Limited atonement is the L in the TULIP acronym Calvinists use to describe their theology. Also described as "particular redemption," limited atonement holds that Jesus died only for the elect. Unlimited atonement or universal atonement theology, on the other hand, states that salvation is offered to all but must be received by faith. Jesus' sacrifice is sufficient to cover all sin, but only the elect will be saved. This is not the same as universalism, a belief that all will be saved.
What are some arguments against limited atonement?
Got Questions Ministries, who runs CompellingTruth.org, officially holds to a four-point Calvinist stance, believing in unlimited atonement theology. Here are three reasons why we do not believe limited atonement is biblical.
First, the biblical passages which support universal atonement, the necessity of faith for salvation, and Old Testament references to a Messiah seem to outweigh any appearance of biblical support for limited atonement.
Several verses which reference Jesus' sacrifice do not limit the reach of His work, but encompass the entire world and all its inhabitance. John 3:16–17 says, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." The word "world" in the original Greek is "kosmos" and envelops all those of Earth. In John 1:29, Jesus is described as coming to take away the sins of the world—again, all of it. Romans 11:32 describes God's mercy for "all." First John 2:2 also references Jesus' sacrifice for the whole world. John uses the Greek word "holou" here, which means "whole, entire, all, complete."
The biblical passages which indicate that Jesus died for believers include John 10:15, "just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep"; and Revelation 5:9, "And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation." Some read these verses as it being solely for "people for God" that Jesus was slain. But these verses do not explicitly say Jesus died only for a certain group of people (believers or the elect), but say that He did die for them. What is left unsaid here is that He died for others as well (other sheep, other people).
As for the biblical support of faith being necessary for salvation, we need to be careful to note that universal atonement is not the same as believing every person is or will be eternally saved (universalism). Universal, or unlimited, atonement also holds that each individual person who desires to be saved must accept Jesus' atonement by faith. Not everyone will do so. Salvation is available to all, but becomes reality for only those who exercise faith in Jesus' atonement (Luke 8:12; John 20:31; Acts 16:31; Romans 1:16; 10:9; Ephesians 2:8).
The Old Testament records the sacrificial system which included the Passover remembrance that established that an innocent sacrifice of life is required to substitute for sin (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Passover from death was available to each and every Israelite, but each was required to act on the faith that the blood of the lamb would keep death away. This foretells Jesus' death for us, and the faith we need to avoid eternal death.
At another time, the Israelites were instructed to gaze upon a bronze serpent on a pole for healing (Numbers 21:5–9). Jesus referenced this in John 3:14 when He described Himself as soon to be lifted up. The bronze serpent was available for everyone, as Jesus' own death/atonement upon the cross is also available to all. That does not mean everyone will do what it takes to accept that availability.
Secondly, church history shows us an embrace of universal, or unlimited, atonement. Athanasius wrote that Jesus' death was a substitutionary punishment for all and that death lost its power over all people.
Calvin wrote of John 3:16 that, "It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. . . . And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World; . . . he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life" (Commentary on John, Vol. 1). This was before the Synod of Dort adopted the TULIP doctrine, which was 60 years after Calvin's death.
Now, thirdly, there would be such difficulty, even impossibility, to tell others about the Good News, about Jesus, if limited atonement was true. If only the elect are atoned for, there is nothing we can offer our neighbors and coworkers. The Good News would be only for the elect. Clearly, Jesus extended His goodness, both temporal and eternal, to everyone—even those who would condemn and kill Him (Luke 13:34). Paul didn't limit his preaching to specific groups or individuals, but preached to crowds and entire towns (see Acts). Repentance and faith are required (Matthew 21:32), but the invitation is extended to all. It makes little sense for Jesus and the apostles to offer salvation to many who could not take part.
Some theologians find it difficult to accept universal atonement. It is true that only the elect will be saved, but we must remember that Jesus' death and the power of His resurrection is sufficient for salvation for all. Revelation 22:17 declares, "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let the one who hears say, 'Come.' And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price."
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