By Spencer D Gear
It has been a theologically contentious issue since the time of the Reformation, with even some dispute going back to St. Augustine. Did Jesus die for the sins of the whole world or did he die only for the sins of the elect – the church?
One supporter of limited atonement (Dr. C. Matthew McMahon ) wrote:
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is not limited in its power to save, but in the extent to which it reaches and will save certain individuals.
Limited atonement is a theological term that has been used for centuries to define a very important aspect of the Gospel. It is a fundamental Christian doctrine which states that Jesus Christ came and died for a limited number of people. He did not die, or redeem, every individual for all of time, but for some individuals, i.e. His sheep and His church. This does not mean that the power of His death could not have saved all men if He wanted to. The power and efficacy of His death in and through one drop of His blood could have saved a million-billion worlds. That was not what God intended. The Scripture does not dabble in “possibilities.” It does, however, state that the scope of His death is limited.
R. C. Sproul (1992:175) prefers the term definite atonement to limited atonement and he states that it refers “to the question of the design of Christ’s atonement” and what God intended in sending Jesus to the cross. He explained:
Christ’s atonement does not avail for unbelievers…. Some put it this way: Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient only for some. This, however, does not really get at the heart of the question of definite atonement…. The Reformed view holds that Christ’s atonement was designed and intended only for the elect. Christ laid down His life for His sheep and only for His sheep. Furthermore, the Atonement insured salvation for all the elect (Sproul 1992:176).
I John 2:2 would seem to be an excellent verse to establish Christ’s unlimited atonement – dying for the whole world of sinners: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (NIV).
How does Sproul interpret this verse? He admits that “this text, more than any other, is cited as scriptural proof against definite atonement”. His view is that if this verse is taken in this sense, “it becomes a proof text for universalism”. His way of viewing the text is
“to see the contrast in it between our sins and those of the whole world. Who are the people included in the word our?…. In this text, John may merely be saying that Christ is not only a propitiation for our sins (Jewish believers) but for the elect found also throughout the whole world…. The purpose of God in Christ’s death was determined at the foundation of the world. The design was not guesswork but according to a specific plan and purpose, which God is sovereignly bring to pass. All for whom Christ died are redeemed by His sacrificial act…. The Atonement in a broad sense is offered to all; in a narrow sense, it is only offered to the elect. John’s teaching that Christ died for the sins of the whole world means that the elect are not limited to Israel but are found throughout the world” (Sproul 1992:176-177, emphasis in original).
Talk about confusion. There is not a word in context of 1 John to speak of the elect as limited to Israel. What does the Bible teach?
By contrast, Lutheran commentator, R. C. H. Lenski (1966:399-400), while preferring the term expiation to propitiation, states that the Righteous One (Jesus, from 1 John 2:1) “suffered for unrighteous ones” and this was effective regarding the whole world.
John advances the thought from sins to the whole world of sinners. Christ made expiation for our sins and thereby for all sinners. We understand [cosmos] in the light of John 3:16 and think that it includes all men [meaning people], us among them, and not only all unsaved men [i.e. people] (Lenski 1966:400).
Did John Calvin (AD 1509-1564) support limited atonement? In the early days of his writing when he was aged 26, he completed the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the Institutes, he wrote:
I say with Augustine, that the Lord has created those who, as he certainly foreknew, were to go to destruction, and he did so because he so willed. Why he willed it is not ours to ask, as we cannot comprehend, nor can it become us even to raise a controversy as to the justice of the divine will. Whenever we speak of it, we are speaking of the supreme standard of justice (Institutes 3.23.5).
Here Calvin affirmed that God willed the destruction of unbelievers. Calvin continues:
their perdition depends on the predestination of God, the cause and matter of it is in themselves. The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should: why he deemed it meet, we know not. It is certain, however, that it was just, because he saw that his own glory would thereby be displayed (Institutes 3.23.8)
While this description is tied up with Calvin’s view of double predestination, it is linked with the doctrine of limited atonement in that it would be impossible for God to predestine unbelievers to eternal damnation and yet provide unlimited atonement that was available to them, unto the possibility of salvation. That is the logical connection, as I understand it.
Roger Nicole has written an article on “John Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement”. This indicates that Calvin did not believe in limited atonement, but that it was a doctrine originated by Calvinists following Calvin.
Calvin’s first edition of The Institutes was in Latin in 1536 and this was published in a French edition in 1560.
John Calvin did progress in his thinking when he wrote his commentaries on the Bible later in life. His first commentary was on the Book of Romans in 1540 and his commentaries after 1557 were taken from stenographer’s notes taken from lectures to his students. He wrote in his commentary on John 3:16:
Faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish….
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, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet 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 (emphasis added).
Thus John Calvin himself is very clear. He believed in unlimited atonement.
The following verses also affirm unlimited atonement:
John 1:29: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.'”
John 4:42: “They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.'”
Acts 2:21: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Romans 5:6: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “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.”
1 Timothy 2:3-4: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
1 Timothy 2:5-6: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men – the testimony given in its proper time.”
1 Timothy 4:10: “We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.”
Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”
Hebrews 2:9: “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.”
2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
1 John 4:14: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”
John 3:16: “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.”
Theologian, Henry C. Thiessen’s, summary of the sense in which Christ is the Saviour of the world is:
His death secured for all men a delay in the execution of the sentence against sin, space for repentance, and the common blessings of life which have been forfeited by transgression; it removed from the mind of God every obstacle to the pardon of the penitent and restoration of the sinner, except his wilful opposition to God and rejection of him; it procured for the unbeliever the powerful incentives to repentance presented in the Cross, by means of the preaching of God’s servants, and through the work of the Holy Spirit; it provided salvation for those who die in infancy, and assured its application to them; and it makes possible the final restoration of creation itself (Thiessen 1949:330).
Limited or definite atonement is clearly refuted by Scripture. Limited atonement is a false doctrine.
Lenski, R C H 1966. Commentary on the New Testament: The interpretation of the epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (© 1966 Augsburg Publishing House).
Sproul, R C 1992. Essential truths of the Christian faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Copyright (c) 2011 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 October 2015.