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A rebuttal of the Reformed doctrine of

Limited Atonement

 

 

First and foremost, this article is not written as an attack on Reformed believers. I know of many Reformed that love the Lord dearly. I have made use of Reformed ministries like Alpha and Omega, CRTA, and CARM. There are also a number of high quality theological books & commentaries written by Reformed believers. This article will be focusing on one of Calvinism’s core doctrines known as Limited Atonement. I’ll address the support of this doctrine and what those that hold to it believe, and I will address the many unbiblical interpretations and out of context scripture passages that Reformed use. Then I will look at four main scripture passages that provide a rebuttal of this doctrine. I welcome constructive criticism, but I ignore character attacks so feel free to email me after you completely read this article. All scripture quotations unless otherwise indicated will be from the King James Version (KJV).

 

Limited Atonement is one of the five core doctrines of Calvinism. These doctrines compared to their Arminian counterparts are below. Chart cited from Biblical Calvinism by Curt Daniel.

 

THE 5 POINTS OF
CALVINISM
THE 5 POINTS OF ARMINIANISM

TOTAL DEPRAVITY
Sin controls every part of man. He is spiritually dead and blind, and unable to obey, believe or repent. He continually sins, for his nature is completely evil.

FREE WILL
Sin does not control man’s will. He is sick and near-sighted, but still able to obey, believe and repent. He does not continually sin, for his nature is not completely evil.

UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION
God chose the elect solely on the basis of His free grace, not anything in them. He has a special love for the elect. God left the rest to be damned for their sins.

CONDITIONAL ELECTION
God chose the elect on the basis of their foreseen faith. He loves all men equally. God passed over no one, but gives everyone an equal chance to be saved.

LIMITED ATONEMENT
Christ died especially for the elect, and paid a definite price for them that guaranteed their salvation.

UNIVERSAL ATONEMENT
Christ died equally for all men, and paid a provisional price that made salvation possible for all but guaranteed it for none.

IRRESISTABLE GRACE
Saving grace is irresistible, for the Holy Spirit is invincible and intervenes in Man’s heart. He sovereignly gives the new birth, faith and repentance to the elect.

RESISTABLE GRACE
Saving grace is resistible for God cannot interfere with Man’s free will. Man is born again after he believes, for faith and repentance are not gifts of God.

PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
God preserves all the elect and causes them to persevere in faith and obedience to the end. None are continually back-slidden or finally lost.

FALLING FROM GRACE
Only a few Christians continue in faith and obedience to the end (Arminians are divided over whether one can actually lose his salvation).

 

So, what is the doctrine of Limited Atonement? Consider the definition below from the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Intervarsity Press;

 

Sometimes called “particular redemption,” the view that Jesus’ death secured *salvation for only a limited number of persons (the elect), in contrast to the idea that the work of the cross is intended for all humankind (as in “unlimited atonement”). This view resulted from the post-Reformation development of the doctrine of *election in Calvinist circles. Proponents claim that because not everyone is saved, God could not have intended that Christ die for everyone.

 

Another definition from the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics (CRTA);

 

Limited Atonement is a doctrine offered in answer to the question, "for whose sins did Christ atone?" The Bible teaches that Christ died for those whom God gave him to save (John 17:9). Christ died, indeed, for many people, but not all (Matthew 26:28). Specifically, Christ died for the invisible Church -- the sum total of all those who would ever rightly bear the name "Christian" (Ephesians 5:25).This doctrine often finds many objections, mostly from those who think that Limited Atonement does damage to evangelism. We have already seen that Christ will not lose any that the father has given to him (John 6:37). Christ's death was not a death of potential atonement for all people. Believing that Jesus' death was a potential, symbolic atonement for anyone who might possibly, in the future, accept him trivializes Christ's act of atonement. Christ died to atone for specific sins of specific sinners. Christ died to make holy the church. He did not atone for all men, because obviously all men are not saved. Evangelism is actually lifted up in this doctrine, for the evangelist may tell his congregation that Christ died for sinners, and that he will not lose any of those for whom he died!

 

Reformed/Calvinist believers generally agree that the death of Christ is efficient only for the elect. They deny General Atonement (meaning that Christ paid for the sins of the whole world). Charles H. Spurgeon in his article Particular Redemption described General Atonement with these words “General Atonement is like a great wide bridge with only half an arch; it does not go across the stream, it only profess to go halfway; it does not secure the salvation of anybody.” The first thing to consider is the purpose and meaning behind the death of Christ. A look at Hebrews 10:9 reveals his will and this was to do the will of his father. Numerous times in the gospels does Jesus also state this. Looking at scripture from a logical mindset Reformed believe that God the father chose some to be saved and let the rest be reprobated to hell and eternal separation from God. This purpose is clearly stated in Matt 1:21 “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” Also do many Reformed use Eph 5:25 which says “Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it.” A man loves all other persons, but has a special love for his wife, or significant other. A good Christian man will have a love for everyone, but a special and deep love for his bride. Therefore, they use this type of logic to conclude that Christ died and did something for all men at the cross, but his death on the cross-meant something special for the elect. Reformed also use many other verses to aid their defense of Limited Atonement. John 10:15, 17 and 18 are others. These verses say that Christ died for “the sheep.” This phrase would mean “the elect” and cannot be interpreted as Christ dying for men everywhere. In verse 26 does Christ say that not everyone is one of his sheep. Christ never died for the snakes and scorpions nor the goats or wolves, but he died for the elect “his sheep.” Then in John 15:13-14 does Christ say that he would lay down his life for his friends, but not everyone is one of his friends. Isaiah 53:8 is very important to this doctrine as it contains an Old Testament prophecy of Christ dying only for God’s people.

 

Isaiah, Chapter 53, Verse 8, New American Standard Version

 

By oppression and judgment, He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?

 

In Acts 20:28 it says that Christ purchased the church of God with his own blood. Reformed generally believe that Christ’s death was to make possible the salvation of all men, but his death was to make definite the salvation of the elect (Daniel). Matt 26:28 states that Jesus died for the sins of many as he stated that his blood was of the new covenant. Also in John 17:9 Jesus prays for the ones given to him, and not those of the entire world. If Jesus had died for the entire world, why would he only pray for the elect? Charles H. Spurgeon had these words to say about unlimited atonement (from his sermon, “The Mission of the Son of Man”):

 

“Now, some people love the doctrine of ‘universal atonement’ because they say it is so beautiful. It is a lovely idea that “Christ should have died for all men’; it commends itself they say, to the instincts of humanity; there is something in it full of joy and beauty.”

 

“I admit there is; but beauty may be often associated with falsehood.

 

“God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise.

 

“Once again, if it were Christ’s intention to save all men, how deplorably has he been disappointed! For we have His own evidence that there is a lake that burns with fire and brimstone, and into that pit must be cast some of the very people, who according to that theory, were bought with blood!”

 

In conclusion, the bible teaches that the death of Christ is the foundation of the Christians hope. Once one has been elected by the Grace of God or chosen by God (as RC Sproul says) that person is bound and cannot resist coming to Christ. Jesus is the redeemer and does deliver his people from their sins. It makes no sense according to the Reformed mindset to allow many to be lost to him forever.

 

Problems with this kind of thinking and reasoning are all over the Bible. Arguing from logic alone a Calvinist wins, but Grace is something that Calvinists who believe in Limited Atonement may ignore. Next, I will be providing the support against the doctrine of Limited Atonement from the Bible and various other resources.

 

Arguments against the doctrine of Limited Atonement

 

The opposite of Limited Atonement is Universal Atonement. Millard J. Erickson in his 1300 page Systematic Theology textbook Christian Theology explains what Universal Atonement is:

 

In contrast with the foregoing position is the contention that God intended the atonement to make salvation possible for all persons. Christ died for all persons, but his atoning death becomes effective only when accepted by the individual. While this is the view of all Arminians, it is also the position of some Calvinists, who are sometimes referred to as sublapsarians (Erickson, 846).

 

There are a number of arguments against the doctrine of Limited Atonement throughout the scriptures. I’ll be addressing and explaining four primary scripture verses that I believe clearly indicate that Christ died for all mankind and not ONLY for the elect. Before I dive into my primary verses I want to rebut some of the verses that Reformed use in support of their doctrine. Reformed often will use Acts 20:28 and Eph 5:25-27. In response to these verses I point to Gal 2:20 where Paul says that Christ loves him and gave himself for him. Reformed do not suggest by looking at this verse alone that Christ only died for Paul. So in the same way the verses in Acts and Ephesians do not teach that Christ died for the church alone (Houghton). Hebrews 2:10 states that Christ died to bring “many sons” to glory. And in verse 9 of the same chapter does the author of Hebrews state that Christ should taste death for “every man.” If Limited Atonement was taught in the Bible then can any Reformed tell me why would Hebrews 2:9 states that Christ should taste death for everyman? If Limited Atonement was true, can any Reformed explain 2 Pet 2:1 which says “denying the Lord that bought them?” If Christ had only died for the church as Reformed claim Acts 20:28 teaches then why would 2 Pet 2:1 state that Christ also died for the false teachers? Louis Igou Hodges recognizes the problem this verse poses for those that teach limited atonement and he states, “Particularly troubling is 2 Pet 2:1. Reformed interpretation of this text needs further study.” (Hodges, pg 188). Next I will be diving into my four scripture rebuts of Limited Atonement. These passages are not exhaustive of the many scripture contradictions of Limited Atonement.

 

 

2 Peter 3:9

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

 

This verse clearly explains that the motives are the Lord are to bring everyone to repentance. There are many passages like this one in the canon of scripture and anyone who reads the Bible will see that its is the will of God to bring everyone to salvation. But if this was not his will, then the Lord would not have commanded us to go out and evangelize to the lost unsaved world (Mt 28:18-20). If God only wanted certain people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth, then can any Calvinist, tell me why this verse was included in the New Testament? The context of the verse is in reference to the day of the Lord. The LANTC commentary says that “God does not want anyone to perish, so he is giving more time for everyone to repent. He wants as many people as will to come to faith in him.” God does not want anyone to perish and his love is purely the reason that God delays the destruction of the world (LANTC). Can any Calvinist/Reformed explain 2 Peter chapter 3 in context? Reformed read far too much into the word of God and may sometimes misunderstand central themes because they are too logically orientated. In a former article where I explained why babies and severe mentally Disabled go to heaven when they die I used Matt 20:1-16 as a text to explain the concept of grace. Logically speaking in the parable the master of the vineyard did not need to pay everyone the same but did so anyways out of grace. I believe the Lord used this parable to teach us grace and teach us not to rely entirely on logic which sadly is what many Reformed do. Logic can be important, but also remember that by logic no man should enter the kingdom of Heaven. But God is full of compassion and mercy (Jas 5:11).

 

1 John 2:2 (NIV)

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

 

The word “atoning” is mentioned some three times in the NIV translation. The KJV and ESV use the word “propitiation” instead of atoning. The Greek word used in this verse is hilasmos which is from the root word hilaskomai. The KJV and ESV formally translate the verse superior according to the Greek, however I believe the NIV makes the word clearer to the modern reader. For atonement means ‘the reconciliation between God and man through Jesus Christ.’ Propitiation also means this, however I believe that atoning may be clearer to the modern reader. So, what does the author mean by the Greek word hilasmos? This word is found in only two places in the NT and a overall six times in the LXX (Lev 25:9; Num 5:8; Ps 129:4; 130:4; Ezek 44:27; Amos 8:14), and in every case with the exception of Amos 8:14 do the passages relate to the removal of guilt because of sin (Kruse). Colin Kruse in his commentary on 1 John says “The author is not content to say that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice ‘for our sins’ (meaning the sins committed by believers; cf. 2:1), but adds, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (Kruse, 74). Interpretating the word world and what is meant in the context of 1 John can be difficult. But what can be suggested is that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, but his sacrifice only becomes effective when people believe in him (Kruse, 75). I believe that this verse explains away the doctrine of Limited Atonement. For there are two groups mentioned in this verse and which are believers and unbelievers. Each group can accept Christ’s sacrifice for their sins. When a worldly person accepts Christ’s sacrifice for his sins, then that person becomes a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). For Christ did die for the sins of the whole world and everyone has the opportunity to accept him as their savior (Jn 3:16).

 

1 Timothy 2:4

Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth

 

My Zondervan KJV Study Bible says the following about this verse

 

God desires the salvation of all people. On the other hand, the Bible indicates that God chooses some (not all) people to be saved (1 Pet 1:2). Some interpreters understand such passages to teach that God has chosen those He, in his foreknowledge, knew would believe when confronted with the gospel and enabled to believe.

 

I believe the Bible is quite clear in that God desires the salvation of all people but foreknew that not everyone would turn to him. I have examined several commentaries on this verse including some incredibly technical ones. I have to wonder why would God give us a passage that appears easy for the laymen to understand, but make it difficult to understand, that only someone with an advanced knowledge of the original languages can comprehend? I do not think this is the way that God operates. God gave us the Bible, and understanding it does not necessarily require the usage of a commentary some 641 pages on the Pastoral Epistles alone. God loves the world and wants all to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. The Bible speaks of God’s universal love, and this does not simply specify the elect. Martin Luther once said that he was glad that God said that he loved the world, rather than “God so loved Martin Luther.” God loved the world so much that he gave his unique son.

 

1 Timothy 4:10

For therefore we both labour and sufer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.

 

Some who look at this passage believe that it teaches universalism. This does not teach universalism which is a clear rejection of the scriptures. The verse here teaches that God offers salvation to all, and all who come to him will be saved. The work of Christ on the cross was sufficient to provide salvation for all people of all times in history. However, the effects of salvation only benefits those that believe and those that reject it will go to hell and spend an eternity separated from God. I consulted several commentaries but the New Testament Commentary explained this passage best and made the most sense.

 

The final phrase “especially of those that believe” clearly indicates that the term is here given a twofold application. Of all men God is the savior, but of some men, namely believers he is the savior in a deeper, more glorious sense than he is of others. This clearly implies that when he is called the Savior of all men, this cannot mean that he imparts to all everlasting life, as he does to believers. The term savior, then must have a meaning which we today generally do not immediately attach to it. And that is exactly the cause of our difficulty. One must study the term in the light not only of the New Testament but also of the Old Testament and of Archaeology (Hendriksen, 154).

 

Reformed/Calvinist commentators will overcomplicate this verse to make the Bible say what they want to hear, but the intended meaning is as clear as crystal in this verse. Why would God give us a Bible and then make it so hard to understand that one must have a mastery of the original languages to understand what His book says? There are many problems when Reformed approach the word of God with a preconceived system. The Bible should be read and interpreted literally, unless the text indicates otherwise. Reading the Bible to fulfill the requirements of a "system" is not what God desires.

 

Conclusion

 

Those that believe that Christ died for the whole world advocate a free offer of the gospel to everyone. The Bible commands the believer in so many places to preach to everyone. Mark 16:15 states to go out into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. If Limited Atonement were true then it would not make logical sense to do so. I believe that the gospel is a free gift for all mankind and that all can have access to salvation by accepting Christ. Weekly do I go out to the streets of my city and do soul winning. I pass out tracks and engage people in conversation about the gospel. I have spoken with Catholics, JW’s, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and many others that deny the gospel. I even spoke with a girl that claimed she had never sinned and could never sin. She denied a need for a savior as she alone had no sin, and could not sin. To the Calvinist this girl was destined to damnation from the beginning of time. However according to the Bible, this is not true. God wants to save this young woman, and commnds all peolple eveywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). She needs to repent from her sins and accept Christ into her heart. Sadly she may never do this and will spend an eternity separated from God. If she never repents then she alone chose damnation, not God, as the Calvinist would argue because she was not one of the "elect." John 3:16 is the most quoted Bible verse and is often shown on display boards at baseball games and so forth. Reformed question the meaning of the term “world” in the verse. But Leroy Forlines in his Systematic theology book Quest for Truth says:

 

The only way anyone would ever question that ‘world’ in this verse meant anything other than every human being is that he comes to this verse with a theological conviction that will not allow him to believe that. In this case the burden of proof is on the person who wants to place a restriction upon the scope of the word ‘world’(Forlines, 406).

 

I also believe that if the intended meaning of 2 Pet 3:9 is true and that God wants all to come to salvation (not wanting anyone to perish, NIV). God allowed John 3:16 to the most well known verse in the Bible for good meaning. If I was an unbeliever looking for answers and I read that God loved me so much that he sent his very son to die for my sins, so that I could receive eternal life, then I would believe. This is exactly what I did when I was five years old. I asked Christ to come into my life and to cleanse me form my sins. Granted I was not perfect in Christ at that time, but was striving in my sanctification (separation from sin). Sanctification is progressive and it was not until 1995 at the young age of seventeen while attending a Christian & Missionary Alliance (CM&A) youth camp that a young female helped me rededicate my life to the Lord. Lord bless that female as she may have been an angel. I never saw this girl before meeting her, nor did I see her again. Nevertheless, the Lord used her to help me. If I was at a Reformed camp they probably would have said that since I showed sinful evidence of backsliding then I was not a part of the “elect” and so my salvation and calling upon the name of the Lord at age five was not legit and I was deceived. However, according to the Word of God, ‘whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Rom 10:13). This means that all of mankind has the capability to receive the gift of salvation. God does not reprobate (non judicially) anyone to Hell without their not wanting to go there in the first place. God only ratifies the sinner’s will and most choose destruction (Mt 7:13) rather than eternal life.

 

Questions for Reformed Calvinists


Six of the thirteen questions below copied from http://www.biblebc.com/some_serious_questions_for_calvi.htm

1.    If Limited Atonement was taught in the Bible then can you tell me why would Hebrews 2:9 state “that Christ should taste death for everyman?

2.    If Limited Atonement is a correct doctrine then can you explain 2 Pet 2:1 which says “denying the Lord that bought them.” If Christ had only died for the church as you claim Acts 20:28 teaches then why would 2 Pet 2:1 state that Christ also died for the false teachers?

3.    If God only wanted certain people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, then can you tell me why 2 Pet 3:9 was included in the New Testament?

4.    If God did not want all men to be saved (2 Pet 3:9), why then did he allow John 3:16 to be the most popular and well known verse in the world today? Why would God have a hidden meaning and agenda to a verse that is easy for anyone to understand? “For God so love the world that He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).

5.    Why preach ‘repent or perish’ when the non-elect cannot repent and the elect can’t perish?

6.    How can God hold the non-elect responsible for ‘not believing’ and damn them for it, when He deliberately did not give them the faith to enable them to believe in the first place?

7.    If Christ has already made an efficacious atonement for the sins of an elect person, is that elect person actually lost during the period prior to their being saved?

8.    During the period before an elect person gets saved, how are they condemned already (for not believing) when their unbelief (which is a sin) has already been paid for by Christ on the cross?

9.    If repentance is a gift only given to the elect, what did Jesus mean when He said that some of the people in hell would have repented if they had had the same opportunity as the people to whom He preached?

10.    Why does the Spirit of God strive and convict some sinners who later prove, by dying and going to hell,

that they were non-elect? What is the purpose of such movings of the Spirit?

 

11. In Rev 14:7 John speaks of an angel that proclaims to all nations of the earth to fear God and to give him glory. Also in Rev 9:20-21, 16:9,11 John speaks as if those on the earth during this period possess a free will and they use that free will against God by not repenting. If the doctrine of Limited Atonement is Biblical and Christ only died for the elect and non elect have no hope, then why would God allow so many opportunities for people to repent and turn to him? Surely not everyone living on the earth during the tribulation are of the elect.

12. If faith is entirely God's and only given to the elect whom he chooses (not foreknew) then explain why Jesus commended so many for their faith?

13. Explain Lk 10:13 when Jesus himself clearly states that man can repent or choose to reject God. Jesus did not say that the ability to repent was not given to Korazin & Bethsaida because they were not of the elect and God did not will that they would be saved. How can this be if Reformed doctrine is true?

 

Sources Used

 

http://www.reformed.org/calvinism/index.html; accessed Aug 16, 2008

http://www.carm.org/questions/Jesus_die_all.htm; accessed Aug 16, 2008

http://www.gospeloutreach.net/limited_atonement.html; accessed Aug 16, 2008

http://www.biblebc.com/some_serious_questions_for_calvi.htm; accessed Aug 16, 2008

Biblical Calvinism. Daniel, Curt.

Particular Redemption. Spurgeon, Charles, H.

Those for Whom Christ Died: Some Reflections. Houghton, Myron, J. Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, Sept 1996.

Zondervan KJV Study Bible

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Intervarsity Press.

Christian Theology. Erickson, Millard J.

Life Application NT Commentary

IVP NT Commentary Series

Did Christ Die Only For The Elect? Smith, Charles, R. BMH Books

The Letter of John. Kruse, Colin G. The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series

The Quest for Truth. Forlines, Leroy.

New Testament Commentary: An exposition of Thes, the Pastorals, & Hebrews. Hendriksen, William. & Kistemaker, Simon J.  

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