Limited atonement is the teaching that Jesus died only for the elect. It is one of the five points of Calvinism, the L in the acronym “TULIP.” Many who hold to limited atonement prefer the term “particular redemption,” but to minimize confusion this article will use the term “limited atonement.” For a full explanation of what limited atonement is from a five-point Calvinistic perspective, please read our article on limited atonement, and for arguments supporting unlimited or universal atonement, please read our article on unlimited atonement.
Arminians and four-point Calvinists, or Amyraldians, believe that limited atonement, as just defined, is unbiblical. Got Questions Ministries takes an official four-point stance in support of a moderate form of unlimited atonement, while rejecting universalism. Here, we present several arguments against limited atonement.
Argument 1: Limited Atonement Is Hermeneutically Insupportable
Arguing against limited atonement are verses which appear to teach universal atonement, the absence of verses that explicitly limit Christ’s atonement, verses that declare the necessity of faith for salvation, and several Old Testament types of Christ that do not fit the limited atonement paradigm.
Passages Supporting Universal Atonement
Universal (or unlimited) atonement is supported throughout the New Testament. John 3:16–17 says that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. . . . God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” The Greek word kosmos, translated “the world,” covers the inhabitants of the entire earth. Other verses supporting unlimited atonement include John 1:29, where Jesus is said to take away “the sin of the world”; Romans 11:32, in which God has mercy on “all” the disobedient; and 1 John 2:2, which says Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
None of these verses contain any kind of limitation, stated or implied, on Christ’s sacrifice. As if saying that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world was not sufficient, the apostle John specifically included the Greek word holou, which means “whole, entire, all, complete.” Unless limited atonement is presumed, there is no solid basis for limiting the extent of the atonement mentioned in 1 John 2:2.
Passages Only Mentioning Atonement for Believers
On the other side of the coin, there are verses that say Jesus died for those who believe. Verses that seem to support limited atonement include John 10:15, where Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep”; and Revelation 5:9, which indicates that Jesus’ blood “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
These passages and others only mention a select group of people as being the focus of God’s redemptive work. However, none of the passages explicitly limit His offer of salvation. They simply say Jesus died for those who believe, not that He died only for those who believe. Jesus said He laid down His life for the sheep; He did not say that He laid down His life only for the sheep. There remains a larger group of which the sheep are but a part.
Faith Necessary for Salvation
“Universal atonement” is not the same as “universalism,” which says that everyone will be saved and go to heaven. Unlimited atonement acknowledges the reality that Jesus’ atonement must be accepted by faith, and that not everyone will believe. Four-point Calvinists believe that salvation comes only to those who have faith; it is faith that brings the saving effects of the atonement to the Christian. Unbelievers, though offered the gift of salvation through the atonement of Christ, have rejected God’s gift. Some passages proclaiming the necessity of faith for salvation are Luke 8:12; John 20:31; Acts 16:31; Romans 1:16; 10:9; and Ephesians 2:8.
Old Testament Types of Christ
An oft-repeated type of Christ presents Him as a lamb. The Old Testament sacrificial system and the Passover celebration clearly show the penalty of sin and the need for us to have an innocent substitute to cover our sin (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). At the time of the first Passover, all the Israelites had the opportunity to sacrifice a lamb and apply its blood to their doorposts. At the same time, each family had to exercise faith in God. The Passover’s atonement was universal in that it was offered to all, but the atonement still had to be applied individually, by faith.
Another type of Christ in the Old Testament is the bronze serpent on the pole (Numbers 21:5–9). Jesus related this object to Himself in John 3:14, explaining that He must be “lifted up” from the earth. During the plague of the “fiery serpents” in Moses’ day, every person who looked to the bronze serpent—believing that God would heal—was made whole. The healing power was universal in that it was available to every one of the Israelites, dependent only upon their willingness to obey. Jesus compared that incident to His own death on the cross and the spiritual healing He provides.
Argument 2: Christian Tradition Opposes Limited Atonement
Limited atonement has always been a controversial belief. The Synod of Dort in 1619 issued the points of doctrine now known as TULIP; however, several theologians at the synod rejected limited atonement while accepting the other four points of Calvinism.
Long before the Protestant confessions and synods, though, the early church father Athanasius was describing universal atonement. In his "On the Incarnation of the Word" (2.9), Athanasius writes that Jesus’ death was “a substitute for the life of all” and that, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, “the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.” Note the word all. Athanasius’ point is that Jesus’ death atoned for all of humanity.
Ironically, Calvin himself may not have placed much value on the idea of a limited atonement. After all, the five points of what is called “Calvinism” came from a synod in the Netherlands almost 60 years after his death. Calvin had this to say about John 3:16: “It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. . . . And 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; . . . he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life” (Commentary on John, Vol. 1).
Argument 3: Limited Atonement Would Make It Impossible to Genuinely Offer Salvation to All
Limited atonement affects one’s beliefs regarding evangelism and the offer of salvation. Essentially, if only those who will be saved (the elect) are atoned for, there is no atonement to be offered to anyone else. You could only truly offer salvation to the elect. Even a cursory look at Jesus’ ministry shows that He extended invitations of salvation to people He knew would take part in crucifying Him (see Luke 13:34). In the book of Acts, Paul preached to large portions of entire towns, Peter to thousands at a time. Salvation was offered to all without caveat, proviso, or discrimination. Repentance and faith were the required responses (see Matthew 21:32). If Christ’s death did not provide atonement for everyone, then the apostles, and even Jesus Himself, were offering something that most of their audiences could never receive.
Limited atonement is the point of traditional Calvinism that has caused the most confusion and consternation among Bible-believing theologians. Will only the elect be saved? Yes. However, Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to pay for all sin, and the offer of salvation is universal. Our invitation for others to accept Christ should echo the Spirit’s call in Revelation 22:17: “‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”