“It is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world.”
John Calvin, “John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible”, Galatians 5:12
Of all the doctrines of Five-Point Calvinism, limited atonement, sometimes called definite atonement or particular atonement, is the least biblically and historically justified doctrine of the “Five Points”. The scriptural support for this doctrine can at best be thought implicit ( although I will dispute that it is even implicit), while the biblical passages that teach universal atonement are explicit and numerous. It also touches the Cross, which most Christians, and Protestants especially, see as the heart of the gospel and the heart of Christianity. In addition, It seems to be a relatively new innovation, given that it is doubtful that any of the Reformers, including John Calvin himself, held the view. This makes it unsurprising that the doctrine is usually the first to be abandoned by more moderate Calvinists ( so-called “Four-Point Calvinists”). By the way, none of the points I just made are meant to imply that Calvinists who believe limited atonement are false Christians, merely that limited atonement is the worst and least justified doctrine of Calvinism. Yet, many of the major figures in American Calvinism seem to hold the view, including Albert Mohler, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, John MacArthur, James White, Michael Horton etc. It is difficult to dispute that universal atonement is the historic Christian position, because it was the position of the Roman Church before the Reformation, and it was the position of the Reformers (including probably John Calvin). The quote above is from Calvin’s commentary on Galatians and there are other quotes from him that seem to explicitly affirm universal atonement. It makes sense to regard limited atonement as part of the general project in Calvinism to reduce all theology to soteriology, as there is also an attempt among the “Reformed” to reduce all preaching to soteriological preaching, which I’m going to look at in future posts on prosperity theology. Another reason why Calvinists gravitate toward limited atonement, as shown by this excerpt from one of R.C. Sproul’s books, is that universal atonement starts to look more strange in light of unconditional election. Why would God die for the sins of people he had already decided not to save? The Four-Point Calvinist may perhaps respond that not all of the mind and purposes of God are known in the same way that a Lutheran, who believes in single predestination, might respond.
First, it’s important to define our terms, because limited atonement is defined in all sorts of ways and there is sometimes a good deal of vagueness about what its proponents mean by it. So I will define the concepts as I understand them and go from there. By universal atonement, I mean the view that Jesus died for the sins of all people to make salvation possible for all, but that their salvation requires repentance and belief in Jesus. By limited atonement, or definite atonement, I mean the view that Jesus died only for those whom God chose before the foundation of the world to save. Salvation is not merely made possible by the atonement but is secured by the atonement (for the elect). Five-Point Calvinists will often say that the atonement secures salvation, and does not merely make it possible. Let’s address this claim first ( that the atonement on its own secures salvation for the elect). Secondly, we’ll address the claim that the atonement is intended or purposed only for the elect or only the people who would become the elect.
Atonement Secures Salvation?
First, we should say that the requirement that individuals must repent and believe before their sins will be forgiven is so often found in the New Testament. So, the idea that people’s sins are forgiven or are saved from judgment prior to their belief and repentance, at the event of the atonement, is definitely unbiblical. Let’s look at a few of these passages for confirmation:
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out…Acts 3:19
It is here indicated that repentance and turning to God confers forgiveness of sins.
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”Luke 13:5
Here judgment is promised unless you repent, which means that your sins will not be forgiven unless you first repent. Repentance is presented as a decisive cause that saves you from God’s judgment.
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.Romans 2:4-5
Again here, repentance is presented as a decisive cause which saves your from God’s judgment.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.2 Peter 3:9
The implication here is again that repentance is what saves you from perishing.
…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.Romans 10:9-10
Here faith and confession are presented as decisive in determining your salvation.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”Mark 1:15
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.Mark 16:16
Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.Luke 8:12
This passage, from the Parable of the Sower, clearly communicates belief as the decisive cause of salvation. The same idea, that repentance and faith confers forgiveness of sins and salvation from judgment, is explicit and implicit in so many passages in the New Testament that it would be quite a project to identify them all. Here are a few more: John 1:7, John 1:12, John 3:15, John 3:18, John 3:36, John 5:24, John 5:38, John 6:35, John 6:40, John 8:24, John 11:25-26, John 11:40, John 12:36, John 12:46, John 14:11, Acts 10:43, Acts 11:17, Acts 13:39, Romans 1:16, Romans 3:22, Romans 4:5, Romans 4:24, Romans 9:33, Romans 10:4, Romans 10:10, Romans 13:11, 1 Corinthians 1:21, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:6, Galatians 3:22, Ephesians 1:13, Ephesians 1:19, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, Hebrews 4:3, Hebrews 11:6, 1 Peter 2:6-7, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:5, 1 John 5:10, Jude 1:5. Yet, if someone claims that the atonement, on its own, apart from repentance and belief, provides forgiveness of sins and salvation from God’s judgment, then they are directly contradicting all of these passages. No doctrine that claims that “atonement plus nothing equals salvation” can claim to be biblical. It is always taken for granted, throughout the whole Bible, not just the New Testament, that repentance is necessary to provide salvation from judgment.
Biblical Support for Universal Atonement
We’ll now turn to the claim that Jesus only died for the sins of those people whom he decided before the foundation of the world would be saved. First we’ll look at some passages that teach universal atonement in order to counter this idea, and then we’ll look at passages which Calvinists use to defend limited atonement.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!John 1:29
Here we read that Jesus takes away the sin of “the world” which definitely seems to be suggesting that Jesus takes away everyone’s sins.
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.1 John 2:2
This passage is very explicit. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a scripture that can be more explicitly in favour of universal atonement, because it does not merely say that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the world, but for the “whole” world, adding a universal qualifier (“whole”) to a word that already denotes universality ( “world”). He also explicitly repudiates limited atonement, by saying that Jesus is not only the propitiation for “our” sins ( referring to his Christian readership) but for the whole world.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.John 3:14-18
This verse contains two universal qualifiers, which is “whoever” and “world.” Calvinists will sometimes attempt to soften the meaning of “world” by saying that it can be contextually limited to refer to only specific groups of people, but the fact that the use of the “world” here is conjoined with another universal qualifier ( “whoever”) certainly gives contextual support for the idea that “world” is meant in a universal sense here.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.Romans 5:18
In context, Paul is comparing the work of Christ with the sin of Adam. This clearly says that Jesus leads to at least the possibility of salvation for all people, which means that Jesus could not have died for only some.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.2 Corinthians 5:14-15
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.2 Corinthians 5:18-19
The above verse is particularly relevant for a consideration of limited atonement, because Paul moves seamlessly from saying that Jesus reconciled “us” to himself ( referring to himself and his Christian readership), to saying that God reconciled “the world” to himself, so that he will not count “their” trespasses against them ( i.e. Jesus died for both “us” and “them”). This is important to notice because Calvinists will usually point to passages which say that Jesus died for his people or “the sheep”. But this passage shows that there is nothing strange in talking about Jesus reconciling “us” and then suddenly talking of God reconciling “the world” so that he will not count “their” trespasses against them.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people…Titus 2:11
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.Colossians 1:19-20
And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.1 John 4:14-15
Similar comments apply to this verse as to John 3:14-18, which we looked at above.
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.Hebrews 2:9
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.1 Timothy 2:3-6
Here the author is both affirming that God desires all to be saved and that Jesus himself is a ransom for all.
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.John 12:31-33
Jesus is here referring to drawing all men to himself and the passage is identifying him as talking about his death (i.e. his death on the cross). Even if this is not specifically referring to the atonement, it still shows Jesus’s intent to draw all people to himself.
Calvinist Responses to these Passages
Calvinists sometimes respond by appealing to the “semantic range” of “all” or “world”, which, according to D.A. Carson ( himself a Calvinist) is an exegetical fallacy. Appealing to the “semantic range” is appealing to the various meanings the word can have depending on context. It is not right to appeal to other scriptures where the word means something different, or where the universality of these words are delimited. You need to show why the context in the particular verses means that it is delimited. The verses that Calvinists appeal to are clearly delimited by context, but this is not the case in the verses that teach universal atonement. For example, Got Questions’ article on limited atonement appeals to a passage in Luke 2:1-4:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.Luke 2:1-3
They point out that “all the world” here cannot mean literally the whole world and they are correct. But it is not sufficient to simply point out instances where universal qualifiers are clearly delimited by context. You must show that this is the case in the verses talking about universal atonement. Otherwise, this is no better than simply selecting your preferred meaning of the word, presupposing that meaning, and then looking for vague contextual elements that confirm it. The strategy of Calvinist responses is often pointing to any sign of particularity in the surrounding scriptures as delimiting the universality of those words, which definitely abuses the principle of “looking at it in context” and makes it basically a matter of the interpreter’s whim to what extent the universality of the words are retained. These words “world” and “all” normally have a universal meaning unless delimited by adjectives or by context, which means that the onus is on the one saying that they are delimited in some way to show clearly why this is the case. If you can so easily dismiss the verses that teach universal atonement, then you have to explain what universal qualifier the New Testament writers should have used in order to convince you of universal atonement, because then your position is close to unfalsifiable from the Bible. Bearing in mind that the writers of the New Testament were not cognizant at all of the controversy between limited and universal atonement, it is useful to consider what exactly they need to say in order for you to be satisfied that they are advocating universal atonement. If you’ve established that universal qualifiers can be delimited contextually, you’ve merely made it into a possibility that the passages teaching universal atonement are not actually universal. You have not even begun to show that the passages themselves have delimited universal qualifiers. Is it really likely that the many “all’s” in the New Testament describing God’s mercy of the New Covenant are always being used idiomatically? Can this appeal to semantic range dismiss the universal atonement reading of 1 John 2:2, which adds a universal qualifier to “world” to make it even more explicit ( “whole world”) and which explicitly says that Jesus was not the propitiation for our sins only ( referring to his Christian readership)? Moreover, even this passage in Luke where “world” is delimited contextually, it is still denoting generality (i.e. people in general), even though not literally everyone, so that could still not easily be construed to mean “the elect” or “the Church”, which is a specific group of people. This point becomes stronger when we address the verses used to support limited atonement, since they do not explicitly say ( nor do they implicitly say, as I will argue) that Jesus died only for a specific number of people.
Calvinists may also try to explain the apparent universality of these texts by saying that the atonement is sufficient for the whole world but only actually intended for the elect. That just isn’t what the passages are saying, since they are saying that Jesus died “for” the world, implying an intent to die for all. All of the universal atonement passages denote a purpose or action to die for sins of all or to reconcile all to God. They are not talking about some sort of merely theoretical sufficiency, that will never actualize as a result of particular redemption. Also, if Jesus only intended to die for the elect, what is the point of making it sufficient for the whole world when it only needs to be sufficient for the elect? Furthermore, I think it is contradictory to say that the atonement is sufficient for the whole world but only intended for the elect, because if Jesus only intended to die for the sins of the elect, then he didn’t die for the sins of the whole world. If Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the whole world, then it is not sufficient for the whole world. If Jesus didn’t die for the specific sins of a specific person, how could the atonement be “sufficient” for that person? In other words, if you claim that the atonement is sufficient for all, you have affirmed that Jesus died for the sins of all people ( i.e. universal atonement). In order to be consistent with limited atonement, the point about sufficiency can only mean that if Jesus wanted to die for the sins of all, he could have. But since, according to Five-Point Calvinists, he did not, and the passages about universal atonement do not talk about some sort of hypothetical scenario of the atonement, this is an irrelevant point.
There are also many passages in the New Testament that clearly show God’s purpose to save all people, which would not make sense if Jesus only died for some people. Trinitarian Universalists ( or Christians who believe in universal salvation) sometimes point to these passages as indicating universal salvation. However, if they don’t mean at least universal atonement and universal calling, it becomes difficult to explain what they mean.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.2 Peter 3:9
This passage shows God’s intent for all to be saved because repentance is how you receive salvation in the New Testament.
For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.Romans 11:30-32
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive1 Corinthians 15:22
Biblical Support for Limited Atonement?
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…Revelation 5:9
She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.Matthew 1:21
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.John 10:14-16
Also included is Isaiah 53:12 which says that Jesus died for “many”. Often, when Calvinists defend limited atonement they will also throw in some verses to support unconditional election. I will not address these here, because they are not strictly relevant to whether the atonement itself is limited to the elect, unless you want to argue that unconditional election implies limited atonement. It may, but this is a double-edged sword, because then, if universal atonement is true, that would disprove unconditional election and given the numerous explicit passages in favour of universal atonement, this position may be more beneficial to the Arminian desiring to disprove Calvinism, than to the Calvinist desiring to prove limited atonement. So, if you are a Calvinist, think twice before introducing proof texts for unconditional election in support of limited atonement.
So, as is evident from the above, the only passages that Calvinists can appeal to in support of limited atonement are those which indicate that Jesus died for “his people” or “the sheep” or his church or “many”. First, it is important to note that there is no verse in the Bible ( as far as I know) that says that Jesus died only for the church or for the elect. Passages that say that Jesus died for the Church or his people do not contradict universal atonement, because if Jesus died for all, then he did also die for the church. The more particular instantiation does not contradict the universal instantiation unless you have an only. It makes sense that, when speaking to the church, that you would speak of Jesus dying for the church, and if you are talking about yourself, to say “Jesus died for me” or when you are speaking to specific individuals “Jesus died for you”. None of this would imply that Jesus died only for them or only for you. You need the “only” because that is the central claim of limited atonement, and the passages that say that Jesus died for his church or his sheep does not imply limited atonement, because it is compatible with the view that contradicts limited atonement. In order to have implication, the passages you appeal to cannot be compatible with the contradictory view. So these passages do not imply limited atonement.
In order to consider these passages purportedly supporting limited atonement, let’s take a look at Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20
Would you take this passage to mean that Paul was contending that Jesus died only for Paul, because he says that Jesus “gave himself for me”? No, of course not. But then, why would you take passages saying that Jesus died for the church as an indication that Jesus died only for the church? This is the way the early church spoke about the atonement, by making it particular depending on who they were talking about. In dealing with this text you would recognize that saying that Jesus died for some people does not imply that he didn’t die for others. And you would point to other scriptures which show that Jesus died for a broader group of people. And this is precisely the situation of texts which say that Jesus died for his sheep or his church, because they do not imply that Jesus didn’t die for others and there are texts which clearly say that Jesus died for all. There is no room to claim that Calvinists are just choosing to emphasize some verses while non-Calvinists are choosing to emphasize different verses. The big difference is that the universal atonement passages do rule out limited atonement but the limited atonement passages do not rule out universal atonement. There lies the crucial difference and is one reason why the one position is far weaker than the other position.
It was natural for the early church to talk about Jesus “dying for my sins” or “dying for our sins”, because they hoped in that atonement especially. The ultimate purpose of the atonement is to create a church. The invitation, based upon the atonement, is open to all and the propitiation is for all, but the effect of the atonement, based upon those who accept it through repentance and faith, is limited to his church. This means that it is not strange that the early church would speak both of Jesus dying for all people and purchasing a church for himself with his blood. These two claims are not inconsistent, as the believer in limited atonement must believe they are. They are not inconsistent, because the atonement is only made effective in your life, if you repent and believe, as we saw from some of the New Testament passages that require repentance and belief for forgiveness of sins and salvation. The atonement is for all but is especially for those who accept it, because its wonderful benefits are fully made effective in their lives.
That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.1 Timothy 4:10
In other words, the benefits of the Atonement accrue most to those who believe, even though the lot of humanity in general is improved before God, perhaps through “common grace”, as a result of Jesus and his works. Something like “common grace” should only be possible because Jesus paid for the sins of all people. So with Christmas coming up, as we meditate upon the birth of Jesus, we can know that his birth truly is good news for all people!