"God forsook his Son, for this death, for this time, at the hands of these sinful people."
Perched on the dizzy pinnacles of theological discourse, Christian thinkers have been divided over the teachings of John Calvin for nearly four centuries. And there is good reason for this long-standing controversy. The debate over Calvinism is exceedingly complex and the sweep of all that has been written on this subject could easily fill the largest of libraries.
More than this, the discussion is cordoned off from most curious investigators by numerous historical, philosophical, and scriptural considerations. For instance, the controversy over Calvinism did not appear in a historical vacuum. There is a historical progression to the discussion that any honest inquirer should examine. Furthermore, there are obvious philosophical considerations to the debate: Is there really any difference between God’s omniscience and His predestination? Finally, there are scriptural considerations that should to be examined. What does God reveal about the nature of Jesus’ atonement through His Word? Are there definitive passages that clearly speak to issues within the debate? Put together, diving headlong into this debate for the first time can be overwhelming. And it is with this in mind that I set out to write this short essay.
After carefully considering the evidence offered by both sides of the debate and placing my tradition within the sights of the opposing view, I found myself wandering back into the Arminian camp.1 After nearly a decade of struggling through this controversial topic, what eventually convinced me of the Arminian view is the scriptural evidence contradicting limited atonement.2
The major purpose of this essay, then, is to offer a critique of limited atonement. I will begin the first section with a faithful rendering of limited atonement and its relationship with the five points of Calvinism. Then, I will provide an evaluation of this evidence. Following that, I will provide positive evidence from Scripture for universal atonement. And in the final part of my critique, I will explore the implications of denying limited atonement.
Logical Coherence of Calvinism’s Five Points
Traditional Calvinism’s strength lies in the logical coherence of its five points. Sometimes, these five points are referred to by the acrostic TULIP. A brief explanation follows:
- Total Depravity – The doctrine of total depravity teaches that the original fall of man resulted in the transmission of a sin nature that each person possesses (Ps. 51:5). This nature according to Scripture has infected the very fabric of our being and has warped God’s original design. And to a large extent, this design centers on our ability to be in a relationship with God. Our sin nature prevents this from happening because it produces an inclination to rebel and choose against Him. More than this, the doctrine of total depravity teaches that the corruption of our nature is so deep that we are fundamentally incapable of choosing for God (John 6:44, Rom. 3:10,11).
- Unconditional Election – The doctrine of unconditional election teaches that God has made a decision from eternity to predestine some to be saved, while those that have not been ‘elected’ will face eternal damnation. The ‘unconditional’ part of this doctrine refers God’s choice in election. God’s choice in election did not hinge upon any foreseen merit found in a person or any action performed by the person. Instead, God’s selection of the ‘elect’ is based on His own independent and sovereign choice. For instance, while speaking to His disciples, Jesus told them: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 15:16). In another place, Paul tells the believers in Ephesus, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph. 1:4-5).
- Limited Atonement – Otherwise known as ‘particular atonement,’ the doctrine of limited atonement suggests that Jesus’ substitutionary death was only for the ‘elect.’ Driven by preserving God’s sovereignty, Calvinist thinkers teach that God’s plans and will cannot be frustrated by man. Therefore, those for whom He died must also be saved. This leads to the conclusion that Jesus must have only died for the elect.
- Irresistible Grace – Irresistible grace, sometimes called ‘efficacious grace,’ refers to the idea that Jesus’ atonement is effectually applied to the ‘elect.’ Closely related to limited atonement, the elect are unable to resist God’s calling to salvation because the efficacy of Jesus’ death cannot be frustrated by the will of man.
- Perseverance of the Elect – Finally, the doctrine of ‘perseverance’ teaches that the ‘elect’ will continue, in faith, until the end of their lives. Those who fall away from the faith were either never true believers or will someday return to the faith.
Taken together, the five points fuse together to form a logically coherent system. Reasoning from God’s sovereignty, Calvinist thinkers are interested in protecting the efficacy of God’s work through Jesus. Since God’s plans are not dependent upon man and certainly cannot be thwarted by man, Jesus must have died for the ‘elect’ or ‘those whom he has predestined.’3To think that God died for those who would not be saved, according to Calvinist thinkers, would be an affront to God’s efficacious will. At the end of the day, the five points of Calvinism tightly interlace into what seems to be a logically coherent system.
Further strengthening the internal consistency of Calvin’s five points, recent advocates of limited atonement argue that the connection between the doctrines of atonement and election is one of logical necessity. Charles Hodge summarizes it this way:
“If God from eternity determined to save one portion of the human race and not another, it seem 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.”4
Here Hodge is arguing that it would have been a waste and a lack of foresight on God’s part to have Jesus die for individuals he had not chosen to salvation. Or put differently: It would not have made sense for Jesus to die for those He never intended to save. Thus, any attempt to separate particular election from limited atonement involves an inherent contradiction.
Seen together, limited atonement fits snugly within the logical of system of Calvin’s five points. Not only this, but proponents of limited atonement back their view up with Scripture.
Scriptural Support For Limited Atonement
As we bring limited atonement into the frame of our discussion, it is important to understand its scriptural basis.
The first set of passages we will consider are the ones that suggest that Christ’s death was for “for his people.” It is from these passages that advocates of limited atonement conclude that Christ did not die for everyone.
Heralding Jesus’ arrival, the angel of the Lord reveals His mission in 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." By way of imagery, Jesus describes His relationship to His followers as that of a good shepherd and his sheep: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep…but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:11,15,26-27). Giving husbands a pattern of how to love their wives, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Advocates of limited atonement believe that this passage points to Jesus’ death as being applied exclusively to the church. Another Pauline section of Scripture that is often employed by defenders of limited atonement is Romans 8:28-33. As the summary statement of this section, Paul asks his audience this rhetorical question: “He [God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” From the surrounding verses (28-29 and 33), it is apparent that those for whom God gave up his Son are those who believe – the elect.
Using a different line of reasoning, adherents of limited atonement deduce the concept from other doctrines. Some have argued that limited atonement can be inferred from the doctrine of Jesus’ intercessory work. R. B. Kuiper argues that Jesus deliberately limits His prayers for the elect in John 17:9: “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” And it follows that since Jesus only prayed for those whom the Father had given Him, they are the only ones for whom He died.5 Bundled together, what is explicitly taught in the other passages (mentioned above) is implicit within this passage, that is, Jesus died for only the elect.
Others have taken this a bit further. Louis Berkhof, for instance sees the atonement as being the basis for Jesus’ intercessory work. Stated another way, it was because of the atonement that Jesus expected all the blessings –packaged in salvation– to be applied to those for whom he was praying. And certainly, Jesus’ prayers were always effective: “I knew that you [the Father] always hear me” (John 11:42). Because Jesus’ prayers are always effective, Hodge observes, “he cannot be assumed to intercede for those who do not actually receive the benefits of his redemption.”6 In other words, since Jesus’ intercession is dependent on the atonement, Jesus did not pray for those whom the atonement did not apply.7
Other angles have also been taken to show that limited atonement can be deduced from other doctrines. For instance, some view the imagery of Jesus giving His life as a ransom as suggesting limited atonement (Matt. 20:28, Mk. 10:45). When a ransom is paid and accepted, it automatically emancipates those whom were in bondage. It follows, then, that if Jesus died to pay every person’s ransom, then they all must be set free from the bondage of death. However, Scripture clearly teaches that those who do not accept Christ are not redeemed. And this is the point of contention for particularists. If Jesus paid for everyone’s ransom, it would lead to universal salvation.
Evaluating The Evidence
After evaluating the claims and arguments advanced by supporters of limited atonement, I walk away feeling like much of what they have to say is not entirely persuasive.
Beginning with Jesus’ statements about loving and dying for His church and sheep, you would not have to look very far to find a reasonable alternate reading of these texts. Providing insight into our discussion, Erickson says,
“Whenever Jesus is talking about his sheep and his relationship to them, it is only to be expected that he will connect his death specifically with their salvation; he will not comment on his relationship to those who are not his sheep. Similarly, when he is discussing the church and its Lord, it is to be expected that he will speak of his love for the church, not of his love for the world outside.”8
Let me illustrate this point. Take the example of a sports analyst covering a typical Cleveland Browns game: “Silence fills the stadium, as Cleveland Browns fans hopelessly watch the senseless slaughter of their team.” Now, the fact that the commentator did not mention the opposing team’s fans does not suggest that they are not present. What are in view, in this scenario, are the Cleveland Browns fans. Likewise, within the context of these statements, Jesus is not suggesting that His atonement was not available to those who were not His followers. He was simply talking about His relationship to His sheep and church. Thus, one should not conclude from statements like these that Jesus did not die for anyone else, unless, of course, the passage explicitly states that it was only for these people that he died.
In addition to this, the attempt to establish limited atonement by deducing it from other doctrines is not very persuasive either. Although both Jesus’ intercessory work and His sacrificial work are aspects of His priestly function, it does not necessarily follow (as Kuiper contends) that they are simply two aspects of atonement. While Christ’s intercessory prayer in John 17 does focus on His atoning work being applied “to those the Father had given Him,” it does not follow that this was His sole concern. Intercession is not limited, Erickson maintains, “to prayers that the work of redemption be realized, nor is it always dependent on atonement.”9
Added to this, there are occasions in Scripture that record Jesus interceding for people who apparently do not believe. Deeply moved by Lazarus’ death, Jesus decided to raise Lazarus from the dead. But, just before He called Lazarus out of the grave, Jesus prayed to the Father: "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41-42). Following these words, Jesus miraculously raised Lazarus from the dead.
John records the amazed crowd’s response: “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done” (John 11:45-46; emphasis added). Going back to Jesus’ prayer, He publicly prayed to the Father so that the people would believe. Yet, John’s observation of the crowd’s response seems to suggest that not all of the people who “had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” Instead, “many” of the people believed and “some” went to the Pharisees. There was some sort of split within the crowd of watching people. Evidently, it is possible to intercede without having to make some form of atonement.10
Of course, it is possible that the latter group –those who went to Pharisees–came to faith afterward. But if we use Kuiper’s method of interpreting John 17, it would be certain that John the Apostle would have been careful to substitute “all” for “many…who had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.”
Underlying the particuarist’s concern is the atonement’s efficacy. Adherents of limited atonement assume that if Christ died for someone, then that person will actually be saved. By extension of this, supporters of limited atonement reason that if Christ died for all persons, all would come to salvation. For this reason, then, the concept of universal atonement is viewed as leading to a universal salvation trap. On the other side of the discussion, defenders of universal atonement believe it is possible for an individual to reject the salvation available to them. In the view of those who hold to limited atonement, however, there is no such possibility.11
But this is what puts advocates of limited atonement in an awkward situation. They must contend that while the atonement is sufficient to cover the sins of the non-elect, Christ did not die for them. Millard Erickson illustrates the dilemma in this way: “It is as if God, in giving a dinner, prepared far more food than was needed, yet refused to consider the possibility of inviting additional guests.”12 Advocates of limited atonement, on the other hand, have no problem with Christ’s death being sufficient for every person, since Christ died for all persons.
Scriptural Support for Universal Atonement
Tipping the scales of evidence in the favor of universal atonement is the support it gains from Scripture. Set against the view of limited atonement, universal atonement is the view that Christ died for every person and His atoning death becomes effective through individual acceptance. Those who hold to this theory appeal to several categories of Scripture to support their claim.
The first collection of passages supporting universal atonement speaks of Jesus’ death in universal terms. While introducing Jesus, John the Baptist says, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Commenting on the incarnation of Jesus, the Apostle John says, "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” (John 3:16). The plain sense reading of this verse suggests that John is speaking of Jesus’ mission in universal terms. Along the same lines, the Apostle Paul talks of Jesus’ dying this way: “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” (2 Cor. 5:14-15; emphasis added). In another passage Paul speaks of the hope believers have in God, “who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). This verse is of particular interest and significance, observes Millard Erickson, “since it brackets as being saved by God both believers and other, but indicates that a greater degree of salvation attaches to the former.”13 Again, the all-inclusive language used in relation to Jesus’ atoning death is used by the author of Hebrews: “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” (Heb. 2:9).
Another cluster of passages that support universal atonement addresses the universal proclamation of the Gospel. The most notable examples of this come from Jesus’ own mouth. In Matthew 24:14 Jesus casts a vision for the Gospel reaching the whole world: “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.” Nearing the end of Jesus’ mission on earth, He commissioned His disciples to continue the work He began by saying, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)”. The book of Acts provides yet another example of this: “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 1:8).
It is against this backdrop of texts that advocates of universal atonement frame the question: Doesn’t it seem kind of insincere to offer salvation to everyone when you know that Jesus only died for the elect? Isn’t it a bit plastic, disingenuous, naïve, and in some ways improper to offer Christ to everyone if He did not die to save everyone?14 Further intensifying this problem, Erickson points out, “is when one observes the number of passages in which the offer of salvation is clearly unrestricted.”15 For example, Peter describes the Lord’s unrelenting patience towards an unrepentant world by saying, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promises, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Elsewhere, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). With these passages in mind, Jesus’ invitation to come and His desire for no one to perish seems insincere if salvation was never intended for the non-‘elect.’
Furthermore, there seems to be a contradiction between God’s love for the (entire) world and a belief that Christ did not die for them. Most famous of all passages in the Bible, John 3:16 seems to suggest that Jesus died for all: “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.” Nothing within this proposition seems to suggest that God’s Son perished for only the ‘elect.’ Only a tortured reading of the text would convey that the ‘world’ actually means the ‘elect.’
Of all passages in Scripture, three stand out as the most compelling of all. The first is the premier messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 53:6: “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” (emphasis added). Note the connection between Isaiah’s two uses of the word ‘all’ in this verse. Isaiah’s language is clear in expressing the universal extent of sin. Every one of us has sinned. And right within the same verse, the extent of sin that will be laid upon the Suffering Servant exactly parallels the extent of sin! Put differently, you would have to reject a plain sense reading of this passage, not to conclude that everyone who has sinned was atoned for.16 In the second passage, the Apostle Peter gives his readers a category for those Christ has died for perishing. Warning his readers of false prophets, Peter tells them, “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” (2 Pet. 2:1). Denial of the sovereign Lord and the introduction of destructive heresies clue us in to the spiritual state of these false teachers. They were obviously not believers. More than this, the swift destruction that will befall them for these deeds can be none other than eternal separation. And yet, Peter indicates that they were bought by the Lord; an obvious reference to Jesus’ atoning death. Finally, the Apostle John says, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). John’s language here is unmistakable. Jesus died for the sins of John’s audience (undoubtedly believers in Christ) as well as for those of the entire world.
Upon Final Examination
Upon close examination, there is a snag in the fabric of Calvin’s five points: Scripture seems to contradict limited atonement. And just like any doctrinal dispute, Scripture acts as the final arbiter. As shown above, only a tortured reading of the text would suggest that Jesus died for only the ‘elect.’ More than this, numerous passages speak of the universal nature of the atonement. Combine these with the interrelatedness of Calvin’s five points and the snag of limited atonement unravels the whole thing.
By way of reminder, the strength of Calvin’s five points resides in its logical coherence. Each of the five points interlaces to produce a tight logical system. Going one step further, recent advocates of Calvinism suggest that the doctrines of election and atonement are connected by way of logical necessity. If God predestined certain individuals to be saved while condemning others, then it logically follows that Jesus died only for those whom He intended to save. Stated negatively, it would not make sense for Jesus to die for those whom He never intended to save.
Ironically, though, the logical strength of Calvin’s five points turns out to be its major weakness. If unconditional election entails limited atonement, and if Scripture directly contradicts limited atonement, then you are left to either modify or deny unconditional election.17 By choosing to reject limited atonement you topple unconditional election. Taking the other option, if you modify unconditional election, then you rob the system of its strength. Expressed differently, uproot limited atonement from the five points and TULIP withers.
Ultimately, rejecting limited atonement requires abandoning Calvin’s logical system. This, then, leaves you with two options. Either you adopt a modified form of Calvinism or you discard it altogether and adopt an Arminian position.18 Both are tenable alternatives. But in my experience, once you reject limited atonement there just does not seem to be enough theological tape to refurbish or to hold Calvinism together. Therefore, I adopted a moderate Arminian view.
Berkhof, Louis. Vicarious Atonement Through Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952.
Kuiper, R. B. For Whom Did Christ Die? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959.
Wakefield, Samuel. A Complete System of Christian Theology. Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 1958.
1. I want to qualify that my Arminian position is moderate. Unlike some radical Arminians, I do not believe that one can lose his or her salvation because of too much sin. I believe that it is possible to forfeit your salvation by rejecting Christ, but that is different from saying that you can out-sin God’s grace.
2. Limited atonement describes one of the five points in Calvinism. Limited atonement suggests that Jesus died for the “elect.” Since God is sovereign and His will is efficacious. Jesus died for those who were elected to be saved.
3. These terms are commonly derived from the famous passages in Eph. 1, and Rom. 8 respectively.
4. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), vol. 2, 553.
5. R. B. Kuiper, For Whom Did Christ Die? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 64.
6. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 553.
7. Louis Berkhof, Vicarious Atonement Through Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936), 160.
8. Erickson, Christian Theology, 851.
9. Ibid., 851.
10. Ibid., 850.
11. Ibid., 852.
12. Ibid., 852.
14. Samuel Wakefield, A Complete System of Christian Theology (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 1958), vol. 2, 296.
15. Erickson, Christian Theology, 848.
16. Ibid., 847.
17. Modified Calvinists alter their definition of unconditional election. Modified Calvinists would agree with Five-Point Calvinists that God actively chooses those who will receive eternal life, but they reject the view that God also chooses for some to be lost. While the outcome is the same in both cases, Millard Erickson points out, “the latter view assigns the lostness of the non-elect to their own choice of sin rather than to the active decision of God, or to God’s choice by omission rather than commission.” Erickson Christian Theology, 931.
18. Otherwise known as sublapsarianism, this view not only discards limited atonement, it also changes the logical order of God’s decrees. Millard Erickson, an advocate of this “Moderate Calvinist” position, describes it this way: “It is the view that God logically decides first to produce salvation, then elects some to receive it.” Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 842, 852.