Jesus Died for You… Maybe: An Exploration into the Extent of the Atonement

It is common in evangelistic settings to hear the words “Jesus died for you” spoken by the Christian to the non-Christian. Whether we hear these words in a pastor’s altar call or speak them ourselves in a witnessing situation, the statement may or may not be genuine depending on the theological conviction of the one who speaks it. Those who identify with the Reformed, or Calvinistic, tradition are likely less able to speak these words with a clear conscience. To do so would be to betray their conviction in the limited atonement of Christ.[1] On the other hand, those who identify with an Arminian or moderately Calvinist tradition are able to speak these words with sincerity.[2] To do so is consistent with their conviction in the unlimited atonement of Christ.[3] In this paper, I will explore the extent of the atonement and will answer the question “For whom did Jesus die?” by affirming that Christ died for all people.[4] Attention will be placed primarily on what the Bible teaches (the biblical perspective) and, secondarily, on what theologians throughout the centuries have said concerning the extent of the atonement (the historical perspective). I will conclude the paper by making a number of practical applications related to the extent of the atonement (the practical perspective).

The Biblical Perspective

However one answers the question of who Jesus died for, his or her answer must account for the biblical material. Any formulation of a doctrine on the extent of the atonement must be founded on what God has revealed in his written word. For this reason, attention is first placed on what the Bible teaches concerning the atonement of Christ. As surprising as it may sound to some, both Calvinists and Arminians come to their respective conclusions concerning the extent of the atonement through their study of Scripture. There appear to be verses that support both views. Calvinists point to verses that seem to suggest that Christ died for certain people in particular.[5] In contrast, Arminians point to verses that seem to suggest that Christ died for all people in general.[6] Because Scripture appears to contain verses that support both views, how is the Christian to answer the question, “For whom did Jesus die?”

First, verses that seem to support an unlimited atonement must be accounted for (Isa. 53:4-6; John 1:29; 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11: Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2; 4:14). In the well-known and oft-quoted Old Testament passage from Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant is said to have had “the iniquity of us all” laid upon him (Isa. 53:6).[7] This begs the question: Who is the “us all” in this verse?[8] Whose sin is laid upon the Servant? “Does this passage affirm that the Servant atones for the sins of only his elect people, thereby leading to particular redemption, or does he atone for the sins of all people, leading to unlimited atonement?”[9] In light of the larger context of the book, the occurrences of “we” in this passage refer to the people of Israel (Isa. 16:6; 24:16; 42:24; 64:5-6).[10] This observation favors an unlimited atonement because, in bearing the sins of the whole nation of Israel, the Servant “bore the sins of both the elect remnant and those who rejected God.”[11] Simply put, it was both the elect and the non-elect who benefitted from the Servant’s suffering by having their sins placed upon him.[12] In the broader context of the work of the Suffering Servant, Isaiah records that God’s plan for the Servant was to make him a light to the nations so that his salvation would reach to the end of the earth (Isa. 49:6; cf. Isa. 42:6). In this way, “the Servant’s ministry is not only for Israel, but for all people.”[13] He takes upon himself both the sin of Israel and of the world. The “we” in Isaiah 53, then, is an “all-inclusive ‘we.’”[14]

The New Testament authors lend further support for an unlimited atonement. The apostle John seems to suggest it. In the first chapter of his Gospel, John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus, declares, “Behold, the Lamb[15] of God, who takes away the sin[16] of the world!” (John 1:29).[17] But who is “the world”? John’s usage of “world” here “embraces all without distinction of race, religion or culture.”[18] “The reference to ‘the world’ is another glance at the comprehensiveness of Christ’s atonement. It is completely adequate for the need of all people.”[19] Two chapters later, John will write that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16; cf. 3:17).[20] It was the world, and not merely particular people in it, that God loved and sent his Son to die for.[21] John would also write that Jesus is the “Savior of the world” (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14). This is made even clearer in John’s first letter.[22] He writes of Jesus: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).[23] The adjective ‘whole’ is intensive and denotes universality.[24] That the Savior is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world demonstrates that “the efficacy of this sacrifice is not confined to the sins of his particular group of readers. It reaches out to all mankind.”[25] The Savior’s sacrifice is a “universal provision” that makes “the possibility for forgiveness both cosmic and universal.[26]

Although it may surprise some, Paul also seems to suggest an unlimited atonement. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes of his motivation for his evangelistic ministry: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14-15). This causes the question to be raised: Who are the “we” and who are “those who live”? Are “those who live” the same as the “we”? Paul is referring to two different groups of people.[27] The three uses of “we” denote all people, while the single use of “those who live” denotes a particular group, namely believers.[28] With the addition of “those who live,” Paul is introducing a new category distinct and separate from the “we,” though “those who live” are certainly included among the “we.”[29] “There is universalism in the scope of redemption, since no person is excluded from God’s offer of salvation; but there is a particularity in the application of redemption, since not everyone appropriates the benefits afforded by this universally offered salvation.”[30]

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul continues to suggest an unlimited atonement.[31] In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:3-6). In context, Paul has just urged for prayers to be made for “all people” (1 Tim. 2:1), including “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:2). The question here is to whom the “all” refers. There are multiple reasons to view “all” as referring to “all people without exception” rather than to “all people without distinction.”[32] It is more natural to understand “all people” as “each and every person” in light of what Paul will write two chapters later. There, Paul will write that the living God “is the Savior[33] of all people, especially[34] of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). By referring to “all people” and “those who believe,” Paul introduces a contrast between how God is Savior in varying ways toward different people.[35]

Having first accounted for some of the verses most often used to support an unlimited atonement, attention is now turned, secondly, to those verses that seem to support a limited atonement (Matt. 1:21; 20:28; 26:28; John 10:11, 15, 26-27; Acts 20:28; Rom. 8:32-35; Eph. 5:25; Rev. 5:9). Contrary to the claim that Jesus died for everyone, Matthew seems to suggest that Jesus died for particular people.[36] In the very first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, an angel appears to Joseph and instructs him to call his soon-to-be-born son “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). To say that he will save “his people” from their sins implies that there are some who are not “his people” and that these people will not experience salvation from their sins. Later in his Gospel, Matthew declares that Jesus would “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28) and that his blood would be “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).[37] In this case, “many” most certainly does not mean “all” and implies that there are some for whom Jesus’s blood would not be poured out.

Proponents of limited atonement argue that even John supported particular redemption. Despite his universalistic language (John 1:29; 3:16-17; 1 John 2:2; 4:14), John also used particularistic language (John 10:11, 15, 26-27; Rev. 5:9). Recording the very words of Jesus, John writes: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I lay down my life for the sheep… you do not believe because you are not part of my flock” (John 10:11, 15, 26). For Jesus to say that he lays down his life for the sheep and that there are some who do not belong to his flock implies that Jesus’s death was not for all people.[38] Later John would write that the Lamb was worthy to open the scroll because he was slain, thereby ransoming “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Notice here that Christ’s atonement is said to ransom all kinds of people and not all people.[39]

Finally, both Luke and Paul are said to support limited atonement. Both of these men affirm that Christ died for the church (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25). Paul, however, would go on to say in his letter to the Romans that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32), with “us all” referring to “God’s elect” (8:33).

The Historical Perspective

Having accounted for much of the pertinent biblical material, attention is now turned to what theologians throughout the centuries have said concerning the extent of the atonement. Prior to Augustine (354-430), the Christian church generally agreed upon an unlimited view of the atonement.[40] It was during Augustine’s debates with Pelagius that the subject first came into prominence.[41] Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin and taught that humans had an unconditional free will. Against these views, Augustine asserted “the doctrines of original sin and God’s sovereign grace.”[42] Because man’s will was in bondage to sin, Augustine believed that only a sovereign act of God could transform the rebellious heart of the sinner and cause him to desire salvation. Augustine, driven by his view of election, concluded that Christ’s atonement was only for the elect[43] and therefore interpreted universalistic language in particularistic ways.[44] The councils of Carthage (418) and Orange (529) both generally affirmed Augustine’s views, thereby demonstrating the far-reaching influence of his views on limited atonement.[45]

A spark of controversy broke out in the ninth-century when a monk by the name of Gottschalk (c. 804-c. 869), a proponent of Augustinian doctrine, began to teach the doctrines of double predestination and particular redemption.[46] His controversial views forced both proponents and opponents of limited atonement to formulate their arguments on the subject, many of which continue to be the arguments used by believers today.[47] That the extent of the atonement was a much-contested subject during this time is evidenced by the fact that various church councils came to differing conclusions on the matter.[48]

During the era of Medieval Scholasticism, three prominent individuals emerge in terms of their views on the extent of the atonement: Peter Lombard (1095-1169), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and John Wycliffe (1329-1384). Lombard introduced the sufficiency/efficiency distinction, which has been popular ever since.[49] Lombard’s distinction demonstrates an attempt on his part “to maintain both the sovereignty of God in salvation and the universality of the atonement.”[50] Aquinas agreed with Augustine on the sovereignty and omnipotence of God, but differed from him on the extent of the atonement. While holding to unlimited atonement, Aquinas utilized Lombard’s sufficiency/efficiency schema and made a distinction between God’s “antecedent will” and his “consequent will.”[51] Thomas believed, however, that in order for one to experience the efficiency of the atonement (and not merely its sufficiency), one must be united to Christ through faith.[52] The influence of Aquinas’ “sufficient for all, yet efficient only through faith” formulation has been widespread and was affirmed by the Council of Trent.[53] Wycliffe also utilized the sufficiency/efficiency schema of Lombard, but differed with Aquinas in its application. Wycliffe held to particular redemption, but “asserted that the atonement’s theoretical sufficiency for all people brought non-saving benefits of the atonement to the nonelect.”[54]

Although he is most often associated with the TULIP teachings of Calvinism, John Calvin’s views on the extent of the atonement are unclear.[55] Whether he affirmed limited[56] or unlimited atonement is debated among Calvin scholars and his own teachings do not present a consistent picture of his views on the matter.[57] At times, he seems to suggest a universal scope to Christ’s atonement, but on other occasions he seems to suggest a limited scope. In light of his ambiguity on the subject, it is best to conclude that Calvin held “to both universality and particularity in the atonement,” though “he never fully resolved this tension.”[58]

Theodore Beza (1519-1605), unlike his predecessor, was anything but ambiguous in regard to his view on the extent of the atonement.[59] He was an outspoken advocate for particular redemption and, as a result, is often credited as “the source of particular redemption within Reformed theology.”[60] Unlike Wycliffe, Beza limited the benefits of the atonement only to the elect.[61] Because of those like Beza who championed the cause of limited atonement, it was the majority view by the turn of the sixteenth century.[62]

However, there were some within the Reformed movement who remained unconvinced in regard to limited atonement. Jacob Arminius (1559-1609), a student of Beza, was one of them.[63] Arminius reversed the order of the decrees and taught that there was a difference between salvation accomplished and salvation applied. According to Arminius, “Christ’s work brought about potential reconciliation for all, and it is through faith that the potential reconciliation becomes actual for believers.”[64] Because there is a universal gospel offer, there must be an atonement that is genuinely offered to all as well.[65] Shortly after his death in 1609, a group of Arminius’ followers met in 1610 to formulate a statement of their convictions on the matter. This statement, known as the “Remonstrance,” supported unlimited atonement.[66]

In 1618-1619, a synod was held at Dort to resolve the conflict over Arminianism. At this synod, Arminianism’s concept of unlimited atonement was decisively rejected, although those present at the synod failed to reach a consensus on how to explain the extent of the atonement.[67] Some argued for particularism, while others argued for “hypothetical universalism.” The former rejected the sufficient/efficient schema while the latter affirmed it.[68] The Synod’s statement on the matter maintained the sufficient/efficient language as an act of compromise, but explained the sufficiency in terms of infinite value and worth rather than in terms of an unlimited payment for the sins of all people.[69] Although the statement retained some degree of ambiguity, the choice of language indicates that it favored limited atonement.[70]

Like Arminius, Moïse Amyraut (1596-1664) differed with the traditional Reformed formulation of limited atonement. However, unlike Arminius who rejected unconditional election, Amyraut maintained it while affirming unlimited atonement.[71] He believed that Christ died in general for all people provided they respond in faith, but that Christ died in particular for the elect, since only the elect exercise faith.[72] This formulation of Calvinist theology is known as Amyraldianism and has been popular within the Reformed tradition ever since.[73]

John Owen (1616-1683) was a staunch defender of limited atonement and his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is known by many as “the definitive work defending particular redemption.”[74] In it, he rejected the Arminian and Amyraldian views on the extent of the atonement and set out to refute their arguments with a level of thoroughness unmatched by any since.[75] According to Owen, God’s single intention in the atonement was the save the elect.[76]

Theologians throughout the last three centuries have also chimed in on the subject of the extent of the atonement.  Among those who have supported an unlimited view of the atonement include men like John Wesley, Charles Finney, Thomas Oden, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Henry Thiessen, Charles Ryrie, Augustus Strong, E. Y. Mullins, Gordon Lewis, Bruce Demarest, Millard Erickson, and James Leo Garrett.[77] Others have affirmed a limited view of the extent of the atonement, among who are included men like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Loraine Boettner, Louis Berkhof, John Murray, R. B. Kuiper, Roger Nicole, and J. I. Packer.[78]

The Practical Perspective

From this brief survey of what theologians throughout the centuries have said concerning the extent of the atonement, it is clear that both views have been held by Bible-believing, doctrinally-orthodox Christians. What reasons, then, do contemporary Christians have for affirming an unlimited view of the atonement as opposed to a limited view? There are two primary reasons to affirm an unlimited view of the extent of the atonement and each of the reasons carry with it incredibly practical implications. First, an unlimited view of the atonement better accounts for the biblical material. Although the Bible does in places seem to suggest that Christ died for particular people, it does not require the reader to conclude that Christ died only for particular people. The universalistic view of the atonement can accommodate the particularistic language of certain biblical passages without issue; however, the particularistic view of the atonement is harder pressed to accommodate the universalistic language in a meaningful way. Contrary to the claim of some who espouse a limited view of the atonement, an unlimited view does not require one to conclude that Christ died for all people in the same way. Even though Christ died to pay the penalty for all people, his death will not be applied apart from faith.[79] In order for one to experience salvation, the objective work of Christ on the cross must be subjectively applied to the life of the individual through faith.[80] Faith is the mechanism by which God credits Christ’s work on the cross to the repentant sinner. An affirmation of the unlimited atonement of Christ makes it possible for Christians to better account for the biblical material.

Second, an unlimited view of the atonement compels evangelism. If Christ actually accomplished salvation through the cross as opposed to making salvation possible, then the need for responding in faith is greatly diminished, if not obliterated.[81] “Advocates of particular redemption err by collapsing the application and the provision of the atonement into the same act when the Bible separates them.”[82] Christ’s death made salvation possible rather than actual.[83] An unlimited view of the atonement better accounts for the biblical tension between Christ’s objective work on the cross and the subjective application of that work through faith. An unlimited view of the atonement also compels evangelism by making the offer of the gospel genuine. Those who affirm an unlimited view of the atonement can, in good conscience, call the sinner to repentance: “Because Christ died to save sinners like you, salvation is possible (provisional atonement). Therefore, repent and believe the gospel!” Those who affirm a limited view of the atonement are left in the awkward position of calling sinners to repent and believe in a gospel they have no power to repent and believe in because Christ’s death may not have made that response possible.[84] In this way, evangelism becomes little more than a treasure hunt to find the elect. Unlike the one who affirms an unlimited view of the atonement, the one who affirms a limited view cannot call the sinner to repentance without certain caveats: “Because Christ died to save elect sinners, salvation is accomplished (actual atonement). Therefore, if you are elect, repent and believe the gospel!” This kind of caveat lessens the impact of the evangelistic call and is the reason why some say to witness like an Arminian but to sleep like a Calvinist. An unlimited view of the extent of the atonement compels evangelism by the necessity of the gospel offer and by making that same gospel offer genuine.

In the final analysis, both the unlimited and limited views of the extent of the atonement are biblically viable options. While both views have their weaknesses, the latter has more of them while the former has fewer. Both also have their strengths. The limited view of the extent of the atonement rightly teaches that not everyone will experience the salvific benefit of Christ’s work on the cross. This view is also supported by certain passages that teach that Christ died for particular people. However, despite these strengths of the limited view of the atonement, the unlimited view is a stronger position. It rightly teaches that Christ died for all people, but that not all people will be saved. In this way, it strikes the right balance between the objective work of Christ and the subjective application of that work through faith. It makes the evangelistic offer of the gospel a genuine offer. The unlimited view of the atonement also better explains the universalistic and particularistic language of the Bible. Whichever of these two views one affirms concerning the extent of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, both seek to magnify Christ, who is the “Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).

[1] Limited/Definite atonement, or particular redemption, is the view of five-point Calvinism and accounts for the “L” in the “TULIP” acronym (Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010], 268-269). Limited atonement teaches that Christ died only for the elect (Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Death by Love: Letters from the Cross [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 170).

[2] Throughout this paper, I will use the term “Calvinist” to refer in general to those who hold to a limited view of the atonement and the term “Arminian” to refer in general to those who hold to an unlimited view of the atonement. I recognize this bifurcation may be overly simplistic. However, for the sake of brevity, I retain this usage, recognizing that not every person who holds to unlimited atonement would desire to call himself an Arminian. Similarly, it is also possible that not every person who holds to limited atonement would desire to call himself a Calvinist (cf. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994], 595-596n34).

[3] Unlimited/General atonement is the view of Wesleyans, Arminians, and four-point Calvinists (Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, 268) and teaches that Christ died for all people (Driscoll and Breshears, Death by Love, 170). Unlimited atonement is held by Christians among the following denominations: Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Foursquare, Calvary Chapel, Mennonite, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Methodist, and Christian Church (Ibid.).

[4] “This question, as much as perhaps any other, has generated some of the most heated and varied answers in church history” (Ibid., 167). The question, then, arises: Why talk about it? If all that results from discussing this topic is division and conflict within the body of Christ, why not avoid it altogether? Although orthodox, evangelical Christians differ from one another on this issue, one’s conviction about the extent of the atonement has a number of practical implications for both life and ministry. It affects how one views Jesus as Savior and it affects how one approaches evangelism.

[5] “Calvinists commonly appeal to those Scriptures that speak of Jesus’ dying only for some people but not all people [Matt. 1:21; 20:28; 26:28; Rom. 5:12-19], his sheep [John 10:11, 15, 26-27], his church [Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25], the elect [Rom. 8:32-35], his people [Matt. 1:21], his friends [John 15:3], and all Christians [2 Cor. 5:15; Titus 2:14]” (Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, 269; cf. Driscoll and Breshears, Death by Love, 171).

[6] “Arminians appeal to those Scriptures that speak of Jesus dying for all people [2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Tim. 2:1-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11], the whole world [John 1:29; 3:16-17; 1 John 2:2; 4:14; Rev. 5:9], everyone [Isa. 53:6; Heb. 2:9], and not wanting anyone to perish [1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9]” (Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, 268; cf. Driscoll and Breshears, Death by Love, 170).

[7] All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[8] “The identification of we in this [Isa. 53:1] and the following verses has been a source of controversy. Basically three proposals have been made: the nations of the previous verses [52:13-15], the nation of Israel (through the voice of the prophet), and the collective voice of the prophets” (John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, eds. R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998], 381; cf. Schultz, 103).

[9] Gary Lee Schultz, Jr., “A Biblical and Theological Defense of a Multi-Intentioned View of the Extent of the Atonement” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2008), 103.

[10] Oswalt, 381; cf. Schultz, 103. References made to this passage by both John (John 12:38) and Paul (Rom. 10:16) also support the view that the “we” used here refers to the people of Israel (Oswalt, 381; cf. Schultz, 103).

[11] Ibid., 104.

[12] J. Alec Motyer argues that an unlimited, or “open-ended,” atonement logically leads to universalism (J. Alec Motyer, “Stricken for the Transgression of My People: The Atoning Work of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, eds. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013], 261. He asks: “Could any whose iniquities the Lord laid on his Servant fail to be saved? Could that laying-on prove ineffectual? Were any iniquities laid on the Servant save with the divine purpose of eternal salvation? Since universalism is ruled out by Isaiah’s insistence on ‘the many,’ 53:4-6 commits the unprejudiced interpreter to an effective, particularistic understanding of the atonement (Ibid.). In his view, the atonement is “the cause for any conversion,” not merely the possibility-maker (Ibid.). He refuses to draw a distinction between the atonement accomplished and the atonement applied (Ibid., 262). In his view, the atonement was effectual, thereby securing salvation for all those it was intended to save. However, it is not necessary to view the atonement in this way.

[13] Schultz, 105; cf. Oswalt, 384n4. Contra Schultz and Oswalt, Motyer interprets “we” and “many” as referring not to “all without exception,” but to “all without distinction,” meaning people of every kind are included (see Motyer, 264-266).

[14] Oswalt, 377, 384n4. According to Oswalt, “the Servant’s ministry is not limited to the ‘people.’ He is also to be a light to the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6), establishing the rule of God among them (42:1, 4). Thus all persons who recognize that their sin has caused the Servant to suffer may include themselves in the all-inclusive ‘we’” (Oswalt, 384n4).

[15] The Greek word used by John for “lamb” (amnos) is the same word used in the Septuagint’s translation of Isaiah 53:7 (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991], 150). John’s usage of the term “lamb” and its connection to Isaiah 53 links the two passages together and offers further support for an unlimited atonement. “Just as the scope of the Servant is universal (Isa 49:6), so Jesus will give his life not merely for Israel, but for the world” (Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God. Biblical Theology of the New Testament, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009], 417).

[16] “John speaks of sin, not sins (cf. 1 John 1:9). He is referring to the totality of the world’s sin rather than to a number of individual acts” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995], 130). Jesus, as the Lamb of God, bears the collective sin of the whole world.

[17] “Although some have argued that for John the word kosmos (‘world’) sometimes has positive overtones (‘God so loved the world’, 3:16), sometimes neutral overtones (as here [John 1:9]; cf. also 32:24-25, where the ‘world’ is simply a big place that can hold  a lot of books), and frequently negative overtones (‘the world did not recognise him’, 1:10), closer inspection shows that although a handful of passages preserve a neutral emphasis the vast majority are decidedly negative. There are no unambiguously positive occurrences” (Carson, 122; cf. Schultz, 107-108n33; Matthew S. Harmon, “For the Glory of the Father and the Salvation of His People: Definite Atonement in the Synoptics and Johannine Literature” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013], 281-282). According to Harmon ‘world’ “is frequently used to emphasize the scope of God’s redemptive work. In other words, the emphasis falls on Christ’s work as encompassing all people without distinction, not just the Jewish people” (Ibid., 282). However, “There is no place in the Gospel of John where the term kosmos is used to refer to a limited group of people, such as believers or the elect, or Gentiles as opposed to Jews” (Schultz, 107-108).

[18] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 53; cf. Ibid., 90; Carson, 151; Andreas J. Köstenberger, John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Robert Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 67, 129. “It is a distinctively Christian idea that God’s love is wide enough to embrace all people. His love is not confined to any national group or spiritual elite” (Morris, 203). “Jesus takes upon himself the sin not merely of Israel, but of the entire world (cf. 1:10)” (Köstenberger, John, 67; cf. Schultz, 109). According to Harmon, a proponent of limited atonement, “when texts such as John 1:29 speak of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,’ it does not follow that this must and can only mean that Jesus makes atonement possible for every single person. Only the context can determine what [kosmos] means, not a priori assumptions” (Harmon, 287). However, in light of John’s normal usage of kosmos, it is possible that Harmon is allowing a priori assumptions to flavor his understanding of ‘world.’ Concerning the use of ‘world’ in 1 Corinthians 5:19, Jonathan Gibson, another proponent of limited atonement, writes: “Certainly no exegete should doubt the all-encompassing, all-inclusive connotation that [kosmos] carries. Its full weight and corporate nature must not be diminished in any way. Nevertheless, as with other uses of the term in Paul (cf. Rom. 11:12, 15), the word does not by default mean ‘all without exception,’ or ‘every single person’” (Jonathan Gibson, “For Whom Did Christ Die? Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, eds. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013], 306. “Advocates of particular redemption often insist that seemingly universal terms such as ‘world’ must be understood in their contexts and not simply understood as referring to all people. This is certainly true, as the term ‘world’ does not always refer to all people without exception, but this recognition does not give one warrant to dismiss the reality that the term ‘world’ often does refer to all people (Schultz, 107; cf. I. Howard Marshall, “For all, for all my Saviour Died” in Semper Reformandum: Studies in Honour of Clark H. Pinnock, eds. Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross [Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2003], 337-338).

[19] Morris, 130-131. According to Harmon, “To claim that Christ atones for the sins of everyone but then applies that atonement only to the elect runs contrary to the totality of the work that Christ performs in order to glorify the Father” (Harmon, 272). Harmon fails to recognize the distinction between the objective work of Christ and the subjective application of that work through faith.

[20] “The ‘world,’ or frequently ‘this world’ (e.g. 8:23; 9:39; 11:9; 18:36), is not the universe, but the created order (especially of human beings and human affairs) in rebellion against its Maker (e.g. 1:10; 7:7, 22, 27, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8, 20, 33; 17:6, 9, 14). Therefore when John tells us that God loves the world (3:16), far from being an endorsement of the world, it is a testimony to the character of God. God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big but because the world is so bad… In fact, the ‘world’ in John’s usage comprises no believers at all. Those who come to faith are no longer of this world; they have been chosen out of this world (15:19). If Jesus is the Saviour of the world (4:42), that says a great deal about Jesus, but nothing positive about the world. In fact, it tells us the world is in need of a Saviour” (Carson, 122-123).

[21] “Because John 3:16 is sandwiched between vv. 14-15 and v. 17, the fact that God gave his one and only Son is tied both to the Son’s incarnation (v. 17) and to his death (vv. 14-15)” (Carson, 206). Similarly, Morris writes: “God gave the Son by sending him into the world [incarnation], but God also gave the Son on the cross [atonement]. Notice that the cross is not said to show us the love of the Son (as in Gal. 2:20), but that of the Father. The atonement proceeds from the loving heart of God” (Morris, 203; cf. Schultz, 111).

[22] “As in the Gospel of John, the scope of divine salvation [in 1 John] is ultimately regarded as all-inclusive” (Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John. Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker [Waco, TX: Word, 1984], 40; cf. Schultz, 112-113).

[23] According to Schultz, 1 John 2:2 “is one of the clearest expressions in all of Scripture that the atonement is not for believers only” (Schultz, 114). See Schultz, 117-120, for a survey of how proponents of limited atonement have interpreted this verse. Commenting on 1 John 2:2, Schultz writes: “There is no clearer statement in Scripture indicating that Christ died to pay the penalty for the sins of all people” (Ibid., 120).

[24] Smalley, 40.

[25] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978), 119. “Jesus made atonement for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2)” (Köstenberger, John, 129). Commenting on the universalistic verses in the Johannine literature, Harmon argues that “when understood within the larger context of John’s writings, these texts are best understood as emphasizing that the atonement extends beyond the Jews to include people from every tribe and tongue” (Harmon, 281). Rather than referring to all people, then, Harmon suggests these verses instead refer to some people within all groups of people. This is the typical Calvinist interpretation of ‘world.’

[26] Marshall, Epistles, 119. The “scope of salvation,” then, is “potentially universal” (Smalley, 253).

[27] Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Greek Testament Commentary, eds. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005], 421. According to the Calvinistic interpretation of this text, the “all” are the same as “those who live” because “Christ’s death and resurrection are a unity, and all for whom Christ died are the same people for whom he rose” (Schultz, 122-123). However, that Paul intended to refer to a new category of people is clear from his shift from “we” to “those who live.” “If Paul had meant to indicate that ‘all’ and ‘they who live’ were the same group of people, then why did he not simply continue to use the word ‘all’?” (Ibid., 124).

[28] Harris, 421.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 423. The clause at the end of verse 16 is a clause of intent. The word “that” “introduces an intended result, not an automatic outcome; but when believers do make Christ the focal point of their thinking and acting, that is, when they do ‘live for’ him, one divine purpose of Christ’s death is achieved” (Ibid.). Barnett writes: “through the death and resurrection of the ‘one,’ Christ, the deathly effects to ‘all’ of the sin of the ‘one,’ Adam, are overturned, at least potentially. The death and resurrection of Christ is the potential reversal of the death on account of the sin of Adam” (Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997], 290). The Arminian interpretation, then, differs from the Calvinistic interpretation in that Christ’s atonement did not accomplish salvation, but instead made it possible.

[31] “‘Universal statements’ are particularly conspicuous in the Pastoral Epistles” (Marshall, “For all,” 326). Moreover, “there is nothing in the Pastoral Epistles themselves to suggest a theological framework that requires us to understand their teaching in terms of limited atonement. In fact, imposition of this scheme leads to forced and improbable understandings of key texts” (Ibid., 333).

[32] Schultz gives four reasons for affirming an “all people without exception” interpretation: 1) 1 Timothy 2:1 is an instruction for believers to pray for all people and not merely for some people within every kind of people; 2) Because there is only one God and one Mediator, Christ is the Mediator of all people just like God is the God of all people; 3) Paul’s reasoning is that Christ is the ransom for all people; and 4) this interpretation harmonizes with 1 Timothy 4:10, where Paul writes that God is “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (Schultz, 135-136). Proponents of limited atonement, however, interpret “all people” as referring to “all kinds of people, all sorts of people, including civil authorities” (George W. Knight, III. The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary, eds. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992], 119). This is not a natural understanding of the text, however.  “In 1 Timothy 2.1-7, v. 1 calls for prayer for all people, including those in authority. Now in v. 2 ‘all in authority’ surely means ‘all without exception’ rather than ‘all the different types of people in authority’, since no reason can be offered for limiting the prayers to some people in authority and not to others, especially when no criterion is given as to which rulers are or are not to be prayed for. But, if so, v. 1 cannot be limited to prayer for all types of people, especially when there is no criterion for knowing who is included or excluded” (Marshall, “For all,” 329). According to Marshall, “‘All’ cannot be scaled down to refer simply to ‘many’… There are no grounds for thinking that ‘all’ means less than ‘all’” (Ibid., 328). “To say that God is the Saviour of (some, namely those whom he has already chosen out of) all kinds of people (e.g. Jews, Arabs, slaves, children), and then to further qualify it by limiting it to believers is not convincing” (Ibid., 330).

[33] Calvinists understand the title “Savior” differently than the Arminian in this text. In their view, “Savior” does not entail salvation, but preservation (Schultz, 136-137; Grudem, 598n38). “Although the ideas of ‘preserver’ and ‘provider’ fit the semantic domain of soter (‘Savior’), it is doubtful that this is the idea that Paul had when he used this term. The phrase ‘God our Savior’ appears six times in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 1:1; 2:3; 4:10; Titus 1:3; 2:10; 3:4), and in every other place it is used, the meaning is clearly soteriological” (Schultz, 138).

[34] Knight argues that malista, “especially,” can alternatively be rendered “that is” (Knight, 203). This allows a soteriological understanding of “Savior” to be retained without conceding that God is the Savior of all people. According to Knight’s rendering of malista, 1 Timothy 4:10, then, could be translated to say that God “is the Savior of all people, that is, those who believe” (Knight, 203). “It seems, however, that in 1 Tim 4:10 Paul is distinguishing two groups of people, and that the translation ‘especially’ is preferable here” (Schultz, 137n129).

[35] “As this verse echoes 1 Timothy 2:3-6, it seems to be saying that God desires the salvation of all people, and he has provided that salvation for all people in the ransom of Christ, but that he acts as Savior toward believers in a much more profound, deeper sense because it is only they who enter a saving relationship with him” (Ibid., 139).

[36] According to Harmon, Matthew emphasizes “Jesus dying for a particular group of people rather than for humanity in general. Regardless of whether the term used is ‘many’ or ‘his people,’ the point remains the same: Jesus gave his life as a ransom for the eschatological people of God, composed of Jews and Gentiles who believe in him” (Harmon, 277).

[37] Although Harmon confesses that it is possible to interpret “many” as synonymous with “all,” he concludes that a narrower reference is more likely (Ibid., 276). He gives two reasons: 1) “Jesus likely echoes the language of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, where the Servant dies on behalf of the many” and 2) “the language of ransom indicates the payment of a specific price (Jesus’ life) for the release of a specific people (many)” (Ibid.).

[38] “As the Good Shepherd, Jesus lays down his life for a particular group of people (his sheep) in distinction from others (those who are not his sheep)” (Ibid., 277). However, Köstenberger writes: “Jesus will ‘[take] away the sin of the world’ [John 1:29]… while dying for his own sheep [10:15] – John’s way of holding in tension the fact that Jesus renders universal atonement while saving effectually only those who respond to him in faith and accept his substitutionary sacrifice on their behalf” (Köstenberger, 226). Rather than teaching that Christ only dies for his sheep, John here writes that Christ dies sufficiently for all people, but effectually for only particular people (those who repent, believe, and follow Christ; i.e. those who hear Jesus’ voice [10:27]). Hence, a faith response is required and the heresy of Universalism is ruled out.

[39] “The heavenly creatures sing that by his blood the Lamb ransomed a particular people, not the whole world. They are purchased out of ‘every tribe and language and people and nation.’ The text does not say that Christ ransomed every tribe and language and people and nation, but rather people from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Harmon, 279).

[40] Schultz, 20. Regarding views on the extent of the atonement during the Patristic era, Michael Haykin makes three remarks concerning the subject. First, the subject was not controversial at the time and, therefore, “what can be gleaned about this doctrine in this era is mostly from implied comments rather than direct assertions” (Haykin, 59). Second, the Patristic Fathers were more concerned with addressing “the elitism of various Gnostic groups, which led them to stress the universalism of the Christian gospel and, understandably, to downplay the particularity of the cross-work of Christ” (Ibid.). Lastly, the lack of discussion among the Patristic Fathers on the extent of the atonement “should not surprise us given the fact that, while the person of Christ was the subject of ‘lively’ discussion in the Patristic era and ultimately vital dogmatic pronouncements, ‘the saving work of Christ remained dogmatically undefined’” (Ibid., 59-60). Haykin attempts to show that Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, and Jerome all held to particular redemption (Ibid., 59-70). His argument, however, is not well supported.

[41] Schultz, 21. Even then, however, it was not the main focus: “the doctrine of particular redemption [or even the extent of the atonement in general] was neither the subject of controversy nor the center of detailed discussion in the Patristic era, nor even in the Pelagian controversy of the fifth century” (Haykin, 58).

[42] Schultz, 22.

[43] Garrett, 60; Schultz, 23.

[44] “Augustine understands the use of the term ‘world’ in John 3:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 5:19 not in universal terms, but as referring to the ‘world of the elect.’ He interprets 1 John 2:2 as stating that Christ is the propitiation for the ‘whole world’ in the sense that he is the propitiation for the ‘Church in all nations, the Church throughout the whole world.’ Augustine understands the universalism of John 1:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4-6 in a restricted manner. All of the verses that Augustine could have used to argue for an unlimited atonement he instead interprets in a way that restricts the atonement to the elect only” (Ibid., 24; cf. Garrett, 62; Haykin, 72).

[45] Schultz, 25-26. Others, however, like Prosper of Aquitaine (390-455), a defender of Augustine, did not affirm a limited atonement, but instead embraced an unlimited atonement (Garrett, 62). Haykin admits that Prosper held to particular redemption during his early life, but later altered his view on the subject: “In his later career, Prosper appears to have either softened this commitment to definite atonement, or even rejected it in favor of an advocacy of the universal salvific will of God based on his reading of 1 Timothy 2:4” (Haykin, 73).

[46] Schultz, 27; cf. Hogg, 77. He argued that God’s intention in the atonement was singular: to save the elect (Ibid.). For Gottschalk, the idea that Christ died to save any who would not be saved meant that Christ’s blood was wasted and that God’s will was thwarted (Ibid.). “Although Gottschalk was the main protagonist in this dispute, it is important to recognize that he was not alone in publishing and preaching his convictions” (Ibid., 76). Among his allies were Ratramnus of Corbie, Florus of Lyons, Prudentius, and Servatus Lupus (Ibid.). According to Hogg, these men all supported limited atonement (Ibid.).

[47] Schultz, 28.

[48] “The councils of Quiercy (849), second Quiercy (853), Toul (859), and Toucy (860) all pronounced against particular redemption. The councils of Paris (849), Sens (853), and Valence (855), all pronounced for particular redemption” (Ibid., 29n34).

[49] Garrett, 63; Schultz, 29. Lombard’s sufficiency/efficiency distinction teaches that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was sufficient to pay for the sins of all people, thereby emphasizing that there was not somehow a deficiency in the blood of Christ, but that his sacrifice would only be applied to some. This distinction, however, does not resolve the conflict between limited and unlimited atonement, for proponents on both sides can affirm the distinction, though they differ on the specifics.

[50] Ibid., 31.

[51] Ibid., 31-32.

[52] Ibid., 32.

[53] Ibid., 33-34.

[54] Ibid., 35. “These blessings include the alleviation of punishment for the reprobate, both temporal and eternal, and the presence of righteousness in the reprobate (although this righteousness is never saving)” (Ibid.).

[55] Garrett, 63; Schultz, 37.

[56] The “L” In the TULIP stands for “limited atonement,” but whether Calvin supported it is less than clear.

[57] “Calvin’s vagueness on the issue has led to numerous explanations of what his view of the extent of the atonement was. Many scholars believe that he held to unlimited atonement, and that subsequent followers of his theology such as Moïse Amyraut correctly interpreted his views on the subject. Many scholars, however, believe that Calvin held to particular redemption, as tradition has normally understood him to believe, and that followers of his theology such as Theodore Beza were the accurate interpreters of his thoughts on the subject. Some scholars have also proposed that it is simply impossible in light of Calvin’s ambiguity on the issue to know his position” (Ibid., 38-39).

[58] Ibid., 44; cf. Ibid., 39-44.

[59] Garrett, 64.

[60] Schultz, 45.

[61] “He interpreted verses such as John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, and 1 John 2:2 as referring only to the elect, and denied that they should be understood universally. The atonement was entirely efficacious; salvation was not made possible in Christ, but was made actual for the elect. In no way did Christ die for those who were damned, for if he had, his death would have failed. For Beza, the atonement guaranteed the salvation of the elect, for if sin is expiated, then salvation must follow” (Ibid., 48).

[62] Ibid., 49.

[63] Garrett, 64.

[64] Schultz, 54.

[65] “Arminius avoided universalism by appealing to the sufficient/efficient formula: Christ’s death was universally sufficient, but efficacious only for those who believe in it. For Arminius, the only way to avail oneself of Christ’s atonement was through faith. He stated that God requires faith from all people, as seen in the universal gospel offer, and this also demands that the atonement was for all” (Ibid., 53).

[66] Ibid., 55; Garrett, 65.

[67] Schultz, 56.

[68] Ibid., 56-57.

[69] Ibid., 57; Garrett, 65.

[70] Schultz, 57.

[71] Ibid., 59.

[72] Ibid., 64. For Amyraut, “the particularity of the atonement was always subordinate to its universality” (Ibid.). Amyraut also made a distinction between “objective grace (the universal work of the Son in the atonement) and subjective grace (the particular work of the Spirit in applying salvation to believers)” (Ibid., 65-66).

[73] Also known as four-point Calvinism, Amyraldianism rejects the “L” in the five-point TULIP formulation.

[74] Ibid., 73.

[75] Ibid., 73.

[76] Ibid., 76.

[77] Ibid., 79, 90-93. Schultz also lists Richard Watson, William Burton Pope, Thomas Summers, John Miley, F. Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, H. Orton Wiley, R. Larry Shelton, H. Ray Dunning, Emery Bancroft, John Walvoord, Robert Lightner, and Norman Douty among those who affirmed an unlimited atonement (Ibid., 89-93).

[78] Ibid., 85, 87.

[79] Ibid., 154. This runs contrary to the claim of both Universalism and Inclusivism that all will be saved apart from faith. An unlimited view of the extent of the atonement does not necessitate universal salvation (cf. Ibid., 151-159).

[80] Ibid., 154.

[81] Schultz writes: “If those who believe in particular redemption are correct, and the atonement actually saved the elect, then it seems to follow logically that nothing else is necessary for the elect to be saved,” not even faith (Ibid., 156).

[82] Ibid., 155-156.

[83] This does not somehow lessen the value or worth of the cross. When a sinner responds to Christ’s life and death through faith that does not mean that the faith saves him; rather, it is faith in Jesus Christ, the one who gave his life for sinners, that saves him. In this way, the focus is rightly placed not on the act of faith, but on the object of faith, which is Christ himself. This does not diminish the cross of its value or worth; rather, it magnifies it.

[84] Ibid., 177. If Christ died for the sole and singular purpose of securing salvation for the elect then God has no basis for extending common grace benefits to the world (Ibid., 98-99). If, however, God had multiple intentions in the atonement, then he would be justified in extending common grace to his creation. Even R. B. Kuiper, an avid proponent of limited atonement, acknowledged this: “The design of God in the atoning work of Christ pertained primarily and directly to the redemption of the elect, but indirectly and secondarily it also included the blessings of common grace” (R. B. Kuiper, For Whom Did Christ Die? A Study of the Divine Design of the Atonement [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959], 84; cf. Schultz, 99-100). Christ’s intentions on the cross were multiple, not singular. A limited view of the atonement often emphasizes the salvific intention of Christ on the cross to the neglect of his non-salvific intentions on the cross. An unlimited view of the atonement better articulates and encapsulates the multifaceted intentions of Christ on the cross. According to Schultz, “The general intentions of the atonement were to make the universal gospel call possible, to make common grace (and not only salvific grace) possible, to provide an additional basis of condemnation for those who reject the gospel, to serve as the supreme revelation of God’s character, and to make Christ’s cosmic triumph over all sin possible” (Ibid., 161).

Author: John Alexander