Prefacing Remarks

The reader should keep a few things in mind while reading this short essay.

Firstly, the following is a layman’s analysis of the logic involved in establishing a case for limited atonement from the verses John 10:15 and John 10:26. The intent is to lay out the case in a non-technical manner for lay-readers. It is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the issues involved.

Secondly, it may be said that there are two types of arguments which use John 10:15 to prove limited atonement. The first is what I would call a strong form of the argument. This strong form of the argument insists that John 10:15 along with 10:26 establish a hard dichotomy between those for whom Christ did and did not die. That is, in no proper sense did Christ die for the non-elect. By “proper sense” I mean either in terms of penal relationship (“For whose sins was Christ punished?”), or divine intentionality to save (either by secret or revealed will). The issue stated this way avoids the distracting claims by some advocates of limited atonement that Christ died for all insofar as he secured common grace benefits for all.

Thirdly, the weaker form of the argument would intimate that John 10:15 suggests a distinction, not so much a dichotomy, namely, that Christ died for some distinctively, as opposed to others. Here the stress would be that John 10:15 shows us that it can be said that Christ died in a distinctive sense for the elect, in a sense in which he did not die for the non-elect. Stated another way, Christ died for the elect in a distinctive sense, as opposed to the sense in which he (may have?) died for the non-elect. I would still maintain that even this is not sustained by a sound reading of John 10:15.

For the purposes of this essay, it is the strong form of the argument which is under review. The weaker from is dealt with only in the comments section. It is there I will also follow-up on some added rejoinders from another location on the web. Readers need to keep in mind that I do not deny that Christ died for the elect in a sense in which he did not die for the non-elect. If we speak of the intentionality of Christ, I can say, in the sense that Christ died for the sheep, he did not die for the non-sheep.

Part 1: The Critique

This argument for limited atonement works like this in a syllogism:

major premise:

Christ lays down his life for the Sheep (John 10:15)

minor premise:

The pharisees are not Christ’s sheep (John 10:26)


Therefore, Christ did not lay his life down for the Pharisees.

Stated without the prefix comments:

Christ lays down his life for the Sheep
The pharisees are not Christ’s sheep
Therefore, Christ did not lay his life down for the Pharisees

The problem is that its formally invalid.

Lets use an analogy which follows the same form, yet clearly demonstrates the invalidity of the form of the argument.

John loves his children.
Sally is not a child of John.
Therefore, John does not love Sally.

This is an invalid argument. Sally could be John’s wife and mother to his children, and so another person whom John truly and rightly loves.

You can swap out any terms, and the result will be same.

What’s happened, is that the negative inference has been smuggled in, something like this.
The simple positive:

John loves his children

is converted into a simple negative

John loves only his children.

Then the syllogism is followed out:

John loves only his children.
Sally is not a child of John
Therefore, John does not love Sally.

That is now is a valid form of an argument.

And if we bring this back to John 10:15, the syllogism now looks like this with the smuggled in negation:

Christ lays down his life only for the Sheep
The pharisees are not Christ’s sheep
Therefore, Christ did not lay his life down for the Pharisees

Either consciously or unconsciously, many readers have converted “Christ lays down his life for the Sheep” as being identical or as entailing, “Christ lays down his life only for the Sheep.” However, this is is an invalid negative inference.

The problem is, the conversion of the simple positive to a universal negative. This is the negative inference fallacy that Dabney references:

In proof of the general correctness of this theory of the extent of the Atonement, we should attach but partial force to some of the arguments advanced by Symington and others, or even by Turrettin, e.g. that Christ says, He died “for His sheep,” for “His Church,” for “His friends,” is not of itself conclusive. The proof of a proposition does not disprove its converse. All the force which we could properly attach to this class of passages is the probability arising from the frequent and emphatic repetition of this affirmative statement as to a definite object.
Dabney, Lectures, p., 521.

There have been a few attempts by limited atonement advocates to claim that the negative inference fallacy does not apply in this case. These attempts are quite astounding. Imagine a Romanist saying that the proposition, “Justified by faith alone” does not apply here, such that we can make a converse positive inference, that we can be justified by faith and works. We cannot be arbitrary when it comes to enforcing the universal and standard rules of logical inference.

And it should be straightforward that one should never seek to establish a positive argument based on invalid inferences. Such attempts will always and everywhere be invalid. Even repeating the invalid inference ad infinitum will never make it valid.

What is more, with that aside, Scripture declares emphatically,

1 Corinthians 4:6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.

No matter how tempting it is, no matter how important it is to one’s system, it is wrong to insert a negation into a verse where it was was originally present. This problematic is further exacerbated if after smuggling in the extra-textual negation, one then tries to sustain the case for limited atonement. This then becomes grounds for a circular argument.

Lastly, one should also keep in mind that readers of John’s Gospel should not jump to the hasty conclusion that because of what Jesus says in John 10, that the Pharisees are goats (in other words, reprobate). Rather, one cannot preclude the possibility that they are rebellious and wayward sheep:

Isaiah 53:6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.

Here Isaiah speaks to the apostate house of Israel, as much as he does to the faithful, who have been, themselves wayward sheep. If this is correct, then the contrast would be between obedient sheep versus disobedient sheep (the Pharisees), but not between the elect and the non-elect.

Part 2: The Affirmation

Whats actually going on in John 10 is more like this:

John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.
John 10:12 “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
John 10:13 “He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.
John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me,
John 10:15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.
John 10:16: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

The point is not about the extent of Christ’s death at all, but the faithfulness, the loyalty of Christ to the sheep. The pharisees are the hirelings who abandon the sheep. Jesus is saying to them something like this, “I am not like you, who run away, rather I will lay my life down for the sheep, defending them to the end….” And by implication, we, the sheep, can truly know that Christ will effectually save us.

Thus, the real emphasis and attention should be on this verse:

John 10:16 “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

In this verse alone we have election, Christ’s intent, and the effectual call.

When we put together v15 and v16, we see in the mind of Christ a special intention to gather and faithfully lay his life down for his sheep so that they may be saved to the uttermost. He came to earth, not as a hireling coming to a field, but to gather those given to him. This is the direction we should move in, not in pressing the limited extent of the expiation.

When rightly understood, then, the verse speaks to a special intent of the satisfaction, not to the extent of the satisfaction.

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