Is the Atonement Limited?


(1) Upon whom does the Atonement operate?
(2) How does the Atonement operate?
(3) What is the real issue?

Upon whom does the Atonement operate?

Calvinist, Jay Adams: “As a Reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for himfor they cannot say that. No man knows except Christ himself who are his elect for whom he died. But the counselor’s task is to explain the gospel and to say very plainly that God commands all men to repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ.”  (Competent to Counsel, p.70, emphasis mine)  

This is the resulting by-product of the Calvinist doctrine of a Limited Atonement. What he is saying is that the Gospel is not an offer, but just a command, which only the Calvinistically elect will obey, through an Irresistible Grace. However, the glaring error is that God would be commanding (again, not an offer) that the alleged non-elect submit in repentance to a Savior who was never theirs to begin with. The implication of the command to repent and believe, naturally implies that they do have a Savior to receive such repentance and faith. 

Scripture makes it clear that Jesus died for “all men,” and also for the Church. However, it should be pointed out that the Church is a subset of “all men.” Therefore, saying that Jesus died for the Church, does not negate the fact that He died for “all men.” Saying that Jesus died for the Church, demonstrates the purpose for His sacrifice. Jesus died for the Church, and desires that “all men” become part of the Church, having made it possible through His sacrifice at Calvary. The error of the Calvinists is that they often seize upon texts which speak of Jesus dying for the Church, without taking into account the fact that the Church is nonetheless a subset of humanity, and that the texts never say exclusively the Church. 

Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer: “But does the Bible actually teach that Christ died only for the elect? Here are some of the passage used to show that Christ came for the specific purpose of payment a ransom only for those whom God had chosen: … Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of God which He purchased with His own blood. (Acts 20:28)” (The Doctrines That Divide, pp.185-186, emphasis mine)

Erwin Lutzer: “If God from all eternity purposed to save one portion of the human race and not another, the purpose of the cross would be to redeem these chosen ones to himself. We can know whether we belong to that number.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.187, emphasis mine)

Erwin Lutzer: “Calvinists believe that election makes the success of God’s plan certain. God has committed himself to save a certain number, and they will be saved, despite the rebellion of mankind. The unbelief and failure of man can never thwart the intended plan of God.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.213, emphasis mine)

This is the standard Calvinist teaching on a Limited Atonement (for the Calvinistically pre-chosen), but it is the following quote that is a little more interesting:

Erwin Lutzer: “If it is true that Christ died to redeem a specific number of people, namely those whom the Father had given him, it follows that all believers were redeemed at the cross two thousand years ago. They were cleared of all charges then, for God accepted the ransom payment. The certificate of our canceled debt was then given to us when we trusted in Christ. Paul said that the reason no one can bring a charge against the elect is that Christ has died for them (Rom. 8:24).”  (The Doctrines That Divide, p.185, emphasis mine)

(a) The “specific number” and “certain number” that Jesus died for, I believe, is “all men,” which is indisputable, since that’s what the text in 1st Timothy actually states, and the real debate is over what “all men” means, and I believe that the Calvinist fights a losing and futile battle, when you compare “all men” in Scripture with other usages of the term. I’m certain that no one has ever become a Calvinist based upon the Calvinist definition of the term “all men,” but rather, it is instead a defense mechanism used to keep Calvinists in the fold. 1st Timothy 2:3-6, which states: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” Calvinists try to define “all men” to mean “all believers,” and by extension, “the Calvinistically elect,” though they run into trouble at 1st Timothy 4:10, which further clarifies the meaning of “all men” by saying: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all menespecially of believers.” If “all men” means essentially believers, then why does the text say, especially believers? What this tells us is that “all men” cannot mean only believers. Jesus died for everyone, so that anyone, can be saved, that is, whosoever believes in Him.

(b) If God did not purpose to save all humanity, then what was His intention for the portion of humanity that was allegedly not purposed for salvation? Hell? If that’s what Calvinists think, then they need to refer back to Matthew 25:41, which states: Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.’” But if the Calvinist doctrine of a Limited Atonement is true, then Matthew 25:41 would be false. If Jesus purposely did not die for them, and purposely created them for something other than Heaven, then that leaves Hell as the only other option, for what God intended for them, and we know from Matthew 25:41 that that cannot be the case, so if you factor this back into the equation, you are left with the Arminian doctrine of an Unlimited Atonement. Often in these cases, Calvinists will use the technique of the False Alternative, by suggesting that unless you agree with them, your only alternative is [insert some heresy]. In this case, Calvinists will insist that unless you agree with them about a Limited Atonement, you must necessarily be a Universalist. However, what the Calvinist is doing is trying to get you to think inside their 5-Point box. Just because Jesus died for someone, does not automatically mean that they are saved, but that’s exactly what the Calvinist wants for you to think, so that when you consider that not all are saved, the result must naturally default to a Limited Atonement. But this is a False Alternative, since people are not saved simply because Jesus died for them, and they are not condemned because they don’t have a Savior. People become saved when they believe in the Savior who died for all men, and people are condemned when they spurn the Savior who died for them. Besides all of this, the apostle Paul explained that his Gospel message included telling people that Jesus died for them. (Compare with 1st Corinthians 15:3.)

(c) Lutzer likely references John 6:37-45 in his remarks about those who are given to Christ, but such blanket citations are often plagued with being taken out of context, and it’s really surprising that intelligent Calvinists ignore the dialogue taking place at John chapter’s 5 through John 12. I think that it all goes back to “Confirmation Bias.” Calvinists see what they want to see, and conversely underweight the evidence that might not otherwise support a Calvinist proof-text.

(d) I don’t believe that anyone alive today was previously redeemed “two thousand years ago.” Instead, I believe that the Atonement was that which was back then, and believers become joined to that Atonement when they are sealed in Christ: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13) One is only cleared of the charges when they become in Christ.

(e) Lutzer’s concluding remark is seen as an attempt to prove Limited Atonement. He says that the reason why “the elect” are cleared of all charges is because Jesus died for them. And since not all are cleared of charges, Jesus could not have died for all. However, here’s the problem: The reason why the elect are cleared of all charges is because they are “in Christ.” Just reference Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So that’s why the elect are redeemed; they are in Christ. Note that an unbeliever is said to be condemned (John 3:18), while conversely a believer in Christ is said to be no longer be under condemnation. So that’s why the elect [in Christ] are free from the penalty and charges of the Law.

How does the Atonement operate?

Calvinist, James White: “Christ’s substitutionary death in behalf of His people is a real and finished work: It is not dependent upon the human act of faith for success or failure. When the time comes in God’s sovereign providence to bring to spiritual life each of those for whom Christ died, the Spirit of God will not only effectively accomplish that work of regeneration but that new creature in Christ will, unfailingly, believe in Jesus Christ (‘all that the Father gives Me will come to Me’). Hence, we are not saved ‘without’ faith, but at the same time, Christ’s atonement is not rendered useless and vain without the addition of libertarian free will.” (Debating Calvinism, p.191, emphasis mine)

But they would be saved prior to faith, though, correct? That seems to be the pickle for Calvinists.

Dave Hunt responds: “I pointed out that if Christ’s death automatically saved, the elect were never lost and didn’t need to believe in the gospel. White ridicules this idea but doesn’t refute it. He admits that faith is required, and then says, ‘Christ’s substitutionary not dependent upon the human act of faith.’ Scores of Scriptures clearly state that only those who believe are saved.” (Debating Calvinism, p.194, emphasis mine)

​5-Point Calvinists teach that the Atonement of Calvary operates independently of whether man accepts or rejects Christ, in which the Atonement applies toward a member of the Calvinistically elect unilaterally and monergistically. Thus, Calvinists believe that if Jesus had died for all men, then all men would be saved, and the result would be Universalism. Obviously, neither 4-Point Calvinists nor Arminians teach Universalism, but which 5-Pointers feel is inconsistent position, though that is only because 5-Point Calvinists erroneously project their unique view of a unilateral and monergistic application of the Atonement on to the model of those who otherwise reject such a unilateral and monergistic application of the Atonement. In other words, if 4-Pointers and Arminians believe that the Atonement only becomes applicable upon faith in Christ, then Universalism is not an automatic default, and the 5-Pointer’s allegation is overthrown.

Jesus gave an illustration of Calvary at John 3:14, as it relates to Numbers 21:6-9. Therefore, this becomes the most critically important piece of information concerning Calvary.

Jesus states: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) This reference points to an instance in the history of Israel:

Numbers 21:6-9: The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.

4-Point Calvinist, Ron Rhodes: “John 3:16 cannot be divorced from verses 14-15, wherein Christ alludes to Numbers 21 with its discussion of Moses setting up the brazen serpent in the camp of Israel, so that if ‘any man’ looked to it, he experienced physical deliverance. In verse 15 Christ applies the story spiritually when He says that ‘whosoever’ believes on the uplifted Son of Man shall experience spiritual deliverance.” (The Extent of the Atonement: Limited Atonement Versus Unlimited Atonement)

Calvinist, D. James Kennedy: “Our faith and our repentance are the work of God’s grace in our hearts. Our contribution is simply the sin for which Jesus Christ suffered and died. Would you be born anew? There has never been a person who sought for that who did not find it. Even the seeking is created by the Spirit of God. Would you know that new life? Are you tired of the emptiness and purposelessness of your life? Are you tired of the filthy rags of your own righteousness? Would you trust in someone else other than yourself? Then look to the cross of Christ. Place your trust in him. Ask him to come in and be born in you today. For Jesus came into the world from glory to give us second birth because we must--we MUST--be born again.” (Why I Believe, p.140, emphasis mine)

The phrase, “...look to the cross of Christ, seems to echo John 3:14, as it relates to Numbers 21:6-9. Jesus gave an illustration of Calvary which depicts an entire group, equally suffering, equally poisoned, equally dying, and then presents the solution, without qualification for any special group. So the question that Calvinists need to ask themselves is this: Does Jesus illustration help or hurt their argument? Simply ignoring it, is not the solution. If Calvinists want to know the truth, then they should dig honestly and humbly into Jesus’ illustration, and let the facts speak for itself.

What is the real issue?

One Calvinist explains:  “It always comes down to this: Did Jesus die for the sins of those in Hell? If so, why are they in Hell? If not, then He did not die for their sins. And so Jesus only died for the sins of those who go to Heaven.

Calvinists deem the Atonement as a monergistic application, as a unilaterally performed action by God on the Calvinistically elect person. Therefore, from the Calvinist standpoint, if the Atonement was instead monergistically and unilaterally applied to “all men” (1st Timothy 2:4-6), rather than just Calvinism’s elect, then the result would obviously be Universalism. However, Arminians are not Universalists. Calvinists thus believe that Arminians are being “inconsistent.” However, that perception is only because Calvinists are committing the “error of projection.” In other words, what Calvinists are doing is projecting their monergistic model of the Atonement on to the Arminian model of the Atonement, even though Arminians completely reject the concept of the monergistic approach. This should be of no mystery to Calvinists, since Arminians have been beating the drums of John 3:14 for ages, as it relates to the Atonement described at Numbers 21:6-9, and which was a provision, and which remained unclaimed, until or unless one actually “looked” upon it. So despite the fact of God’s 100% fully approved and fully completed, “it is finished” atonement, in the form of the “Serpent on a Standard,” one would nonetheless die from their snake bites anyway, if they failed to take advantage of God’s 100% free provision for healing. This event was what Jesus used to describe Calvary.

Calvinists have a maxim that is commonly expressed this way:

Calvinist, R.C. Sproul: “To be sure, Christ’s propitiation on the cross is unlimited in its sufficiency or value. In this sense Christ makes an atonement for the whole world. But the efficacy of this atonement does not apply to the whole world, nor does its ultimate design.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.177, emphasis mine)

John Calvin: “Georgius thinks he argues very acutely when he says: Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world; and hence those who wish to exclude the reprobate from participation in Christ must place them outside the world. For this, the common solution does not avail, that Christ suffered sufficiently for all, but efficaciously only for the elect. By this great absurdity, this monk has sought applause in his own fraternity, but it has no weight with me. Wherever the faithful are dispersed throughout the world, John extends to them the expiation wrought by Christ’s death. But this does not alter the fact that the reprobate are mixed up with the elect in the world. It is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the whole world. But the solution lies close at hand, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life (Jn 3.15).”  (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, pp.148-149, emphasis mine)

Calvin continues: “The evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ as nothing else than by His death to gather the children of God into one (Jn 11:52). Hence, we conclude that, though reconciliation is offered to all through Him, yet the benefit is peculiar to the elect, that they may be gathered into the society of life. However, while I say it is offered to all, I do not mean that this embassy, by which on Paul’s testimony (II Cor 5:18) God reconciles the world to Himself, reaches to all, but that it is not sealed indiscriminately on the hearts of all to whom it comes so as to be effectual.” (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, p.149, emphasis mine)

​Question: What good is it for Jesus to have died for every single person who had ever lived if not every single person hears the voice of the shepherd?

Answer: First, this question comes from the Calvinist perspective that Calvary was selective, in that the atonement was only provided for a specific number of individuals. Arminians aren’t approaching the matter from the perspective of “why doesn’t God add more people to the list?” Arminians believe in a General Atonement for all men, without it being selective, but as a catch-all, similar to Numbers 21:6-9, as it relates to John 3:14. In this way, the provision is for all, but only those who look upon Him in faith, receive the healing/saving properties and benefits of His provision. (You could also ask why the serpent on the standard of Numbers 21:6-9 included those who might never look upon it?, and the same reasoning applies, being a general provision.) As for those who never heard the Gospel, Jesus addresses this at Luke 12:48.

One Calvinist says: “The implication of [the Arminian] approach is that the sacrifice of Christ doesn’t actually redeem anyone; not until that individual exerts some sort of power in __fill - in - the - blank (i.e. believing, confessing, choosing, etc, etc) and THEN the sacrifice of Christ is applied to that individual.”

It is not just the Arminian explanation, but Jesus’, as per John 3:14, as it relates to His illustration of Numbers 21:6-9, in that the general provision is made for all those afflicted, but only becomes applied to the person once a person looks to the provision. God Himself had set the condition upon which the Serpent on a Standard would apply, and if God had wanted for it to apply without looking upon it, then He could have done so. Therefore, it was God’s sovereign authority to design the Atonement to work in this manner, and thus Calvinists are found to be mocking God. God’s sovereignty is right whether to govern in the manner described by Calvinism or Arminianism, and whichever manner God chooses, if an expression of His sovereignty. Therefore, for God to do things described by Arminianism does not forfeit sovereignty, but is an expression of sovereignty.

Question: What do Calvinists mean by “sufficient for all, but efficient for only the elect”?

Answer: First, Calvinists reject the idea that one must believe in Christ, in order to experience the saving/washing/redeeming/regenerating effects of the atonement. Instead, Calvinists believe that Calvary is applied to a person monergistically, that is, not applied through faith, but instead, resulting in faith. Ultimately, then, the Calvinist maxim means that the atonement could otherwise save all men, if God had chosen to apply it to all men, which really just brings everything back to the old Limited Atonement. One thing that you will discover, is that Calvinists have a number of techniques in order to try to straddle the fence, and another example is Compatibilism, in its attempt to bridge Determinism and Free Will.

The only way Spurgeon could know that for certain is if Jesus died for all, because if Jesus didn’t die for all, then Spurgeon can only at best speculate and suppose and presume and guess that Jesus died for him. The Arminian has no such fear, because the Arminian knows that Jesus died for all, and that they are part of the sum total of all, and thus they can have perfect confidence for God's will in their life. God loves them. Challenge a Calvinist to believe that God is so good.

One Calvinist asks: “But how can Jesus’ death alone give an Arminian confidence when the Arminian believes many for whom Jesus died for will end up in Hell?”

It gives me confidence in knowing that Jesus doesn’t want for me to go there, and the cost He paid so that I didn’t have to. God now says “turn back, why will you perish?” (Jeremiah chapter 18)

One Calvinist asks: “OK, but why would Jesus’ death (alone) give you confidence that you are saved if it didn’t secure the salvation of anyone?”

Because God made a promise, and God always keeps His promises. You see, Calvinists are Christians by presumption, presuming that they are secretly elect, while Arminians are Christians by promise, trusting in God’s promise to save whoever believes in His Son. The problem is that for a Calvinist, if Jesus died for you, then you are saved, period, end of discussion, and the Calvinist must then suppose for themselves that Jesus secretly died for them. But to an Arminian, the Atonement is God’s provision so that anyone who believes in Him can be saved. The Atonement doesn’t save without faith, since we must believe in Jesus to become saved, and that was God’s condition stated at John 3:16. Calvinists, however, don’t want conditions...Calvinists want guarantees, which ironically, they must suppose that such a guarantee secretly applies to them.

Question:  Has God committed Himself to only save a predetermined number?

Answer:  If so, that would be a function of the Calvinist doctrine of an Unconditional Election, in which God predetermined to save only a fixed number and thus the Atonement only covers the fixed number of the unconditionally elect. 4-Point Calvinists, however, would respond to 5-Point Calvinists by insisting that such a proposition is unnecessary, and which also raises another issue, in which 5-Point Calvinists have a very different understanding about the mechanics of the Atonement, in contrast to what 4-Point Calvinists are Arminians teach. 5-Point Calvinists believe that the Atonement operates upon the individual prior to faith in Christ.
Limited Atonement creates several problems:

(1) How do you offer salvation to those without a Savior? 

(2) How can Jesus genuinely love those that He never died for?

(3) Why would Jesus weep over those He never died for? Would He be weeping over their unbelief, or that God (according to Calvinism) has excluded them from the gospel?

(4) How can people be shamed for rejecting a gospel which excludes them?

(5) How can Jesus tell the Pharisees at John 5:40 that they don’t have “life” because they refuse to come to Him and receive it, if the gospel is not for them?

(6) At Acts 17, why does God call “all men everywhere” to “repentance” if most men have no Savior to receive repentance?

(7) At 1st Corinthians 15:1-3, why did Paul reflect back on the gospel that he taught them (back when they were lost, key point), by including a mention that Jesus died for them “according to the Scriptures”? Every 5-Pointer will say: “He was talking to believers.” Yes, I know, but he was reflecting on what he had told them, back when they were lost. That’s the key point. Moreover, if no Calvinist can know for certain who the Calvinistically elect are, until one has “persevered to then end,” since one might unfortunately be one of those “rocky soil” Christians of Luke 8:13, who “believe for a while” having initially “received the Word with joy,” then theoretically Paul could be telling non-elect rocky soil temporary believers that Jesus died for them.

(8) How would God (according to Calvinism) condemn those for rejecting His Son, if they had no Savior who died for them? (“You rejected My Son who didn’t die for you.” If you can imagine such a scenario, I would think that it would be very confusing.)

(9) If Limited Atonement was true, then no one in Hell could be told: “You didn’t have to be here. You could have...oh wait, you didn’t have a Savior, did you? I guess you did have to be here, after all. Oh well, welcome home, then.”

(10) Calvinists like to say, “Well what do you do with those texts which say that Jesus died for the Church?” Oh, you mean those texts that you use to create an Argument from Silence? Well let me provide an illustration, because although the purpose of Christ’s death is realized in those who benefit from it, it should not be meant to infer that God somehow didn’t want everyone to be part of it. God, for His part, is most certainly willing that all come to repentance and become part of His Church. (2nd Peter 3:9) Example: If you contributed money to a Mission fund, and then someone comes up to you later and says, “I went on that trip; thank you for giving the money,” then by Calvinistic unusual standards, if you responded, “You’re welcome; I did it for you,” then it must mean that you only wanted that person to benefit. The reality, instead, is that you would simply be reflecting on the fact that your financial sacrifice was worth it, when viewed from the perspective of someone who benefited from it, rather than implying that you were glad that others didn’t.
Abbott: The Atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect.

Castello: Yep, Jesus died for all.

Abbott: No, Jesus only died for the elect.

Costello: Wait!?, I thought that you just said that the atonement is sufficient for all?

Abbott: I did. 

Costello: Well, how is the atonement sufficient for all, but Jesus only died for the elect?

Abbott: Because only the elect have the atonement APPLIED to them.

Costello: Well, then, what does it mean that the atonement is sufficient for all?

Abbott: It’s sufficient for all, and if all believed, it would be efficient for all.

Costello: Well now wait!? If it’s sufficient for all on condition that all believe, then it is sufficient AND efficient for only those who believe.

Abbott: No, that’s not what I said.

Costello: Well, then, what DID you say?

Abbott: I said what I meant!

Costello: But I don’t understand what you are saying!

Abbott: That’s because you need to have your eyes opened.

Costello: Oh. Ok.

Abbott: So now you get it?

Costello: No! I can’t figure out if Jesus died for everyone or not. You said that the atonement is only applied to the elect, but yet is somehow sufficient for all, but since all do not believe, then it’s really only efficient AND sufficient for those who believe. So how do you draw a dichotomy between efficiency and sufficiency?

Abbott: Simple. It’s sufficient for all, but applied only to the elect.

Costello: I know that, but how is it sufficient for anyone that it does not apply toward?

Abbott: It’s sufficient towards them, but they won’t believe, in order for it to apply to them.

Costello: But the next thing that you will tell me is that if it was APPLIED to them then they WOULD believe! I don’t understand you!

Abbott: What do you mean that you don’t understand? You understand perfectly.

Costello: But I don’t know what you are saying! According to you, the atonement is sufficient for all, but Jesus didn’t die for all, since the atonement is not applied to all, and therefore all do not have access to the atonement that is supposedly sufficient for them, and to top it off, you are making it appear as though man excludes himself from the atonement, by means of disbelief, when yet the atonement is specifically prearranged to exclude all but the elect. And you want to know if I understand it, and yet I’m completely confused!

Abbott: You’re not confused at all.

Costello: Uhhh! So, dare I ask, How is the atonement sufficient for all?

Abbott: I’ve already explained it, and you’ve already answered it.

Costello: But I don’t know what the answer is.

Abbott: The atonement is sufficient for all, so that if the whole world believed, the atonement would apply to them.

Costello: But since the whole world does not believe, the atonement does not apply toward those whom it is otherwise sufficient, right?

Abbott: Correct.

Costello: Is the atonement predetermined to apply only to the elect?

Abbott: That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

Costello: Then it is sufficient for those whom it is predetermined NOT to apply. 

Abbott: It is God’s mercy and grace that it should apply to ANY!

Costello: Then what is the point of saying that the atonement is sufficient for the non-elect?

Abbott: It’s is God mercy that God should be so gracious!

Costello: So it is God’s mercy and grace that the non-elect are prearranged to be EXCLUDED from an atonement that would otherwise be SUFFICIENT for their salvation, as if it was “grace” that reprobates those whom are otherwise savable. 

Abbott: Who are you O man who answers back to God?!

Costello: Based upon what you are saying, I should come to think of God’s grace as being more UNLIKELY than LIKELY, and that it’s the kindness o God who condemns so many that He could save.