Limited Atonement: A More Limited View

Limited Atonement: A More Limited View

As defended by Dr. Tom Nettles 

This will be my humble attempt to summarize the major arguments made by Dr. Nettles in his book By His Grace and For His Glory.  I would encourage you to purchase this book here  Dr. Nettles asks the following question: “If Christ did not provide sufficient atonement for all men without exception, would we not impute our perishing to ourselves?”  According to both Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:19-20 we would still be without excuse would we not?  In Nettles words, “Atonement is not designed to render one inexcusable; atonement is designed to save justly some of those who already stand inexcusable and under condemnation.”  In this regards the limited nature of the atonement is similar to the limited nature of unconditional election.


Nettles then focus in on a second major concern that often prompts Calvinists to be “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” in relation to the deity of Christ.  W.G.T. Shedd said the obedience of Christ was “theanthropic obedience, not merely human obedience.  As such, it was divine and infinite.”  In this view the passive obedience of Christ had to be perfectly sufficient because the Person who died was infinitely perfect (God very God).  Andrew Fuller supports this view with the following statement, “I know but that there is the same objective fullness and sufficiency in the obedience and sufferings of Christ for the salvation of sinners as there is in the power of the H.S. for their renovation; both are infinite; yet both are applied under the direction of infinite wisdom and uncontrollable sovereignty.”  Dr. Nettles counters this reasoning with the following argument, “None would doubt that Christ by his nature could have provided atonement sufficient for all men without exception, just as the Holy Spirit could regenerate all men with out exception.  But in actual fact the H.S. does not regenerate all men, though he is entirely capable of doing so.”  Christ’s work of atonement was a once for all event.  The work of the Holy Spirit is of course an ongoing work as he “regenerates man in every age.”  Latter Nettles adds, “Moreover is a non sequitur to move from the deity of the sacrifice to sufficiency for every man.  Such a conclusion assumes that deity can perform nothing by measure.”  Nettles then goes on to provide numerous examples such as the feeding of the 5,000, the raising of Lazarus, etc.


In section two of his chapter on the atonement Nettles points out the errors he sees in the “sufficient” view.  He notes, “One error of this view is found in its lack of precise distinction between atonement and either unconditional election or effectual calling—or both….If he has died for all sufficiently—and the only line of demarcation is the ‘personal application to individuals by the Holy Spirit’ or the gracious influences by which they will be led to comply with those conditions’ or ‘the effectual provision.…made for our walking that way’—I can not tell how one distinguishes this from the general atonement of the Arminians, who claim that Christ has died for all men, but its benefits accrue only to those who believe.  The difference in the two does not lie in the atonement, but in the Spirit’s work of calling.”  Nettles then goes onto to talk about the actual passive obedience of Christ in which “the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  In Tom’s view, “Christ’s nature does not increase the intensity or quantity of what was placed upon him but enables him to bear whatever it might have been…His deity does not increase the stringency of the punishment but rather gives eternal quality to it and strengthens him to bear its force.”  On p. 311 Nettles goes onto to examine Jesus’ fulfillment of all the demands of the law.  Dr. Nettles disagrees with Hodge and Shedd here who taught that the atonement removed the legal impediments out of the way of all men.  In his own words, “Logically, he can no longer be justly condemned for his sins (if this view be accurate) but only for his unbelief.  But think further.  Is not unbelief a sin for which Christ has suffered the legal penalties?”


This position is perhaps summarized best in the following statement: “That Christ was entirely capable in his person and by his death of gaining satisfaction for all the sins of all men admits of no debate…But that the actual atonement was sufficient in every particular included in the word atonement must be doubted.”  This gets at the heart of the disagreement between Nettles and those who hold a “modified 5 point view” (that which was taught by the Synod of Dort, etc).  In Nettles mind, “To say that Christ’s death is sufficient for everyone, but not that everyone receives forgiveness, is to say that God accomplishes the greater but not the lesser.  He sets in motion a cause—the most powerful and compelling spiritual and more cause conceivable—that does not consummate in an effect.”  More to come…


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  1. […] Kolstad ( continues his series on Limited Atonement with a summarization of the argument given by Dr. Nettles in his work By Grace and For His […]

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