There are many controversial doctrines of the Christian faith, but there are few that kindle such emotion as does the teaching concerning the particular nature of the atonement of Christ. It is this doctrine coupled with the teachings concerning the bondage of the will that make most who despise Calvinists despise them. It is a doctrine refused by most who call themselves Christians, and yet it is a doctrine that is understood by few.
The doctrine of particular redemption, simply put, is the teaching that the sins that Christ bore on the cross are only the sins of the elect–i.e. those who were chosen in love before the foundation of the world to have faith in Christ. This doctrine has been more popularly labeled in the past as “limited atonement” in small part to place emphasis on the scope of Christ’s work on the cross and in larger part to force fit the doctrine into the middle of the “TULIP” acrostic that was born out of the Synod at Dordt in response to the Arminian heresy.
The popular term “limited atonement” has sparked enough debate by its semantics alone, and perhaps rightly so in a way. Many have interpreted the use of the word “limited” as one that places a cap on the value on Christ’s death, and others have had a problem with describing anything that God does as “limited,” especially the giving up of himself on the cross. These objections bring up some healthy concerns of those who have them, though their concerns are based upon their ignorance not fact. The doctrine of the limited atonement of Christ (henceforth “particular redemption”) has never taught that there is a definite value on the work of Christ. Quite the contrary, the doctrine teaches that the death of the Infinite by necessity has an infinite value, and therefore could atone for an infinite number of souls if it were God’s good pleasure for it to do so. For these reasons, “particular redemption” is a much more accurate name for the doctrine and a less offensive one.
Many object to the divisive nature of the doctrine and wonder what benefit such a teaching has for the Church. I acknowledge the doctrine’s tendency to divide, and I also sympathize dearly with the desire for a unified Church. However, I do believe that Scripture teaches a particular redemption in its pages and that God in his benevolent wisdom has placed it there for our mutual edification. I will make note of particular benefits of the doctrine in a forthcoming post, but till then know that the doctrine helps us understand the ways of God and will cause the saint to adore and to glorify his Maker and his Redeemer rightly and in greater degree and truth.
Allow me to offer a word of warning before we engage in this study: this doctrine is only fit to be explored by him who is a child of God and does not neglect the weightier matters of God’s law. It is very easy to be fascinated with such teachings and for those teachings to become a snare and a stumbling block to the petrified heart. If you find that studying such doctrines does not make you a more humble, gracious, and loving person toward your siblings in Christ and toward your neighbors, you have no business with this meat until you have grown past your spiritual infancy. Studying this doctrine apart from a desire to wholeheartedly glorify God in Christ and to love his Church will make you a callous, intellectual elitist in your church and will make you a glorifier of yourself rather than of Christ.