“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 then, 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.
2. Definite atonement preserves the mode of mission.
Definite atonement not only secures the purpose of our mission as being the retrieval of God’s elect from the corrupt mass of humanity; it also magnifies the mode of mission, the preaching of Christ himself.
Christ, as real, perfect, and effectual intercessor for his people, is the centripetal force in mission—the magnetic center of all our public and private proclamation. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The power that draws people to Christ takes effect when he is held up as really and definitively able to save all who come to him.
The problem with a hypothetically universal doctrine of the atonement (that Christ died for all individuals but the atonement is ineffectual unless the individual exercises faith) is that Christ is less than a complete Savior. He makes salvation possible, but doesn’t actually accomplish it. Thus, consistently applied, this theology on the mission field will inevitably lead to preaching faith itself (as a meritorious decision) rather than preaching Christ himself as able to save (with faith simply being the act which unites us to him). We are to preach Christ himself (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2 Corinthians 4:5), and that means preaching a Christ who decisively saves.
A Christ who can only save you with your own permission isn’t a Christ worth taking to the unreached peoples of the world. Nor is he Paul’s Christ, who knocked a stubbornly rebellious Paul off his literal high horse and saved him unilaterally to “display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
The Christ whom we proclaim among the world’s 4 billion unreached is “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25)—even to the point of sovereignly, by his Spirit, granting the very saving faith we naturally lack. Every one of the elect who are yet unreached has his or her name graven on the hands of this perfect Intercessor (Isaiah 49:16).
3. Definite atonement ensures the outcome of mission.
Who are the objects of the atonement? Revelation 5 definitively settles the question with words carrying vast import for cross-cultural ministry: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (vv. 9-10).
Christ’s blood can never be ineffectual. Hence, two chapters later, John reports seeing in heaven “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). Mission accomplished.
Simply put, the Great Commission is simply too daunting if there is no guarantee of its outcome. But if Christ died to purchase real individuals from every nation—people with names—then we know that the global church, as it fulfills Christ’s mandate in history, literally cannot fail.
If Jesus died for all indiscriminately, yet no one in particular, we are left scouring the seas for fish with no guarantee of a catch. We, as fishers of men (cf. Matthew 4:19), are called to fish indiscriminately. We don’t know who the elect are, nor are we encouraged to guess. But recall Christ’s instructions to his disciples on the boat: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:6). Our Lord has appointed the catch. Likewise, the definitive nature and particular scope of Christ’s atoning death mean that the global church’s nets will be filled. The cross guarantees that.
Ideas have consequences. Although God often uses well-meaning ministers and missionaries who are still growing in their theology, the fact that God draws straight lines with crooked sticks doesn’t authorize us to stay crooked. Definite atonement isn’t popular, but it’s glorious—and it helps form the very crux of missions.
God didn’t just choose a plan of salvation; he chose people. Jesus died for them. And the Spirit changes their hearts and saves them. So let’s go get them.