Who can be reconciled to God?


(image courtesy cliparts.co)

By Spencer D Gear PhD

This has been a perennial question throughout church history, but it has become especially debated in the Arminian-Calvinistic controversy: Is it possible for all people to be reconciled to God? Or, is that only for a select, elect group? Is it only a charade for Jesus to say, ‘For God so loved the world’ (John 3:16) and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the propitiation ‘for the whole world’?

This relates to a person’s doctrines of predestination/election and atonement. With predestination, has God predestined only the Christian elect to salvation or is his mercy so wide that the Gospel is offered to all and their election is determined by their response? As for the atonement, is it limited to the elect for whom Christ died (limited atonement) or did Christ die for all people (unlimited atonement)?

Let’s check out some evidence.

1. Some examples from church history

We will now examine some leading Christian theologians or leaders from early church history to the present, to check their views.

1.1 Athanasius (ca. 295-373)[1]

This distinguished early church father was a promoter of the orthodox, Trinitarian Christian view at the Council of Nicea in AD 325.

At the council this young man, slightly over thirty, insisted that Christ had existed from all eternity with the Father and was of the same essence (homoousios) as the Father, although He was a distinct personality. He insisted on these things because he believed that if Christ were less than he had stated Him to be, He could not be the Savior of men…. He held that Christ was coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial with the Father; and for these views he suffered exile five times (Cairns 1981:134).


(copy of icon of Athanasius, courtesy Wikipedia)

In his writing ‘On the Incarnation of the Word(§9), Athanasius spoke of the Son, the Word, ‘To this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all’ (emphasis added). In this same paragraph, Athanasius wrote, ‘For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death’ (emphasis added).

1.2 Augustine (354-430)

clip_image004(image of Augustine, courtesy Wikipedia)

St Augustine is a mixed bag. There are examples in his writings of his support for limited atonement, but on other occasions he was unambiguous in support of unlimited atonement.

Here is his support for unlimited atonement in his exposition of 1 John 2:2:

For he that has said, We have Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins: having an eye to those who would divide themselves, and would say, Lo, here is Christ, lo, there; [Matthew 24:23] and would show Him in a part who bought the whole and possesses the whole, he immediately goes on to say, Not our sins only, but also the sins of the whole world. What is this, brethren? Certainly we have found it in the fields of the woods, we have found the Church in all nations. Behold, Christ is the propitiation for our sins; not ours only, but also the sins of the whole world. Behold, you have the Church throughout the whole world; do not follow false justifiers who in truth are cutters off. Be in that mountain which has filled the whole earth: because Christ is the propitiation for our sins; not only ours, but also the sins of the whole world, which He has bought with His blood. (Homily 1 on the First Epistle of John, 1:1-2:11, emphasis added).

It is not inconsequential in this paragraph on 1 John 1 & 2, Augustine affirms three times that Christ propitiated for the ‘sins of the whole world’. This is not indicating a limited atonement but an unlimited atonement. Another example is:

For men were held captive under the devil, and served devils; but they were redeemed from captivity. They could sell, but they could not redeem themselves. The Redeemer came, and gave a price; He poured forth His Blood, and bought the whole world. You ask what He bought? You see what He has given; find out then what He bought. The Blood of Christ was the price. What is equal to this? What, but the whole world? What, but all nations? (Expositions on the Psalms, Chapter 96.5, emphasis added).

In Tractate 92 on John’s Gospel, Augustine wrote, ‘The blood of Christ was shed for the remission of all sins’ (Tractate 92.1, emphasis added).

In later writings, Augustine clarified or redefined his understanding of the ‘whole world’ with his explanation of 1 Tim 2:4, ‘Who will have all men to be saved’:

It is said, Who will have all men to be saved; not that there is no man whose salvation He does not will (for how, then, explain the fact that He was unwilling to work miracles in the presence of some who, He said, would have repented if He had worked them?), but that we are to understand by all men, the human race in all its varieties of rank and circumstances—kings, subjects; noble, plebeian, high, low, learned, and unlearned; the sound in body, the feeble, the clever, the dull, the foolish, the rich, the poor, and those of middling circumstances; males, females, infants, boys, youths; young, middle-aged, and old men; of every tongue, of every fashion, of all arts, of all professions, with all the innumerable differences of will and conscience, and whatever else there is that makes a distinction among men. For which of all these classes is there out of which God does not will that men should be saved in all nations through His only-begotten Son, our Lord, and therefore does save them; for the Omnipotent cannot will in vain, whatsoever He may will? (Augustine, The Enchiridrion,[2] ch 103, emphasis added).

So here ‘all men’ for Augustine means from all groups of people and not for everyone in the world in its totality. This theology has been adopted by John Calvin himself in his interpretation of Titus 2:11, where he stated of this phrase:

Bringing salvation to all men,[3] That it is common to all is expressly testified by him on account of the slaves of whom he had spoken. Yet he does not mean individual men, but rather describes individual classes, or various ranks of life. And this is not a little emphatic, that the grace of God hath let itself down even to the race of slaves; for, since God does not despise men of the lowest and most degraded condition, it would be highly unreasonable that we should be negligent and slothful to embrace his goodness.[4]

John 3:17 states, ‘For God sent not His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him may be saved’. Augustine’s comment, in rather obtuse[5] reasoning, is:

So far, then, as it lies in the physician, He has come to heal the sick. He that will not observe the orders of the physician destroys himself. He has come a Saviour to the world: why is he called the Saviour of the world, but that He has come to save the world, not to judge the world? You will not be saved by Him; you shall be judged of yourself. And why do I say, shall be judged? See what He says: He that believes in Him is not judged, but he that believes not. What do you expect He is going to say, but is judged? Already, says He, has been judged. The judgment has not yet appeared, but already it has taken place. For the Lord knows them that are His: He knows who are persevering for the crown, and who for the flame; knows the wheat on His threshing-floor, and knows the chaff; knows the good grain, and knows the tares. He that believes not is already judged. Why judged? Because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God (Augustine, Tractate 12 (John 3:6-21), §12).

I find this exposition to be difficult to understand because Augustine does not come out and clearly state it like this: ‘Jesus is the Saviour of the world but unbelievers are judged already, thus making salvation only for the elect believers’. That seems to be his intent but it is stated in a round-about fashion with language such as, ‘Already, says He, has been judged. The judgment has not yet appeared, but already it has taken place’. If the judgment of all has already taken place, then God has judged the damned to be in that condemned state already. ‘There is some agreement that tractates 1-16 were preached by Augustine in the winter of 406-407’ (Augnet, On the Gospel of John, 2010). Eminent church historian, Philip Schaff, was not of that view, concluding that Augustine ‘delivered them to his flock at Hippo about A.D. 416 or later’ (CCEL, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Preface).

1.3 John Calvin (1509-1564)

clip_image006(painting, John Calvin by Hans Holbein, blog.oup.com, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What did Calvin say of John 3:16 in regard to those for whom Christ died? He wrote:

That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. 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 (John Calvin, Commentary on John 3:13-18, vol 1, emphasis added).

Calvin could not be clearer that ‘whoever’ believes makes the offer of salvation available ‘indiscriminately’ to all ‘unbelievers’ and the term ‘world’ in John 3:16 refers to ‘the whole world … all men without exception’. ‘Men’ here is generic for all people.

1.4 The Remonstrance

The five Arminian articles of the Remonstrance (to remonstrant meant to oppose) were composed by the followers of Arminius in 1610 after his death in 1609. These five points stated their main opposition to Dutch Reformed theology and were presented to the State in the Netherlands as Remonstrance.

The Arminian Remonstrance believed, according to Article 2, that ‘Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer’ (The Remonstrance, The Five Arminian Articles, A.D. 1610, Philip Schaff, emphasis added).The verses they gave in support were John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2.

So who have the possibility of being reconciled to God? Jesus, the Saviour, died for all people according to the Remonstrance, meaning every human being, but those who believe receive this forgiveness.

1.5 The Synod of Dort[6]

There were five main points (headings) regarding a dispute in the Netherlands, known as the Canons of Dort, that were a response to the Remonstrance, promoted by Arminius (University of Leiden) and his followers. Dort considered Arminianism was a departure from the Reformed faith in a number of important matters. It met in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, 1618-1619, with 2 Dutch delegates and 27 foreign delegates representing 8 countries (The Canons of Dort, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary).

In its explanation of the death of Christ and the redemption of human beings, the Synod of Dort, concluded:

For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever (Head 2, Art 8, emphasis added).

Thus, redemption only extends to the elect who receive the gift of justifying faith while the remainder of humanity who ‘perish in unbelief’ are in that situation because it is wholly imputed to them by God (Head 2, Art 6). This is a confirmation of double predestination to salvation for the believer and to damnation for the unbeliever.

1.6 John Wesley (1703-1791)[7]

clip_image008(John Wesley image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)

John Wesley (1703-1791) was a Church of England (Anglican) minister,[8] so his view of the atonement would have been shaped by the Anglican Articles of Religion, commonly known as the Thirty-nine Articles. The first portion of Article 17 states,

Predestination to life is the eternal purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he has consistently decreed by his counsel which is hidden from us to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he has chosen in Christ out of mankind and to bring them through Christ to eternal salvation as vessels made for honour. Hence those granted such an excellent benefit by God are called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working at the appropriate time. By grace they obey the calling; they are freely justified, and made sons of God by adoption, are made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, they walk faithfully in good works and at the last by God’s mercy attain eternal happiness (Thirty-nine Articles, Article 17, emphasis added).

What was Wesley’s view? Darren Wood maintained that ‘even though John Wesley claimed that the atonement was crucial to his theology, he never articulated a systematic theory of the atonement’ (Wood 2007:2.55). Harald Lindstrom concluded in a similar way, ‘Wesley never took up the Atonement for special consideration in any of his treatises or tracts. Nor is it the main theme in any of his sermons’ (Lindstrom n d).

Wesley in writing to his opponent, the Anglican Rev William Law, stated that Jesus Christ ‘is our propitiation through faith in His blood’ (Wesley, letter from London, May 20, 1738, The Letters of John Wesley 1738). As to causation of our salvation, the Wesleys were clear: ‘The sole cause of our acceptance with God (or, that for the sake of which, on the account of which, we are accepted) is the righteousness and the death of Christ, who fulfilled God’s law, and died in our stead’ (Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, Preface).

In this edition of ‘The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M., Vol VI’, it stated: ‘It is true, repentance and faith are privileges and free gifts. But this does not hinder their being conditions too. And neither Mr. Calvin himself, nor any of our Reformers, made any scruple of calling them so’ (p. 98).

Wesley maintained that Jesus’ atonement ‘is the propitiation – The atoning sacrifice by which the wrath of God is appeased. For our sins – Who believe. And not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world – Just as wide as sin extends, the propitiation extends also’ (John Wesley, Notes on the First Epistle of John, 1 John 2:2, emphasis added).

Thus, John Wesley believed in universal atonement, propitiation that extends as far as sin goes – to all human beings.

1.7 C H Spurgeon (1834-1892)[9]

clip_image010(C H Spurgeon painting courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Spurgeon is adamant about his view of the atonement:

We hold—we are not afraid to say that we believe—that Christ came into this world with the intention of saving “a multitude which no man can number;” and we believe that as the result of this, every person for whom He died must, beyond the shadow of a doubt, be cleansed from sin, and stand, washed in blood, before the Father’s throne. We do not believe that Christ made any effectual atonement for those who are for ever damned; we dare not think that the blood of Christ was ever shed with the intention of saving those whom God foreknew never could be saved, and some of whom were even in Hell when Christ, according to some men’s account, died to save them (emphasis added).[10]

In another sermon on the death of Christ, he preached, ‘Understand, then, the sense in which Christ was made a sacrifice for sin. But here lies the glory of this matter. It was as a substitute for sin that he did actually and literally suffer punishment for the sin of all his elect’ (emphasis added).[11]

So, the eminent British Baptist preacher and revivalist of the nineteenth century, C H Spurgeon, was an inflexible promoter of limited atonement. Jesus did not die for the sins of the whole world. There is no effectual atonement, i.e. atonement through Christ’s shed blood that is effective for those damned forever. I’m using effectual atonement as meaning effective atonement.[12]


1.8 Roger E. Olson (b. 1952)[13]

clip_image011(photo Roger E Olson, courtesy InterVarsity Press)[14]

Professor Roger E Olson teaches at a Southern Baptist Seminary,[15] is a promoter of classical Arminianism, and his view of the atonement is that salvation is only for those

who are predestined by God to eternal salvation. They are elect. Who is included in the elect? All who God foresees will accept his offer of salvation through Christ by not resisting the grace that extends to them through the cross and the gospel. Thus, predestination is conditional rather than unconditional: God’s electing foreknowledge is caused by the faith of the elect (Olson 2006:35, emphasis added).

Olson (2006:63) cites Arminian theologian H Orton Wiley in support of unlimited atonement. Wiley wrote that ‘the atonement is universal’, which does not mean that all human beings will be unconditionally saved ‘but that the sacrificial offering of Christ so far satisfied the claims of the divine law as to make salvation a possibility for all’. Thus, redemption is ‘universal or general’ in a potential sense in its application to the individual person, i.e. it must be applied by the person to be received (Wiley 1952:295).

1.9 R C Sproul (b. 1939)[16]

clip_image013(photo R C Sproul, courtesy Wikipedia)

An ardent Calvinistic advocate, Sproul addressed this topic of who can be reconciled to God in terms of his understanding of predestination and election, writing that ‘the Reformed doctrine of predestination teaches that all the elect are indeed brought to faith. God insures that the conditions necessary for salvation are met’. Election is unconditional because God’s original decree to choose some for salvation ‘is not dependent upon some future condition in us that God foresees. There is nothing in us that God could foresee that would induce him to choose us…. God chooses us simply according to the good pleasure of his will’ (Sproul 1986:155-156).

Does Sproul support double-predestination, i.e. to salvation and damnation? He wrote, ‘If there is such a thing as predestination at all, and if that predestination does not include all people, then we must not shrink from the necessary inference that there are two sides to predestination’ (Sproul 1986:141). Yes, he does believe in double-predestination but he goes further with God’s sovereignty in stating that ‘God is sovereign because we know that God is God’ and that ‘God foreordained sin’. This means that ‘God’s decision to allow sin to enter the world was a good decision. This is not to say that our sin is really a good thing, but merely that God’s allowing us to do sin, which is evil, is a good thing. God’s allowing evil is good, but the evil he allows is still evil’ (Sproul 1986:31-32).

Elsewhere Sproul did articulate his theology of limited atonement:

I prefer the term definite atonement to the term limited atonement (though it turns tulip into tudip). The doctrine of definite atonement focuses on the question of the design of Christ’s atonement. It is concerned with God’s intent in sending Jesus to the cross….

Anyone who is not a universalist is willing to agree that the effect of Christ’s work on the cross is limited to those who believe. That is, Christ’s atonement does not avail for unbelievers. Not everyone is saved through His death. Everyone also agrees that the merit of Christ’s death is sufficient to pay for the sins of all human beings. 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. Those who deny definite atonement insist that Christ’s work of atonement was designed by God to atone for the sins of everyone in the world. It made possible the salvation of everyone, but made certain the salvation of no one. Its design is therefore both unlimited and indefinite.

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. The Atonement was an actual, not merely potential, work of redemption. In this view there is no possibility that God’s design and intent for the Atonement could be frustrated. God’s purpose in salvation is sure (Sproul 1992:175-176, emphasis added).

In simple language, Sproul believes that in allowing evil to enter the world, that was God’s good decision. I ask: How can it be other than that since God’s actions are always perfect, right and just? ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ (Gen 18:25 ESV) As for the atonement, it was only designed for the elect, so Jesus died only for these people, in the view of Sproul.

2. What did the early church fathers teach?

clip_image015Church Fathers, 11th century Kievan minature (image courtesy Wikipedia)


Let’s check out the primary sources online to see if some of the early church fathers (the ones mentioned by Ron Rhodes, n d) supported unlimited atonement!

clip_image016Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-211/215):[17] ‘He bestows salvation on all humanity abundantly’ (Paedagogus 1.11). ‘For instruction leads to faith, and faith with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit. For that faith is the one universal salvation of humanity’ (Paedagogus 1.6). Elsewhere it has been stated by Ron Rhodes that Clement of Alexandria taught, ‘Christ freely brings… salvation to the whole human race’.[18] However, I’ve been unable to find these exact quotes in the writings of Clement of Alexandria.

clip_image016[1]Eusebius of Caesarea (260-341):[19] ‘the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and of His human body…. This Sacrifice was the Christ of God, from far distant times foretold as coming to men, to be sacrificed like a sheep for the whole human race (Demonstratio Evangelica, Bk 1, Introduction, ch. 10). ‘His Strong One forsook Him then, because He wished Him to go unto death, even “the death of the cross,” and to be set forth as the ransom and sacrifice for the whole world…. to ransom the whole human race, buying them with His precious Blood from their former slavery to their invisible tyrants, the unclean daemons, and the rulers and spirits of evil’ (Demonstratio Evangelica, Bk 10, ch 8).

clip_image016[2]Athanasius (ca 296-373),[20] in The Incarnation of the Word, wrote: None could renew but He Who had created. He alone could (1) recreate all, (2) suffer for all, (3) represent all to the Father’ (7, heading). ‘all creation was confessing that He that was made manifest and suffered in the body was not man merely, but the Son of God and Saviour of all’ (19.3); ‘or who among those recorded in Scripture was pierced in the hands and feet, or hung at all upon a tree, and was sacrificed on a cross for the salvation of all?’ (37.1)

It has been quoted frequently across the Internet that Athanasius stated, ‘Christ the Son of God, having assumed a body like ours, because we were all exposed to death [which takes in more than the elect], gave Himself up to death for us all as a sacrifice to His Father’.[21] However, I have been unable to find this exact quote in Athanasius’s works online.

Athanasius wrote that Christ ‘offered up His sacrifice also on behalf of all, yielding His Temple to death in the stead of all, in order firstly to make men quit and free of their old trespass, and further to show Himself more powerful even than death, displaying His own body incorruptible, as first-fruits of the resurrection of all (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, section 20)

clip_image016[3]Cyril of Jerusalem (ca 315-386):[22] ‘And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf’ (Catacheses – or Catehetical Lectures 13.2).

clip_image016[4]Cyril of Alexandria (ca 375-444)[23] taught that we confess that he is the Son, begotten of God the Father, and Only-begotten God; and although according to his own nature he was not subject to suffering, yet he suffered for us in the flesh according to the Scriptures, and although impassible, yet in his Crucified Body he made his own the sufferings of his own flesh; and by the grace of God he tasted death for all…. he tasted death for every man, and after three days rose again, having despoiled hell.’ (Third epistle to Nestorius). ‘Giving His own Blood a ransom for the life of all’ (That Christ is one).

On the Internet, I have seen many examples of this quote, “The death of one flesh is sufficient for the ransom of the whole human race, for it belonged to the Logos, begotten of God the Father.” (Oratorio de Recta Fide, no. 2, sec. 7). I have not yet been able to locate it in Internet primary sources for Cyril of Alexandria’s works.

clip_image016[5]Gregory of Nazianzen (ca 330-389):[24] ‘He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood.  As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also’ (Oration XXIX, The third theological oration on the Son, XX).

I was unable to locate the quote, ‘the sacrifice of Christ is an imperishable expiation of the whole world’, allegedly from Oratoria 2 in Pasch., i.e., Passover.

clip_image016[6]Basil of Caesarea, Basil the Great (329-379):[25] “But one thing was found that was equivalent to all men….the holy and precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He poured out for us all” (On Ps. 49:7, 8, sec. 4 or Psalm 48, n.4). I have been unable to track down this quote on the Internet.[26]

clip_image016[7]Ambrose of Milan (339-397):[27] ‘Christ suffered for all, rose again for all.

clip_image018 But if anyone does not believe in Christ, he deprives himself of that general benefit.” He also wrote, “Christ came for the salvation of all, and undertook the redemption of all, inasmuch as He brought a remedy by which all might escape, although there are many who…are unwilling to be healed’ (Ps. 118, Sermon 8, in Douty 1978:137).[28] I have not yet located the primary source online.

(Mosaic of Ambrose, courtesy Wikipedia)

clip_image016[8]St Augustine of Hippo (354-430).[29] See his evidence above in this article.

clip_image016[9]Prosper of Aquitaine (a friend and disciple of Augustine, ca. AD 390-463):[30] “As far as relates to the magnitude and virtue of the price, and to the one cause of the human race, the blood of Christ is the redemption of the whole world: but those who pass through this life without the faith of Christ, and the sacrament of regeneration, do not partake of the redemption” (Responses on Behalf of Augustine to the Articles of Objections Raised by the Vincentianists, 1, part of this quote is available at, Classical Christianity). Unfortunately, I have not been able to source this online from a site for Prosper of Aquitaine.

He also wrote: ‘Wherefore, the whole of mankind, whether circumcised or not, was under the sway of sin, in fetters because of the very same guilt. No one of the ungodly, who differed only in their degree of unbelief, could be saved without Christ’s Redemption. This Redemption spread throughout the world to become the good news for all men without any distinction’ (Prosper of Aquitaine, The Call of All Nations, p. 119).

The following are citations from secondary sources for Prosper of Aquitaine, but I have been unable to locate primary sources on the www: He also said, “The Savior is most rightly said to have been crucified for the redemption of the whole world.” He then said, “Although the blood of Christ be the ransom of the whole world, yet they are excluded from its benefit, who, being delighted with their captivity, are unwilling to be redeemed by it.”

For an assessment of the biblical material, see my article, ‘Does the Bible teach limited atonement or unlimited atonement?

3. What’s the biblical evidence?

I have addressed the biblical material in support of limited atonement in my articles,

clip_image020Is this verse forced into limited atonement theology?

clip_image020[1]Unlimited atonement by Jesus

clip_image020[2]Limited atonement conflicts with God’s goodness

clip_image020[3]Did John Calvin believe in limited atonement?

clip_image020[4]Does the Bible teach limited atonement or unlimited atonement by Christ?

clip_image020[5]If Jesus’ atonement is for all, should all be saved?

clip_image020[6]Can world not mean world?

Ron Rhodes (n d), a supporter of unlimited atonement, in his article, ‘The Extent of the Atonement: Limited Atonement Versus Unlimited Atonement’ (Rhodes n d) provides further evidence from the early church fathers until today of leading Christians who supported or now support unlimited atonement.

Theologian Walter Elwell,[31] has concluded concerning unlimited atonement (or, general redemption) that it has been

the historic view of the church, being held by the vast majority of theologians, reformers, evangelists, and fathers from the beginning of the church until the present day, including virtually all the writers before the Reformation, with the possible exception of Augustine. Among the Reformers the doctrine is found in Luther, Melanchthon, Bullinger, Latimer, Cranmer, Coverdale, and even Calvin in some of his commentaries. For example Calvin says regarding Col. 1:14, “This redemption was procured through the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death, all the sins of the world have been expiated…. Is it likely that the overwhelming majority of Christians could have so misread the leading of the Holy Spirit on such an important point? (Elwell 1984:99)

4. Salvation offered to all

A person on a Christian forum listed these Scriptures to support the view that salvation is offered to everyone:[32]

Jhn 3:16 (NKJV) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

1Pe 3:18 (RSV) For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous,

Rom 6:10 (NKJV) For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all;

2Co 5:14-15 (NKJV) For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.

1Ti 2:5-6a (NKJV) For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all,

Heb 7:26-27 (NKJV) For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.

Heb 9:11-12 (NKJV) But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.

2 Peter 3:9 (NKJV) The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

A response from the Calvinistic poster was that ‘not one of those scriptures says that God offers salvation to all mankind’.[33] I could not let him get away with this one, so I replied:[34]

Titus 2:11 (NIV) does: ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people’. The ESV translates as, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’ (Titus 2:11 ESV).
So the grace of God has appeared (in Christ) to offer salvation or bring salvation to ALL people. It does not say ‘all of the elect’.
There’s no room to run and hide now.

How do you think he would react?

Thats (sic) a poor translation. The word offer is not in the text. The word is bringeth salvation, not offer! The emphasis is on the grace of God bringing a application of salvation.
Besides that, you still have Rom 5:10 to deal with which states clearly that believers were reconciled to God by the death of Christ while they were enemies. Thats not the case with all men without exception since many as enemies are under Gods Wrath and Condemnation Jn 3:18, 36![35]

My comeback was:[36]

That’s an excellent translation. The Greek of Titus 2:11 (SBLGreek NT), reads:

??????? ???  ?   ?????   ??? ????  ???????? ????? ?????????
epephane gar he charis tou theou soterios   pasin anthropois (transliteration), with this literal translation:
‘appeared for the grace of the God salvation for all men’.

Now take that literal, word-for-word translation and make sense for the English reader.

  • The NIV has done that with an excellent dynamic equivalence translation (meaning for meaning), ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people’ (Tit 2:11 NIV);
  • The ESV in formal equivalence translation (approx. word for word), ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’ (Tit 2:11 ESV), which is a superb translation, although interpretive because of the lack of ‘has appeared’ in the text;
  • The NASB formal equivalence translation, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men’ (Tit 2:11 NASB) – an excellent translation, but with the added word, ‘bringing’.
  • The KJV formal equivalence translation: ‘For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men’ (Tit 2:11 KJV). Excellent translation but with old fashioned language and the added word, ‘bringeth’.
  • The ISV (International Standard Version) dynamic equivalence is: ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people’ (Tit 2:11 ISV) – again, an excellent translation, with ‘has appeared’ added to make sense of the sentence.
  • The HCSB, a formal equivalence translation, ‘For the grace of God has appeared with salvation for all people’ (Tit 2:11 HCSB) – a great translation with ‘has appeared’ added for interpretive sense.
  • The NRSV, a formal equivalence translation, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all’ (Tit 2:11 NRSV) is another excellent translation, again adding ‘has appeared’ for clarification of the meaning.

Anyone who has had to translate large chunks of the Greek NT into English – as I have done through many years of formal study and theological teaching – knows that a literal word-for-word translation is impossible in many examples. This is one case in point.

So that I can become better informed, I asked this fellow to please provide a more accurate translation of the Greek text of Titus 2:11 (Greek) than those from the Bible translation examples I provided.

What would the response be? He wrote:

Yes it’s a poor translation. There’s no scripture that says God offers salvation. Titus 2:11 says that the Grace of God brings Salvation to all men, not offers. You misquote scripture.[37]

This is typical of what poster’s do when they don’t have an answer to the challenge. He did not provide a better translation and he also inserted a word, ‘brings’, that is not in the Greek text, so I answered: [38]

I asked for a more accurate translation to be provided, but I see that it is missing. How come?

Please note that ‘brings’ also is not in the Greek text. So ‘brings salvation’ is a poor translation as it inserts a word. Why would you be adding ‘brings’? I’m waiting for a better translation and the reasons for it being a superior translation.

No translation has been forthcoming from this fellow to challenge the translations of the major Bible versions quoted above.

5. Who are under God’s wrath?

It was stated on this Christian forum: ‘Unbelievers and enemies are both the same. Those unbelievers in Jn 3:18, 36 are under Gods (sic) Wrath and condemnation. Do you deny that?’[39]

My response was[40] that of course I believe that unbelievers are under God’s wrath, but what I know is that Jesus’ death appeased the wrath of God for all, as 1 John 2:2 (ESV) affirms, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’.

Also, regarding what is necessary to receive salvation:

But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: 9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved (Rom 10:8-10 NIV).

Rebel sinners who are under God’s wrath and have that wrath appeased by Jesus are free to receive Jesus by faith, to believe in their hearts that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. They are then justified by faith in professing their faith to be saved.
That’s Bible!

The come back was:

Those under Gods (sic) Wrath and Condemnation, Jesus death did not appease Gods (sic) Wrath for them. If it did they could not be under Gods (sic) Wrath. So you have made a false statement and inconsistent with scripture.[41]

This is far from what the Bible says so I answered:[42]

That is not what 1 John 2:1-2 (ESV) teaches:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

So Jesus is the propitiation (appeasing the wrath of God) for ‘our’ sins. Who are the people referred to as ‘our’? Verse 1 tells us they are ‘little children’ for whom there is ‘an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’. So, John is referring to believers for whom Jesus propitiated the wrath of God.

But John goes further than propitiation for believers. He adds, ‘but also for the sins of the whole world’. Ah, everybody in the world is included. Yes, ‘the whole world’. This is not referring to the world of elect believers. He has already mentioned these. They are the ones covered by the language of ‘our sins’. But he goes further to include everyone in the big, wide, wonderful world – sinners all.

The problem seems to be the inability to grasp how Jesus could be the propitiation for all people and that all people are not saved (universalism). That’s because of a failure to grasp what Jesus taught according to John 5:40 (ESV), ‘yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’.

People are freed to come or refuse to come to Jesus for eternal life. That’s consistent with biblical teaching and does not match the accuser’s taunt, ‘So you have made a false statement and inconsistent with scripture’. Who has made the false statement? The accuser of me and my theology!

6. Logical fallacy in action

The fellow online who began this thread continues with his push:

None of you can explain the proposition. The fact remains that those Christ died for are reconciled to God while they are enemies and unbelievers Rom 5:10, but all enemies and unbelievers are not reconciled to God by Christ death but are under Gods condemnation and wrath John 3:18, 36. So it is obvious that Christ (sic) death was not for all without exception.[43]

However, what is his slogan that appears as the byword in the footer of every one of his posts, ‘SAVED BY SOVEREIGN GRACE’.[44]

Therefore, it was pointed and appropriate for me to respond: ‘The begging the question fallacy, i.e. circular reasoning, continues’.[45] With a begging the question fallacy, this person commences with the premise, ‘Saved by sovereign grace’. How does he conclude? ‘The fact remains that those Christ died for are reconciled to God…. It is obvious that Christ (sic) death was not for all without exception’. So he begins with Calvinistic sovereign grace of limited atonement and concludes with the same doctrine.

That’s circular reasoning and gets us nowhere in discussion because it doesn’t deal with the issues at stake, but it sounds to be on track with issues that relate. In fact it is a deliberate strategy to avoid dealing with opposition to the theology.

7. Conclusion

From the early church fathers up to Augustine of Hippo there was a consensus of support for unlimited atonement. However, since the time of Augustine there has been evidence from theologians and other church writers who promote both limited and unlimited atonement. There has been no agreement since the time of Calvin and Arminius.

My own understanding of Scripture is that it supports unlimited atonement, as I have articulated in my article, Does the Bible teach limited atonement or unlimited atonement by Christ? I don’t expect there will be agreement on this topic until it is fully revealed at Jesus’ second coming.


(image courtesy cliparts.co)

8. Works consulted

Douty, N F 1978. Did Christ Die Only for the Elect? A Treatise on the Extent of Christ’s Atonement. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Elwell, W A 1984. Atonement, Extent of, in W A Elwell (ed), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Lindstrom, H n d. Wesley and sanctification. On Craig L Adams website. Available at: http://www.craigladams.com/Books/page289/page293/ (Accessed 29 April 2016).

Miethe, T L 1989. The universal power of the atonement, in C Pinnock (gen ed). The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, 71-96. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academie Books (Zondervan Publishing House).

Olson, R E 2006, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Rhodes, R n d. The extent of the atonement: Limited atonement versus unlimited atonement. Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries (online). Available at: http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/Atonement.html (Accessed 30 April 2016).

Sproul, R C 1986. Chosen by God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Sproul, R C 1992. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Wiley, H O 1952. Christian theology, vol 2 (online). Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. Chapter 24 on ‘The atonement: Its nature and extent’, is available from Nampa, Idaho: Northwestern Nazarene University, Wesley Center Online, at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/other-theologians/henry-orton-wiley/h-orton-wiley-christian-theology-chapter-24/ (Accessed 29 April 2016).

Wood, D C 2007. John Wesley’s use of the atonement. The Asbury Journal 62(2), 55-70. Available at: http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=asburyjournal (Accessed 28 April 2016).


[1] Lifespan dates are from Cairns (1981:134).

[2] Enchiridrion means handbook and its full title was The Enchiridrion on Faith, Hope and Love, New Advent. Available at: http://newadvent.org/fathers/1302.htm (Accessed 28 April 2016).

[3] Calvin’s footnote at this point was:

‘“We now see why Paul speaks of all men, and thus we may judge of the folly of some who pretend to expound the Holy Scriptures, and do not understand their style, when they say, ‘And God wishes that every person should be saved; the grace of God hath appeared for the salvation of every person; it follows, then, that there is free-will, that there is no election, that none have been predestinated to salvation.’ If those men spoke it ought to be with a little more caution. Paul did not mean in this passage, or in 1Ti 2:6 anything else than that the great are called by God, though they are unworthy of it; that men of low condition, though they are despised, are nevertheless adopted by God, who stretches out his hand to receive them. At that time, because kings and magistrates were mortal enemies of the gospel, it might be thought that God had rejected them, and that they cannot obtain salvation. But Paul says that the door must not be shut against them, and that, eventually, God may choose some of this company, though their case appear to be desperate. Thus, in this passage, after speaking of the poor slaves who were not reckoned to belong to the rank of men, he says that God did not fail, on that account, to show himself compassionate towards them, and that he wishes that the gospel should be preached to those to whom men do not deign to utter a word. Here is a poor man, who shall be rejected by us, we shall hardly say, God bless him! and God addresses him in an especial manner, and declares that he is his Father, and does not merely say a passing word, but stops him to say, ‘Thou art of my flock, let my word be thy pasture, let it be the spiritual food of thy soul.’ Thus we see that this word is highly significant, when it is said that the grace of God hath appeared fully to all men.” — Fr. Ser.

[4] From Calvin’s commentary, Titus chapter 2. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc43/cc43021.htm (Accessed 29 April 2016).

[5] I used ‘obtuse’ as meaning ‘difficult to understand’ (Oxford dictionaries online 2016. s v obtuse).

[6] Dort is the English spelling of Dordt, which is an abbreviation of Dordrecht.

[7] Lifespan details are from Cairns (1981:382).

[8] See CCEL, John Wesley, available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley (Accessed 28 April 2016).

[9] Lifespan details are from Cairns (1981:400).

[10] Rev C H Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, The Spurgeon Archive, ‘Particular Redemption’. Available at: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0181.php (Accessed 29 April 2016).

[11] Rev C H Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, The Spurgeon Archive, The Death of Christ, Sermon No 173. Available at: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0173.php (Accessed 29 April 2016).

[12] This is based on a synonym for ‘effectual’ as ‘effective’ in Oxford Dictionaries online (2016. s v effectual).

[13] Birth date from Curriculum Vitae, Baylor University. Available at: http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/26382.pdf (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[14] InterVarsity Press is the publisher of Olson (2006).

[15] He is professor of theology at George W Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, Waco, Texas (back flap, Olson 2006).

[16] Birth date from ‘Introducing Dr. R. C. Sproul’, Ligonier Ministries 2016. Available at: http://www.ligonier.org/about/rc-sproul/ (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[17] Lifespan dates, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Saint Clement of Alexandria). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Clement-of-Alexandria (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[18] Ron Rhodes 1996. The extent of the atonement: Limited atonement versus unlimited atonement (Part 2), available at: http://chafer.nextmeta.com/files/v2n3_rhodes.pdf (Accessed 28 August 2012). Rhodes gives the reference as Paedagogus, ch. 11. However, there is no such reference as there are three books (online) each with a ch. 11, but the quote is not to be found in any of these chapters.

[19] Lifespan dates, The Catholic Encyclopedia (2012. s v Eusebius of Caesarea). Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05617b.htm (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[20] Lifespan dates, The Catholic Encyclopedia (2012. s v St.. Athanasius). Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02035a.htm (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[21] See Ron Rhodes (n d).

[22] Lifespan dates, The Catholic Encyclopedia (2012. s v St. Cyril of Jerusalem). Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04595b.htm (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[23] Lifespan dates, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Saint Cyril of Alexandria). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Cyril-of-Alexandria (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[24] Lifespan dates, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Saint Gregory of Nazianzen). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Gregory-of-Nazianzus (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[25] Lifespan dates, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Saint Basil the Great). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Basil-the-Great (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[26] It is cited in Rhodes (n d) but without any primary source.

[27] Lifespan dates, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Saint Ambrose). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Ambrose (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[28] However, this is Psalm 119 in the English Bible.

[29] Lifespan dates, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Saint Augustine). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Augustine (Accessed 30 April 2016).

[30] Lifespan dates, Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Saint Prosper of Aquitaine). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Prosper-of-Aquitaine (Accessed 20 April 2016).

[31] Terry Miethe stated that Elwell was a Presbyterian (Miethe 1989:79).

[32] Christian Forums.net, Apologetics & Theology, ‘No conditions to be reconciled’, Jim Parker#78. Available at: http://christianforums.net/Fellowship/index.php?threads/no-conditions-to-be-reconciled.64255/page-4 (Accessed 22 April 2016).

[33] Ibid., beloved57#80.

[34] Ibid., OzSpen#102.

[35] Ibid., beloved57#103.

[36] Ibid., OzSpen#107.

[37] Ibid., beloved57#115.

[38] Ibid., OzSpen#117.

[39] Ibid., beloved57#105.

[40] Ibid., OzSpen#109.

[41] Ibid., beloved57#114.

[42] Ibid., OzSpen#118.

[43] Ibid., beloved57#113.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., OzSpen#119.


Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 2 May 2016.