The Bible has much to say on the atonement of Christ. The question is whether His sacrifice provided limited or unlimited atonement. The word atonement means “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.” The doctrine of unlimited atonement states that Christ died for all people, whether or not they would ever believe in Him. When applied to Jesus’ finished work on the cross, atonement concerns the reconciliation of God and humankind, as accomplished through the suffering and death of Christ. Paul highlights the atoning work of Jesus when he says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:8–10).
How this reparation of wrongs or reconciliation was accomplished and what was involved in the act, has been debated by theologians for centuries. There are at least nine different positions on the atonement of Christ, ranging anywhere from the atonement being merely a positive example for us (the Moral Example theory) to its being a judicial, substitutionary act (the Penal Substitution theory).
But perhaps the most controversial debate concerning the atonement of Jesus centers on what is referred to as “limited” or “definite” atonement. One theological camp (comprised primarily of those holding to Arminianism and Wesleyanism) believes that Christ died on the cross for everyone who will ever live. The other theological camp—made up of Reformed thinkers, who are often called “Calvinists” after the Reformer John Calvin—say that Jesus only died for those whom the Father chose from the foundation of the world to be saved. This group of redeemed individuals is often referred to as the “elect” or the “chosen” of God. Which position is correct? Did Jesus die for everyone in the world or only a select group of individuals?
Is Everyone Going to be Saved?
In examining this issue, the first question to ask is this: is everyone going to be saved through the atoning work of Christ? Those holding to a position called universalism say “yes.” The universalists argue that, because Christ died for everyone and all the sins of humanity were laid on/punished in Christ, everyone will spend eternity with God.
Scripture, however, stands in opposition to such teaching (which can be traced back to a teacher named Laelius Socinus in the 16th century). The Bible makes it abundantly clear that many people will be lost, with just a few verses highlighting this fact following:
• “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2)
• “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13–14)
• “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22–23)
• “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46)
• “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
• “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15)
Since not everyone will be saved, there is one inescapable fact to understand: the atonement of Christ is limited. If it isn’t, then universalism must be true, and yet Scripture clearly teaches that not everyone is going to be saved. So, unless one is a universalist and can defeat the biblical evidence above, then one must hold to some form of limited atonement.
How, Then, Is the Atonement Limited?
The next important question to examine is this: if the atonement is limited (and it is), how is it limited? Jesus’ famous statement in John 3:16 provides the answer: “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.” In this passage, the necessary condition that limits the atonement is found: “whosoever believes” (literally in the Greek: “all the believing ones”). In other words, the atonement is limited to those who believe and only those who believe.
Who Limits the Atonement?
Both theological camps previously mentioned will not argue this point – the atonement of Christ is limited to those who believe. The disagreement occurs over the next question that arises: who limits the atonement—God or man? Calvinists/Reformed thinkers maintain that God limits the atonement by choosing those whom He will save, and thus God only placed on Christ the sins of those He had chosen for salvation. The Arminian/Wesleyan position states that God does not limit the reparation of Christ, but instead it is humanity that limits the atonement by freely choosing to accept or reject the offer that God makes to them for salvation.
A common way for the Arminian/Wesleyan theologians to state their position is that the atonement is unlimited in its invitation but limited in its application. God offers the invitation to all; however, only those who respond in faith to the gospel message have the work of the atonement applied to their spiritual condition.
To support the position that humanity, and not God, limits the atonement, the Arminian/Wesleyan lists a number of Scripture verses, including the following:
• “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, emphasis added)
• “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” (John 1:29, emphasis added)
• “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51, emphasis added)
• “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32, emphasis added)
• “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5–6, emphasis added)
• “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” (Hebrews 2:9, emphasis added)
• “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1, emphasis added)
In addition to the biblical references above, the Arminian/Wesleyan theologian also provides a number of logical arguments to support their case. The most common is that, if God is all-loving, how could Christ not die for everyone? Doesn’t God love each and every person (cf. John 3:16)? They see an atonement limited by God as a denial of the omnibenevolence of God.
Furthermore, the Arminian/Wesleyan believes that an atonement limited by God is devastating to the gospel message. How can an evangelist preach that “Christ died for you” if Christ did not indeed die for all? There is a complete lack of confidence, they say, in making the statement to any one person that Christ died for them because the evangelist has no real idea (given an atonement limited by God) if that is really the case.
Unlimited Atonement—the Conclusion
Unless one is a universalist and believes that everyone will ultimately be saved, a Christian must hold to some form of a limited atonement. The key area of disagreement is over who limits that atonement—God or man? Those wishing to hold to a God-limited atonement must answer the biblical arguments put forth by those holding to a human-limited atonement and also explain how God can be described in Scripture as being all-loving and yet not have His Son die for everyone.