ontologically distinct from our own, then the atoning work that he accomplished could never reach us. His humanity would be fundamentally different than our own, and thus we would remain forever untouched by the work that he carried out in himself. On the other hand, if Christ did indeed assume our humanity in order to truly and fully save us from within, then all that he did he did for all inasmuch as he did it in the nature and flesh shared by all human beings. To attempt to limit the extent of Christ’s atoning work to a restricted group of human beings is therefore to fall prey to an incoherent or deficient Christology, for it is ultimately to deny the fullness and integrity of Christ’s incarnation. If he did not assume the human nature shared by all humanity, then he did not assume human nature at all. As Irenaeus of Lyons contended:

But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh…But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished….

If, then, any one…pretends that the Lord possessed another substance of flesh, the sayings respecting reconciliation will not agree with that man. For that thing is reconciled which had formerly been in enmity. Now, if the Lord had taken flesh from another substance, He would not, by so doing, have reconciled that one to God which had become inimical through transgression. But now, by means of communion with Himself, the Lord has reconciled man to God the Father, in reconciling us to Himself by the body of His own flesh, and redeeming us by His own blood.[2]

As Irenaeus explains here, Christ assumed the nature and flesh shared by all human beings. This means that what he accomplished in himself he accomplished vicariously for all. Contrary to critiques of a ‘physical’ theory of redemption, the fact that Christ accomplished redemption in himself means that it is not immediately or automatically actualized in everyone else. Yet the fact that he accomplished this work vicariously insofar as he did it in the nature and flesh shared by all human beings means that full redemption has been utterly accomplished de jure for all, even if not all will experience it de facto in themselves.

The second reason why a Christ-limited atonement has universal effect for all is because an orthodox Trinitarian theology would require us, contrary to the traditional view of limited atonement, not to introduce any rupture between the act of the Son in history and the will of the Father in eternity. In other words, we must not posit a secret decree of God eternally hidden in the inscrutable recesses of his will that contradicts or emends what is revealed in Christ’s death for all and in the gospel that proclaims this truth to all. As T.F. Torrance explains:

Since Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of God is of one being with the Father, and since he is God and man inseparably united in his incarnate Person, then like the incarnation the atoning work of the incarnate Son falls within the inner life of the Holy Trinity…[T]he cross is not only a revelation of the love of Christ but a revelation of the love of God. The cross is a window opened into the very heart of God…

The atonement is not to be explained or understood simply on the ground of the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus, as some external transaction enacted by Jesus between God and man describable in moral or legal terms, but as taking place ultimately within the incarnate mystery of the union of divine and human nature in Jesus Christ the Mediator between God and man…There is no conflict between the act and being of Christ and the act and being of God, for there is an unbroken relation of being and act between them [necessitated by the Nicene homoousion], which applies fully to their act and being in the atonement. The atoning self-sacrifice of Christ that took place once for all on the cross was offered through the eternal Spirit to God thus procuring eternal redemption…

In him God has drawn near to us, and we may draw near to God with complete confidence as those who are sanctified together with Jesus, and who are included in his atoning self-presentation through the eternal Spirit to the Father. That is surely what it means for us sinners to have access to the Father through the blood of Christ and in one Spirit,…and, what is more, to be certain that what he is toward us in the Gospel of Christ as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he really is and always will be in himself.[3]

The implications of this are staggering. Contrary to views that would posit a disjunction between God’s self-revelation in the cross of Christ (which according to classic Calvinism is inherently sufficient for all) and God’s hidden decree in eternity (that limits the inherent sufficiency of the cross to the elect), the heart of the Christian faith summated in the Nicene homoousion requires us to take seriously the fact that the God who we see revealed in Christ on the cross is God as he is antecedently and eternally in himself. It means that the atonement, worked out ontologically within the depths of the incarnate Mediator and thus accomplished vicariously for all, must be said to fully reveal the eternal will of God before time began with no distortion or remainder. If we insist on the complete and utter continuity between who God is for us in Christ on the cross and who he is in himself from all eternity, we can, like Torrance, know for sure what is his benevolent will and inexpressible love for each one of us. We need not fear, but we can draw near to him with full assurance of faith that Christ accomplished salvation not only for the world but also specifically for each one of us. This is good news!

In the next and final post on an Evangelical Calvinist revision of limited atonement, I will explore what is involved in the de facto realization in us of the atonement that Christ accomplished de jure for all.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 40–41.

[2] Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, pp. 541–542.

[3] Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard. pp.113-115.