I have found it quite confusing to try and understand what traditional Reformed circles mean precisely in their doctrine of "limited/definite atonement"/"particular redemption", especially as not all theologians describe it in quite the same way, and the Fallacy of Equivocation seems sometimes to play quite an important role in some Reformed theological philosophical reasoning.
So I will lay out here what would seem to me to be the "strongest" possible interpretation of a limited atonement viewpoint, and essentially the question is to what extent a conservative Reformed person is likely to agree with it.
Is it the case that a substantial proportion of those theologians and church leaders today who consider themselves of a traditional Reformed persuasion would be willing to affirm the following five statements about the atonement?
Regarding the pre-eternal plan of atonement:
[Particularity in underlying motivation] The motivation behind God giving Christ as an atonement for sin (as in e.g. John 3:16) did not include: (a) salvation-desiring love directed to humanity as a whole, i.e. a corporate love upon the race of descendents of Adam leading to a general desire for salvation of its members; nor (b) salvation-desiring love directed personally to each and every sinner that would ever live. Rather, the salvation-desiring love that motivated God's plan of atonement was exclusively in connection with His elect people throughout the world (both corporately and individually).
[Particularity in intended purpose] The aims in view in the plan of atonement did not include opening the potential to every person, contingent upon (foreknown) faith, to be included among those whose sins would be propitiated in the atonement. They did, however, include ensuring that all the elect would have their sins propitiated in the atonement.
Regarding the substance of the atonement:
[Particularity in the actual exchange] Christ's sacrifice was of infinite value, sufficiently great to be able to pay for all the sin ever committed. Nonetheless, the wrath under which Christ suffered was not wrath against the collective sin of humanity, nor did it include God's wrath against all sin ever committed by a human. It consisted exclusively of God's wrath against all sin that was against the account of elect people.
[Particularity in those to whom a channel of redemption was opened] Just as Christ's atoning sacrifice did not create any means of redemption open to angels that have sinned, so likewise Christ's atoning sacrifice did not create any means of redemption open to unelect people. The only possibility of justification that was created by the atoning work is that which was also guaranteed by the atoning work to be realised.
Regarding the command to trust Christ for salvation:
- God has placed a moral obligation on all people, elect and unelect alike, to trust in Christ for forgiveness and redemption from their sins through His death. This moral obligation does not contradict the unavailability in actual substance of a channel of redemption to unelect people, since in God's design only elect people will be brought to obedience to this moral obligation.
Would many of the influential pre-Victorian vocal advocates of "limited atonement", such as John Owen and Augustus Toplady, also have been likely to agree with the five above statements?
It seems to me that anyone who says (as some but not all Reformed theologians say), "Christ did not die for everyone, but only for the elect" -- unless they place some qualification on the sense of the preposition "for" -- ought to agree with all the above points. Otherwise, wherever they disagree [assuming they hold to basic evangelical theology] is a point where it would be possible to say "Christ died for everyone". The key is the sense of the word "for". At least, this is how it seems to me.
Some additional context: In contrast to my five statements above, I get the impression that some Reformed theologians [e.g. perhaps John Piper, given his explanation and his discussion with Rick Warren] hold a somewhat different perspective, something like as follows.
- One major and central facet of the atonement is that — by God's design arising from His love for the race of descendents of Adam — Christ, in His death as a Man, died sacrificially as a Representative of mankind before God, thereby purchasing the availability to all men and women of having their sins exchanged for Christ's righteousness, if they will only repent and trust in Christ.
- Another important facet of the atonement is that when God in eternity past set affection on all those whom He would in due course call to Himself, He designed that Christ would die as a propitiation to "buy their forgiveness" in the sense of buying for them the actuality that their sins are no longer held against them -- this forgiveness coming into effect through the repentance and faith in Christ that God in due course grants them.
But on the other side, it seems that many (perhaps more traditional-minded) Reformed theologians find objectional any concept of "payment for sin" whereby availability of forgiveness can be purchased for people who will not ultimately be forgiven. It seems that, accordingly, such theologians hold the notion of "actual atonement of the elect" to the strict exclusion of available atonement for everyone. Unlike John Piper, these theologians seem to feel fundamentally unable to say that "Christ died for all", without a contextual qualification of the word "all" to enable it to cover only the elect.