I received a question recently:
“I’ve always believed that Jesus died for all people, all places, past present and future. I’ve just over the past year or so given any consideration to the view of limited atonement. Election is very clearly spelled out in Scripture. Depravity, yep. Irresistible grace, I agree. Perseverance of the saints, absolutely.
Limited atonement is by far (in my opinion) the most difficult of the 5 points. I’ve heard some great arguments for it, and I’ll continue to consider it as I study the Scripture.”
Well it is definitely a fiery topic. Even within churches who would distance themselves from the major tenants of Arminian theology, this topic brings emotional reaction. I will attempt to cover some main points here, albeit abbreviated.
John 3.16 says that God “loved the world”, Hebrews 2 tells us that Jesus “tasted death for everyone”, and First John says that he is the propitiation for “the whole world”. So in light of this how can anyone say that Jesus Christ did not die for everyone?
First let me start off by saying that everyone limits the atonement. Everyone, that is, with the exception of the heterodox theology of the universalist (the view that all will be saved). The Arminian limits the power of the atonement, saying that the cross did not definitively save anyone but made redemption possible for all. The Calvinist on the other hand limits the extent of the atonement, that it does not save every person, but only the elect.
Before going any further let me say with respect to the value of the atonement of Christ, it is infinite. You could not add value to what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus is the eternal and infinite Son, who offered himself to the eternal and infinite Father, as an eternal and infinite sacrifice, through the eternal spirit to obtain eternal redemption. To be clear, when Calvinists speak of the limits of the atonement, we are not speaking in terms of its value (it is infinite), but rather the extent of it.
What we have to deal with is a choice, as B.B. Warfield said,
The things we have to choose between are an atonement of high value, or an atonement of wide extension. The two cannot go together.
Jesus Christ either died for everyone, nobody, or the elect.
The Nature of the Atonement
It is without much dispute that the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus has Old Testament flavor. The OT sacrifices were pattered after their ultimate prototype, the supreme sacrifice, the Lamb of God (Heb. 9.11-14; 13.10-13). So when we see in the OT, specifically, in a passage like Leviticus 16, innocent animals being imputed with the sin of the people and then subsequently being slayed in their stead. The priest would go in and offer the animal and then come out and the people sins were dealt with on this Day of Atonement. You do not see them walking away from the bloody temple rejoicing in the potentiality of atonement, but with the accomplishment of atonement.
Further, Jesus sacrifice is substitutionary. We talk of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. This is one of the landmark doctrines of orthodoxy; the glorious reality that the Savior actually suffered vicariously in the stead of sinners. We see this pictured beautifully in the NT:
2 Corinthians 5:21 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us
1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
John Murray in his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, wrote:
“If we concentrate on the thought of redemption, we shall be able perhaps to sense more readily the impossibility of universalizing the atonement. What does redemption mean? It does not mean redeemability, that we are placed in a redeemable position. It means that Christ purchased and procured redemption. This is the triumphant note of the New Testament whenever it plays on the redemptive chord. Christ redeemed us to God by his blood (Rev. 5.9). He obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9.12). “He gave himself for us in order that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify to himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2.14). It is to beggar the concept of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and by power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people.”
The real question comes down to did he or didn’t he? Did Jesus Christ satisfy divine wrath upon that cross or didn’t he? If he didn’t then who will? And when? But if he did, then for who?
It would be unbiblical to conclude that Jesus actually satisfied the wrath of God and bore the sins in his body for those already suffering in hell. If he did pay their penalty, is God not then unjust for double punishing them for their sin (once for them in hell with eternal torment and once on Christ for eternal redemption)?
The Intent of the Atonement
I like what Steve Lawson has said in this regard:
The intent of the atonement is the extant of the atonement.
What was Jesus intention?
He said that he was to lay his life down for his sheep and his sheep alone.
John 10:14-15 “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.
It is the sheep of Jesus that are on his mind as he approaches the cross. He does not go to the cross with the sheep of Joseph Smith, the sheep of Muhammad, or the sheep of Buddha on his mind. No, he goes to the cross with HIS sheep on HIS mind.
And further you see is divine resolve in v.16:
John 10:16 16 “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.
Do you see this resolve?! “I must bring them…they will hear My voice” Or if we may shorten it… “I must…and they will” Jesus Christ is going to the cross with the certainty that HIS sheep will hear his voice and come to him.
If Jesus has not already shown his hand in terms of his view on the atonement, he does in verse 26. The Jews are questioning him and he tells them that they the atonement is not for them. Look for yourself:
John 10:26 But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep.
Who did Jesus say he was dying for? The sheep (10.15). Are these guys part of his fold? No. Jesus just limited the atonement.
He also applies this limitation when he prays in John 17:
(John 17.9-10) I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.
Jesus prays for his. If we might add, his sheep; that is, those who will believe upon his word.
(John 17.20) “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
The nature of the atonement is substitutionary. It is vicarious. Jesus lived, died and was raised for our sins (1 Cor. 15.3-5). It also happened in a point of time never to be repeated again (Heb. 10.10). Therefore, Jesus accomplished the necessary redemption for all of his sheep. He fully satisfied and removed divine wrath while earning divine favor for his people. Therefore, when we speak of a limited atonement we are referring to a limited scope not a limited value or power.
Some Supposed Unlimited Atonement Passages
Hebrews 2:9 9 But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.
Context is important. Who are the everyone? Verse 10 tells us that he brings “many sons to glory”, verse 11 calls them “brethren”, verse 14 calls these people “the children”, v.16 says that they are the descendents of Abraham, v.17 says that they are “his brethren”, and again “the people”. I do not believe that everyone here refers to everyone who ever lived, but rather to this group of people, the many sons, the children, the descendents of Abraham, his brethren and the people.
John 3:16 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
OK, so here it is God loves the world. Well what does world (Kosmos) mean? John uses it different ways in his gospel:
-For the Universe as a whole: (Jn. 1.10)
-For the earth (Jn. 13.1)
-For the world system (Jn. 12.31)
-For the whole human race (Jn. 12.46; 17.18)
-For a relatively small group of people (Jn. 18.20)
-For humanity minus believers (Jn. 14.17; 15.8, 17.9)
-For believers only (Jn. 1.29; 6.33; 12.47)
So what does John mean here?
If you take the word world here to refer to all people then it does not say that all people will be saved. It says that those who believe will be saved. The loving and the saving are united by the believing. Truly, it does not speak to the extent of the atonement but the motive behind (love) and the means of accessing it (faith).
Some believe that John is using world here to refer to those who believe. God loved the world in this particular way, that those who believe (the participle is in the present tense), who keep believing (i.e. the believers) will have eternal life. We sometimes thing of “whosoever” as exceedingly broad (arms open wide) instead of the particularity with which John seems to point here (to believers). While I can see the argument for this point, I tend to take the former interpretation.
1 John 2.2
(1 John 2.2) He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but aalso for the sins of the whole world.
This last phrase here has been the cause for a significant amount of ink to be spilled. A lot of people have wrestled with it to try to understand what John is talking about. The question is simply this: in what sense is Jesus the propitiation for the sins of the whole world?
We have 3 main questions to answer:
1) What does propitiation mean? we have already answered this, it means to make God favorable to sinners by satisfying his wrath against them.
2) When did it happen? This happened at the cross. Propitiation is a past-tense event. While Jesus acting as our advocate in heaven is an ongoing event, his atoning work happened in the past, in history, never to be repeated again.
3) What does world mean?
- Sometimes it refers to all of creation
- Sometimes it refers to all people
- Sometimes it refers to all believers
- Sometimes it refers to other aspects.
We don’t believe that the Bible teaches that every single person who ever lived will go to heaven. This is the heresy of universalism. As much as it turns our stomaches, hell will be populated. Therefore, Jesus did not propitiate (satisfy wrath and make God favorable) towards everyone.
In this sense the scope of Jesus work as priest is limited to his people.
Doesn’t this limit the power of the atonement? No. Because Jesus is the Son of God his sacrifice is of infinite value, infinite worth. If he would have died for 1 or 1 billion people it would still have infinite value because of who he is and what he did.
How does this reconcile with the usage of the word world? In the 1st Century Jewish world you have the Jews and then the world. John is a Jew and enjoyed a ministry primarily to Jews (Gal. 2). There was an anticipation throughout the OT that the Messiah would save not only the Jews but also the whole world, that is Gentiles (Gen. 12.1-3; Is. 56.8; Ezek. 34.23; 37.24; Luke 2.22-38).
We see this conclusion somewhat surprisingly articulated by Caiaphas:
(John 11:49-53) But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.
This sounds like Jesus here:
(John 10:16) And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
When I read 1 John 2.2 I think in terms of what the word propitiation means, what Jesus did, and what else John teaches us about the nature and intent of the atonement, particularly with respect to non-Jews. This causes me to conclude that just as Jesus is the advocate for his people he is also the propitiation for the sins of his people. This includes all types of people, not just Jews, but people from every tribe and tongue (Rev. 5). This is what John means by world here.
Limitations for Evangelism
Some think that this limits evangelism. Instead I argue that it makes evangelism hopeful. For if Jesus only died to make redemption possible our efforts could be hopeless. However, since Jesus Christ actually satisfied divine wrath for his people and is now applying the redemption through the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in concert with the message of the Gospel, suddenly I am filled with hope and feel like Paul, even reminded that the Lord has many people in this city (Acts 18.10).
So when I present the gospel I say that “Jesus died for sinners like you and me!” This is fully consistent with a Reformed understand and burden for mission.
As a side note, nobody has much trouble with the interpretation of a limited (or particular) love when applied to the husband and the wife. However, Ephesians 5 uses the cross and the particular love that Jesus has for the church as the basis and model for the supreme and particular love that a husband is to have for his wife.
John Owen’s Helpful Questions
John Owen’s concise puzzle:
The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
1. All the sins of all men.
2. All the sins of some men.
3. Some of the sins of some men.
In which case it may be said:
a. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so none are saved.
b. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
c. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, Because of unbelief. I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!
Some helpful resources
The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, intro by JI Packer via John Owen
The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, by Lorraine Boettner
Redemption Accomplished and Applied, by John Murray
A recent audio series by Steve Lawson, entitled, “Ten Reasons why I Believe the Bible Teaches Definite Atonement”
A lecture by RC Sproul: