The problem of the extent of the atonement may be summed up in the question "for whom did Christ die?" This is a question over which many theological battles have been fought in times past, although it does not seem to be a question which concerns modern theologians particularly:
The above writer has basically stated the problem of the extent of the atonement, but he seems to imply in the words "certain particular, elect ones" that he understands the view of the limited atonement to include only a relatively small number of persons. If this is his meaning then it is erroneous, for the Bible speaks of an innumerable company of the elect. For instance, see such Scripture references as Rev. 7:9, Gen. 22:17, Gen. 15:5. It is common for opponents of the limited atonement to erroneously assume that by the term "limited atonement" is meant a limited number of a select few who will be saved. By limited, it is not meant to indicate that a select few will be saved, but rather that the extent of the atonement is limited to God's elect, the number being known only by God alone. In all actuality, when it is considered that many of the human race die in infancy, it is to be hoped that the number of the saved may actually be greater than the number of the wicked in hell.
C.H. Spurgeon, in his sermon on "Plenteous Redemption," says concerning the number of the redeemed:
The question of the extent of the atonement is most assuredly an important one and just as relevant for our generation, at least, as in former generations. Yet, we are told that we need no longer concern ourselves with the question in these "enlightened" times:
In reply to this, we may say that God does not change and that truth is absolute. The same doctrines of God's Word that were relevant to past generations of believers are as true today as in times past and the question of the extent of the atonement is certainly valid today, especially in view of the fact that the atonement is so misunderstood in some circles.
As concerning the object of Christ's atonement, it is maintained by Arminian theology that He died for all men without exception. Again, C.H. Spurgeon says,
If there were no object in the death of Christ, it would seem that His death would be pointless. For the sake of logic, it must be that Christ had some ultimate purpose in His death, some plan, some Divine blueprint which He intended to carry out. To assume otherwise is to make God the author of confusion. If Christ had no object in His death, then the salvation of none is certain and even God cannot know whether His plan of salvation shall succeed.
But it is objected that if Christ died not for all men, one cannot consistently preach the gospel of God's love and Christ's death, that it would be dishonest to affirm the universal offer of salvation and hold to the limited view.
Unless Christ died for all men, the message of God's love and Christ's death must be given with tongue in cheek and with some reservation, because some may hear who are really not to be numbered among those whom God loved and for whom Christ died.5
This objection is by no means a new thought, for it is a common objection made by those who do not believe in the particular atonement. The heart of this argument seems to be that belief in the limited atonement will dampen evangelistic zeal. However, it should be quite the opposite. If we really believe that God has an elect people, and that the death of Christ secures their salvation, this belief, in a well-balanced mind, should increase one's confidence and zeal. It is for the purpose of recovering that which was lost that we preach. It is for the purpose of seeking out the lost sheep for whom Christ died that we proclaim the message of salvation. There is no inconsistency here.
Various theories have been propounded as concerning the atonement. The main ones are:7
theory is an outgrowth of Pelagianism and denies the need of
a propitiation for man. Since man is capable of reforming himself,
Christ's death serves, not as a propitiation for sin, but as
an inspiring example for man to imitate.
Concerning each of these theories mentioned, it may be said that each contains an element of truth and at least two, the Anselmic theory and the Ethical theory, are not too far from the truth. For example, the Socinian theory teaches that the death of Christ is exemplary and that man should imitate this. This is certainly true, and none would deny this it is to be supposed.
However, there is much error in most of these theories, for the Socinian theory denies the need of an atonement and in essence denies the innate depravity of man by affirming that he can reform himself. Likewise, the Bushnellian and Grotian theories minimize sin and emphasize that man can turn to God whenever he will, apart from any mediator or atonement for sin. The Irvingian theory is nothing short of blasphemous, for it teaches that Jesus took on himself depraved human nature, whereas the Bible affirms that He was without sin, "a lamb without spot or blemish."
The Anselmic theory has been criticized on the ground that it "commercializes" the atonement. Perhaps it can be said that it is closer to the truth than the other theories. The ethical theory seems to come short in that it seems to make Christ responsible for Adam's sin by virtue of His humanity and for that reason, and to that extent, it seems to be in error. Christ assumed the responsibility of the sins of His people on the cross, but this was of choice, not of necessity.
Simmons, in considering the extent of the atonement, gives three main theories:
The partial general theory teaches that Christ paid the penalty for the Adamic sin for the whole race. This is based on John 1:29, "Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world."
The general atonement teaches that Christ died for every person who ever lived or who will ever live. Simmons includes in this category those who teach the sufficiency-efficiency theory.10
In the following pages the limited atonement theory shall be considered as the correct view. Briefly defined, by limited atonement is meant that Christ died for the elect only, with the object of securing their eternal salvation.
This is summed up in the following statement:
The word "satisfaction" explains, perhaps, more nearly than the word atonement what Christ has accomplished for the sinner on the cross. He satisfied the holiness of God, the justice of God, the claims of the law through His sufferings and death on the cross. As pertaining to this, A.H. Strong says:
He further says that "happiness is connected with righteousness, unhappiness or suffering is attached to sin. Christ condemns sin by visiting upon it the penalty of suffering. He endures the reaction of God's holiness against sin which constitutes that penalty."12 To restate this, Man is guilty of sin, of disobedience to the law and having offended against the most High, a penalty is inflicted upon him, the penalty of death. Christ, at the same time our Judge and our Substitute, submits Himself to the penalty in our stead, thereby satisfying the just requirement of the law.13
It should further be noted that this satisfaction is penal in nature; the "amount of suffering must be proportionate to the offence."15
In other words, the atonement of Christ really atones, it is a satisfaction for the sins of the believer in every sense of the word. Could every believer fully realize this and apprehend it, he would be able to realize that God has completely and forever obliterated and covered his sins. And could he but realize what it has cost Christ to reconcile him to God, sin would appear to be so heinous in his eyes that he would not wish to have any part in the thing that sent his Saviour to the cross.
Symington gives us several words which are used in the Scriptures to describe the various facets of the atonement. They are as follows:17
He also gives us the following theological terms which are not used in Scripture:
The word atonement is used only once in the authorized version of the New Testament: "We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ by whom we have now received the atonement." (Rom. 5:11) Here the word "katallage" is used but in this case it has the meaning of atonement, rather than reconciliation. The Greek verb katallasso carries with it the meaning to "lay down something" as a payment. Aristotle says that the word means "to exchange equivalent values."18
The Hebrew equivalent of katallage is kaphar. This is usually translated as atonement in the KJV and is used 78 times in the Old Testament.19 The word "kaphar" means to cover or to draw over and has the theological meaning of expiation. This word is used in connection with the mercy seat, which was the cover or lid of the ark in the tabernacle.20
The word reconciliation is used to translate the word katallage in two passages in the New Testament. It is connected with atonement, for, before reconciliation can be effected, an atonement must be made.
Redemption means to set free and is used to translate the Greek word "apolutrosis." In order to redeem, a ransom, (lutron) must be paid. Under Hebrew law, a slave could be set free at the end of 6 years of servitude by paying a ransom.21 Jesus said that He would give His life as a ransom for many. (Mk. 10:45) For the uses of the words "apolutrosis" and "lutrosin" see Lk. 21:28 and Heb. 9:12.
The word propitiation means to turn away anger by appeasement, supposing, of course, that the other party has been offended. It is a translation of the Greek words "hilasterion" and "hilasmos." Hilasterion means mercy seat. It can also mean atoning victim.22
The words satisfaction, substitution and expiation, as has been noted, are not used in Scripture, but are theological terms used to denote different aspects of the atonement. Satisfaction has been discussed. The terms substitution and expiation are used to denote Christ's taking the place of the sinner and annulling his guilt by His gracious interposition.23
Robert P. Lightner sets forth ten problems of the limited atonement. These ten are, briefly, as follows:24
While some of these objections may be worthy of consideration, the aforementioned writer seems to find difficulties where there are none. As an example, he puts forth the puerile argument that the resurrection of the wicked dead necessitates a general atonement. He says,
is foolish. Christ's atonement is meant to atone, to redeem,
to reconcile. Here we have an atonement that does not atone,
a redemption that does not redeem, a reconciliation that does
not reconcile. Christ must suffer for the wicked that they might
be raised so that they may suffer throughout all eternity. Further,
he speaks of the resurrection of the wicked as though it were
a resurrection to life, when in all reality it is a resurrection
unto eternal death and is no life at all but a dreary, endless,
futile existence in eternal blackness and despair. The central
error is that this kind of reasoning makes it all entirely dependent
upon the will of man. If man does not so will, according to
this kind of thinking, the Saviour's atonement shall have no
result of any kind whatsoever and God has no assurance whether
His plan of salvation shall succeed or not; perhaps the Saviour's
death shall be in vain.26