3 Reasons Definite Atonement is Basic to Biblical Missions

When it comes to the doctrine of definite (or limited) atonement, there is a real, driving temptation to hedge one’s bets or drown one’s commitment to the doctrine in a sea of ambiguity.

Men like William Carey and Andrew Fuller, and more modern writers like J.I. Packer in his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, have demonstrated repeatedly that the Reformed emphasis on particular redemption is the sweet companion of the missionary endeavor and not its antagonist. But in our day and age, for some observers, another sticky question remains—the question of that pesky “L” in the “TULIP.” How can someone possibly believe that Christ died only for the elect and still feel any motivation to carry the gospel over land and sea?

 

“Sit down, young man. When God decides to save the heathen, he will do it without your help.”

These were the words of John Ryland to a passionate, young English Particular Baptist named William Carey, now known to us as the father of the modern missionary movement.

Since them, the temptation to pit Reformed theology and missions against each other as enemies has continued to plague the broader evangelical movement, despite the Calvinistic bona fides of Carey and countless others like him. “If you’re a Calvinist, you must not really believe in evangelism”—so goes the logic.

Men like William Carey and Andrew Fuller, and more modern writers like J.I. Packer in his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, have demonstrated repeatedly that the Reformed emphasis on particular redemption is the sweet companion of the missionary endeavor and not its antagonist. But in our day and age, for some observers, another sticky question remains—the question of that pesky “L” in the “TULIP.” How can someone possibly believe that Christ died only for the elect and still feel any motivation to carry the gospel over land and sea?

When it comes to the doctrine of definite (or limited) atonement, there is a real, driving temptation to hedge one’s bets or drown one’s commitment to the doctrine in a sea of ambiguity. After all, nobody enjoys the opposition one is sure to receive by disputing the popular sentiment that Christ died for every single individual in the world.

But in order to preserve the vibrant missionary zeal of men like Carey, it’s critical we view definite atonement not only as true but essential, forming the biblical basis of mission itself. Why?

1. Definite atonement secures the purpose of mission.

The global mission of the church is gloriously particular in purpose, designed by God as the means by which he draws in those for whom Christ died.

In the book of Isaiah, we read prophetic words that speak far beyond the regathering of the Jewish exiles and look forward to global, spiritual fulfillment in the New Covenant age: “I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:6-7 ESV).

When Christ commissions his messengers to go into the world, they are sent for the express task of finding his people. When our Master tells his servants to “go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23), it’s because he has “other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16).

In effect, our marching orders from Christ are—“I have elected people from every nation, so go get them.”

If Christ died for all indiscriminately, yet no one in particular, there is little to compel us out of our proverbial Jerusalems and Samarias to the ends of the earth. But if Christ died for the elect from every nation, that necessitates the extension of the gospel offer to every people group, nation state, language, and tribe.

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