Definite atonement (also called particular redemption or limited atonement) is one of those perennial sticking points among evangelicals. Whenever Evangelicals who are inclined toward the doctrines of grace go through the perfunctory feeling-out process, they’ll often head toward the 4- or 5-point Calvinist identifier. This isn’t really an issue among those who subscribe to the historic Reformed confessions. Nor does it dominate much theological conversation. However, it’s a common point of discussion among evangelicals.
Yet, in my experience, the conversation often ends with a bit of cajoling and an implicit agreement to disagree. I’ve been a part of many of these conversations, still I question whether these passing exchanges have done justice to the matter. Definite atonement is not a secondary issue; it is essential to the gospel. For whom did Christ die? Moreover, what is the precise nature of the atonement?
Is it the case that Christ’s death merely made salvation possible? Or did Christ’s death actually purchase redemption? Was there a fundamental exchange on the cross or merely an opening of the door unto the forgiveness of sins? These fundamental questions must be answered rigorously in light of the whole counsel of God. So the next time you come to an impasse with a 4-point (or 5-point) Calvinist, consider that these views run much deeper than your taste in sports, musical styles, or even political parties. They extend to the essence of Christianity.
If you’d like to go deeper in your understanding of definite atonement, I highly recommend the book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway) edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson. We recently interviewed them along with Carl Trueman on Christ the Center episode 307. David Gibson recently had an exchange with Andrew Wilson on the subject. Read up on it. You should also look at John Murray’s important book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, wherein he skillfully treats the definite work of Christ to its ongoing application by the Holy Spirit.