I am grateful to many of those in Christ who hold to the theological perspective known as Calvinism. I believe Calvinism, with its high view of God, provided a much needed correction to the man centered religion that was threatening to overwhelm the American Church in the 20th century. I have been blessed by the writings of men like JI Packer and John MacArthur (among others) and would recommend their books and commentaries to anyone. Additionally, I was in Bible College during the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, so I have seen many of my contemporaries embrace Reformed Theology.
I did not grow up hearing the doctrines of Calvinism explicitly preached and I remember my first encounter with it in high school via a discussion with a teacher at the secular school that I attended. Most of the preaching that I heard in my Baptist circles was not Calvinistic in nature, and could sometimes be anti-Calvinistic. In Bible College, I threw away any misgivings that I had one way or the other and determined that I would be whatever I was convinced the Bible taught, whether that be “Arminian” or “Calvinist”. That is a position I maintain today: to be whatever the Scripture teaches me to be.
That introduction is to communicate that though I write today against the doctrine of Limited Atonement, I believe this to be an intramural discussion among genuine believers. While I don’t have an ax to grind (in the sense that I have some personal animosity towards Calvinism), the position I take is that Limited Atonement, which states that Christ died only for the elect, is incorrect. The most pungent defense of limited (or “definite atonement” or “particular atonement”) comes from the great theologian John Owen:
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either  all the sins of all men, or  all the sins of some men, or  some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved…. If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will (173–74; cf. 234).The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen
Being that modern theologians such as Piper and Packer have both acclaimed this theological work as unrivaled, it bears thinking through the nature of this work and this paragraph in particular. Notice that Owen does not engage with the text in this paragraph (although he does in other places) but rather uses a form of logic/argumentation. He presents us with 3 options for why Christ underwent the pains of hell and then dismisses 2 of them as being unsatisfactory, leaving us with the conclusion that Christ must have died only for the elect. For Owen, the central question is what was the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross, which leads to the limited number of choices he offers in the quotation above. This point of Calvinism frequently falls back on a similar chain of logical reasoning rather than an engagement with the texts, for the simple reason that it takes a massive amount of hermeneutical gymnastics to make the following texts say something that accords with Limited Atonement:
The Biblical Texts
1 John 2:2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
2Peter 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
Besides these verses, there are a host of verses that describe Christ’s redemptive work impacting the world, such as John 3:16, Hebrews 2:9, and Isaiah 53:6. In each case, a serious exegetical assault has to be mounted on the plain reading of the text in order to accommodate the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Let’s just think about 1 John 2:2. Is there any basis for treating the phrase “sins of the whole world” to mean “sins of other believers not present here at this time”? It would be a unique use of “world”. Furthermore, if John wanted to communicate something other than an unlimited scope to Christ’s work, why did he construct the sentence to be so easily misunderstood? There is no textual variant, no strange Greek word, nor any grammatical rule that can rescue these texts from the hands of those who hold to an Atonement available for more than the Elect.
Because Calvin himself used many biblical phrases such as “our Lord Jesus suffered for all” there is still some controversy surrounding whether he actually held to Limited Atonement. Trevin Wax addresses this in his 2009 post on this topic. In that post he states “Saying that Christ has died for the sins of the world is not necessarily a denial of limited atonement. It is simply the way that the Bible speaks of redemption. Interpret those verses however you want, but don’t be afraid to speak the way the Bible speaks.” The problem is that in speaking that way, one is led to the conclusion that the atonement reaches farther than the Elect who will believe. Words have consequences, even if they are theological consequences.
The first issue I have with the logic espoused by Owen is that it puts us in the awkward position of judging God. Owens implies that if we adopt a view of an unlimited atonement then we must say that Christ has failed in achieving the purpose for which He died on the cross. But are we to say that because Adam and Eve sinned in the garden that God somehow failed? Or that Israel’s failure to keep the Covenant reflects a flaw in God’s plan? Or that the Church’s sometimes lackluster Witness means that the sanctifying work of Christ is not coming to pass? Even if we adjust our statement concerning the purpose of Christ’s death to be something like “to provide salvation for all of mankind” I still would not want to pursue this line of reasoning. “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” Let us not apply syllogisms beyond our pay grade.
Secondly, I have often wondered why those who are such sound Bible interpreters in other matters make such an obvious mistake when it comes to the texts I cite above. I believe the answer is that the 5 points are mutually affirming and the fear is that if one falls then the entire tapestry begins to unravel. Consider the following from Piper, “They (Arminians) deny, specifically, that the death of Christ was not only intended by God to obtain benefits for people after they believe (which is true), but even more, Christ’s death was intended by God to obtain the very willingness to believe.” This means that if Unlimited Atonement is adopted then a support for other points of Calvinism (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace) is lost. This feature of Calvinism – of being presented as a hermetically sealed system – often results in a “stage cage” (a phrase even Calvinists sometimes use!) wherein all narratives, truths, texts, and conversations wind up at the Sovereignty of God in Salvation.
And I think that they are right to be concerned (from their perspective) because I have experienced that myself. As I studied the “doctrines of grace” I could feel myself being pulled into their gravitational force. But once the alignment was broken (through my studies on the extent of the atonement), I felt as though I could think about each tenet more freely. Rather than the pull of a singular star, I felt as though as the heavens were littered with glorious truths, among which shined many of the doctrines contained in Calvinism. You might say that when the light of Limited Atonement was extinguished, a thousand constellations took its place.
The Actual Conclusion
I doubt anything I just wrote will convince a committed 5 pointer. I may get shot at from the other side for being overly generous. But, like Luther, my conscience is held captive to the Word of God, and that Word clearly and often teaches that in some way, shape, and form the death of Christ extends beyond the Elect. Perhaps we could see the glorious Truths of Scripture more clearly if we could extinguish the glare of this error.
For further reading try this blog post from Randy Alcorn, and for his complete take on God’s sovereignty read his excellent book.
2 thoughts on “Against Limited Atonement”
You make my head hurt, much thinking will make me mad. I like on the door it says whosoever will, believe go through that door, on the other side it says the called, elect and chosen
Tom Well’s book “A Price For A People” touches on this topic with the warmth of a pastor, the depth of a seasoned theologian, and the graciousness of a humble follower of Christ.
Here is a helpful review of this book which features some interesting highlights: