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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.


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.


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.

Posted by Chris Eller with

The "I Don't Knows" of Demonology

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There is much we do know from God regarding Satan, sin, demons, and the war they’ve been raging against God’s purposes and people. As early as Genesis 3 and as late as Revelation 20, Scripture provides insight into much of the who, what, where, when and how concerning the devil’s beginning and ending.

Yet, there is much we don’t know as well. I was poignantly reminded of this as I read through the questions that were texted in last week in our service. It was the fourth week in our summer series “Doctrine that Goes the Distance,” and the topic was demonology. Though you’ll probably be seeing the phrase “We simply don’t know” a good bit in the coming paragraphs, perhaps you’ll find my “best guesses,” opinions, and related information, as well as the questions, intriguing and stimulating. Regardless, here’s my take on some tough questions.

Since only God is all-knowing, how does Satan know to tempt you with past or “secret” sins or temptations you’ve never voiced?

You’re right, Satan isn’t all-knowing, but neither is he all-ignorant. He is powerfully perceptive, as well as destructively deceptive. So how does he find out about our personal weaknesses and past sins and develop temptations to “steal, kill, and destroy?” While we don’t know a lot about this, consider these options.

First, Satan’s system (i.e., the world) appeals to many of the things in our past (and present) we think are secret. He may not know yours specifically, but he knows humankind in general. Combined with our own sinful nature (i.e., the flesh), you may sense he is warring with you quite personally when really he is simply attacking and making appeals to areas he knows to be common to all people. Technically, he didn’t know your “secret” sin, but practically you feel like he did.

Second, Satan and his regime have other ways of finding out about our specific weaknesses than voice only. I believe they communicate based on what they see, read, and hear, not only from us, but from others as well. Where we go, what we watch, what others say and what we say about others, etc. all are things which the enemy can and will use to wage war against us.

Can we have victory over sin in this life or is it just a matter of enduring?

Yes, we can experience victory over sin’s power in this life (Romans 6), but sin’s presence will not be eliminated until Christ’s return (or our death). I apologize if, in my insistence that we “endure evil,” I unintentionally communicated that victory isn’t possible. Frankly, the fact that Christ has already won the victory is precisely why we can endure evil, say no to temptation, experience character change, and pursue holiness. Victory is more than possible; it’s promised! Still, even in this Satan will hound us. In other words, live in the victory Christ has won, and with his resurrection power kill sin in your life. But simply be aware that your battle with evil will continue till you’re present with the Lord.

If we cannot approach the throne of God because of our sin and God’s holiness, how can Satan, full of sin, stand before God?

I think S. Michael Houdmann, trusted CEO of Got Questions Ministries, provides some excellent insight on this issue: When we say, “God cannot allow sin into heaven,” we simply mean that God cannot allow human beings who are still in their sin to live in His presence. But it is possible for God to command a sinful being to stand (temporarily) in His presence in order to commission him (Isaiah 6), to exact an account from him (Job 1-2), or to judge him (Revelation 20:11–15) without compromising His holiness.” [Read his full answer here.]

Did sin/evil start with Satan?

One thing we can say for sure: he was the first to sin. So in that sense, yes, sin started with Satan. But what made Satan sin? Or, as another questioner curiously asked, “How was Satan, being in the very presence of God in heaven where there is no sin, able to sin?” The origin of evil is the question of the ages, and why Satan sinned, as well as the other angels, is something we’ll continue to wrestle with until God consummates the kingdom and we no longer “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Why not go ahead and chain all the demons? Why wait for a later judgment for some?

First, the belief that about 1/3 of the angels fell is something we derive from comparing Hebrews 12:22 with Revelation 12:3–9. It seems to fit and make biblical sense.

Second, why Jesus only choose to immediately chain a portion of this 1/3 is unknown. This is their initial judgment, and more (a final) judgment is reserved for later when Jesus judges Satan and the rest of the fallen angels/demons. Keep in mind, though, that since all things are created and designed to maximize God’s glory (Rev. 4:11), a general and biblically grounded reason is that God must know that he will receive greater glory for this type of punishment than had he done so to all of them immediately.

Here’s the good news—at least 2/3 of the angels stayed true, loyal, and faithful, serving God. And since they are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14), that means there are more of them serving us than there are demons opposing us. Hallelujah!

Does the enemy tempt angels just as he tempts us?

Paul referred to God’s angels—I think he’s speaking of the ones who did not fall—as “elect” in 1 Timothy 5:21: “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels…” So apparently, God had chosen them. As with humans, and regardless of your position on election, the Bible speaks definitively about God’s undeniable involvement in choosing who would be saved. I believe this is also true with angels, not in regards to being “saved,” but in regards to who of them would not sin. Did God give them all a one-time choice to obey Him or not? Were they created with a free will, then God removed that after the fall of their leader? Is it because their former leader is no longer there (i.e., Lucifer)? We simply don’t know. We do know that the angels who followed Lucifer are lost and condemned, and that, according to 1 Timothy 5:21, the rest are “elect,” indicating to me they are secure. Just as we believe God’s “true Israel,” his elect on earth, will never fall away/be lost, I see no reason from Scripture to think more angels will fall or rebel against God like Lucifer once did.

Consequently, I’d say angels are no longer being tempted as we are. Keep in mind, however, that there is no verse that explicitly says this. It’s a deduction we arrive at from implication.

How much of our physical battle is really spiritual warfare? For example, fear—Is it a state of mind or are we in a spiritual fight?

How about this answer: both! To use your example, there are times fear is simply a human reaction to our surroundings. A child afraid of the dark, a woman afraid of walking home alone, a man afraid of parachuting—you get the idea.

But sometimes fear is rooted in the devil’s attack. In fact, Paul told Timothy that God doesn’t give his children “a spirit of fear” (2 Tim. 1:7). So some fear is Satan’s tool to keep us from trusting God. Obviously detecting when it’s a Satanic temptation and when it’s a human reaction is something very personal, so it’s hard to answer your question specifically as to how much of our battle is one or the other. I’m content knowing it can be either and that God will show me as I’m sensitive to him the moment I sense fear gripping me unnecessarily.