Why I struggled with Limited Atonement

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 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. (Romans 9:14-18)
June 6, 2019
Author Article Doctrine

Please read all of this, before you judge me!

When I was a young university student, I fell in with a crowd of Calvinists. I am glad I did, because those guys were serious about reading the Bible, and basing their theology on it. During that time, I was introduced to the writings of some of the greats of the theological world – Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield, and especially Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was still alive at the time.

In my late 40s and into my 50s, I began to re-examine a lot of the doctrines that I had held from my youth. I wanted to enter my 60s, having worked through all major areas of doctrine. I didn’t spare any area. So eventually I re-examined my soteriology.

It seemed to me biblically obvious that God is Sovereign. Therefore, I could not reject that doctrine, and drift into any full form of Arminianism. In view of this, it also seemed obvious to me that humans are born in original sin – i.e. totally depraved, and that, while we may think that we made a “decision for Christ” (terminology that I do not like), the reality is that the choice was God’s – i.e. unconditional election. Since God is Sovereign, it also follows that his Grace is irresistable, for which I am eternally grateful, knowing that if it were left to me, I would never have been saved.

But here’s the bit where you need to read everything – I struggled with two of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism – Limited Atonement and Perseverance of the Saints. I will deal with the latter in another article, but I will reduce the tension by saying this:- I hold to all five points. It turned out that my problem was that so many young cage-stage Calvinists – myself included, when I was in my 20s – do not understand these points right. They have become vaguely convinced that Calvinism is right – possibly by recognizing, as I always did, that the Sovereignty of God is a clearly biblical doctrine.

Another of the problems is that Calvinism is not defined by the Five Points. Calvinism is that biblical doctrine, expounded clearly by John Calvin. Calvin did not invent the Five Points. The Five Points are merely a useful mnemonic – especially as they form a word – TULIP. But the phrases given for L and P can easily be misunderstood.

Here is how I misunderstood Limited Atonement. The booklet that I read in my early 20s gave good Scriptural reasons for the T and the U (Total Depravity and Unconditional Election). But the booklet’s reasoning for Limited Atonement was logical, rather than directly biblical. As I matured, I realized that a logical deduction does not make good theology, unless we can see that it clearly builds from a Scriptural foundation. My understanding was that the doctrine meant that God was somehow limited in who He could save, when the Bible clearly taught that Christ died for the sins of the world. And so for several years, I have been telling people that I am a 3-point Calvinist, as I could not accept points L and P. In hindsight, I wonder why the writer of the booklet didn’t just walk through Romans 9:14-18, where it is laid out logically and irrefutably.

But whenever I read anything about Calvinism and Arminianism, I always found the former more biblical, so I knew I still leaned towards Calvinism.

It all became clear in one light bulb moment. I was listening to an episode of the Dividing Line – the podcast of Dr. James White. At one point in this particular episode, he referred to Limited Atonement, and then said “or, as I prefer it, Particular Redemption”.

Everything suddenly popped into place. It is the very phrase Limited Atonement, not the doctrine, which is problematic, because not everyone understands it right, and it was clear that I had not understood it, even when I claimed to believe it! The doctrine is not about limiting God. It is about God being Sovereign, and Him making the choice to redeem the particular people, whom He has clearly chosen!

Writing a summary of doctrine is not always easy, and I do not blame the dear folks at the Synod of Dort for devising a mnemonic, which gives us a memorable word. I blame myself – and others – for misunderstanding what was actually meant by the phrases Limited Atonement and Perseverance of the Saints, but I would add this – I suspect I am not alone. I suspect that there are others who think they are Calvinists, who have not understood the two doctrines, and I suspect there are non-Calvinists who have rejected Reformed Theology purely on the basis of misunderstanding the meaning of these phrases. No self-respecting Calvinist would really believe a doctrine that limited God’s choice, but that is why Particular Redemption is a better phrase – not that Limited Atonement is wrong, just the way some of us understood it was wrong.

When I had only just started re-examining these doctrines, I met a well-known apologist, who self-identified as a Five Point Calvinist. I explained I couldn’t accept the Third Point, and we discussed things a while, and he commented that we actually seemed to believe the same thing. I pondered tat comment frequently for a few years, before I heard the phrase Particular Redemption.

It’s a pity there isn’t a flower called the TUPIB. I now prefer my Five points as Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Particular Redemption, Irresistible Grace, and Blessed Assurance. I will explain the last point some other time, but readers of Reformed Theology will presumably welcome my return to the fold. I would only comment that my Reformed Theology is now closer to what Calvin wrote than it used to me in my youth, because I had my early Calvinism misunderstood. The key to all theology is to understand the full implications of God being Sovereign, and that His choice is supreme in every aspect of what He does. God is not limited in any way. He could redeem whoever He chose, and, in His Sovereign mercy, He chose those whom He would redeem, when He would have been righteous if He had chosen not to redeem any of us. Certainly, I do not understand why He chose to redeem me, but I praise His Name that He did.

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