Some introductory thoughts on an important theological debate:
There would be at least three general sorts of responses to my title. Some would know what I am referring to, and would have a view that the atonement is for all. Others would be aware of the debate, and argue for a limited or definite atonement. Finally, some others would be scratching their heads and asking, ‘Huh?’
This is a very large discussion indeed – one of a number of theological debates that can become quite polarising, with folks on either side becoming quite heated and pugnacious as they defend their preferred positions. Not only are there entire libraries of books devoted to these matters, but it is another very controversial topic which I sometimes avoid, knowing that it has been debated so often already.
But since a friend recently asked me what I thought of the issue, I decided to put this together, not just for his sake, but for others. My aim is not to cause yet another major theological war here, but simply to offer a very brief introduction to the issue.
It may seem at first glance that of course Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Are there not many verses that say just that? Yes there are, but equally, there are many passages that seem to present a differing take on this. I will offer both sorts of texts in a moment.
But let me say a few general things here first. Most theological doctrines do not stand alone, but must be considered in the light of other biblical doctrines. Election and predestination are two such doctrines that must be considered here. And of course those issues are just as contentious! See here for a brief intro to this: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/12/predestination-election-new-testament-data/
As I stated there, there is no question that Scripture speaks to both election and predestination. The real issue however is how we are to rightly understand those passages. But if we accept that somehow and in some way God does indeed elect or call or choose some people, but not others, then to talk of definite atonement seems to make more sense.
If only certain folks are saved, then to speak of the atonement being efficacious for only those people is not an unreasonable position to hold to. One old formulation of this is that the atonement is sufficient for all, but is efficient for only the elect.
This debate arises in part because we know that not everyone is saved. Why? Is God not powerful or sovereign enough to accomplish his purposes and save them? Is it entirely their own choice? Is it perhaps a combination of divine choice and human choice? Different answers have been proposed for all this.
Some theologians for example posit differing types of God’s will, such as his preceptive will and his permissive will. Ideally, God may seek the salvation of all men, but not all are saved. Does that mean God is unable to do what he desires to do? This is where big discussions about the extent of the atonement come into play: does God ultimately will the salvation of all people, or only of those who are in fact saved?
At the end of the day this is a massive issue which in good measure depends on one’s theology. Those in the Puritan and Reformed camps mainly run with the notion of definite atonement, while others will tend to run with a universal atonement view.
Just by way of some of the passages folks will appeal to in this debate, here are some of them:
John 1:29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 12:47 As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.
Romans 5:6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.
Romans 5:18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
2 Corinthians 5:15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
1 Timothy 2:4-6 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men–the testimony given in its proper time.
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.
Hebrews 2:9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance
1 John 2:2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Let me point out that when universal language is used in Scripture (“all,” “the world,” “everyone,” etc) not every case means all. That is clear from many passages. Just one is John 12:19: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him’.” Obviously not everyone on the planet was going after him. Thus such universal language has to be looked at in context, as well as in reference to biblical teaching as a whole.
Matthew 1:21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 20:28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.
Mark 10:45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
John 5:21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
John 10:26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.
John 17:9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.
Romans 5:15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!
Romans 5:19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Romans 9:11-13 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Ephesians 1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
Titus 2:14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
And then there are passages which seem to offer both sides of the debate, such as John 6:35-40:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Here we have both ‘whosoever will’ statements being used, as well as talk of God giving Jesus certain people. So which is it? Perhaps a bit of each!
But simply listing verses pro and con is not going to resolve this. Proof-texting alone is not sufficient. Other issues need to be looked at, and an overall theological grid which is internally consistent and coherent is part of how we address such matters. As I say, it is a big debate, and much more can be said about it.
For further reading
There are of course plenty of books out there on these matters. My next article will offer a reading list on the atonement, the work of Christ, and salvation, featuring around a hundred titles. When I post it I will put that link up here. Many of those titles discuss in part or in full the extent of the atonement. But let me here offer just ten specific books: four that argue for limited atonement, four that argue against it, and two books that offer a range of views.
Limited or definite atonement
Gatiss, Lee, For Us and for Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry. The Latimer Trust, 2012.
Gibson, David and Jonathan Gibson, eds., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. Crossway, 2013.
Owen, John, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Banner of Truth, 1647, 1967.
Reisinger, John, Limited Atonement. New Covenant Media, 2002.
Unlimited or universal atonement
Allen, David, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review. B&H, 2016.
Allen, David and Steve Lemke, eds., Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism. B&H, 2010.
Douty, Norman, Did Christ Die Only for the Elect? A Treatise on the Extent of Christ’s Atonement. Wipf & Stock, 1978, 1998.
Lightner, Robert, The Death Christ Died: A Biblical Case for Unlimited Atonement, 2nd ed. Kregel, 1967, 1998.
Johnson, Adam, ed., Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement. Zondervan, 2019.
Naselli, David and Mark Snoeberger, eds., Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: Three Views. B&H, 2015.
In conclusion, I repeat what I said above: I did NOT write this article so that those with theological bees in their bonnets can come here and start another war, denouncing anyone who dares to think differently than they do. As the few titles above indicate, there are good biblical Christians on both sides of this debate.
Just because someone differs from you on this matter does NOT make them a heretic, an apostate, or whatever. They simply differ. As I say, I wrote this mainly as an introduction for those who may not know much about the debate, and want to learn a bit more.
As mentioned just above, here is my atonement bibliography featuring over 100 titles: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/10/31/the-atonement-the-work-of-christ-and-salvation-recommended-reading/