Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema

“For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of His Son’s costly death should work itself out in all His chosen ones, in order that He might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, He acquired for them by His death); that He should cleanse them by His blood from all their sins, both original and actual ….” (Canons of Dort, 2/8)

Undoubtedly, the most controversial of the five points of doctrine affirmed by the Synod of Dort was the second. In this point, the Canons teach that Christ’s work of atonement was graciously designed by God the Father to provide for the salvation of those whom He has chosen to save. According to the “gracious will and intention of God the Father,” Christ’s atoning death was specifically and particularly accomplished to procure and ensure the salvation of all those for whom He laid down his life. In the words of John 10, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep. These sheep are not a nameless crowd. They are the sheep whom Jesus knows and who likewise know Him (John 10:15).

Two objections are often raised to the teaching of definite atonement. Among those who raise these objections, some call themselves “four-point Calvinists” to express their agreement with the other points affirmed in the Canons while demurring from this one.

The first objection is that the teaching of definite atonement “limits” or diminishes the embrace of Christ’s atoning death. If Christ died only for the elect, the scope and reach of God’s grace are unduly constricted. The doctrine of “limited atonement” is incompatible with the well-known affirmation of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

In reply to this first objection, it should be noted that the Canons expressly affirm the infinite value and worth of Christ’s satisfaction. Christ’s atoning sacrifice “is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins,” and “is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” For this reason, the church must proclaim the gospel of salvation through Christ to “all nations and peoples, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.” The church is called to proclaim “indiscriminately” that all who believe in Christ crucified and turn from their sins shall not perish but have eternal life. It should also be noted that the Canons affirm the unlimited efficacy of Christ’s atonement. Through the blood of Christ, God wills to “effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to Him by the Father.” Far from limiting Christ’s work of atonement, the Canons insist that Christ’s atonement ensures the salvation of a great number of fallen sinners. By contrast, the Arminian position limits the efficacy of Christ’s atonement by teaching that its intended benefit can always be frustrated by any lost sinner who freely chooses not to believe to the end. According to the Arminian view of indefinite atonement, Christ’s death does not ensure the actual salvation of a single person. Christ only makes it possible for some to be saved, provided they respond appropriately to the gospel’s call to faith.

The second objection that is often raised to definite atonement is that it undermines the gospel’s call to faith with the promise that those who do so will be saved. To this objection, I cannot offer a better response than that of John Murray: “He [Christ] could not be offered as Savior and as the one who embodies in Himself salvation full and free if He had simply made the salvation of men possible or merely had made provision for the salvation of all. It is the very doctrine that Christ procured and secured redemption that invests the free offer of the gospel with richness and power. It is that doctrine alone that allows for a presentation of Christ that will be worthy of the glory of His accomplishment and of His person. It is because He procured and secured redemption that He is an all-sufficient and suitable Savior” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied).

Like all of the points affirmed by the Canons, the second point underscores the simple truth that “God saves sinners.” God does not make it possible for some to be saved, depending upon their independent decision to persevere in faith. No, God actually saves those whom He graciously wills to save and whom His Son effectively redeems.

This article was adapted from the December 2018 issue of The Messenger