Tiptoe Through the TULIP: Limited Atonement

Here we go continuing with our little TULIP exposition. As I said in the last post, if you’re new to this little miniseries of mine, I’d suggest you start from the very beginning (a very good place to start!).

We’ve now approached the dreaded “L”, which stands for Limited Atonement. Next to Unconditional Election, this is perhaps one of the most controversial of the Five Points of Calvinism. So much so, in fact, that there exist out there people known as “Four Point Calvinists” (their historical name being Amyraldians) who deny this doctrine.

The nitty gritty of Limited Atonement is that when Christ died on the cross, he did not die for the sins of the entire world – rather, he died to atone for the sins of those whom God would elect and hence redeem. Limited Atonement is also known as Particular Redemption, since it teaches that Christ died to redeem a particular group of individuals. The opposite of this would be General Redemption, which believes that Christ died to redeem all mankind. In fact, historically speaking, Baptists in America were often identified as either Particular Baptists (Calvinistic) and General Baptists (non-Calvinistic).

As we’re going through TULIP bit by bit, and we showed the tie between Total Depravity and Unconditional Election, it might be worthy to note here the tie between Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement:

It will be seen at once that this doctrine necessarily follows from the doctrine of election. If from eternity God has planned to save one portion of the human race and not another, it seems to be a contradiction to say that His work has equal reference to both portions, or that He sent His Son to die for those whom He had predetermined not to save, as truly as, and in the same sense that He was sent to die for those whom He had chosen for salvation. These two doctrines must stand or fall together. We cannot logically accept one and reject the other. If God has elected some and not others to eternal life, then plainly the primary purpose of Christ’s work was to redeem the elect. [Loraine Boettner, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination; source]

In other words, if we establish that mankind is under a total depravity, and therefore God’s election must logically be unconditional, then it likewise stands to reason that Christ would not die for the justification of those whom God knew ahead of time would perish in their sins. Therefore, we can conclude that Christ would die and atone for those predestined to be elected under the saving grace of God.

Now let’s move on to the part where I shut up and I start letting scripture speak. Those who are familiar with this blog will know that I’ve already touched on this section of scripture before, and in greater detail, but for this part I’m going to be quickly reviewing the tenth chapter of John’s gospel.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” [John 10:1-4]

This is the beginning of one of the seven big sermons made by Christ in John’s gospel, and is addressed to the Jews, including the Sanhedrin, who had gathered after the meeting between Jesus and the man born blind in chapter nine. It is the famous “Good Shepherd” sermon, and the Good Shepherd is, of course, Christ Himself.  It is the initial, summarized version of the much larger version which Christ will elaborate on for most of the chapter.

Christ starts out by identifying that those who enter the sheepfold by the door or climb in another way (in other words, false prophets and teachers) are thieves and robbers, but they who go through the door are the shepherd. He then describes this scene: the shepherd enters, he calls the sheep by name, and leads them out. Once they are all out, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him “for they know his voice.” Note that the shepherd enters and makes the first move by calling the sheep. Note likewise that he calls the sheep by name – this is a personal calling, not a general one. The sheep respond, and follow him, for they “know his voice” as their shepherd, which further identifies them as his specific sheep. Just this little section alone, therefore, gives as good enough evidence for Irresistible Grace as it will eventually for Limited Atonement, but that’s for another post. For now, keep in mind that the sheep are called by name and that they know the voice of their shepherd.

Because the people do not understand Christ’s figure of speech (v. 6), he begins to elaborate on the previous parable:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” [John 10:7-11]

Christ identifies himself with two motifs from the aforementioned parable: he is both the door and the shepherd. In this sense, he is not only our mode of salvation, he is likewise the author of it. He is the only “door” to salvation, for anyone who enters by him “will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (v. 9). Thieves (again, false prophets and teachers) only come “to steal and kill and destroy,” but Christ came so that his sheep “may have life and have it abundantly” (v. 10). Our Lord then says the famous: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).

Note quickly – what did Christ just say? For whom does he lay down his life? He lays down his life for the sheep. Who are the sheep? Obviously within the context of everything we’ve discussed so far, it’s the people of God. Christ died for those who belong to his flock. Shepherds are not willing to die for sheep of other flocks, but rather for sheep of their own flock.

To elaborate further on this, let’s look at the next few verses:

“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 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.” [John 10:12-15]

Again Christ elaborates on the special care and love that the shepherd has for the sheep. He then states: “I am the Good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (v. 14). Not only does Christ know those who are his sheep, but his sheep know him. Again, this is referring to an effectual kind of knowing, for the shepherd knows the sheep by name (v. 4), and the sheep, upon being called by name, follow (v. 5). Christ takes this even further when he states that he knows the sheep and the sheep know him “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (v. 15a). In other words, just as the Father and Son are in perfect knowledge of one another, so too is the Son in perfect knowledge of those who are his, and those who are his own know him. Christ then says again: “I lay down my life for the sheep” (v. 15b). Again, for whom does Christ die? The sheep. Who are the sheep? The elect of God. Those whom he knows by name and calls by name to go out to pasture.

As one will see in the my previous post about John 10, which I linked to above, I’m well aware of some synergist responses to this. To respond to them briefly:

1) Christ doesn’t say he died for just the sheep and no one else. Aside from this being the “prove a negative” fallacy, the individual making it is forgetting the overall point: Christ doesn’t say that because he doesn’t have to do so. When Christ says he died for the sheep, and demonstrates the deep relationship between the Good Shepherd and his sheep, he doesn’t have to specify any further. If an officer said, “I am a general, I lead my soldiers,” it would be completely fallacious to suppose that we can interpret that to mean the officer commands even people outside his unit – maybe even non-soldiers – simply because he doesn’t specify as much.

2) Christ can call sheep, but they can reject him. This creates the idea of a shepherd who calls out his sheep and leads them, but it is possible for one of those sheep to say “Forget this!” and dart off, with the shepherd able to do little more than wag his hands in anger. Aside from the fact that a real life shepherd would never allow such a thing to occur, this would contradict a continued application of the Good Shepherd sermon found later on in the chapter. While at the Feast of Dedication, some unbelieving Jews approach Jesus and as him to tell them plainly if he is the Christ (v. 22-24). Christ tells 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. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” [John 10:25-30]

Christ tells the people bluntly that they do not believe (v. 25). Why do they not believe? Christ says “You are not among my sheep” (v. 26). His sheep hear his voice, and he knows them, and they follow him (v. 27). The Good Shepherd states regarding his sheep: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (v. 28). Christ then turns this into a Trinitarian affair when he says: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (v. 29-30). The phrase “I and the Father are one” refers to their unity in Trinitarian work, and hence the treatment of the sheep is something done both by the Father and the Son (the Holy Spirit will be discussed later on in the gospel). The Father gives the sheep to the Son, and the Son gives the sheep eternal life and keeps them from falling. No one is able to snatch the sheep, for they are in the hands both of the Father (v. 29) and the Son (v. 28). Those who do not believe or have false belief are, as Christ said to the unbelieving Jews, not even God’s sheep to begin with (v. 26).

Just as one says “baa” not to become a sheep, but because they are a sheep, so too does a person believe not to become God’s sheep, but because they are God’s sheep. Christ does not say “You are not my sheep because you do not believe,” he clearly states “You do not believe because you are not my sheep.” Their identification of sheep was not dependent upon their belief; their belief was dependent upon their identification as sheep. Likewise, those who are Christ’s sheep are incapable of being lost, for they are being preserved by both the Father and the Son, who are working together in this act of salvation.

3) When Christ talks about “the sheep,” it’s different than “my sheep” – “the sheep” is general, but “my sheep” means those sheep who come to believe. This would presuppose that Christ is completely irrational in his train of thought. As we’ve seen thus far in this exegesis, no where does the context of “my sheep” and “the sheep” stop being synonymous. They both refer to the same group.

To return to the subject of this post, what do we see being discussed here in John 10? Admittedly we see a lot of things (I’d argue all Five Points of Calvinism), but one of those thing is the identity of Christ’s sheep and the clarification of for whom the Good Shepherd dies. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, whom the Father has given to him, for it is his sheep whom he grants eternal life and preserves in his hand until the day of resurrection, so that they may go out and find pasture.

This makes the atonement, of course, a very personal event. If Christ knows his sheep by name, and it is these sheep for whom he dies (as he clearly did not die for those who are not his sheep, like those in verse 26), then Christ died for a special group of people, and as a substitution not only for a vague or general idea of a people’s sins, but a specific group of people’s sins – people with names, faces, and personal lives. This means, dear Christian, he died not just for you, but for you. As he hung upon that cross, he had your name on his mind, and his blood atoned for every single one of your sins, however how great or small. He died for your specific sins within your specific life, and he suffered knowing that the day would come when you would be called and justified, and he knows even now a glorious day will come when you will be glorified together with him. You were elected by the Father, the Son atoned for your sins, and you are now being preserved today by the Holy Spirit. Your salvation is a blessing from the Trinity, but most of all your atonement was done personally in your stead by the Son. If you gain anything from that post, ponder on that most of all – that your sin was not atoned for in a vague sense, but that all specific sins you ever committed were atoned for by Christ, and he did this out of love for you.

We have two more petals of the TULIP to go. God willing, those will be going up in the following weeks.

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