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The Extent of the Atonement

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   I. Introduction

 II. The Extent of the Atonement

A.  The Definition of Limited Atonement

B.  Scriptural Evidence For Limited Atonement

C.  Arguments In Favor of Limited Atonement

D.  The Definition of Unlimited Atonement

E.  Scriptural Evidence For Unlimited Atonement

F.  Arguments In Favor of Unlimited Atonement

III. Conclusion

 IV. Selected Bibliography


       “For whom did Christ die?”  This question speaks to the fundamental issue of the extent of the atonement. There are two predominant views of the extent of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. One view teaches that Jesus Christ died only for the elect. The other view teaches that He died for all people.

       This paper will discuss the extent of the atonement by surveying scriptural evidence for both views.  It will be demonstrated that, while Christ certainly died for the elect, He also died for all sinners. Scripture often limits Christ’s death to the elect, but it also declares His death for all mankind.


The Definition of Limited Atonement

       Limited atonement, also called particular or definite, can be defined as the belief that Christ died for the elect only.  Edwin H. Palmer defines the doctrine of limited atonement in his book, The Five Points of Calvinism, by writing, “…Christ died only for the believer, the elect, only for those who will actually be saved and go to heaven.”[1]  In his book, Manual of Christian Doctrine, Louis Berkhof writes, “The Bible clearly teaches that the effect of the work of Christ is not merely to make atonement possible, but to reconcile men to God and to put them in actual possession of eternal salvation, Luke 19:10; Rom. 5:10; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13; Eph. 1:7. Moreover, it indicates in various ways that Christ laid down His life for a certain qualified number…”[2] 

Scriptural Evidence for Limited Atonement 

       Proponents of limited atonement cite numerous Scriptures in support of their view.  Timothy George states,

"Those who believe in particular redemption find support for their view in verses such as Acts 20:28 where Paul spoke of ‘the church of God, which he bought with his own blood,’ and Ephesians 5:25 where we are told that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’"[3]

Those who hold to a limited atonement also find support in the verse that speaks of Christ’s death “for the sheep” (John 10:15).[4]  They look to Matthew 20:28 where Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  John 15:13 is often cited in favor of limited atonement.  In this verse Jesus stated, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Arguments In Favor of Limited Atonement

       A number of arguments have been set forth in defense of limited atonement. One argument contends that if Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of all people, then God would be unjust to condemn unbelievers.  Wayne Grudem writes, “For God could not condemn to eternal punishment anyone whose sins are already paid for: that would be demanding double payment, and it would therefore be unjust.”[5]  Another argument states that Christ is dishonored if He died for sinners who will ultimately perish.  Arthur W. Pink writes,

"And it certainly is not to the glory of God to suppose that He designed to save any that perish, for that would show His benevolent purpose was frustrated and would proclaim a disappointed and defeated Deity."[6] 

He further wrote, “The fact is that those who advocate the scheme of a general redemption, are so far from magnifying the grace of God, that they, really, degrade both Divine grace and Christ’s sacrifice.”[7]  A further argument of limited atonement concerns the biblical terms such as “all” and “world” as used in reference to the scope of Christ’s atoning death.  Grudem states, “Several passages that speak about ‘the world’ simply mean that sinners generally will be saved, without implying that every single individual in the world will be saved.”[8]

The Definition of Unlimited Atonement

       Unlimited atonement, also called general redemption, is “the view that Christ died for everyone but that His death is effective only in those who believe the gospel.”[9]  Lewis Sperry Chafer refers to the teaching of Scripture concerning the death of Jesus Christ when he writes, “In these divine records two great truths are evident: He died as a substitute for someone else, and that someone else is each and every individual in all the lost world of mankind.”[10]    

Scriptural Evidence for Unlimited Atonement

       Scriptures referenced in support of unlimited atonement include John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  The proclamation of John the Baptist is viewed by those who adhere to unlimited atonement as opening the scope of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross to the entire world.  John said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  The apostle Paul declared, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation”(2 Corinthians 5:19).  Paul taught Timothy that Christ “gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6).  The author of the Book of Hebrews wrote, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).

Arguments In Favor of Unlimited Atonement

       One argument for the unlimited view of the atonement is the presence of Scriptural passages that seem to widen the scope of the atoning work of Christ.  One of the most familiar and clear verses on this subject is John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  Limited redemptionists must interpret this verse to refer to the “world of the elect” or “all of the elect.”  Timothy George admits this tendency of Calvinists when he writes,

"The standard Calvinistic response to the ‘all’ verses is to say that they refer to all sorts or kinds of people: to princes as well as paupers, to city dwellers as well as country folk, to Africans no less than Asians, and so forth.  But this is a strained exegesis which is hard to justify in every case.  Unless the context clearly requires a different interpretation, it is better to say that ‘all means all,’ even if we cannot square the universal reach of Christ’s atoning death with its singular focus."[11]

Robert P. Lightner observes, "Seemingly, the only explanation to be given for these arbitrary and inconsistent meanings is to be found in the strict Calvinistic insistence that Christ did not die for all men.  Being convinced of that, the limited redemptionist proceeds to defend his position by narrowing the meaning of words wherever the normal and literal meaning would contradict his premise."[12]

       It is also argued by those who reject limited atonement that their position does not necessarily lead to universalism.  To believe that Jesus Christ died for all men does not mean that all men will be saved.  Commenting on 1 Timothy 2:6, authors Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin write, “The objects of Christ’s death are as wide as the objects of prayer in 2:1, ‘all.’ The death of Christ is potentially on behalf of all people, but its saving effects are limited to those who respond in faith.”[13]  Another argument favoring the unlimited view centers on the command to preach the Gospel to all men.  Both sides agree that believers are obligated to preach the Gospel to all men indiscriminately.  The clear teaching of Scripture is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to be universally proclaimed (Matthew 28:19).  However, if Christ did not die for all men but only the elect, how can the offer of salvation be sincerely made to all persons?  Some strict Calvinists do not believe that it is proper to tell individuals that Christ died for them personally since no man can know who the elect are prior to salvation.  Charles M. Horne states,

"Certainly all born-again Christians agree that the Bible teaches that Christ died for sinners, and in the preaching of the gospel this is all that needs to be stated; the question of the designed extent of the atonement need not come into the story at all."[14]      

Charles H. Spurgeon considered himself a Calvinist.  However, he did not hesitate to offer the Gospel to men indiscriminately and personally.  In a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 Spurgeon assumed the role of an “ambassador of Christ” when he said,

"Oh, that these lips had language, or that this heart could speak without them! Then would I plead with every unconverted, unbelieving soul within this place, and plead as for my life. Friend, you are at enmity with God, and God is angry with you; but on His part there is every readiness for reconciliation. He has made a way by which you can become His friend-a very costly way to Himself, but free to you. He could not give up His justice, and so destroy the honour of His own character; but he did give up His Son, His Only Begotten, and His well-beloved; and that Son of His has been made sin for us, though he knew no sin. See how God meets you! See how willing, how anxious He is that there should be reconciliation between Himself and guilty men. O sirs, if you are not saved it is not because God will not or cannot save you; it is because you refuse to accept His mercy in Christ. If there is any difference between you and God today it is not from want of kindness on His part; it is from want of willingness on yours. The burden of your ruin must lie at your own door: your blood must be on your own skirts."[15]


       A careful reading of the Scriptures will reveal that Christ died for the elect, but not only for the elect.  His death included all mankind.  It was the full and final satisfaction of all the demands of a holy God.  Lightner correctly notes,

“The Biblical extent of the atonement is settled by answering the question of the Father’s purpose in the death of His Son.  If the purpose was to justify all those for whom Christ died apart from any other consideration, then of course He only died for some because all will not be saved.  However, if the Father’s purpose was to provide a redemption for all which was dependent upon faith for its personal application, then His death must be extended to all.” 

The tenor of Scripture is that the work of Christ on the cross is a completed work for all mankind and is freely bestowed on all who believe.  The benefits of the atonement do not become effectual until biblical faith is exercised.  The Gospel messenger may proclaim the good news to all men without reservation that salvation is free to all who believe.  One does not have to explain away the inclusive nature of passages which declare that salvation is provided for all, that God’s saving love extends to all the gift of eternal life, and that whosoever will may receive it by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.      


Berkhof, Louis.  Manual of Christian Doctrine.  Grand

     Rapids:  WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.

Chafer, Louis Sperry.  Salvation.  Findlay:  Dunham

     Publishing Company, 1917.

Enns, Paul.  The Moody Handbook of Theology.  Chicago:

     Moody Press, 1989.

George, Timothy.  Amazing Grace: God’s Initiative-Our

     Response.  Nashville:  Lifeway Press, 2000.

Grudem, Wayne.  Systematic Theology.  Grand Rapids:

     Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

The Holy Bible. New King James Version.

Horne, Charles M.  The Doctrine of Salvation.  Chicago:

     Moody Press, 1984.

Lea, Thomas D. and Hayne P. Griffin, Jr.  The New American

     Commentary—1, 2 Timothy, Titus.  Nashville:  Broadman

     Press, 1992.

Lightner, Robert P.  The Death Christ Died.  Grand Rapids:

     Kregel Publications, 1967.

Palmer, Edwin H.  The Five Points of Calvinism.  Grand

     Rapids:  Baker Book House Company, 1972.

Pink, Arthur W.  The Satisfaction of Christ.  Swengel:

     Bible Truth Depot, 1955.

Spurgeon, Charles Haddon.  Spurgeon’s Sermons.  Grand

     Rapids:  Baker Books, 1996.


[1] Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1972), 42.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), 216-217.

[3] Timothy George, Amazing Grace: God’s Initiative—Our Response (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Press, 2000), 81.

[4] The New King James Version will be used consistently throughout this paper.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 598.

[6] Arthur W. Pink, The Satisfaction of Christ (Swengel, PA: Bible Truth Depot, 1955), 243.

[7] Ibid, 243.

[8] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 598.

[9] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), PC Study Bible 4, 2004.

[10] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Salvation (Findlay, OH: Dunham Publishing Company, 1917), 32.

[11] Timothy George, Amazing Grace: God’s Initiative—Our Response (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Press, 2000), 82.

[12] Robert P. Lightner, The Death Christ Died (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1967, Second Edition), 109.

[13] Thomas D. Lea, Hayne P. Griffin, Jr., The New American Commentary—1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 91.

[14] Charles M. Horne, The Doctrine of Salvation (Chicago, Il: Moody Press, 1984), 34.

[15] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996),  PC Study Bible 4, 2004.

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