As Seen from the CrossThe first time I talked to a Christian friend about the doctrine of “limited” atonement, the reaction was immediate shock and indignation: “That’s so wrong!” “That can’t be true!”

Out of the notable “five points of Calvinism,” two usually generate heated conversations: “unconditional election” and “limited atonement.” Both doctrines evoke images of a whimsical divine puppetmaster who amuses himself by toying with his created beings. This Calvinist God arbitrarily elects a group of people whom He will save from His wrath, and then sends His Son on a mission to sacrifice Himself on their behalf. What troubles the Arminian believer is that these doctrines bypass his cherished notion of “free will,” because his salvation begins and ends with his own decision to cooperate with God’s grace, and not with God’s sovereign grace.

Thus, when the Arminian thinks of the substitutionary atonement by Christ, he believes that Christ’s mission was to offer His life on the cross for all people who would ever be born in this world. Wouldn’t this then mean that everyone would be saved? He says no, for their salvation is based on their “freewill decision” to believe in Christ. But here he is caught in a quandary, because if no one is saved unless he makes a decision for Christ, then no one was actually saved by the death of Christ – His death only makes it possible for people to be saved. But the Bible contradicts this Arminian view; Christ actually accomplished salvation for God’s people (Mat 1:21; Gal 3:13). On the cross, Christ even proclaimed, “It is finished.” (John 19:30).

Combine this “freewill” view of salvation with the doctrine of total depravity, and the result is unimaginable horror! Total depravity says that fallen mankind is wholly unable and unwilling to come to God on his own understanding and will (1 Cor 2:14), because he is a slave of sin (Rom 6:16-17), and is dead in sin (Eph 2:1-3). This means that if, as Arminians contend, man is left to his own “free will” to make a decision for Christ, not a single person will be saved, because no one has the ability and the will to do so (Rom 3:10-12). Everyone will be lost!

Reformed believers see a profusion of Scripture texts which confirm limited, or more aptly, particular atonement: Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45); only those whom the Father gives to Jesus will have eternal life (John 6:37-40); the Good Shepherd died only for His sheep (John 10:14-15); Christ purchased only the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28); Christ loved only the church and gave himself only for her (Eph 5:25).

Another confirmation of the doctrine of particular atonement comes from the Covenant of Redemption, in which the Holy Trinity covenanted with one another before the creation of the world to save the elect.

Universal Atonement: the Trinity in Chaos

In this eternal divine plan, God the Father elected some people whom He would save. Afterwards, He would send His Son Jesus to atone for the sins of the elect. Finally, the Holy Spirit would then apply the benefits of Christ’s atoning work to the elect. The Triune God’s work of creation, redemption, and re-creation has always been a harmonious, unified master plan from eternity. Jesus spoke about the eternal covenant as He shared the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before he was crucified, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mat 26:28; see also Exo 24:8).

If I were in Christ’s shoes, I would raise a howl of protest against the Father for sending me on a hopeless, useless mission to suffer and die under His eternal wrath for people whom the Father knew were going to hell anyway.

But the Arminian view of universal atonement sows disunity and disorganization in the Triune Godhead. How? If the Father elected only some, why would Jesus come into the world to die for everyone? If Christ’s mission was to die for everyone, why would the Holy Spirit apply Christ’s atoning work to only some?

If Christ died for every single human being, then he died even for those who are in hell. If I were in His shoes, I would raise a howl of protest against the Father for sending me on a hopeless, useless mission to suffer and die under His eternal wrath for people whom the Father knew were going to hell anyway. This would make God’s plan illogical and unjust, since Jesus’ suffering and death, equivalent to spending eternity in hell for those people, would have been for naught.

Moreover, many people never hear the gospel preached to them. It would be very strange for God to intend to save all people by Christ’s death, but never send the Holy Spirit to many people so that they may be saved by the preaching of the gospel.

Universal Atonement: Double Jeopardy

Most civil societies in the world prohibit “double jeopardy” to protect its citizens against a second prosecution for the same offense after acquittal or conviction and from multiple punishment for the same offense. This is so not only under God’s common grace, but also under God’s saving grace. God has ordained that our sins would be punished only once in Christ. By His “once for all” sacrifice – never to be offered again – Christ has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb 10:10, 14).

If Christ was punished for the sins of those who are in hell, God will be violating the double jeopardy rule. Why? Because the sins of the people who are in hell are punished twice: once when Christ was crucified on the cross, and again when people are punished in hell.

But doesn’t the Bible say that Christ died for all (or everyone), and He is the savior of the whole world?

When “All” is Not All…

Some Scripture texts seem to say that Christ died for “all” and “everyone,” but a cursory study of the usage of these words would yield a much different conclusion.

The word “all” doesn’t always mean “all without exception,” but “all without distinction.” In relation to salvation, this means Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, Filipinos and Americans, etc. Consider these representative examples:

  • Matthew 4:23-24: Do “all” (holos, pas) and “every” in these verses mean that Jesus healed all the people of all diseases? This is an impossibility, so some translations included the correct interpretation: “healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease” (KJV); “healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (NASB).
  • Mark 1:5: Does “all” (pas) in this verse mean every single person in Jerusalem and Judea were baptized by John?
  • 1 Corinthians 15:22: In Adam, “all” (pas) – every single person who will ever be born in this world – came under the curse of death. But in Christ, “all” (pas) – believers only – are regenerated and given eternal life.
  • Titus 2:11: Did God bring salvation to “all” (pas) mankind, without exception?

The use of “all” and “everyone” is common usage. For example, you might ask a friend from church, “Who attended the Easter Sunday service?” If, as customary, the church was full on that Sunday, he will probably answer, “Everyone was there.” Does he mean everyone in the whole world was at the service, or just the people that he usually sees in church? In the same way, the New Testament authors use the same colloquialisms, as when the disciples of Jesus say that “the whole city was gathered together at the door,” and then tells Him, “Everyone is looking for you” (Mark 1:33, 36-37).

Let us now look into the following representative texts which seem to support universal atonement:

1 Timothy 2:4-6: God “desires all people to be saved” and Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all.” The Reformers always distinguished between God’s revealed will found in the Bible and God’s decretive will which he ordained to pass before the creation of the world. His revealed will can be disobeyed by mankind, but this rebellion does not please him. This is why Scriptures say that God indeed “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), and does not have “any pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Eze 18:23).

As well, Christ as a ransom for “all” seem to contradict Mark 10:45 where Jesus declared that He would die as a ransom for “many.” Since the Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself, both statements are true. If both statements are true, how then can they be harmonized? Since “many” restricts both statements, “all” should be restricted to all believers only.

Hebrews 2:9: In context, “everyone” refers to believers – “many sons” (2:10), the sanctified brethren (2:11), and those who are delivered (2:15).

2 Peter 3:9: Here the apostle is speaking to “you.” Who are these? These are “those who have obtained a faith…. by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:1). So, in context, Peter is saying that God is “not willing that any of you should perish, but that all of you should come to repentance.”

… and “World” is Not the Whole World

Used in Scripture, “world” (Greek kosmos) has a variety of meanings, including creation (John 3:16; Eph 1:4), all the nations (Mat 26:13), the fallen world (John 1:10), and the ungodly world (John 7:7 and 1 John 2:15-17). “World” in Scripture frequently means only some people in the world, not all of mankind. Here are some examples:

  • Luke 2:1: Were people from the Philippines, Japan, South Africa, etc. included in “all the world” under Caesar’s decree?
  • John 1:10: Did no one in the whole world – not even a single person – know Christ when John wrote his Gospel?
  • John 3:16: The world here refers to God’s creation in general, which He loved. What many Christians forget is that God’s redemptive plan is not just for mankind, but for His whole creation. But those who don’t believe are excluded from God’s love because they will perish! God did not send His son for those who will not believe.
  • John 7:3-4: Were Jesus’ brothers asking Him to show Himself to every individual in the whole world?
  • John 8:26: Was Jesus speaking to every person in the world?
  • John 12:19: Did the Jews mean that every individual in the whole world was following Jesus?
  • 1 John 2:1, 2: “for the sins of the whole world.” John was writing especially to Jews, who thought that their people alone were God’s people. But Christ atoned for all of His elect, Jews and Gentiles, which were scattered throughout the world. He did not die for Jews only, but for people “who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52).
  • 1 John 4:14: “Savior of the world” Christ is called the Savior of the world because there is no other savior for any in the world (Acts 4:12). He alone saves all who are saved all over the world. Is He called the “Savior of the world” because He has actually saved everyone?

In remembering the death of Christ these days, let us consider the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Our answer to this question will weigh heavily on our belief on the eternal, unchanging redemptive plan of our Triune God, and whether Christ’s death actually accomplished and secured our salvation, or His death only dangles God’s salvation for dead fish.

The Death of Christ and the Eternal Covenant
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