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WHOSOEVER WILL: The atonement: Limited or universal?

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The issue of the “extent of the atonement” answers the question “For whose sins did Christ die?” There are only two options: 1) for the elect alone (“limited atonement” also called “definite atonement,” or “particular redemption”), or 2) for all of humanity.

Importantly, arguing for unlimited atonement and against limited atonement does not require quoting a single Arminian or non-Calvinist. It is a common misconception that all Calvinists affirm limited atonement. But even John Calvin rejected limited atonement, and Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Fuller are just a few of history’s well-known Calvinists who likewise rejected this position.


All of the earliest reformers, including Calvin, held to a form of universal atonement — not universal salvation, but that Christ’s shed blood paid the price for all men’s sins so the possibility of atonement was unlimited. The five-point Calvinist’s doctrinal position of limited atonement was not developed until the second and third generation of reformers, beginning primarily with Beza.

Controversy over introduction of this concept into Reformed beliefs grew to such an extent that ambiguous language on the subject was left in the final draft of the Canons of Dort (1618–1619) so as to allow those among the delegates who rejected limited atonement to sign the final document.

Even the Westminster Assembly (1643–1649) included delegates who rejected limited atonement, and the Puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries included distinguished leaders who preached and wrote against it. For example, John Bunyan declared: “Christ died for all…. For the offer of the gospel cannot with God’s allowance, be offered any further than the death of Jesus Christ doth go; because if that be taken away, there is indeed no gospel, nor grace to be extended.”


There are three key sets of texts in the New Testament that affirm unlimited atonement:

— the “all” texts,

— the “world” texts, and

— the “many” texts.

There also are three sets of texts that state Jesus died for His:

— “church”

— “sheep,” and

— “friends.”

How are we to reconcile the universal texts with the limited ones?

The high-Calvinist wrongly interprets the universal texts in light of the limited texts. Non-Calvinists and moderate Calvinists rightly interpret the limited texts as a subset of the universal texts.

Some Calvinists argue that biblical authors believed in limited atonement because they made statements affirming Christ died for the Church, even though biblical writers do not say that Christ died only for the Church or that He did not die for the non-elect.

There is no linguistic or exegetical or theological ground for reducing the meaning of “world” to “the elect” in such passages as John 3:16. John Owen made John 3:16 read “God so loved those he chose out of the world,” which changes completely the sense of the verse and turns it into something opposite of its intended meaning. But to make the meaning of “world” here “the elect” is to make not only a linguistic mistake but also a logical mistake of category confusion.


The key theological argument used to support limited atonement is the Double Payment argument, which says justice does not allow the same sin to be punished twice. This argument faces several problems:

— it is not found in Scripture

— it confuses a commercial debt and penal satisfaction for sin

— the elect are still under the wrath of God until they believe (Eph 2:3)

— it negates the principle of grace in the application of the atonement (nobody is owed the application).

Though Christ died sufficiently for the sins of all people, the promise of salvation is clearly conditional in the New Testament — one must repent and believe in order to receive salvation. The limitation was not in the provision of Christ’s death, but in the application. A man cannot be punished for rejecting what was never for him in the first place!


One argument for limited atonement goes like this: Christ died “for His sheep,” for “His Church,” and for “His friends.” These are limited categories of people, thus, this is proof of limited atonement.

Not so fast!

Statements such as these do not prove limited atonement, because to argue such invokes the negative inference fallacy: the proof of a proposition does not disprove its converse.

One cannot infer a negative (Christ did NOT die for group A) from a bare positive statement (Christ did die for group B), any more than one can infer that Christ only died for Paul because Gal 2:20 says that Christ died for Paul.

Consequently, the fact that many verses speak of Christ dying for his “sheep,” his “church,” or “his friends” does not prove that he did not die for others not subsumed in these categories. There is no statement in Scripture that says Jesus died ONLY for the sins of elect. There are numerous statements that say Christ died for “all,” the “world,” or for “everyone,” as in Hebrews 2:9.


Acts 3:26 states: “To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.” Peter is telling his unbelieving audience that God sent Jesus to bless each and every one of them and to turn every one of them from their iniquities. This is equivalent to Peter saying: Christ died for you.

How could Jesus save every one of them (which is what blessing and turning away from iniquity involves) if he did not actually die for the sins of all of them? Certainly “each one” of the Jews Peter addressed must have included some who were non-elect! The free and well-meant offer of the gospel for all people necessarily presupposes that Christ died for the sins of all people.

Limited atonement truncates this good news of the gospel by sawing off the arms of the cross too close to the stake. At this strategic time of focus on a Great Commission Resurgence, should the Southern Baptist Convention move toward “five-point” Calvinism, such a move would be away from and not toward the gospel.
David Allen is dean of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology.

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  • David L. Allen