Is unlimited atonement biblical? Is the atonement provided by Jesus Christ unlimited?
The atonement of Christ refers to the amends or payment made by Jesus for the sins of humanity. The Bible speaks often about the importance of this payment by the death of Jesus upon the cross. However, many dispute the nature of the atonement.
Two main views exist among theologians regarding the atonement of Christ—limited atonement and unlimited atonement. Limited atonement is generally defined by the idea that the death of Christ on the cross was only for those who believe in Jesus for salvation. Unlimited atonement is the view that the death of Jesus provides atonement for all people to receive salvation.
To be clear, limited atonement and unlimited atonement is not a discussion regarding whether some people go to heaven or whether every person goes to heaven. The Bible is clear that those who trust in Jesus by faith receive salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9) and that there is only one name under heaven by which people must be saved (Acts 4:12). The discussion is whether the atonement of sins made possible by Jesus on the cross is for some people (limited atonement) or all people (unlimited atonement).
Those who argue for the limited atonement view do so in one of two ways. First, there are those who believe the Bible teaches that God limits atonement only to those He has sovereignly chosen to receive salvation (generally Calvinists). In other words, the atonement is limited by God to those who will come to salvation. A second group believes the atonement is limited by people when they choose to reject faith in Jesus Christ (generally Arminians).
Evidence for both views can be found in Scripture. However, a brief look at Scripture regarding the atonement notes the following. Jesus died for all people: "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2 NIV). Jesus died for ungodly people: "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Jesus died to give eternal life to all who would believe in Him: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
What becomes clear based on these and other passages is that Jesus died to provide the possibility or opportunity for every person to receive salvation through Him. However, not everyone will receive salvation. Both God's sovereign plan and the sinfulness of humanity are involved in the rejection of salvation by many people. As a result, though the atonement is in potential unlimited and available to all people, in actuality it is only embraced or accepted by those who come to faith in Jesus Christ.
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