The Extent of the Atonement—
Limited Atonement versus
by Ron Rhodes
The following discussion of limited atonement versus unlimited atonement has been put together because many people have contacted me for more information regarding what this debate is all about—and why I (Ron Rhodes), in particular, hold to unlimited atonement.
The following discussion is intended as a brief summary. Not every argument for limited atonement has been listed; not every argument for unlimited atonement has been listed. But the major arguments for both positions are set forth in a brief fashion. I also quote from advocates of both positions.
Though I strongly believe in unlimited atonement, I have many friends who believe in limited atonement. We do not divide over this issue; neither should you.
My position is known in theological circles as “4-point Calvinism.”
As a backdrop, “5-point Calvinists” hold to T-U-L-I-P:
Perseverance of the Saints.
As a 4-point Calvinist, I hold to all the above except limited atonement. I point this out simply because it has been the habit of some of the limited atonement persuasion to say that all who hold to unlimited atonement are Arminian in their theology. This simply is not so.
The Issue Defined
Theologian Walter Elwell summarizes the debate over the extent of the atonement this way: “Although there are variations as to the basic ways in which this subject can be addressed, the choices boil down to two: either the death of Jesus was intended to secure salvation for a limited number or the death of Jesus was intended to provide salvation for everyone. The first view is sometimes called ‘limited atonement’ because God limited the effect of Christ’s death to a specific number of elect persons, or ‘particular redemption’ because redemption was for a particular group of people. The second view is sometimes referred to as ‘unlimited atonement’ or ‘general redemption’ because God did not limit Christ’s redemptive death to the elect, but allowed it to be for mankind in general.”
Definition of Limited Atonement: “A reference to the view that Christ’s atoning death was only for the elect.”
Louis Berkhof says: “The Reformed position is that Christ died for the purpose of actually and certainly saving the elect, and the elect only. This is equivalent to saying that He died for the purpose of saving only those to whom He actually applies the benefits of His redemptive work.”
Representative Passages Offered in Support of Limited Atonement
Matthew 1:21: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew 20:28: “...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 26:28: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
John 10:15: “...and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Acts 20:28: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
Hebrews 9:28: “So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Arguments Set Forth in Favor of Limited Atonement
The Bible speaks of a limited extent of the atonement.
The Bible says Christ died for a specific group of people—”the church,” “His people,” “His sheep.”
Louis Berkhof says: “Scripture repeatedly qualifies those for whom Christ laid down His life in such a way as to point to a very definite limitation. Those for whom He suffered and died are variously called ‘His sheep,’ John 10:11, 15, ‘His Church,’ Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25-27, ‘His people,’ Matt. 1:21, and ‘the elect,’ Rom. 8:32-35.”
Since the elect were chosen before the foundation of the world, how can Christ honestly be said to have died for all men? Put another way, how could Christ design that which by virtue of His omniscience He knew would never come to pass?
Reformed scholar Charles Hodge explains the problem this way: “If God from eternity determined to save one portion of the human race and not another, it seems to be a contradiction to say that the plan of salvation had equal reference to both portions; that the Father sent his Son to die for those whom He had predetermined not to save, as truly as, and in the same sense that He gave Him up for those whom He had chosen to make the heirs of salvation.”
The argument seems to be that “it would have been a waste and a lack of foresight on the part of God to have Christ die for those whom he had not chosen to salvation.”
It is argued that the nature of ransom is such that, “when paid and accepted, it automatically frees those for whom it is intended. No further obligation can be charged against them. Now, if the death of Christ was a ransom for all alike, not just for the elect, then it must be the case that all are set free by the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Some advocates of limited atonement say that Christ is defeated if He died for all men and all men aren’t saved. If Christ died for all people, as unlimited atonement advocates say, then God would be unfair in sending people to hell for their own sins. It is argued that “no law court allows payment to be exacted twice for the same crime, and God will not do that either.” Christ paid for the sins of the elect; the lost pay for their own sins.
Since Christ didn’t pray for everyone in His High Priestly prayer in John 17, but only for His own, Christ must not have died for everyone.
It is argued that since the intercession is limited in extent, the atonement must be too.
As Louis Berkhof puts it, “Why should He limit His intercessory prayer, if He had actually paid the price for all?” In the Middle Ages such scholars as Prosper of Aquitaine, Thomas Bradwardine, and John Staupitz taught limited atonement. It is claimed that even though John Calvin did not explicitly teach the doctrine, it seems implicit in some of his writings. Calvin’s successors then made limited atonement explicit and included it in Reformed confessions of faith like the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Though terms like “all,” “world,” and “whosoever” are used in Scripture in reference to those for whom Christ died (e.g., John 3:16), the terms are to be understood in terms of the elect. In other words: “All” refers to “all of the elect” or “all classes of men (Jew and Gentile).” Louis Berkhof says “the word ‘all’ sometimes has a restricted meaning in Scripture, denoting all of a particular class, 1 Cor. 15:22; Eph. 1:23, or all kinds of classes, Tit. 2:11.”
What does the Bible mean when it says Christ is the “Savior of all men”? Charles Hodge answers: “What is meant is that He is our Savior, the Savior of men rather than of angels, not of Jews exclusively nor of the Gentiles only, not of the rich or of the poor alone, not of the righteous only, but also of publicans and sinners….” “World” refers to “world of the elect” or to people without distinction (Jews and Gentiles).
Louis Berkhof says the unlimited atonement position is based “on the unwarranted assumption that the word ‘world’...means ‘all the individuals that constitute the human race.’....When it is used of men, [the word] does not always include all men, John 7:4; 12:19; 14:22; 18:20; Rom. 11:12, 15.”
Berkhof also says: “There are passages which teach that Christ died for the world....In the passages referred to it may simply serve to indicate that Christ died, not merely for the Jews, but for people of all the nations of the world.” In keeping with the above, the word “whosoever” is interpreted to mean “whosoever of the elect.”
Such universal terms simply show that Jesus died for all men without distinction (that is, all kinds of people, and people from among both the Jews and Gentiles), not that Jesus died for all men without exception (i.e., every lost sinner).
Definition of Unlimited Atonement: “A reference to the doctrine that Christ’s redemptive death was for all persons.”
Representative Passages Offered in Support of Unlimited Atonement
(Note: To clarify my position on a few of these verses, I have added some expositional text and quotations from various biblical scholars.)
Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (The “lost” seems to refer to the entire world of lost humanity, not just the lost elect.)
John 1:29: “The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’” What is the “world” here? Exegete B. F. Westcott says: “The fundamental idea of kosmos [world] in St. John is that of the sum of created being which belongs to the sphere of human life as an ordered whole, considered apart from God....the world comes to represent humanity in its fallen state, alienated from its Maker.” John Calvin says of this verse: “He uses the word sin in the singular number for any kind of iniquity; as if he had said that every kind of unrighteousness which alienates men from God is taken away by Christ. And when he says the sin of the world, he extends this favor indiscriminately to the whole human race.” Ryle similarly states: “Christ is...a Savior for all mankind....He did not suffer for a few persons only, but for all mankind....What Christ took away, and bore on the cross, was not the sin of certain people only, but the whole accumulated mass of all the sins of all the children of Adam....I hold as strongly as anyone that Christ’s death is profitable to none but the elect who believe in His Name. But I dare not limit and pare down such expressions as the one before us....I dare not confine the intention of redemption to the saints alone. Christ is for every man....The atonement was made for all the world, though it is applied and enjoyed by none but believers.”
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Greek lexicons are unanimous that “world” here denotes humankind, not the “world of the elect.” John 3:16 cannot be divorced from verses 14-15, wherein Christ alludes to Numbers 21 with its discussion of Moses setting up the brazen serpent in the camp of Israel, so that if “any man” looked to it, he experienced physical deliverance. In verse 15 Christ applies the story spiritually when He says that “whosoever” believes on the uplifted Son of Man shall experience spiritual deliverance. John Calvin says: “He has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term world which He formerly used [God so loved the world]; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet He shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when He invites all men without exception [not merely ‘without distinction’] to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.”
John 4:42: “They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” It is certain that when the Samaritans called Jesus “the Savior of the world,” they were not thinking of the world of the elect. Likewise, when Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12), He was not thinking of Himself as the Light of the world of the elect. “The sun in the heavens shines on all men, though some, in their folly, may choose to withdraw into dark caves to evade its illuminating rays.” When Jesus called His disciples “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14), He did not mean they were the “light of the elect.” Likewise, the “Savior of the world” in John 4:42 cannot be limited to the elect.
Acts 2:21: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Romans 5:6: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
1 Timothy 2:3-4: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
1 Timothy 2:5-6: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.”
1 Timothy 4:10: “We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.”
Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”
Hebrews 2:9: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” The word “everyone” is better translated “each.” Henry Alford comments: “If it be asked, why pantos (each) rather than panton (all), we may safely say that the singular brings out, far more strongly than the plural word, the applicability of Christ’s death to each individual man.’
2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
1 John 2:2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (Note the distinction between “ours” and “the whole world.”)
1 John 4:14: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”
Arguments Set Forth in Favor of Unlimited Atonement
There are certain Scripture passages that seem very difficult to fit within the framework of limited atonement. For example:
Romans 5:6 says: “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” It doesn’t make much sense to read this as saying that Christ died for the ungodly of the elect.
Romans 5:18 says: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” Regarding this verse, John Calvin says: “He makes this favor common to all, because it is propoundable to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all [i.e., in their experience]; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive Him.” Regarding the two occurrences of the phrase “all men,” E. H. Gifford comments: “The words all men [in v. 18] must have the same extent in both clauses.”
1 John 2:2 says: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” A natural reading of this verse, without imposing theological presuppositions on it, seems to support unlimited atonement.
Isaiah 53:6 says: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). This verse doesn’t make sense unless it is read to say that the same “all” that went astray is the “all” for whom the Lord died. “In the first of these statements, the general apostasy of men is declared; in the second, the particular deviation of each one; in the third, the atoning suffering of the Messiah, which is said to be on behalf of all. As the first ‘all’ is true of all men (and not just of the elect), we judge that the last ‘all’ relates to the same company.” Theologian Millard Erickson comments: “This passage is especially powerful from a logical standpoint. It is clear that the extent of sin is universal; it is specified that every one of us has sinned. It should also be noticed that the extent of what will be laid on the suffering servant exactly parallels the extent of sin. It is difficult to read this passage and not conclude that just as everyone sins, everyone is also atoned for.”
1 Timothy 4:10 says: “...we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” There is a clear distinction here between “all men” and “those who believe.” Erickson notes that “apparently the Savior has done something for all persons, though it is less in degree than what he has done for those who believe.”
In 2 Peter 2:1, it seems that Christ even paid the price of redemption for false teachers who deny Him: “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.” Millard Erickson notes that “2 Peter 2:1 seems to point out most clearly that people for whom Christ died may be lost....there is a distinction between those for whom Christ died and those who are finally saved.”
John 3:17 says: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Regarding this verse John Calvin says: “God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because He has appointed His Son to be the salvation of the world.” Calvin also stated: “The word world is again repeated, that no man may think himself wholly excluded, if he only keeps the road of faith.”
Many passages indicate that the Gospel is to be universally proclaimed, and this supports unlimited atonement.
Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Matthew 28:19: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...”
Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 17:30: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”
In view of such passages, it is legitimate to ask: “If Christ died only for the elect, how can the offer of salvation be made to all persons without some sort of insincerity, artificiality, or dishonesty being involved? Is it not improper to offer salvation to everyone if in fact Christ did not die to save everyone?”
“How can God authorize His servants to offer pardon to the non-elect if Christ did not purchase it for them? This is a problem that does not plague those who hold to General [Unlimited] Redemption, for it is most reasonable to proclaim the Gospel to all if Christ died for all.” Those who deny unlimited atonement cannot say to any sinner, “Christ died for you.” (After all, he may be one of the non-elect.)
Reformed counselor Jay Adams comments: “As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, for they cannot say that. No man knows except Christ himself who are his elect for whom he died.” Louis Berkhof, a defender of limited atonement, admits: “It need not be denied that there is a real difficulty at this point.”
Theologian Robert Lightner comments: “Belief in limited atonement means that the good news of God’s saving grace in Christ cannot be personalized. Those who hold to such a position cannot tell someone to whom they are witnessing that Christ died for him because that one may, in fact, not be one for whom Christ died.” Such Christians believe the gospel must be presented in very general terms, such as: “God loves sinners and Christ died for sinners.”
“To believe that some are elect and some nonelect creates no problem for the soulwinner provided he is free in his convictions to declare that Christ died for each one to whom he speaks. He knows that the nonelect will not accept the message. He knows also that even an elect person may resist it to near the day of his death. But if the preacher believes that any portion of his audience is destitute of any basis of salvation, having no share in the values of Christ’s death, it is no longer a question in his mind of whether they will accept or reject; it becomes rather a question of truthfulness in the declaration of the message.”
2 Peter 3:9 says: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” How can this be if Christ died only and exclusively for the elect?
Romans 5 indicates that through Adam’s act of disobedience the entire human race became the recipients of sin. And through one act of obedience the last Adam made provision for the gracious gift of righteousness for the entire human race. The disobedience of the one was co-extensive with the obedience of the other.
Scripture says that Christ died for “sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15; Rom. 5:6-8). The word “sinner” nowhere is limited to the elect or to the church. It is used exclusively in the Bible of lost humanity. Scripture tells us that Christ died for sinners, not penitent sinners, and for the ungodly, not for just some of them.
Seemingly restrictive references can be logically fit into an unlimited scenario more easily than universal references made to fit into a limited atonement scenario. “The problem that both groups face is the need to harmonize passages that refer to limited redemption with passages that refer to unlimited redemption. To the unlimited redemptionist the limited redemption passages present no real difficulty. He believes that they merely emphasize one aspect of a larger truth. Christ did die for the elect, but He also died for the sins of the whole world. However, the limited redemptionist is not able to deal with the unlimited redemption passages as easily.”
The two sets of passages noted earlier—one set seemingly in support of limited atonement, the other in support of unlimited atonement—are not irreconcilable. As Elwell puts it, “It is true that the benefits of Christ’s death are referred to as belonging to the elect, his sheep, his people, but it would have to be shown that Christ died only for them. No one denies that Christ died for them. It is only denied that Christ died exclusively for them.”
Millard Erickson likewise says that “statements about Jesus loving and dying for his church or his sheep need not be understood as confining his special love and salvific death strictly to them....It does not follow from a statement that Christ died for his church, or for his sheep, that he did not die for anyone else, unless, of course, the passage specifically states that it was only for them that he died....Certainly if Christ died for the whole, there is no problem in asserting that he died for a specific part of the whole. To insist that those passages which focus on his dying for his people require the understanding that he died only for them and not for any others contradicts the universal passages. We conclude that the hypothesis of universal atonement is able to account for a larger segment of the biblical witness with less distortion than is the hypothesis of limited atonement.”
Robert Lightner similarly argues: “The task of harmonizing those various Scriptures poses a far greater problem for those who hold to a limited atonement than it does to those who hold to an unlimited position. Those who hold to an unlimited atonement recognize that some Scriptures emphasize the fact that Christ died for the elect, for the church, and for individual believers. However, they point out that when those verses single out a specific group they do not do so to the exclusion of any who are outside that group since dozens of other passages include them. The ‘limited’ passages are just emphasizing one aspect of a larger truth. In contrast, those who hold to a limited atonement have a far more difficult time explaining away the ‘unlimited’ passages.”
The fact is, the Scriptures do not always include all aspects of a truth in any one passage. “If these texts are used in isolation to ‘prove’ that Christ died only for the elect, then it could be argued with equal logic from other isolated passages that Christ died only for Israel (cf. John 11:51; Isa. 53:8), or that He died only for the Apostle Paul (for Paul declares of Christ, ‘Who loved me, and gave himself for me,’ Gal. 2:20). As well might one contend that Christ restricted His prayers to Peter because of the fact that He said to Peter, ‘But I have prayed for thee’ (Luke 22:32).”
Let us examine in greater detail some passages that speak of Christ being the Savior of the Israelites.
Acts 13:23 says: “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.” This verse indicates that Jesus was the proffered Savior to Israel, not that every Israelite had placed faith in Christ and was saved by the Savior. “What ground have we for thinking that all of these persons received the salvation? None, whatever. Yet, plainly, it was put within their reach.”
In Matthew 1:21 we are told that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” Throughout the Old Testament God speaks of the Israelites as “My people.” Seven times God tells the Pharaoh, “Let My people go” (Exod. 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:13). (I urge the reader to check a concordance to see for himself that God continues to refer to the Israelites as “My people” throughout the entire Old Testament.) The last occurrence is Zechariah 13:9: “They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’”
Now, in Luke 1:68 Zacharias said: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” Zacharias is using the phrase “his people” in the standard Old Testament sense.
In Matthew 1:21, when an angel told Joseph, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” the words “his people” seem to be referring specifically to the people of Israel, not the entire company of God’s elect (which includes non-Israelites or Gentiles). Yet, as Norman Douty asks, “Who believes that the Jewish people have a monopoly on Christ’s saving grace? All hold that it goes beyond their confines to the Gentile world as well.”
Likewise we read in John 11:50: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation [i.e., Israel] perish.” In none of these passages do the advocates of limited atonement insist that the Jewish people exclusively are the objects of God’s saving grace. Similarly, when Christ is said to have purchased the church with His blood (Acts 20:28), we cannot limit Christ’s atoning work to the church alone.
Galatians 2:20 declares that Christ loved Paul and gave Himself for him (“The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”). But this does not mean that Christ gave Himself only for Paul.
To sum up, Christ did not give Himself in the atonement only for Paul, or only for Israel, or only for the church, but for all men. Universal terms like “world” should not be restricted in contexts which speak of the atonement.
It is true that words like “all” and “world” are sometimes used in the Bible in a restricted sense. But context is always determinative. Robert Lightner comments: “Those who always limit the meaning of those terms in contexts that deal with salvation do so on the basis of theological presuppositions, not on the basis of the texts themselves.”
A word study of the word “world”—particularly in the apostle John’s writings, where it is used 78 times—indicates that the world is God-hating, Christ-rejecting, and Satan-dominated. Yet this is the world that Christ died for. Particularly in John’s writings, interpreting “world” as “world of the elect” seems a great distortion of Scripture.
Among the scholarly lexicons, encyclopedias, and dictionaries that know nothing of the meaning “world of the elect” for the biblical word “world” (kosmos) are:
Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.
Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament.
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.
Souter’s Pocket Lexicon of the New Testament.
The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.
Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
The New Bible Dictionary.
Baker’s Dictionary of Theology.
Arndt and Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.
Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute, observes: “John the Apostle tells us that Christ gave His life as a propitiation for our sin (i.e., the elect), though not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2)....[People] cannot evade John’s usage of ‘whole’ (Greek: holos). In the same context the apostle quite cogently points out that ‘the whole (holos) world lies in wickedness’ or, more properly, ‘in the lap of the wicked one’ (1 John 5:19, literal translation). If we assume that ‘whole’ applies only to the chosen or elect of God, then the ‘whole world does not ‘lie in the lap of the wicked one.’ This, of course, all reject.”
We must also ask, How can the Holy Spirit have a ministry to the whole world in showing men their need of Jesus Christ (John 14-16) if the death of Christ does not make provision for the whole world?
John 16:8-11 says: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” Notice in this passage that “the world” is clearly distinguished from “you” and “your.” Yet the Holy Spirit is said to bring conviction on the world. And one of the things the Spirit convicts “the world” of is the sin of not believing on Christ (v. 9).
We are not to conclude that “the world” that is convicted of unbelief is the world of the elect, are we? (If so, then Satan, the “prince of this world” [v. 11, same context], must be the “prince of the elect.”) Calvin says of this passage that “under the term world are, I think, included not only those who would be truly converted to Christ, but hypocrites and reprobate.” Though God is completely sovereign over all things, this does not mean He brings into reality everything He “desires.”
Norman Douty offers this insight: “Consider the beginnings of human history. God told our first parents to refrain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Did He want them to eat of it, or did He not? Plainly, He did not want them to do so. Yet they ate of it. Was He frustrated? Of course not. He was not frustrated because, by His efficient grace, He could have induced them to refrain. Yet He chose to withhold that grace and to permit the fall. Nevertheless, the full responsibility for that sin belonged to Adam and Eve, who had sufficient grace to refrain, but did not use it.”
Consider Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” What Christ desired was not what came about. Douty concludes: “As God could have induced our first parents to refrain from eating of the tree, so He could have induced...the resistant Jews of Christ’s time to have received His gracious ministry of salvation. But He did not choose to effect these desirable ends. Yet this in no wise means that He wanted evil to befall any. He merely allowed the violation of His desires in order to carry out a hidden purpose He had in mind.”
One further example relates to Jesus, who told some Jews in John 5:34: “I say these things that you may be saved.” But “saved” they were not. Why? Because Christ added in verse 40, “You are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life.” Here is a clear case of “but ye would not,” despite the clear offer of salvation.
“There are reasons which are based on the Scriptures why our sovereign God might provide a redemption for all when He merely purposed by decree to save some. He is justified in placing the whole world in a particular relation to Himself so that the gospel might be preached with all sincerity to all men, and so that on the human side men might be without excuse, being judged, as they are, for their rejection of that which is offered to them.” That one rejects limited atonement does not in any way mean that one lessens or diminishes the clear scriptural doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Any who make such an allegation are simply uninformed.
“Without the slightest inconsistency the unlimited redemptionists may believe in an election according to sovereign grace, that none but the elect will be saved, that all of the elect will be saved, and that the elect are by divine enablement alone called out of the state of spiritual death from which they are impotent to take even one step in the direction of their own salvation. The text, ‘No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him’ (John 6:44), is as much a part of the one system of doctrine as it is of the other.”
Matthew 26:28 says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The reference to “many” in Christ’s words do not support limited atonement but rather support unlimited atonement. One must keep in mind that earlier in Matthew Jesus had said that few find eternal life (Matt. 7:14) and few are chosen (22:14). But Christ did not say His blood was poured out for a few, but for many. John Calvin thus declares of this verse: “By the word many He means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race.”
This is the same meaning as in Romans 5:15: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Note that the “many” of verse 15 is clearly defined in verse 18 as “all men”: “...just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”
Notice that in this verse Paul speaks of Adam’s sin, and of the resultant death coming upon all his descendants. But then the apostle goes on to speak of the grace of God and of its resultant gift (of life), abounding to the same company.
I say, “to the same company,” because “the many” in the second clause of the verse is coextensive with “the many” in the first clause.
Answers to Three Common Questions
1. If Christ died for those who go to hell, what benefit have they from His death? Answer: “We may as well ask, What good did the bitten Israelites get from the brazen serpent to which they refused to look? None, of course, but God got the glory of being a God generous enough to provide for them.”
2. If satisfaction has been made for all, how can any go to hell? Answer: “Though God has provided atonement for all, He has also stipulated that none get the good of it, except through repentance and faith. Deliverance from doom was not contingent on the atonement itself but on the reception of it. Men can starve in the presence of a free feast, if they refuse to partake of it.”
3. Why would God have Christ die for those whom He, in His omniscience, knew would never receive His provision? Answer: “Why did God richly endow the angels who subsequently sinned, when He knew they would not use His gifts to their everlasting good? Why did He bestow valuable gifts on our first parents, to be employed for their and our advantage, when He knew they would not so employ them? Why did He send Noah to preach to people He knew would not receive His message? And why did He send the prophets to Israel, when He knew they would continue in their apostasy? There is such a thing as the divine benevolence.”
Reply to Some Criticisms Made By Proponents of Limited Atonement
The charge that unlimited atonement leads to universalism is special pleading. “Just because one believes that Christ died for all does not mean all are saved. One must believe in Christ to be saved, so the fact that Christ died for the world apparently does not secure the salvation of all. Those who assert this are simply wrong.”
God makes the provision of salvation for all men, but it is conditioned by faith. Thus, salvation becomes actual only for the elect, although it is potential and available to all. “Our inheriting eternal life involves two separate factors: an objective factor (Christ’s provision of salvation) and a subjective factor (our acceptance of that salvation).”
Moderate Calvinists distinguish between the provisional benefits of Christ’s death and the appropriation of those benefits by the elect. Although the provision of atonement is unlimited, yet the application of it is limited.
In his book The Death Christ Died, Robert Lightner explains: “[Moderate Calvinists] believe the cross does not apply its own benefits but that God has conditioned His full and free salvation upon personal faith in order to appropriate its accomplishments to the individual. This faith which men must exercise is not a work whereby man contributes his part to his salvation, nor does faith, in the moderate Calvinist view, improve in any way the final and complete sacrifice of Calvary. It is simply the method of applying Calvary’s benefits which the sovereign God has deigned to use in His all-wise plan of salvation.”
God is not unfair in condemning those who reject the offer of salvation. He is not exacting judgment twice. “Because the nonbeliever refuses to accept the death of Christ as his own, the benefits of Christ’s death are not applied to him. He is lost, not because Christ did not die for him, but because he refuses God’s offer of forgiveness.”
The electing purpose of God is not complete until the elect are in glory. Since this is true, and since the cross provides salvation dependent on faith for its reception, and since the cross does not secure salvation apart from that faith, there is no contradiction with God’s sovereignty. Unlimited atonement has been held by a majority of scholars throughout church history.
Millard Erickson points out that unlimited atonement has been “held by the vast majority of theologians, reformers, evangelists, and fathers from the beginning of the church until the present day, including virtually all the writers before the Reformation, with the possible exception of Augustine. Among the Reformers the doctrine is found in Luther, Melanchthon, Bullinger, Latimer, Cranmer, Coverdale, and even Calvin in some of his commentaries....Is it likely that the overwhelming majority of Christians could have so misread the leading of the Holy Spirit on such an important point?”
Robert Lightner addresses Calvin’s position on the issue: “Those who subscribe to a limited atonement generally argue that that is the position espoused by Calvin. But it is highly debatable that he did, in fact, hold that view....Whereas some scholars have attempted to show that there is harmony between Calvin and later orthodox Calvinism, others have argued that contemporary Calvinism has veered significantly from Calvin’s teaching, including his teaching on the extent of the atonement.” (The reader will recall that a number of Calvin’s citations in this paper show him favorable to unlimited atonement.)
Quotations from the Early Church Fathers
Clement of Alexandria (150-220): “Christ freely brings...salvation to the whole human race.”
Eusebius (260-340): “It was needful that the Lamb of God should be offered for the other lambs whose nature He assumed, even for the whole human race.”
Athanasius (293-373): “Christ the Son of God, having assumed a body like ours, because we were all exposed to death [which takes in more than the elect], gave Himself up to death for us all as a sacrifice to His Father.”
Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386): “Do not wonder if the whole world was ransomed, for He was not a mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God.”
Gregory of Nazianzen (324-389): “The sacrifice of Christ is an imperishable expiation of the whole world.”
Basil (330-379): “But one thing was found that was equivalent to all men....the holy and precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He poured out for us all.”
Ambrose (340-407): “Christ suffered for all, rose again for all. But if anyone does not believe in Christ, he deprives himself of that general benefit.” He also said, “Christ came for the salvation of all, and undertook the redemption of all, inasmuch as He brought a remedy by which all might escape, although there are many who...are unwilling to be healed.”
Augustine (354-430): Though Augustine is often cited as supporting limited atonement, there are also clear statements in Augustine’s writings that are supportive of unlimited atonement. For example: “The Redeemer came and gave the price, shed His blood, and bought the world. Do you ask what He bought? See what He gave, and find what He bought. The blood of Christ is the price: what is of so great worth? What, but the whole world? What, but all nations?” He also stated, “The blood of Christ was shed for the remission of all sins.”
Cyril of Alexandria (376-444): “The death of one flesh is sufficient for the ransom of the whole human race, for it belonged to the Logos, begotten of God the Father.”
Prosper (a friend and disciple of Augustine who died in 463): “As far as relates to the magnitude and virtue of the price, and to the one cause of the human race, the blood of Christ is the redemption of the whole world: but those who pass through this life without the faith of Christ, and the sacrament of regeneration, do not partake of the redemption.” He also said, “The Savior is most rightly said to have been crucified for the redemption of the whole world.” He then said, “Although the blood of Christ be the ransom of the whole world, yet they are excluded from its benefit, who, being delighted with their captivity, are unwilling to be redeemed by it.”
Quotations from the Reformers of the 16th Century
Martin Luther (1483-1546): “Christ is not cruel exactor, but a forgiver of the sins of the whole world....He hath given Himself for our sins, and with one oblation hath put away the sins of the whole world....Christ hath taken away the sins, not of certain men only, but also of thee, yea, of the whole world...Not only my sins and thine, but also the sins of the whole world...take hold upon Christ.”
Philip Melanchton (1497-1560): “It is necessary to know that the Gospel is a universal promise, that is, that reconciliation is offered and promised to all mankind. It is necessary to hold that this promise is universal, in opposition to any dangerous imaginations on predestination, lest we should reason this promise pertains to a few others and ourselves. But we declare that the promise of the Gospel is universal. And to this are brought those universal expressions which are used constantly in the Scriptures.”
Other people involved to some degree in the Reformation who held to unlimited atonement include: Hugh Latimer, Myles Coverdale, Thomas Cranmer, Wolfgang Musculus, Henry Bullinger, Benedict Aretius, Thomas Becon, Jerome Zanchius, David Paraeus, and, as noted earlier, John Calvin.
Quotations from Other Luminaries from Recent Church History
Philip Schaff: “His saving grace flows and overflows to all and for all, on the simple condition of faith....If, by the grace of God, I could convert a single skeptic to a childlike faith in Him who lived and died for me and for all, I would feel that I had not lived in vain.”
B. F. Westcott: “Potentially, the work of Christ extends to the whole world.” And “the love of God is without limit on His part, but to appropriate the blessing of love, man must fulfill the necessary condition of faith.”
A. T. Robertson: [The word “world” in John 3:16—”For God so loved the world”—means] “the whole cosmos of men, including the Gentiles, the whole human race,” and adds that “this universal aspect of God’s love appears also in II Cor. 5:19; Rom. 5:8.”
In this brief outline, we have looked at both sides of the debate regarding the extent of the atonement. I believe that when one considers all the scriptural evidence collectively, the correct view is unlimited atonement.