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Atonement: Limited or Unlimited?

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A debate of long standing is over the issue of the extent of the atonement: for whom did Christ die? Some suggest Christ died only for the elect, whereas others emphasize that the death of Christ was universal—He died for everyone even though not everyone will be saved.

LIMITED ATONEMENT

A term that is preferred to “limited atonement” is definite or particular redemption, suggesting that the atonement of Christ is limited to a definite or particular number of people. The defense for particular redemption is as follows.

There are a number of passages that emphasize Christ died for a particular group of people and not for everyone. As the Good Shepherd, Christ laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:15); not everyone is included in this flock. Christ gave His life for the church (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25); He died for the elect (Rom. 8:32–33). Therefore, the objects of God’s love are particular; He does not love everyone with the same love (cf. Rom. 1:7; 8:29; 9:13; Col. 3:12; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13). “Since the objects of the Father’s love are particular, definite, and limited, so are the objects of Christ’s death.” This truth is also reflected in verses such as 1 John 4:10, and Romans 5:8 and 8:32.

If Christ actually made an atonement for sin then the objects of that atonement must be a particular group. Otherwise the atonement’s effect is weakened because not everyone is saved for whom Christ made atonement.

Other arguments advanced for limited atonement include the following. If God is sovereign (Eph. 1:11) then His plan cannot be frustrated, but if Christ died for all people and all people are not saved then God’s plan is frustrated. If Christ died for all people then redemption has been made for all and all are justified. That thinking logically leads to universalism (everyone will be saved). In passages stating that Christ died for the world it means He died for “people from every tribe and nation—not only the Jews.” Similarly, when the word “all” is used (2 Cor. 5:15) it means all classes of people but not every person.

UNLIMITED ATONEMENT

The doctrine of unlimited atonement, as understood by evangelicals, means that Christ died for every person but His death is effective only in those who believe the gospel. The arguments for unlimited atonement are as follows.

  1. If the statements of the New Testament are taken at face value, then it is evident they teach Christ died for everyone.
  2. Limited atonement is not based on exegesis of the texts of Scripture but more on the logical premise that if Christ died for everyone and everyone is not saved, then God’s plan is thwarted.
  3. The world, as John describes it, is “God-hating, Christ-rejecting, and Satan-dominated. Yet that is the world for which Christ died” (cf. John 1:29; 3:16; 17; 4:42; 1 John 4:14). These passages emphasize a universal atonement.
  4. The word whosoever is used more than 110 times in the New Testament and always with an unrestricted meaning (cf. John 3:16; Acts 2:21; 10:43; Rom. 10:13; Rev. 22:17).
  5. The word all, or an equivalent term, is used to denote everyone. Christ died for the ungodly—everyone is ungodly (Rom. 5:6); Christ died for all, suggesting everyone (2 Cor. 5:14–15; 1 Tim. 2:6; 4:10; Tit. 2:11; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9).
  6. Second Peter 2:1 indicates Christ died for the false teachers who were “denying the Master who bought them.” The context indicates these are heretics doomed to destruction, yet it is said of them “the Master bought them.” This militates against the limited atonement view.
  7. “The Bible teaches that Christ died for ‘sinners’ (1 Tim. 1:15; Rom. 5:6–8). The word ‘sinners’ nowhere means ‘church’ or ‘the elect,’ but simply all of lost mankind.”

Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 326–328.

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