Five Challenging Bible Facts
Challenging Fact #3: Limited Atonement
A Grace that Succeeds
by Bob Burridge ©2012
When I put on a pair of those old red and blue 3-D glasses I see things differently. When I look through my left eye everyone seems red. When I look through my right eye everyone looks a sickly blue. Now don’t tell me it’s not true. I can see it with my own eyes. It’s what I see.
That’s the way it is with some forms of the Gospel we hear so much today. The glasses that color our view of Scripture are the assumptions we make before we even begin to read what God has said. To preserve those assumptions people are most comfortable with the colored glasses on. The Gospel as it speaks for itself in Scripture challenges us to accept facts that go against what we tend to prefer in our fallen condition. Even the believer in Christ often struggles to correct the supposings he grew up with and which are popular in the culture in which he lives.
God’s purpose for sending Messiah was made known to Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus. Matthew 1:21 tells us, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” He was not coming simply to make a path to salvation. He came to actually secure it.
The Doctrines of God’s Grace are rejected by most because they assume that God cannot hold a person responsible for what he is not able to control. That is an assumption that comes from our humanistic philosophies rather than from the Bible. That is the color of the lens in the glasses so popular today. When accepted as fact, wrong assumptions produce falsehoods about God and salvation.
Their reasoning goes something like this: If we are held responsible for something God calls us to do, then we must be able to accomplish it in our present condition. We must be able to save ourselves by what we do. This directly denies the fact of our total moral inability to do anything truly God honoring and good when left to ourselves.
They also reason that if a person is able to believe and come to Christ, then his choice is the cause of his salvation. If this was true, God’s grace is not unmerited, which is directly denied all through the Bible.
Their thinking process may be formally logical, but when they begin with untrue assumptions, they end up with conclusions which are untrue.
Their basic assumptions are unscriptural. They are a product of our fallen nature. When we tell them about the atonement and about the condition of those Jesus came to save, the fallen human spirit struggles violently to avoid God’s truth. This is one of the hardest doctrines in all of Christianity. Not because it is complicated. It isn’t. But because it strikes at our pride and makes us rest wholly upon the Sovereign Grace of God.
When the Bible is allowed to speak for itself, even when it says hard things, the colored glasses are taken away by the work of the Holy Spirit. We begin to see things as they really are. What appears to be a repulsive reality to those with the glasses on, becomes an amazing story of redemption and glory. Life becomes centered upon God’s glory and purposes, not upon the feelings of the confused creature.
What is it that keeps a person from living in fellowship with God?
He is a fallen, morally helpless creature, and needs God to save him by grace. This was laid out clearly in the previous two lessons in this study of the Doctrines of Grace.
1. We all became corrupted in sin through Adam. The results of that fall is a corrupted nature which is passed on to all who naturally descend from our representative there in Eden.
Romans 5:12, ” Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”
2. Our moral corruption offends the God who made us to be holy.
Psalm 5:5, “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.”
Habakkuk 1:13 addressing God says, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong… ”
3. As corrupt beings we deserve eternal and complete alienation from God, our Creator.
Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death… ”
Even before Creation God had a firm plan.
God set his love upon certain undeserving creatures to redeem them. His choice was not based upon anything foreseen in or done by them. It was by his purposes alone.
Ephesians 1:4-5, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will”
Jesus came as the promised Messiah to redeem those God had chosen to be his own. This is the way God reveals it in Scripture. When God sent his messenger to Joseph to assure him that Mary would have a baby by the Holy Spirit, the angel said, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21). His mission was to save, not just to make salvation possible.
Before his arrest and crucifixion Jesus prayed with these words, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” (John 17:1-2)
In that same prayer Jesus made it clear that his mission was to redeem only those given to him by the Father. He was on a very specific mission. Notice his comments in verses 6 and 9:
John 17:6, “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.”
John 17:9, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”
Jesus went to the cross to accomplish that specific mission. Again, he did not die just to make it possible for humans to be saved. He died to secure their salvation, to actually redeem all those the Father had given him. He prayed to the Father in John 17:4 saying, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.”
When Jesus was crucified shortly after that prayer, he cried out from the cross saying, “It is finished.” The work he came to do was done, completed.
Hebrews 9:12, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
In his discourse to the Disciples in John 6, Jesus repeatedly made the point that of all those given to him by the Father, he will not lose one of them. They all will be raised up to eternal life in the final Judgment.
John 6:39, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
This promise of a Sovereign and Omnipotent God offers hope and security. The success of our Savior is not built upon the hope that each person will decide to do the right thing. It is based upon the promise of God himself as secured by the finished work of God the Son.
This is a difficult doctrine for fallen humans to accept.
Unless a person believes that everyone will be with God in heaven forever, the atonement made by Jesus is limited. Either it is limited in it’s ability to save those it was intended for, or it is limited by the intentions of the Savior to just redeem some. It it is either limited in extent or intent.
This is where those colored glasses come in. The fallen heart cannot fit these facts in with what he assumes about reality around him. The lost say, “Surely this can’t be true! I can’t accept that God only intended to save certain ones.” They want to be in control of things, and not to have to depend completely upon the work of God or a Savior. The soul in self-denial comes up with alternatives against the sovereign grace taught all through Scripture.
Some believe that all humans will be forgiven. They assume that all will be saved from God’s wrath, and will live with him in Heaven forever. For them the atonement of Jesus Christ was unlimited. It was intended to save everyone and it actually did save everyone. They can live with the focus upon themselves and not worry much about God or what he says is good. This is very appealing to those who reject the reality of eternal punishment.
This view however, is directly contradicted by Scripture. All are not going to be delivered in the end. Hell is a very real place.
Revelation 20:15, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. ”
Revelation 21:8, “… their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Some imagine that God somehow was not able to accomplish what he planned. This limits the value of Christ’s atonement. They believe that God wanted to redeem everybody, but for one reason or another could not do all he wanted to do. His eternal plan wasn’t so eternal. It had to be changed to at least rescue part of his great plan. So Plan B is to at least save some, but with disappointment that Plan A failed.
According to this theory there are only a few options concerning God’s omnipotence. Perhaps he is not all-powerful. His creatures were able to derail the plan God wanted to play out in history. God is then limited to the permission, obedience, or choices of fallen people. They, not God, control the outcome of history and of redemption. Some will suggest that God has two conflicting ultimate desires. On the one hand he wanted to save everyone from sin. On the other hand part of him decided to give up some of his sovereignty and let humans take control of things. This introduces a very bizarre conflict in the nature of God.
The problem is that this theory has no foundation in the Bible when its passages interpreted honestly. Clearly God’s written word tells us that our Creator is able to do all he wants to do. What else could we expect from a Sovereign and Omnipotent God?
Isaiah 46:9-11, “… I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”
Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Some suggest that God only intended to make salvation a possibility.
This is an attempt to make all this fit together. They see the suffering on the cross as nothing more than putting down a deposit for the redemption of lost souls. Jesus paid for all the guilt, but the credit isn’t given to them until they accept it. It’s as if it rests in a dead bank account while God waits for people to act by faith so that it gets applied to them.
According to this theory God somehow self-limits himself by giving man control of his own salvation. Jesus actually saves no one if this is true. He just makes a way for them to save themselves. It is ultimately up to each individual to choose and accept salvation so that God’s plan succeeds.
This is all just pure theory. It’s not actually taught anywhere in Scripture. Verses taken out of context make it appear that God wanted to save everyone, but he failed to do so. Once each verse is returned to its meaning in the flow of thought in the text and is translated accurately, there are no portions left to support the idea that God just made salvation possible, or that his original intention was to save everybody.
One of the major problems with this view is that if Jesus did pay the judicial penalty deserved by the guilt of every person, how can those who fail to receive him still be held guilty? It would be unjust to hold them guilty if the price had really been paid.
Many of the verses they use are actually related to the clarification that God did not intend to redeem just the Jews, but people from all nations. Out of context it may seem to be saying that he intended to redeem all humans.
This theory contradicts what God says about our fallen nature. Fallen people are not able to believe the truth about themselves and about the Gospel. They are spiritually dead and morally unable. (Ephesians 2).
To try to support this view they need to explain away some very clear verses. They often use Romans 8:29 to support the idea that God bases his decisions upon his “foreknowledge” of what we would do if left to ourselves. In essence, they imagine that God predestined us to do what we would have done anyway if he didn’t predestine us.
As we showed in our last study, this approach takes “foreknew” in a way that violates the basic grammar of the passage. It is not what he foreknew about us that caused him to choose us. It says he foreknew those whom he would predestine. It is that personal entering into a special relationship in God’s heart that is the basis of our being sealed to be justified and glorified. This is the sense in which Jesus used the term in Matthew 7:23 when he said to the religious but unredeemed at the judgment day, “I never knew you.” He was not surprised to see them as if he didn’t know they existed. It means that he had never entered into that special relationship with them to “know” them intimately as his own.
As challenging as that fact may be to our imperfect hearts, it is what God plainly reveals in His word.
The Doctrines of Grace honor God as Sovereign and Successful.
In Romans 9 we have a glimpse into the purpose behind God redeeming some and leaving the rest to what we all justly deserve. In verses 17-24 Paul writes, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
For reasons known only to Himself, the Father set his love upon some fallen humans and sent his Son to redeem them. He rescues every person known to the Father in this way. It was for them, and for them alone, that he died and took up a guilt that was not his own. It was a grace exceedingly amazing that moved God to save anyone at all.
The Holy Spirit, working through the words of the Bible, rips off the colored glasses that confuse the vision of those specific fallen souls. He enables them to see themselves as God sees them. They recognize that they are unworthy of God’s care, and unable to repair their just alienation and condemnation. They will see the work of the Savior for what is was, the Savior dying in their place for what they deserve.
Those not redeemed by the work of Jesus on the Cross will not want him as he is presented in the Bible. They will reject the truth and refuse to give glory to God alone. They substitute untruths for the truth, and seek glory for themselves.
The teaching of the whole of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, is very consistent and obvious once the colored glasses are removed. It is the teaching of the Apostolic Church, and of the early church leaders. It was very clearly expressed by Augustine as a continuing view in the fourth century AD. It is the central teaching of Bible believing churches down through history.
Human-centered prejudice has turned a poorly fed church to the doctrines that before then were only held by condemned heretics. The colored glasses of denying that our trust in Christ is a total work of grace, have colored the whole outlook of the compromising church.
The biblical facts are hard for our finite and imperfect minds to grasp, but they alone offer confidence since salvation is by grace alone. Our hope rests in God’s promise and power, not in our own unsure choices or imperfect works. We can be assured that since it is the work of God nothing was left undone. Jesus paid it all.
Romans 8:33, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”
The Savior succeeded. God gave his promise to all believers long ago. Isaiah 53:5-6, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
God’s saving work succeeded, just as He planned. He didn’t just make salvation a possibility. He actually redeemed all his people.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)