Limited Atonement

The “L” in Calvin’s TULIP acronym stands for “Limited Atonement.”  This believe asserts that only the sins of the “elect” were atoned for by the death of Christ.  The reasoning used is that the blood of Christ was sufficient to pay for the sins of every single human being IF it had been God’s intention to save all.  Since Calvinists do not believe it was God’s intention to save all, then the atoning work of Christ is limited to the “elect.”

To support this view, Calvinists will point to verses in Scripture like Matthew 26:28 where Jesus at the Last Supper refers to the cup he shares — “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Acts 20:28 tells us “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.

And in John 10:11 Jesus tells us that “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  Since we read that at the end of time Jesus separates the “sheep” from the “goats” with the sheep being those who are saved (Matthew 25:31-46), the conclusion by Calvinists is that Jesus died only for the sheep.

Catholics reject the concept of limited atonement.  We would understand these verses to show us that salvation would only be received by the “elect,” not that Christ did not die for all.  The catechism says in paragraph 1934 that “Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin.  Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.”  In general those religious groups that align with Arminianism would also reject limited atonement.

We’ve already seen that God does not want any to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and He desires all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4).  We also see in Scripture that Jesus is “the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  (1 John 2:2).  We read that he “takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), and that he is the Savior of the world (John 4:42, 1 John 4:14)Titus 2:11 tells us that “the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men,” and 1 Timothy 4:10 refers to Christ as “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”

While the Church teaches that Christ has redeemed or “won salvation for all men” (CCC1741), that does not mean the Church teaches universal salvation, or that all will be saved.  Each person must freely respond to the grace God offers.

You may remember an incident with Pope Francis early in his papacy when he was preaching on Mark 9:38-41.  The apostles had stopped someone from casting out demons in the name of Jesus because he was not a follower of Christ.  Jesus tells them that “no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.  For he that is not against us is for us.  For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.”  The context of the Pope’s sermon was that it is not necessary that someone be Christian in order to work in charity to benefit mankind, and the cooperation of all is needed in our hurting world.

And then he said “All of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil.  All of us.  ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’  Yes, he can…The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics.  Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’  Even the atheists.  Everyone!…We must meet one another doing good.  ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

The headlines the next day screamed that the Pope said that atheists would be in heaven.  Picked up not only by major secular news sources, it was also reported by some Christian groups as evidence that the Pope was not Christian at all.

In his statement, the Pope does indeed reject the Calvinist view of total depravity and the idea God sees no act of kindness as being good unless it’s done by a Christian.  He also affirms the very Scriptural view that Christ died for everyone.  Nothing more and nothing less.  He doesn’t address the eternal destination of anyone, and an honest ear will know that.  He also affirms what St. Paul says in Scripture — “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 2:15-16)

As always there are several important lessons we can learn from this incident.  First and foremost, understanding theology is important.  Maybe a secular reporter wouldn’t understand the reality that Christ redeemed all does not conclude that all are saved.  Fair enough, but maybe reporting on religious matters shouldn’t be in their bailiwick.

Second, to jump to any conclusion based upon a news report is not only foolish, it can result in our participation in a false accusation against another if we continue to propagate it.

And third, perhaps the most important lesson of all, charity.  Charity requires us to give the benefit of the doubt.  Always.

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