Limited Atonement Defined
Limited atonement is defined in the Canons of Dort:
The Second Main Point of Doctrine: Christ's Death and Human Redemption Through It
Article 3: The Infinite Value of Christ’s Death
This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice
and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more
than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.
Article 7: Faith God’s Gift
But all who genuinely believe and are delivered and saved by Christ’s
death from their sins and from destruction receive this favor solely
from God’s grace—which God owes to no one—given to them in Christ from
Article 8: The Saving Effectiveness of Christ’s Death
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 the elect, in order
that God 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 Christ should grant
them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he
acquired for them by his death). It was also God’s will that Christ
should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original
and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith;
that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he
should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without
spot or wrinkle.
Article 9: The Fulfillment of God’s Plan
This plan, arising out of God’s eternal love for the elect, from the
beginning of the world to the present time has been powerfully carried
out and will also be carried out in the future, the gates of hell
seeking vainly to prevail against it. As a result, the elect are
gathered into one, all in their own time, and there is always a church
of believers founded on Christ’s blood, a church which steadfastly
loves, persistently worships, and here and in all eternity praises him
as her Savior who laid down his life for her on the cross, as a
bridegroom for his bride.
Rejection of the Errors
Having set forth the orthodox teaching, the Synod rejects the errors
Who teach that God the Father appointed his Son to death on the cross without a fixed and definite plan to save anyone by name, so
that the necessity, usefulness, and worth of what Christ’s death
obtained could have stood intact and altogether perfect, complete and
whole, even if the redemption that was obtained had never in actual
fact been applied to any individual.
Who teach that the purpose of Christ’s death was not to establish in actual fact a new covenant of grace by his blood, but only to acquire
for the Father the mere right to enter once more into a covenant with
humanity, whether of grace or of works.
I have quoted three articles and a rejection of two errors, but for a fuller definition of limited atonement, click the link and read all nine articles and a rejection of seven errors.
Other Names for Limited Atonement
You can see above, in article 3 juxtaposed with articles 7-8, that the atonement is "sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world" but that the cross "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." This has been summarized by many apologists as, "sufficient for all, efficient for only the elect."
Therefore the atonement is not "limited" in its power, but in its purpose. It's common for opponents of reformed theology to advance the argument that a limited atonement means the cross wasn't "powerful" enough to achieve the purpose of the salvation of every person; that's not the case. God's purpose was to save the elect, and that purpose was accomplished on the cross.
To better capture the fact that the atonement's purpose was to redeem a "particular" people and that it is "definite" in its scope, some have begun calling it by other names:
- particular redemption
- definite redemption
- actual atonement
- intentional atonement
- definite atonement
Direct Biblical Support
Now for the meat.
It's all throughout the Gospel of John that Christ died for his "people" or his "sheep" and not for everyone else:
37 Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who
comes to me I will never send away. ... 39 Now this is the will of the
one who sent me—that I should not lose one person of every one he has
given me, but raise them all up at the last day.
64 But there are some of you who do not believe. ... 65 Because of
this I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has
allowed him to come.
John 10: The Good Shepherd
11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for
the sheep. ... 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own
know me. ... 26 But you refuse to believe because you are not my
sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they
follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no
one will snatch them from my hand.
John 17: Jesus Prays to the Father
6 I have revealed your name to the men you gave me out of the world.
They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have obeyed
your word. ... 9 I am praying on behalf of them. I am not praying on
behalf of the world, but on behalf of those you have given me, because
they belong to you.
In Matthew 1:21 we see the same idea, of God saving "his people":
She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he
will save his people from their sins.
God's chosen people is Israel, or the church. In reformed theology, a continuity between the two is recognized, so that the "true Israel" and the "invisible church" is the same as the "elect." The scriptural support for this idea is beyond the scope of the current question, but it's worth mentioning since Peter said in Acts 5:31 that Christ died for Israel:
God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give
repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
It is also the teaching of Paul that Christ died for "the church":
Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy
Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he
obtained with the blood of his own Son.
Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave
himself for her.
This is consistent with the song the saints sing in Revelation 5:9-10:
At the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from
every tribe, language, people, and nation. You have appointed them as
a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the
John Owen contends in his classic defense of limited atonement The Death of Death in the Death of Christ that Romans 8 supports the doctrine:
Who is the one who will condemn? Christ is the one who died (and more
than that, he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who
also is interceding for us.
Owen's Commentary in The Death of Death
That he died for all and intercedeth for some will scarcely be
squared to this text, especially considering the foundation of all
this, which is (verse 32) that love of God which moved him to give up
Christ to death for us all; upon which the apostle infers a kind of
impossibility in not giving us all good things in him; which how it
can be reconciled with their opinion who affirm that he gave his Son
for millions to whom he will give neither grace nor glory, I cannot
Consistency with Other Doctrines
There is one other point to consider. I could have titled this section "indirect Biblical evidence." The fact is that rejecting limited atonement would make for an inconsistent system of theology. The following two quotes should demonstrate what I mean.
A. A. Hodge says in his book The Atonement:
Every form which it is possible for the General Atonement Theory to
assume necessarily involves the hypothesis that in its essential
nature the Atonement effects only the removal of legal obstacles out
of the way of the salvation of men, making God reconcilable, not
actually reconciling him; making the salvation of all men possible,
not actually saving any. But the Scriptures teach that Christ actually
came to save those for whom he died ... Again the Scriptures decleare
that the effect of Christ's death is reconciliation and justification.
... The design of Christ, moreover, was to secure for those whom he
died the direct effect of remission of sins, peace with God, and
deliverance from the curse of the law, from wrath, from death, from
sin, &c. ... But to make salvation possible, to make possible
purification, deliverance, reconciliation, is something very different
indeed from actually saving, purifying, delivering or reconciling. No
man has the right to empty the glorious terms in which the gospel is
revealed of all their saving power.
Hodge cites Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10; Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 1:4, 3:13, and 4:5; Ephesians 2:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 1:15; Hebrews 2:14; and 1 Peter 1:18.
Robert Morley similarly said in his book Studies in the Atonement:
When Christ lived, died, was buried, arose, ascended, and sat down at
the right hand of the Majesty on high, we are told that the ones for
whom He did these things are to be viewed as being in such a life
union with Him as their covenant head and representative that it is
said that they lived, died, were buried, arose, ascended and sat down
at the Father's side 'in Christ' (Rom. 6:1-11; Gal. 2:20; 6:14; Eph.
To say that Christ died for all is to say that all died in Christ. It means that unbelievers are to be told that they have been crucified
with Christ, been buried with Christ, have been resurrected with
Christ and have ascended and sat down with Christ. This position is so
manifestly false that it should grieve the child of God even to
For more on the "consistency" point, visit the link to the Canons of Dort and scroll to "Rejection of the Errors" under the second main point.
All scripture quotes are from the NET. I closely consulted this article by Brian Schwertley to write this answer. The article is excerpted from a broader work.