Limited Atonement: A Critique

By James M. Rochford

Did Christ die for the entire world, or just the elect? Calvinist James Montgomery Boice writes that limited atonement is “the most difficult for most people to understand and accept.”[1] But Boice gives an illustration to argue for limited atonement:

What kind of redemption would it be in which the death of Jesus only makes redemption possible and in which, as a result, some of those for whom he died are still in bondage? Imagine that a friend of yours is in trouble with the law and has been taken to jail. He is arraigned before a judge, and bail is set. He has no money, but you hear of his plight and immediately take money down to the courthouse to bail him out. You appear before the judge, pay the bail price, and go home. Your wife asks, ‘Where is your friend?’

‘He’s in prison.’

‘In prison?’ she asks. ‘But didn’t you take the bail money down there?’

‘Yes,’ you say. ‘I paid the money to redeem him, but he’s still in prison. I didn’t actually bring him out.’ What kind of redemption would that be? …When the Bible says that Jesus redeemed us by his death on the Cross, that redemption must be an effective redemption, and those who have been redeemed must be actual beneficiaries of it.”[2]

We believe that limited atonement makes philosophical sense, given the other four points of Calvinism (see “TULIP”). However, it does not fit with various passages in Scripture.

Biblical Passages for Unlimited Atonement

The doctrine of unlimited atonement is supported by various passages:

(Jn. 1:29) The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

(Jn. 3:16) For God so loved the world [not the “elect”], that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

(Jn. 4:42) They were saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.

(Acts 17:30) Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.

(Rom. 5:18) So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

(2 Cor. 5:14-15) For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

(1 Tim. 2:3-4) This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

(2 Pet. 3:9) The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

(1 Tim. 2:5-6) For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

(1 Tim. 4:10) For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.

(Heb. 2:9) 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.

(1 Jn. 2:1-2) My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

(1 Jn. 4:14) We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

(Isa. 53:6) All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.

(2 Pet. 2:1) 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.

(Titus 2:11) For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.

It is incredibly difficult to overturn these various passages in order to favor limited atonement. Unlimited atonement is mentioned in various verses, in various terms, and in various ways.

Arguments for Limited Atonement

Advocates of limited atonement offer several arguments that support their perspective:

ARGUMENT #1: John uses the term “world” to refer to the elect or the church.

John writes, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). Advocates of unlimited atonement hold that this verse is crystal clear: Jesus didn’t just die for the elect (“for our sins”), but he died for the entire world’s sins (“for those of the whole world”). However, the proponent of limited atonement argues that “the whole world” refers to the elect who would later come to faith. Arminian scholar Roger Olson disagrees, however, when he writes,

If ‘world’ in John 3:16 means ‘all kinds of people,’ then John 1:11 possibly means that only some persons—of all kinds of people but not everyone—did not recognize Jesus as the Son of God. No Calvinist interprets John 1:11 that way![3]

This interpretation truly stretches the credulity of the student of Scripture—especially when one does a close study of the Greek word for “world” (kosmos). We encourage the interpreter to look through John’s usage of kosmos in his various books.

Use of kosmos in the Gospel of John

John uses the word kosmos a number of times in his gospel (Jn. 1:9; 1:10; 1:29; 3:16; 3:17; 3:19; 4:42; 6:14; 6:33; 6:51; 7:4; 7:7; 8:12; 8:23; 8:26; 9:5; 9:39; 10:36; 11:9; 11:27; 12:19; 12:25; 12:31; 12:47; 13:1; 14:17; 14:19; 14:22; 14:27; 14:30; 14:31; 15:18; 15:19; 16:8; 16:11; 16:20; 16:21; 16:28; 16:33; 17:5; 17:6; 17:11; 17:13-16; 17:18; 17:21; 17:23-25; 18:20; 18:36; 21:25). However, as we read through his uses of kosmos in these various passages, it never once specifically refers to the church or to the elect. In fact, his consistent use of this word kosmos refers to the world in general or the hostile world in rebellion to God. Just consider a few such usages below:

(Jn. 1:9) There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.

(Jn. 1:10) The world did not know Him.

(Jn. 3:19) The Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.

(Jn. 7:7) The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil.

(Jn. 8:23) He was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.”

(Jn. 9:39) For judgment I came into this world.

(Jn. 12:31) Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out.

(Jn. 14:19) After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also.

(Jn. 14:22) Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?”

(Jn. 14:27) Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.

(Jn. 14:30) I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming.

(Jn. 15:18) If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.

(Jn. 17:16) They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

Use of kosmos in John’s epistles

John uses the term kosmos a number of times in his epistles (1 Jn. 2:2; 2:15-17; 3:1; 3:13; 4:1; 4:3-5; 4:9; 4:14; 4:17; 5:4-5; 5:19; 2 Jn. 1:7). Consider several of these usages:

(1 Jn. 2:2) He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

(1 Jn. 2:15-17) Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

(1 Jn. 3:1) For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.

(1 Jn. 3:13) Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you.

(1 Jn. 4:4-5) You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.

(1 Jn. 5:5) Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

(1 Jn. 5:19) We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

Look at these verses for yourself. Is there any way for us to conclude that the term “world” (kosmos) refers to the “elect” or “the church”? John’s consistent use throughout his gospel and three epistles leads us to the conclusion that John does not have the church in mind.[4]

ARGUMENT #2: If Jesus died for the whole world, doesn’t this imply universalism?

Five-point Calvinist Edwin Palmer writes, “The question that needs a precise answer is this: Did He or didn’t He? Did Christ actually make a substitutionary sacrifice for sins or didn’t He? If He did, then it was not for all the world, for then all the world would be saved.”[5] Likewise, five-point Calvinist James White argues, “If I said that Christ died substitutionarily in the place of every single man and woman in all the world, then I was forced to either say that 1) everyone will be saved, or 2) the death of Christ is insufficient to save without additional works.” Of course, we do not hold to the unbiblical doctrine of universalism, as we have argued elsewhere (see our critique of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”). How then do we respond to this argument above?

We believe that Christ could die for people who would reject his offer. For instance, in Numbers 21, God provided the brazen serpent for the Jews. But some Jews failed to be saved by this gracious offer. Similarly, a feast could be offered to a starving person, but they would need to chew and swallow the food in order to be fed. Or a check could be written to someone in poverty, but the money would remain untouched until it was cashed. Likewise, Christ paid for the sins of the human race, but each individual needs to cash in on that payment individually (Jn. 1:12).

But why would Christ pay for someone’s sins, if he knew that they would ultimately reject him? Why not just die for those he knew would receive the offer?

We aren’t certain on how we should answer this objection, but we feel that our biblical exegesis should inform our view of God’s actions and plan. To put this another way, our philosophical speculation should not trump God’s revelation. At the end of the day, we don’t know God’s plans and desires; we need to depend on his revelation to us to understand this. And God’s revelation makes it clear that Christ died for the whole world—not just the elect. For this reason, we are disappointed in James White’s arguments above, because he is such a strong advocate of the primacy of Scripture over philosophical conjecture.

ARGUMENT #3: The Bible says that Jesus died for many, but not for all people.

Advocates of limited atonement argue that Christ only died for many people, but not for all people. They offer various passages to support this view:

(Isa. 53:11) My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.

(Mt. 20:28; c.f. Mk. 10:45) The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

(Mt. 26:28) This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.

(Heb. 9:28) Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.

However, in response, advocates of unlimited atonement reply that “many” is offered in contrast to “few,” rather than in contrast to “all.” For instance, earlier in Matthew, Jesus said that “few” find eternal life (Mt. 7:14) and “few” are chosen (Mt. 22:14). By contrast, Jesus’ death applied to many. They also point out that Jesus did not just become a ransom for some. Instead, Paul says that he “gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6; compare with Mt. 20:28 above).

ARGUMENT #4: The Bible teaches that Jesus died for the church, his friends, or his people—not the entire world.

Many passages teach that Jesus died for the church:

(Isa. 53:8) By oppression and judgment He was taken away… For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?

(Mt. 1:21) You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.

(Acts 20:28) Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

(Eph. 5:25) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.

Advocates of limited atonement note that these passages limit Jesus’ death to the church—not the world.

 (Jn. 10:15) I lay down My life for the sheep.

Advocates of limited atonement argue that the sheep are those who believe in Christ (Jn. 10:26-27), not just anyone on Earth.

(Jn. 15:13) Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus taught, “You are My friends if you do what I command you” (Jn. 15:14). Therefore, Jesus only died for the elect—not the world. Do these passages support limited atonement?

We think not. To borrow an illustration from my colleague’s article “For Whom Did Christ Die?”, Conrad Hilario writes,

Take the example of a sports analyst covering a typical Cleveland Browns game: “Silence fills the stadium, as Cleveland Browns fans hopelessly watch the senseless slaughter of their team.” Now, the fact that the commentator did not mention the opposing team’s fans does not suggest that they are not present. What are in view, in this scenario, are the Cleveland Browns fans. Likewise, within the context of these statements, Jesus is not suggesting that His atonement was not available to those who were not His followers. He was simply talking about His relationship to His sheep and church. Thus, one should not conclude from statements like these that Jesus did not die for anyone else, unless, of course, the passage explicitly states that it was only for these people that he died.

We agree with this conclusion: these passages do not teach that Jesus died only for the church; they teach that he died at least for the church. Theologian Millard Erickson writes, “Certainly if Christ died for the whole, there is no problem in asserting that he died for a specific part of the whole.”[6]

Moreover, Paul writes that Christ didn’t die just for his friends, but for “the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6), “sinners” (Rom. 5:8), and his “enemies” (Rom. 5:10). In fact, Paul compares the universal spread of sin to the universal spread of the atonement. He writes, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Rom. 5:18).

Conclusions

While we do not hold that the doctrine of limited atonement is an essential Christian doctrine, we do feel that it stands in clear contradiction to Scripture, and therefore, it should be abandoned. Moreover, this has not been a popular teaching throughout church history. Roger Olson writes, “The vast majority of Christians down through the centuries, including all the church fathers of the first four centuries (i.e. before Augustine), believed in universal atonement.”[7] Of course, the majority of interpreters could be wrong in their view, but this demonstrates that countless interpreters have never seen this teaching on the atonement.

Moreover, the doctrine of limited atonement has severe practical problems. For instance, we could never tell someone with certainty that Christ died for them under this view, because we are not sure. As counselor Jay Adams writes, “As a Reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, for they cannot say that. No man knows except Christ himself who are his elect for whom he died.”[8] We feel that there is a major practical problem with this position, and we certainly never see this sort of approach in the NT (1 Cor. 15:3; Acts 3:26; Lk. 22:20-21). For these reasons, we hold that this doctrine should be abandoned.

 

[1] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 31.

[2] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 120.

[3] Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 116.

[4] We hold to the conviction that John the apostle wrote the Revelation, as well (see our earlier article “Authorship of Revelation”). However, John’s usages of the term kosmos in Revelation play no significant bearing to this discussion (Rev. 11:15; 13:8; 17:8).

[5] Palmer, Edwin H. The Five Points of Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Moelker Printing, 1954. 47.

[6] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 851.

[7] Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 152.

[8] Adams, Jay Edward. Competent to Counsel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1970. 70.