Defending Definite Atonement
The major objections to limited atonement are based on textual and practical considerations. The textual objections include the following:
1. Texts in which the word world is used to describe the objects of the death of Christ’s death, as in John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2: ‘And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’
2. Texts in which the word all is used to describe the objects of Christ’s death, such as 2 Corinthians 5:15, ‘He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again’; Romans 8:32, ‘He . . . spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all’; and 1 Timothy 2:4-6, which speaks of Christ giving himself as a ‘ransom for all.’
3. Texts that seem to state that some for whom Christ died may perish. One such text is Romans 14:15: ‘But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.’ Another, 2 Peter 2:1, in which the apostle speaks of false teachers who deny the Lord ‘that bought them.’
When these texts are handled carefully and honestly, considering their context and the intent of the author and measuring Scripture against Scripture, apparent problems are nearly always readily resolved.2 For example, the Greek word for world (kosmos) can have several meanings in Scripture. Sometimes it refers to the entire elect world, meaning both the Jews and Gentiles; sometimes it refers to the public who surrounded Christ, especially the Jews; sometimes it refers to all kinds of people, such as kings and subjects; sometimes it refers to humankind under the righteous judgment of God or to the kingdom of evil forces, both angelic and human, as related to the earth; sometimes it refers to creation, or to the earth itself, or in the classical sense, to an orderly universe; and sometimes it simply refers to a great number of people.3
As for specific texts, John 3:16 does not reflect on the atonement’s extent; rather, the key to John 3:16 is in the purpose clause of verse 17: in order that ‘the world through him might be saved.’ World is referring not to everyone but to the world under judgment and condemnation. B. B. Warfield says kosmos is used in John 3 not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for sinners in it.
In 1 John 2:1-2, the apostle is saying that Christ’s defence before God is so complete that it is sufficient for the sins of the world. He is also saying that the sacrifice Christ made was not only for the Jews or for a small group of first-century believers, but for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation through all time. John Murray speaks about the ethnic universalism of the gospel, meaning that those for whom Christ died are spread among all nations. Abraham Kuyper shows that the Greek word translated ‘for’ (peri, not hyper) means ‘fitting for’ or ‘with respect to.’ Hence, the meaning of the Greek can be that Jesus is a propitiation just like we and the entire world need – or, just as Jesus is our propitiation, so the entire world needs that same propitiation.4
As for the texts that use the word all, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 uses all in the context of the unity of death and resurrection. Christ rises for those in union with him; therefore, his death must be thought of in those same terms.5 The phrase ‘delivered up for us all’ in Romans 8:32 is in the context of God’s foreordination of his people (vv. 28-30) and of Christ’s intercession for the elect (vv. 33-39). The words ‘ransom for all’ in 1 Timothy 2:4-6 are clearly set in the context of prayers being offered for all kinds of people (vv. 1-2). Since the word all does not always mean all individuals in either Greek or English usage, there is no compelling reason to conclude that the all in verses 4 and 6 refers to every single person.
What of texts that seem to speak of believers falling away from faith? The context of Romans 14:15 shows that the apostle is not talking about a brother for whom Christ died apostatizing from the faith altogether, but about one who would feel crushed if a fellow Christian became such a stumbling block in his life of faith that he would begin to traverse the road that leads to destruction. And 2 Peter 2:1 probably refers to false teachers who had been nominal members of the church but who in their actions, were denying the Saviour they once professed but never knew in truth. They may have had historical, even temporary and miraculous, faith, but never possessed true saving faith,6 for they rejected the Saviour and did ‘stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed’ (1 Pet. 2:8). Certainly, Christ did not redeem those who were ordained to be disobedient!
Most major practical objections to limited atonement can be summarized in two questions:
How can the atonement be glorious if it is limited to some? This question really has two aspects. The first is the false idea that Christ died for a tiny remnant of people. Both the Canons of Dort and the Second Helvetic Confession reject that conclusion on the basis of Scripture passages that say heaven will house a great multitude of redeemed people that no man can number, from every kindred, tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9-17).7
The second aspect is the false idea of who does the limiting in atonement. As Charles H. Spurgeon showed, it is the Arminian, not the Calvinist, who limits Christ’s redemption:
The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, ‘No, certainly not.’ We ask them the next question – did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer, ‘No.’ They are obliged to admit this if they are consistent. They say, ‘No, Christ has died that any man may be saved if’ – and then follow certain conditions of salvation. We say, then, we will just go back to the old statement – Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did he? You must say ‘no’; you are obliged to say so, for you believe that even after a man has been pardoned, he may yet fall from grace, and perish. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you . . . You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.8
The Calvinist teaches that salvation is sure for every man, woman, teenager, boy, or girl who comes to the Lord Jesus Christ. None shall be turned away (John 6:37). The Calvinist says, ‘In his atonement, Jesus built a bridge from the depths of my depravity to God and heaven, and, by sending his Spirit, will bring every sinner for whom the bridge was laid all the way to glory.’ That statement is the essence of the gospel. God will not fail to gather in every single one of his elect. There will be no empty seats in heaven.
Arminians say atonement only makes salvation possible. In doing so, they greatly limit the efficacy of the bloodletting of the Son of God. One Arminian put it this way: ‘The atonement would be just as efficacious and glorifying to God if not one sinner ever appropriated it.’ In the Arminian view, the atonement created the possibility of salvation, but men must complete the bridge by exercising their own free will.9
How can you preach the gospel to all men without distinction if Christ did not die to save all? In other words, if you cannot come to a sinner and say, ‘Christ died for you,’ how can you ask him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? Doesn’t Calvinism dampen evangelistic zeal? Let me offer three responses. First, the content of the gospel is not telling people that Christ died for this or that specific person. There is not one instance in the preaching of the book of Acts, private or public, where the apostolic gospel says Christ died for any individual. The gospel says that God has sent his Son, who lived, died, and rose again. That is adequate salvation for the vilest of sinners, for the promise is: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’
Second, the Calvinist view of the atonement guarantees the success of evangelism. The elect will be saved infallibly through the preaching of the gospel, for God determined that it would be so through the eternal covenant of redemption established among the persons of the Trinity. In his sovereign, gracious, distinguishing love, the Father has chosen certain people (Rom. 9:11-13; Eph. 1:4) whom he gave to his Son (John 6:37, 39; 17:6, 24), who, in turn, committed himself to accomplish their redemption by obeying the precepts of God’s moral law perfectly on their behalf (his active obedience) and paying the penalty due them for their disobedience to the law (his passive obedience). Thus God can be just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). Under the Trinitarian covenant, the Spirit is sent into the world by the Father and the Son (John 15:26; 16:5-15) to apply Christ’s saving work to the elect.
We need to remember that the decretive and covenantal will of God is effectual. What God purposes, he performs. Christ’s atonement is the work to which he committed himself from eternity. Definite atonement flows out of the electing purpose of God and adheres fully with other doctrines of Christology that are grounded in eternity, such as the doctrines of Christ as the second Adam, of his high-priestly work, and of his covenant role.
Knowing that the elect will be gathered by the second Adam (John 17:12; Rom. 5:12-19) makes Calvinists bold in evangelism. They also are patient in it, knowing that God will save sinners in his time and way through the priestly work of Christ (Isa. 55:10-11). They are zealous, knowing that God’s glory will come to be (1 Cor. 1:27-31), and prayerful, knowing that he alone will and can accomplish salvation as an ever-faithful, covenant-keeping Lord (Eph. 2:1-10).10 Nearly all the great and zealous evangelists of the church from the sixteenth-century Reformation to the early nineteenth century, before Charles Finney (1792-1875), were committed to definite atonement rooted in this God-centred covenant theology. Would anyone dare say that George Whitefield lacked evangelistic zeal in preaching the gospel? Would anyone say the same of Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards, or Asahel Nettleton? Each of these great evangelists professed a definite design in the atoning work of Christ and boldly heralded Christ as a freely offered and willing Saviour to all who repent and believe.11
Third, while we cannot fully grasp with our finite minds how to reconcile a definite, limited atonement with Christ’s all-sufficient blood and a universal invitation to believe, such is the pattern of Scripture and the way of God (John 6:37-40). Moreover, since the atonement is not limited in itself, though it is in its design, and since the promise is that all who by faith truly come to Christ for salvation will certainly be saved (Rom. 10:13), limited atonement is not inconsistent with a universal call to faith.
This is also the position of the Canons of Dort. Affirming that Christ’s blood is shed effectually only for those ‘who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father’ (Head II, Art. 8), the Canons read,
The promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel (Head II, Art. 5).
Roger Nicole says our major problem in understanding definite atonement is that we think that a coextensive provision is necessary for a sincere offer of any kind; that is, Christ has to have died for every person in order for every person to be offered salvation in him. Nicole says this premise is false even in mundane human affairs:
For instance, advertisers who offer some objects on the pages of a newspaper do not feel that honesty in any way demands of them to have a stock coextensive with the circulation figures of the newspaper. Really, the only requisite for a sincere invitation is this – that if the conditions be fulfilled, that which is offered will actually be granted.12
Jesus says, ‘He who cometh to me I will in no wise cast out’ (John 6:37). Unlike stores with limited stock, Jesus’ stock is never exhausted.
William Symington argues likewise:
We hold that the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus possessed an intrinsic value sufficient for the salvation of the whole world. In this sense it was adequate to the redemption of every human being . . . The worth of Christ’s atonement we hold to be, in the strictest sense of the term, infinite, absolute, all-sufficient . . . This all-sufficiency is what lays the foundation for the unrestricted universality of the gospel call . . . Such is my impression of the sufficiency of the atonement, that were all the guilt of all mankind concentrated in my own person, I should see no reason, relying on that blood which cleanseth from all sin, to indulge despair.13
Let sinners everywhere know that if they perish it is not because there is not merit in Christ sufficient to meet all the demands of law and justice against them. Let them all turn and embrace the kind, the sincere, the urgent call to life and salvation by mere gratuity on the part of God: ‘Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.’14
If, by grace, you take this water of life, you will be saved. No one has ever perished who has believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. The message of the gospel is: ‘The bridge is finished. Christ will enable you to put your weight on it, and he will carry you all the way across. He welcomes all who come. Trust him.’
Without faith, Christ’s atonement does us no good. We experience the benefits of Christ’s accomplishment only when we, with our empty hands, embrace Christ. The good news is that the atonement has been achieved before we exercise faith (Rom. 5:5-11). The reconciliation is there to be received; and by grace, we receive it when Christ, by the Holy Spirit, draws us to himself.
Redeemed by Precious Blood
Arminianism and Calvinism are based on different premises. Calvinists believe in a definite atonement, one that holds that Jesus Christ actually redeemed everyone he intended to redeem through his substitutionary death. As Tom Ascol says,
Just as the high priest under the old covenant wore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on his breastplate when he performed his sacrificial service, so our great High Priest under the new covenant had the names of His people inscribed on His heart as He offered up Himself as a sacrifice for their sins.15
Not one who belongs to Christ will be lost.
Nicole has often said that when Calvinists declare they believe in a limited atonement, Arminians can proclaim an unlimited atonement, but when Calvinists proclaim a definite atonement, no Arminian wants to claim an indefinite atonement.16 Though definite atonement or particular redemption are better expressions than limited atonement, let us not forget that every Calvinist and Arminian, in actuality, believes in a limited atonement. As Ascol points out, ‘The Arminian view, claiming that the atonement is unlimited in its extent, is forced to conclude that it is limited in its efficacy. It failed to accomplish its universal purpose.’17 Spurgeon describes this failure well:
Many divines . . . believe in an atonement made for everybody; but then, their atonement is just this. They believe that Judas was atoned for just as much as Peter; they believe that the damned in hell were as much an object of Jesus Christ’s satisfaction as the saved in heaven; and though they do not say it in proper words, yet they must mean it, for it is a fair inference, that in the case of multitudes, Christ died in vain, for he died for them all, they say; and yet so ineffectual was his dying for them, that though he died for them they are damned afterwards.18
Speaking with Spurgeon, we Calvinists may say to our Arminian friends, ‘You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.’ For we need a Saviour who truly saves (Matt. 1:21) with a redemption that truly redeems by ‘the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God’ (1 Pet. 1:19-21).
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood:
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!
-Philip Paul Bliss
Christ’s atonement did not partially fail; it totally succeeded. Jesus never fails!
- See also the author’s article ‘Definite Atonement’ on the Banner of Truth website.
- John Gill, Body of Divinity (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971), 467-475; John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 10:316-421; John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009 edition), 51-53; A. W. Pink, The Satisfaction of Christ, 253-66.
- Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 233-234; and Duane Edward Spencer, TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism in the Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 36-37.
- Abraham Kuyper, Particular Grace: A Defense of God’s Sovereignty in Salvation (Grandville, Mich.: Reformed Free Publishing, 2001), 23-33.
- Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).
- For helpful exegetical considerations, see Letham, The Work of Christ, 240-45.
- See the Conclusion of the Canons and the Second Helvetic Confession, chap. 10, ‘We must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate’ (Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:848).
- Charles H. Spurgeon, ‘Particular Redemption,’ in The New Park Street Pulpit (1858; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 4:135; quoted in J. I. Packer’s Introduction to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), note page 14.
- Atonement, 244.
- See Letham, The Work of Christ, 234-37.
- Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 2:482-89; J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1961).
- Roger Nicole, Evangelical Theological Society Bulletin (Fall 1967): 207.
- William Symington, The Atonement and Intercession of Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 185-86.
- Thomas K. Ascol, ‘For God So Loved the World,’ Tabletalk, 29, no. 9 (September 2005):16.
- Roger Nicole, ‘The “Five Points” and God’s Sovereignty,’ in Our Sovereign God, ed. James Boice (Birmingham, Ala.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2008), 32-33.
- Thomas K. Ascol, ‘For God So Loved the World,’ 17.
- Charles Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit (Pasadena, Tex.: Pilgrim Publications, 1975), 4:70.
Taken with permission from The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, November 2009.
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