I’ll admit it. I’ve felt overwhelmed by the prospect of examining all the verses that Arminians use to contest the doctrine of Limited Atonement. My reluctance has less to do with feelings of inadequacy than my critics might think, however. As a former Armimian, I well understand both ways of interpreting these verses, and therefore I feel confidant in my ability to explain the Calvinist perspective. My hesitancy comes, not from cowardice, but from the fact that I type with a headstick and consequently it takes about two or three hours to bang out an average length blog post.
But, since I’ve always been taught not to use my disability as a cop-out, I’ve decided to look at one of the proof-text verses to demonstrate how it actually affirms Limited Atonement. So let’s look at a familiar verse in its immediate context.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” ~~John 3:16-21 (ESV)
Remember that in the 15 verses leading up to this passage, Jesus has been telling Nicodemus that, unless the Holy Spirit regenerates a person, that person cannot enter the kingdom of God. So already the Lord has made it blatantly clear that only those to whom the Spirit gives the new birth will be saved. Furthermore, John’s gospel account has previously told us that the new birth happens as a result of God’s will, not human endeavor (John 1:13). Following the context of John’s writing, we see that the apostle establishes the doctrine of election.
Arminians point to verse 16 and say, “God so loved the world…” Yes, it definitely says that. But bear in mind the historical context of that word. John, as well as the other New Testament writers, had always viewed God’s salvation as being exclusive to the Jews. Therefore, John uses this phrase to indicate that Jesus died for both Jews and Gentiles.
But no sooner does John lift the restriction in respect to Jews and Gentiles than he limits the effect of atonement to those who would believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ’s blood effectually atones for the sins of believers, while verse 18 of this passage quotes Jesus as saying that unbelievers are already condemned. When we discuss the doctrine of Irresistible Grace, we’ll go into greater detail about the fact that believers respond to the Gospel because God supplies the willingness to believe, but for now let’s stay focused on the fact that the shed blood of Jesus Christ doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe.
Of course, we have yet to talk about whether the Atonement is actual (meaning effective for all its beneficiaries) or potential (meaning available to everyone but dependent on a person’s response). But that conversation warrants its own blog post. Hopefully I’ve at least helped you see that the context of John 3:16 supports Limited Atonement.