There is a running joke between me and a friend of mine. When in the midst of deep theological conversations, we will say jokingly as a way of comic relief, “It all comes back to limited atonement!” It’s a way of poking fun at Calvinists who place too much importance on this doctrine as if it were at the heart of the gospel itself.
NEWS FLASH: Calvinism is not the gospel. The basic message of the gospel is not dependant on Calvinism. However, for some reason, the doctrines of Calvinism are always a hot topic no matter where you go (except where people have not been exposed to the different positions). Calvinists get passionate about it because their view is so often misunderstood. Arminians get passionate about it because they see Calvinism as a system which undermines the free love of God for everyone, and nowhere is this undermining clearer to them than in the “L” in TULIP–Limited Atonement.
Did Christ die for everyone or just the elect?
Of all the points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the hardest to demonstrate biblically. For this reason, four-point Calvinists are a common phenomenon. I was a NOEL (no “L”) Calvinist for about 3 or 6 months (back in like 02) while wrestling with the biblical issues involved. I was convinced that Limited Atonement was more of a philosophical or logical extension of the other four points of Calvinism than it was a biblical teaching. Therefore, I rejected it. I have since changed my mind.
I now hold to a view which I prefer to call Actual Atonement, although it is virtually the same as what has misleadingly come to be called the limited view of the atonement, also known as effectual redemption and particular redemption. There are at least five good reasons to hold to an actual view of the atonement. First, it is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement. Second, the logic (not merely the words) of certain biblical passages seems to make the effectual view of the atonement necessary. Third, many passages affirm a limited group of people as the intended benefactors of the atonement. Forth, most biblical objections to the limited view of the atonement are easily answered by a closer examination of the range of meanings for words like “all” and “world” along with a closer look at the context in which these words are found. Once one sees the alternative interpretation for these verses to be consistent with the meaning of words and the context of the passages, such texts fit quite comfortably with a doctrine of Actual Atonement. Finally, philosophical objections to limited atonement, such as the objection that it ruins the sincerity of a universal offer of salvation, are based on clumsy logic and are easily answered.
First, What Does “Atonement” Even Mean?
First, the Actual Atonement position is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement than the general view of the atonement. Unfortunately, general and limited views often speak past one another over the extent of the atonement on account of a failure to first agree on the nature of the atonement itself. Before I can make this claim, I should first clarify my understanding of the two most popular views. The general view holds to a dual intentionality in the atonement: “Christ’s sacrifice was intended both to provide salvation for all and to procure salvation for all who believe” (i.e. the elect). The so-called limited view of the atonement holds that “Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only [all those who believe] and actually secured salvation for them.” One should notice that the latter view of the atonement does not contradict the former, but rather affirms the second intention contained in it: “to procure salvation for all who believe.” Therefore, the real question is whether the language of the atonement in Scripture includes both the idea of appeasing wrath as well as the idea of provision, or whether it has a narrower meaning that only includes the appeasing of wrath. In other words, does the atonement language include the notion of “providing salvation for all” or as Geisler puts it, the notion that “everyone is potentially justifiable, not actually justified” by the atonement? Since this is the real issue, the two views might be best understood as differences over the actual nature of the atonement itself—whether it includes possibility or whether it only includes actuality.
Since the Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement is an actual satisfying of God’s wrath (hilastērion, Rom 3:21-26), it is difficult to understand how the accomplishment of a theoretical possibility would be included in such a propitiatory sacrifice. What is more, one finds not a single verse that teaches that atonement was made possible, provided for, or made available, through the death of Christ. Instead, all passages which address the nature of the atonement itself either explicitly teach or take for granted an actual atonement that secures salvation and redemption. In short, Christ came to actually save sinners (i.e. actually appease the wrath of God), not make this salvation possible, provide for atonement, or make atonement available. For this reason, Geisler’s assertion that “the issue is not whether everyone is actually saved but whether the sacrifice of Jesus made salvation available to all,” is unperceptive as a response to this contention. The Dual Intention view (Geisler and others argue for) that understands God to be providing the possibility of atonement for the sins of all but only applying it to some must also have a dual definition of atonement. When Geisler says “the Atonement is both unlimited in its extent and limited in its application,” he commits the fallacy of equivocation by changing the meaning of the word “Atonement” mid-sentence. The first meaning is a theoretical atonement (atonement made possible) and the latter actual (atonement made actual).
Therefore, those who hold to a dual intentionality must redefine the meaning of the atonement in unbiblical categories if it is to escape the equivocation fallacy. Atonement cannot mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath and yet not mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath at the same time and in the same sense. As John Murray put it, “The doctrine of the atonement must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are the heirs of eternal life. In that event we should have to dilute the grand categories in terms of which the Scripture defines the atonement.” Since the biblical teaching is clearly that the death of Christ satisfied God’s wrath, and since there is not a single verse which speaks of a theoretical atonement which makes redemption “possible,” the Actual Atonement view is to be preferred to the General and/or Dual Intentionality view on the basis of having greater accord with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement.
Second, certain passages make a limited view of the atonement necessary. For example, Paul guarantees the future security of all those for whom Christ has died on the basis of Christ’s accomplished atonement (Rom 5:8-10). On Paul’s logic, if the atonement was made for all people without exception, Paul’s promise of eternal security necessarily applies also to all people without exception. A limited view of the atonement seems to be the only way to escape vindication of a universalist hermeneutic. In another passage, Paul guarantees eternal security and glorification (“all things”) for everyone for whom God did not spare his own Son (Rom 8:32-34). On Paul’s logic, if God gave his own Son up for everyone, then everyone is sure to receive “all things” (i.e. universalism). Perhaps those holding to the general view of the atonement could appeal that Paul has in mind only one of the two intentions in this passage (the intention of securing salvation for all those who believe), but this is precisely the point made in my first reason for believing in an actual view of the atonement. Paul seems to have this effectual intention in mind as “the” meaning of Christ’s death.
Third, Many Texts Seem To Affirm A Limited Atonement Outright
Third, many texts simply affirm that Christ died for a limited group of people. The doctrine of unconditional election provides secondary affirmation so long as one understands that God has atonement in view as the means for saving the elect (Rom 8:29-32; 9:17-23; Eph 1:4-6; 1 Thess 5:9;1 Tim 1:9). If only a limited number of people are intended to be eternally saved—the elect—we should naturally expect that only the sins of a limited number people—the elect—should be eternally satisfied by Christ’s atonement.
Fourth, What About John 3:16 and Other Passages?
Fourth, passages which seem to contradict a limited view of the atonement do not actually contradict it. Some of these passages do just the opposite. For example, consider the classic proof text for a general atonement: John 3:16. This passage teaches that God gave Christ to the world so that believers might be saved. All believers are elect and all the elect eventually believe. Therefore, even John 3:16 teaches a limited intention for sending Christ into the world—to save the elect (i.e. all who believe). One does not need to interpret “for God so loved the world,” to mean “for God so loved the elect,” for this to hold true. The purpose clause “so that” is limited to the elect regardless of how broad the scope of meaning for the term “world.”
John Owen notes that the meaning and usage of those terms which are universal in form—such as “world” and “all”—must be weighed very carefully for this reason: “Upon these expressions hangs the whole weight of the opposite cause, the chief if not the only argument for the universality of redemption.” Once the full range of meaning for these words is closely examined, however, the biblical objections to limited atonement are less convincing. The word “world” (ho kosmos) in Scripture does not always refer to every person in the world without exception. There are many passages where kosmos simply cannot mean every individual human being (Jn 7:7; Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 4:9; 11:32). If one is to believe that Christ died for everyone without exception on the grounds that the Bible says he died for the sins of the kosmos, she unwittingly gives good reason to think that everyone alive in the first century was a follower of Jesus, since the Pharisees exclaimed, “Look, the world [ho kosmos] has gone after Him” (Jn 12:19).
Even more important, kosmos often refers only to those who believe. For example, Paul taught that Israel’s sin of rejecting Christ means “riches for the world” (ploutos kosmou, Rom 11:12). Can we say then, that every person in the world without exception has received the ploutos Paul has in mind? It seems clear that Paul is using the word “world” to distinguish between Jew and Gentile, and that he would intend us to understand only those who believe in Christ as the recipients of the riches Paul has in mind in this context. Such an interpretation, however, leads us to conclude that kosmos actually refers to a minority group among the people in the world—the few that find the ploutos in Christ (i.e. the elect). When the apostle John admonishes his readers not to think of Christ’s death as for them only but for the “whole world” (1 Jn 2:2), the grammatical structure is strikingly similar to statements found in his gospel (Jn 11:51-52). On the basis of this parallel one might conclude that “whole world” in his epistle simply refers to God’s people, the elect, scattered throughout the whole world.
Although many passages describe the death of Christ as being for “all” (pas, Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14-15; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Heb 2:9; 2 Pt 3:9), like the word “world,” the word “all” in Scripture does not always refer to everyone, but it must be determined by context. Sometimes the word “all” simply refers to all those within a certain group defined by the context. For example, Romans 5:18 teaches that just as one sins led to condemnation for “all,” so one act of righteousness results in justification for “all.” Here, even within the very same context, one must interpret the former reference to “all” as virtually universal, and the latter as limited only to believers. Without allowing for such fair distinctions based on context, the interpreter has no way to object to the conclusion that all people without exception are justified before God. Paul’s statement in 1 Tim 2:6 that Christ was given as a ransom for all can simply mean “all kinds,” (indiscriminately with respect to Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free). In fact, Paul’s usage of the word “all” is best understood this way based on the way he uses it in the context (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2). “All” in Titus 2:11 can be taken in a similar way based on context (cf. Tit 2:2-4, 6, 9).
Finally, philosophical objections to Actual Atonement are sloppy mistakes in logic. Perhaps the most common is the objection that a limited view of the atonement makes the universal offer of the gospel insincere. First, we might say that if the Bible teaches on the one hand that God only intends to eternally redeem the elect, and on the other hand that we should offer salvation to all, we should conclude that God’s offer must be genuine even if our pre-conceived philosophical understanding makes the legitimacy of such an offer a genuine mystery. Second, this objection misunderstands the nature of the offer. The universal offer of salvation is always contingent. The offer is not intended to benefit everyone, only those who repent and believe. Thus, the nature of the offer itself astronomically limits the scope of its intended benefactors by virtue of its built-in conditionality. The offer, therefore, is just as genuine as the offer “Whosoever meets the requirements for enrollment to SBTS, as well as the requirements for discounts on tuition, will be able to receive such benefits.” The offer is intended for, and voiced to, all seminary students indiscriminately, but the benefit is only intended for a select group. This contingency does not ruin the genuine nature of the offer.
Many of the other objections leveled against an actual view of the atonement are really objections against Calvinism as a whole—that it contradicts the concept of a loving God, that it is unfair, that it prohibits people who sincerely desire to be saved from actually being saved. These objections impose philosophical definitions of love, justice, and grace that are foreign to the Bible. They also misunderstand the nature of responsible Calvinism.
 Limiting the atonement sounds negative. Most Calvinists do not limit the worth of the atonement as the language often suggests to some. Furthermore, everyone who is not a universalist limits the atonement in some way (whether its absolute efficacy or its extent), thus the designation does not strike at the heart of the differences in views of the atonement.
 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume Three, Sin and Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), 379.
 For a summary of the controversy over the meaning of hilastērion, along with the conclusion that it employ’s propitiatory cultic terminology of blood sacrifices see Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1998), 191-195. Schreiner points out that expiation and propitiation are not mutually exclusive categories. I might add that the presence of expiation in the passage would seem to depend ultimately on the grounds of the concept of propitiation. Schreiner says “The death of Jesus removed sin and satisfied God’s holy anger.” It seems this is true only because the death of Jesus removed sin by satisfying God’s holy anger.
 Mt 1:21; 20:21; Rom 3:24-25; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:12, 15, 26; 1 Jn 4:10; Rev 5:9, cf. Lk 19:10; Jn 19:30; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:30; 6:20; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Gal 1:3; 3:13; Eph 1:7, 14; 2:15-16; Col 1:13-14, 20-22; 1 Tim 1:15; 3:5-7; Heb 13:12; 1 Pt 2:24; 3:18).
 E.g. Mt 26:28; Jn 10:11, 15; 11:50-52; Acts 20:28; Rom 8:32-34; Eph 5:25-26; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:15, 28; Rev 5:9.
 John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1999), 190.
 I owe this insight to John Piper. John Piper, Tulip: The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Desiring God Ministries), 31.