Christians, across the sweep of church history, have held a diversity of views on the atonement. In the midst of such diversity, however, one aspect that has brought all evangelicals together is the doctrine of penal substitution. It means that Jesus died in place of the sinner, bearing the penalty for their sin, on the cross.
Among those who affirm this doctrine and see it as the touchstone of their faith, there are generally two views on the extent of the atonement. The extent of the atonement deals with the question, “For whom did Christ die?”
In answering it, the Calvinists have maintained that Christ died for the sins of the elect only (limited atonement), while the non-Calvinists have defended the view that Christ died for the sins of all humanity (unlimited atonement).
Although there are good biblical arguments on both sides, in the final analysis, I believe the weight of the arguments seems to tip the scales in favour of “unlimited atonement”. For the sake of brevity, three arguments in support of this view may be considered.
[Editor’s note: For the limited atonement argument, watch this space next week.]
Calvinists maintain that Christ died for the sins of the elect only, while non-Calvinists believe He died for the sins of all humanity
Numerous passages in Scripture speak of Christ’s atonement in universal terms. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, he introduced Him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Later on, the same Gospel explicates the purpose of Christ’s coming into the world in all-inclusive terms: “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” (John 3:16-17).
The apostle Paul uses similar language regarding the atonement when he says, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
In 1 Timothy 4:10, he refers to the living God as “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Earlier in the epistle, he had mentioned that Christ Jesus “gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6).
The general epistles also have the same refrain about the atonement of Christ. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus “for a little while was made lower than the angels… so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
John, in his epistles, has straightforward statements about the extent of the atonement. He says that Jesus Christ the righteous “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2), and that “the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).
At this point, one would do well to remember what Isaiah said: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). It is difficult to examine these passages without coming away with the understanding that Jesus died to pay for the sins of the whole world.
It is difficult to examine these passages without coming away with the understanding that Jesus died to pay for the sins of the whole world
A handful of passages seem to point out that some for whom Christ died will perish. Paul, in Romans 14:15, says, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” Also, in 1 Corinthians 8:11, he brings his argument regarding food offered to idols to conclusion by saying, “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.”
Peter also seems to clarify this truth. He says, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). These portions of Scripture make a case for the fact that some for whom Christ died will not be saved.
Several passages state that the gospel is to be universally proclaimed. In the Olivet discourse, Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, declares emphatically, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). He affirms in his letter to Titus that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). One must notice here that the offer of salvation to everyone can only be sincere and legitimate if Christ indeed died for them all.
From these and other Scriptural reasons, one can reasonably assert that Jesus died to pay the penalty for the sins of the whole world, not just the elect. His death is sufficient for all, efficient only for those who believe.
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