Our Pages

Who did Christ die for? The argument for limited atonement


Who did Christ die for? The argument for limited atonement
Posted on September 19, 2021  - By Godly John

[Editor’s note: Last week, we explored the first of two views Christians tend to hold on the extent of the atonement (see here). This article will lay out the alternate view; i.e. the doctrine of limited atonement or what is better called as particular atonement.]

The debate surrounding the extent of the atonement is an example of where what should be a seemingly straightforward biblical truth that ‘Jesus died for His people’ is unfortunately misunderstood and then confused with the other truth that ‘Jesus died for everyone’.

But before we address the question of who Christ died for or ‘atoned’ for, we must know what Christ’s death actually is. In his class book ‘Redemption Accomplished and Applied’, John Murray writes that Christ’s death is summarised as a ‘sacrifice’ which involves the ‘expiation’ or removal of sin and guilt and the ‘propitiation’ or satisfaction of God’s wrath by Christ’s substitution on the cross on our behalf so that he might ‘reconcile’ us unto God (Romans 5:10-11, Ephesians 2:16). 

The work of Christ’s atonement is said to be perfect and finished such that everything it sought to achieve has been achieved once for all. So, if Christ has accomplished what He set out to do, it necessarily implies that His atonement is complete and, by extension, that the reconciliation between God and those on whose behalf He substituted has also been completed (Hebrews 10:14).

With the understanding that the purpose of Christ’s atonement was to perfect/redeem those for whom He died (Romans 6:5), this now clarifies for us the identity of this group. We can identify with certainty the audience of Christ’s atonement by making a few observations:

1. Particular terms

Numerous passages in Scripture speak of the subjects of Christ’s atonement in specific ‘particular’ terms. Christ is said to have died for ‘me’ (Galatians 2:20), ‘the church’ (Acts 20:28), for ‘His people’ (Titus 2:14), for ‘us’ believers (Romans 5:8, 8:32, 1 Corinthians 5:7, Galatians 3:13, Ephesians 5:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:10, Titus 2:14). 

The work of Christ’s atonement is said to be perfect and finished such that everything it sought to achieve has been achieved once for all

Usually, those who deny ‘limited’ atonement resolve this in their ‘unlimited’ view by asserting that Christ’s death is universal for everyone, but applied to only those who believe. However, this does not follow through when we consider that atonement is the starting point to full and final sanctification, such that those for whom Christ died will obtain eternal life (Ephesians 5:25, Galatians 1:4, 2:20). 

If atonement (which we described as consisting of sacrifice, propitiation and reconciliation) is universal, what does it actually achieve for the unbeliever if they too are subjects of atonement? Scripture nowhere talks of atonement in isolation but with the entirety of the order of salvation. If Paul wanted to be clear about the extent of the atonement being universal, he would have used absolute negatives (as he did in Romans 3:10-12), but the implicit assertion made by referring to particular atonement subjects is that those subjects are the only subjects in view! In fact Jesus himself says he does not pray for the ‘world’ but for those who are the Father’s (John 17.9-10).

2. Explaining universal terms

Numerous passages in Scripture speak of Christ’s atonement in universal terms. But these terms do not refer to all people ‘individually’ — or ‘each and everyone’. They simply refer to all people ‘without distinction’. 

Let me clarify. In the OT, salvation was only for the Jews. The Gentiles were ‘outside the fold’. But with the coming of Christ, the mystery of the gospel was revealed as being not just for the Jew, but for both Jew and Gentile — or, as the writers put it, the ‘whole world’ (Ephesians 3:1-6).

This was the revolutionary thought that the early church struggled with. But it was settled by the Jerusalem Council and by Paul’s letters confirming that Gentiles did not need to become ‘Jewish’ to be saved. Rather, in Christ, God is saving the whole world ‘without distinction’ (Acts 15:11; Galatians 2:15-21).

A more than cursory look at the usual references cited by opponents of ‘limited’ atonement proves this. John is particularly fond of using the word ‘world’ to imply the inclusion of the Gentiles. Notice how he refers to the Jews (‘us’) and the Gentiles (‘world’). We see this clearly in John 1:9-13, where he distinguishes between Jesus’ own people’ (the Jews) who did not receive Him, and all who did. 

John’s emphasis on the ‘universal’ scope of Jesus’ redemptive plan is further seen in John 3:16 and in 1 John 2:2. Again, ‘the world’ is not used to describe each and every individual, but all peoples — not just Jews, but also Gentiles.

1 Timothy 2:4-6 says that God desires ‘all people to be saved’ and that Jesus ‘gave himself as a ransom for all’. But this is not the first instance where Paul refers to ‘all people’ in this chapter. It is mentioned in vv.1-2 with regards to all people, ‘for kings and all who are in high positions’. Both references are regarding prayers for all. But a careful reading uncovers that the subject of the prayer remains the same. And so, Paul’s instruction is best understood as not being all people individually but all people without distinction i.e. for all ‘kinds’ of people. 

In other verses, the clarification of universalistic terms is understood by its context. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, we can see that a parallel is set up. The ones controlled by the love of Christ are the same as the ones described as: ‘all died with Christ and who now live for Him’. Any other interpretation of this verse disrupts the union of Christ with those who live for Him.

Scripture nowhere talks of atonement in isolation but with the entirety of the order of salvation

3. False believers

Thirdly, verses that seem to point out that there are some Christians for whom Christ died who will then perish are in reality not describing ‘true’ believers. What the author is intending in describing persons in this way is to describe those who are part of a group that have common characteristics. 

In Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11, we can see that the descriptor given to the ‘weaker brother’ is the same descriptor to the believer for whom Christ died. John calls Judas one of Jesus’ disciples (John 12:14) and Peter calls false teachers as those who had once ‘known the way of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2:21). 

Similarly, Paul elsewhere in Acts 20, refers to the church as one that was obtained ‘with His own blood’ (v.28) and then describes false teachers who would arise from within the same church (v.30). This is consistent with the warning passages in Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29), as well as how John describes false believers who exist within the body (1 John 2:19). It is their departure from the faith that evidences that they were never truly of them. 

While a lot more could be said the basic answer to the question should be that the extent of Christ’s atonement must be in sync with the rest of the salvific activity of the Triune God: those whom the Father gives to the Son, the Son atones for and the Spirit raises to eternal life. There can never be persons for whom Christ atoned for who will perish because He has purchased His people for Himself. And He has promised He will raise them up in the resurrection to spend eternity with Him (John 6:35-40)!

Titus 2:11-14 – For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Romans 6:5 – For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like his.

Godly John

About Godly John

Raised in the Middle East, now living in Melbourne, Australia, Godly John is married with one son. A former agnostic, he is now involved in lay teaching ministries at his local church, and loves thinking about the intersection between reformed theology, philosophy, culture and ethics.



Get a notification in your Inbox

A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.