Who Has the True “Limited” Atonement?
Talk about “limited” atonement (LA) seems to have resurfaced in certain reformed circles these days. Did Christ die for everyone? Or just for the elect (those God chose from eternity to be saved)? Let's call this LA1. That's an important issue to be sure (and I'm on the Christ died for everyone side) but there's another form of LA that is less apparent and less talked about yet at least as important as the version I mentioned above. Let's call this LA2. Actually, I think it is more important because it answers LA1 for us.
What is this other version of LA, LA2? A question will help us get at it. Would Christ have come incarnate among us if humanity had never sinned? In other words, was there another purpose to his incarnation than dying for our sins (let's call this reclamation)? A purpose God had in mind apart from reclaiming us sinners (or at some of us depending on how we answer LA1) from perdition and hell? In yet other words, is Jesus' incarnation dependent on human sin? Was that but an emergency measure to salvage something of God's plan now that everything has gone awry due to our sin and rebellion?
Most in North America, in both popular and scholarly writing, have seemed to answer this question in the negative. Christ came to die for our sins and assure us of our eternal future with God. Thus there is no such thing as LA2. The death of Christ is nothing more or less than a rescue operation. And thank God that it is that!
But I contend that to so “limit” Christ's atoning work (LA1) is to miss the true glory of his life among us as one of us and what Paul calls “the eternal purpose” of God (Eph.3:11). To see Christ's work for us as solely and wholly LA1 is, I would say, the true “limited atonement” (LA2) with which we have to contend today.
Fortunately, there is a retrieval in our day by some scholars of the vision of the scriptures and the Church Fathers of a much broader vision of the purpose for Christ's incarnation and atoning work, an unlimited version, we might see. This unlimited atonement (UA) finds in Bible, particularly in the four chapters of the Bible untouched by sin (Gen.1-2 and Rev.21-22), God's “eternal purpose,” that is, his dream of what he desired by bringing everything into existence.
The most succinct way to put that dream is that God wanted a place and people with whom to share his love and life. A place to dwell. And what do we call a place where God dwells? A temple. Thus we are not surprised to discover that Gen.1-2 narrate the creation of the world as the building of a temple palace in the Garden of Eden from which God intends to oversee this temple's spread over all the earth. The creation as one great Temple in which God and his creatures dwell together in communion an fellowship. At the other end of the canon, the last scene in vision presented there is of the New Jerusalem coming to God's new creation, becoming co-extensive with it, bearing a cubic shape matched in the Bible only by the Holy of Holies in the temple. Here we see God's “eternal purpose” displayed. All creation as the habitation for the most intimate sharing of life between God and his human creatures.
Jesus' incarnation is the ultimate expression of the depth of God's passion for communion with his creatures. What more could God do to draw near to us in fellowship than become one of us? When sin mucked things up Jesus' coming as the incarnate One took a more complicated shape since he had now to deal with this sin but the larger intent of establishing God's presence with us as one of us for life together now and forever was always the primary goal. Reclamation had to happen in the aftermath of sin but the purpose of Jesus' incarnation and work would not be fulfilled until our restoration to our place an vocation in God's creation dream was restored. And that means reconciliation is the largest and deepest realization of God's dream!
I am suggesting, therefore, UA includes both our reclamation from sin and restoration to our place and vocation in God's larger purpose. LA2, which limits Jesus' atonement to forgiveness of sins an assurance of life forever with God is indeed the version of limited atonement from which we need to be freed. LA1, whether Christ died for all or only some of us, is answered once we abandon LA2. If God's creation dream is to share life will all his human creatures, then for Christ's death to serve that creation dream it must encompass all.
I suggest that UA as I have described it the place from which we ought to begin if we want our lives and service to God aligned with what he is doing the world. In closing this brief note, I invite you to consider why Jesus is presented as the new temple of God (Jn.2:22) and his people as a temple, individually and corporate (1 Cor.6:19; Eph.2:19ff.; 1 Peter 2:1-10). Might this not reflect the Father's larger and ultimate purpose in creation fulfilled by Jesus and the church, both here and now and then and there?