Ask Steve: Limited and Unlimited Atonement



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Question: Steve, what is your view on the extent of the atonement? Did Christ die for the sins of the whole world or did He die specifically for the elect?

Answer: Scholars and fans of systematic theology find this to be a hot issue. Although this topic is not important enough that it brands one particular group as saved and the other as heretics, it still has implications on our understanding of the gospel, and to much degree, Christian living.

There are two views concerning the extent of the atonement – limited atonement and universal atonement. Limited atonement is the idea that Christ died exclusively for those whom He elected before creation (Rom 8:29-30; Eph 2:1-5). In other words, Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross was only meant for those who would believe. He did not die for the sins of the reprobates – those who ultimately reject the gospel. Christ’s death on the cross was an atoning work only for God’s appointed sheep, while the rest of guilty humanity pay for their own sins and answers for them on Judgment Day.

Limited atonement is part the TULIP formula that characterizes Calvinism, and is a distinct doctrine of Reformed theology. It is based on the idea that every man is so depraved that he cannot save himself or chose God in his fallen state. God, in His grace, must elect and regenerate sinners so that they can respond to the Lord in saving faith. When the time comes, God draws those whom He foreknew with His irresistible (efficacious) grace through the work of the Holy Spirit, and the repentant sinners have the atoning work of Christ applied to them. Finally, God preserves the saints in their faith until the day of glorification. Limited atonement is one of the several steps in the process of salvation that greatly magnifies the sovereign work of God in salvation from beginning to end.

Limited 1In contrast, universal atonement is a view that understands the extent of Christ’s atonement quite differently. It is part of Arminian theology, which advocates the necessity of human free will, even at the expense of God’s sovereign and efficacious plans. Universal atonement holds that Christ did not die for only the elect, but for the sins of the entire population of human history. This doctrine is based on verses like John 1:19; 3:16, 1 Jn 2:12; Romans 6:10. The view is that Jesus generally paid for the sins of the entire world, but people still need to repent and believe in Christ in order to benefit from that salvific work. Those who die in unbelief are judged for their sins and punished eternally for it.

Arminianists, and even 4-Point Calvinists, believe in universal atonement for a couple of reasons. First, popular passages in the New Testament seem to suggest this idea when read at face value. John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosover believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” 1 John 2:2 also states, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” Second, advocates of universal atonement believe that limited atonement goes against the idea of God’s indiscriminate and loving offer of salvation to everyone in the world. If only the elect of God were atoned for, then that suggests that the rest of mankind has been denied access to the gospel, and have no opportunity to be saved (even if they wanted to). It other words, limited atonement is neither fair nor loving. Advocates claim that universal atonement does the most justice to the Scripture’s offer of salvation to anyone who would come, regardless of their background or circumstances (Matt 11:28-20; Rev 22:17).

Although I approach this subject matter with openness and humility, I generally believe that the Bible teaches a particular jurisdiction as it regards the extent of the atonement. In relation to God’s external call of sinners (through evangelism), I believe Jesus’ atonement saves anyone in the world who believes – no matter what race, gender, or sin background they have. But if the discussion pertains specifically to God’s internal/efficacious call of sinners, I believe that the atonement is specifically meant for the elect. In other words, I believe that the Bible teaches a theology of atonement similar to what is reflected in limited atonement. I admit that there are some challenges, especially when interpreting passages that seem to suggest that Christ died for the sins of everyone, but these interpretive difficulties are not so mysterious that it cannot be properly resolved.

Limited 3There are multiple passages which clearly reveal God’s election of certain people, and Jesus’ death on the cross being exclusively for them. One such verse is Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Jesus could have mentioned “the world,” but referenced “many.” John 10:45 reads, “Just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father, and I lay down My life for the sheep.” Again, Jesus does not teach that He lays down His life for everyone – both sheep and goats – but for a specific crowd. Even Isaiah 53:12 (which prefigures the events of the New Covenant 700 years before the birth of Christ) reads, “…yet He bore the sins of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” The writer could have mentioned “the sins of the entire world.” But the point is, Christ died for the sins of a portion of mankind. Verses like these clearly teach that Jesus’ atonement was for those who would believe (the elect), and more specifically, that the saving benefits of the atonement only apply to those trust in Christ.

So what of those verses that seems to teach the opposite idea? It really comes down to how you understand the passages’ context and the author’s use of phrases like “all,” “whoever,” and “world.” When John 3:16 references that “God so loved the world,” it surely does not teach that Christ elected the entire world’s population to salvation, or that people are saved no matter what they believe (universalism). Rather, the world most likely refers to the geographical and ethnic extent that God’s salvation plan would eventually influence in the subsequent years.

We have to remember the context in which many of these passages are written. Many Jews at the time believed that God’s favor and salvation fell exclusively on the Jewish race, which led to an ethno-centric pride that caused many Jews to close themselves off from Gentiles. In 1 Timothy 2:1-8, we also observe a disparity between the Ephesian commoners in the church and the governing authorities who do not know Christ in a saving way. Is the gospel as available to the poor citizen as it is for the powerful kings of the land?

Many of these soteriological passages are meant to teach that God’s salvation will not only reach the Jews, but people from every nation. The gospel is open to anyone. Passages like John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, and Romans 6:10 does not necessarily teach that the extent of the atonement encompasses the entire world’s population, but that the gospel is available to anyone in the world who would believe. The intent of the passage is the sufficiency of the gospel for the world, not necessarily practical or judicial application. Of course, we observe from history that the atonement has affected people of all nations. We see that people of all races, religion, and socioeconomic background coming to the gospel for salvation, which demonstrates the scope of the gospel’s global reach as preached by Christ and the apostles.

I also believe that the extent of the atonement is limited because of what the death of Christ actually accomplished. This is not the same as what the cross potentially accomplishes or makes available, but what the cross actually accomplished. Acts 20:28 states that Christ purchased the flock with His blood. 1 Corinthians 6:20 also teaches the idea that a price was specifically paid to fully and finally redeem believers from their sins. The truth is, if the sins of “every person” were laid upon Christ on the cross, then why do unbelievers get judged and suffer in hell? If their fine was already paid by Jesus, then they should have no reason to be held accountable for their crimes, no matter what they believe about the gospel. Satisfying the penalty of an unbeliever, yet consigning him to hell for his unbelief would be akin to a form of double indemnity – God requiring double payment for the criminal’s debt. The only reasonable explanation for this dilemma is that on Calvary, only the sins of every person who would believe were placed in Christ’s account, while the sins of everyone who would die in unbelief were kept intact so that God would serve justice on them on Judgment Day (Rev 20:11-15). If the atonement were not designed exclusively for the elect, then the idea of God “purchasing His sheep” with His blood becomes meaningless, if not redundant, if the entire world’s population benefits from the atonement.

I do not want to negate the responsibility, and the call, for everyone to repent and believe in the gospel. The goal of limited atonement is not to discover who among the world is elect and who is not, or to shun the gospel from any one group of people. The gospel is for everyone, and whoever in the world trusts in Christ as Lord and Savior will be saved (Matt 11:28; Jn 6:35; Acts 2:38; 3:19). That is the message of the good news, and what we as Christians are to focus on in our Great Commission effort. In relation to God’s general call, I do believe that the atonement is for the world – as in every person has equal opportunity to believe and be saved.

Recommended Resource: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her by David and Jonathan Gibson