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If you’re ever in tight quarters at a theologically literate dinner party and could use some “me” time, declare that you hold to limited atonement. This should provide you with all the elbow room you need.

For those not aware, proponents of limited atonement hold that Christ propitiated the wrath of God for those God predestined to save from all eternity.[1]

Mentioning limited atonement spawns a visceral reaction by those who believe the position depreciates the value of Christ’s sacrifice. Before drawing this conclusion, however, it’s important for theological students and informed laypeople to slow down, take a deep breath, and listen intently to the entirety of the Scriptural witness.

My goal in this post is not to give my position, but rather to lay out some of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the nature and extent of the atonement.

First, know that the central disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians is over the design of the atonement. In short, Calvinists and Arminians answer the question “What did God intend to accomplish in Christ’s death?” differently.

The Covenant of Redemption
Calvinists argue that God the Father sent the Son to earth on a specific mission—namely, to provide atonement for those whom the Father had given him. They find support for this in passages like John 17, where Jesus speaks of “giving eternal life to all whom you [the Father] have given him” (v. 3). Later he says, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world” (v. 6). In v. 9 Jesus prays for these people, and not for the world. Furthermore, Jesus says he consecrates himself for their sake (v. 19).

That Jesus doesn’t have some random work to accomplish is made explicit in verse 4 where he declares, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do” (v. 4, emphasis mine). Moreover, in John 10 Jesus says he lays down his life “for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). In John 15:13 he indicates that he lays down his life “for his friends.”

Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus announced, “All that the Father gives me, will come to me . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (Jn. 6:37, 39, emphasis mine). In a portion of Scripture highlighting the believer’s security in Christ, Jesus says, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:29).

Taken together, these texts (to say nothing of Romans 8 and Ephesians 1) give the impression that Jesus didn’t come to earth on an undefined mission. Rather, it seems clear that from all eternity the Father gave His Son a work to accomplish.[2] All this stands in stark contrast to the Arminian position.

Lee Gatiss frames the differences between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the nature and extent of the atonement this way:

The Calvinist Conception of the Atonement: Personal, intentional, and effective.

The Arminian Conception of the Atonement: Impersonal, random, and ineffective.[3]

The Undivided Work of the Triune God[4]
In addition to the passages cited above, throughout church history theologians have noted that the Persons of the Trinity are united in the work of redemption. However, if Christ’s death extends further than the Father’s electing purpose and the Spirit’s effecting power, then it seems that the three Persons of the Godhead are at odds with one another.[5] Thus, the question arises: Is it really the case that the Father elects some and that the Spirit regenerates some, while Christ provides atonement for every human being that has ever lived, is currently living, and will live in the future? More importantly, can one prove such a position exegetically? Calvinists answer in the negative.

In light of the passages from the gospel of John cited above, Ryan McGraw concludes, “God is triune, and the atonement is a unified Trinitarian act in purpose, production, and perfection.”[6]

While Arminians may disagree with McGraw’s conclusion, I hope they can at least see where their Calvinist brothers and sisters are coming from. Far from placing a theological construct over the text of Scripture, their deductions are drawn from the lips of Jesus and the witness of the apostles.

Secondly, know that both Arminians and Calvinists limit the atonement. This may come as a surprise to Arminian readers, but the Remonstrants (the Arminian party in the Netherlands) affirmed the limited nature of the atonement. What they denied, however, was that God the Father only intended to save the elect. As Kevin DeYoung summarizes, “the Remonstrants championed an atonement that allowed for the potential salvation of everyone but actually secured the salvation of none.”[7] These words once again bring the major disagreement between the two camps into sharper focus—namely, the design of the atonement.

Before my Arminian friends balk at the idea of limiting the atonement, consider the Puritan theologian John Owen’s (1616–1683) observations. As he thought about the atonement, Owen said we have three options:

  1. Jesus died for all the sins of all people.
  2. Jesus died for some of the sins of all people.
  3. Jesus died for all of the sins of some people.

Most evangelicals want to affirm the first position—that is, they want to say that Jesus died for all the sins of all people. At the same time, however, they also want to make clear that they are not universalists—that is, they do not believe that everyone is going to heaven when they die.

But this raises a question that most Christians have not adequately thought through: What about unbelief? Is unbelief a sin? Given that Jesus came declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15), we can safely say that refusal to believe in Christ is a sin. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 16:22 Paul says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” Additionally, in 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Paul notes that at his second coming, Christ will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Since these three verses indicate that unbelief is a sin which will condemn people, we rightly conclude that unbelief is a sin.

In light of the above, if we say that Jesus died for all the sins of all people—including the sin of unbelief—then logically we would have to affirm universalism (before you scream “not so!” at your screen, keep reading). But this is exactly what evangelicals repudiate. They insist that unbelievers will spend eternity in hell for their unbelief. If that’s the case, then why would we say that Christ propitiated the wrath of God on their behalf?

The typical Arminian response is, “Well, I believe Christ died for all, but people must actually accept Christ if his work on the cross is to apply to their account.” But notice how this changes the nature of Christ’s work on the cross. The Arminian conception of the atonement is such that the work of Christ is insufficient in and of itself to accomplish anything. Rather, its effectiveness depends upon a self-generated response of faith on the part of an unbeliever. (I say “self-generated” because most Arminians also deny effectual calling.)[8]

Pressing this point further reveals a massive difference between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the atonement: The Calvinist denies that “God’s saving purpose in the death of His Son was a mere ineffectual wish, depending for its fulfillment on man’s willingness to believe, so that for all God could do Christ might have died and none been saved at all.” Rather, the Calvinist maintains that “the intended effects of His self-offering do in fact follow, just because the cross was what it was. Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it.[9]

Additionally, the Arminian conception of the atonement raises another significant question. Since an entailment of the Arminian understanding is that Christ’s sacrifice didn’t actually guarantee the salvation of anyone, it’s difficult to see how they can hold to penal substitution.[10] Remember, in the Arminian scheme God the Father didn’t intend only to save the elect, and Christ didn’t actually die for anyone in particular. Therefore, how can they insist that Christ lived a vicarious life and died a vicarious death on behalf of specific people? Theologian Robert Letham gets to the heart of the issue:

“[I]f we wish to maintain that Christ died for all without exception while rejecting universalism, we will have no alternative but to redefine the nature of the atonement. Christ’s death will then have secured the salvation of no-one in particular. It will simply be a provisional suffering, dependent for its effect on a believing response by the sinner. . . . It seems impossible theologically to hold to the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement and at the same time maintain that Christ died provisionally for all without exception.”[11]

All this leads to my final point.

Thirdly, know that the “world” passages prove too much for the Arminian. In my reading of Arminian authors, they reject limited atonement because of the “world” passages found in the Bible. For example, they cite John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (emphasis mine). They look to 1 John 2:1–2: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (emphasis mine). Additionally, they quote 1 Timothy 2:4, which says that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (emphasis mine, also see 2 Pet. 3:9).

First, careful readers should note that John 3:16 is actually irrelevant to the discussion. The verse says nothing about the extent of the atonement; rather, it simply states a fact—namely, that everyone who repents of his or her sin will receive eternal life. Calvinists believe this wholeheartedly. John 3:16 serves as the basis for the free offer of the gospel. However, as Lee Gatiss notes, one should not equate “God so loved the world” with “God sent Jesus because he intended to save the whole world.”[12]

In truth, 1 John 2:2 is more difficult for the Calvinist because it specifically says that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. But Arminians shouldn’t be so quick to raise their voices as they cite this verse with verve. After all, it’s not like they’re the only ones who have some work to do reconciling this passage with other biblical texts. Don’t forget: Universalists appeal to this text to prove universalism—the view that everyone, no matter what they believe, will eventually be saved. For this reason, I’m suggesting that the “world” passages of the Bible prove too much, if left unqualified.

Still, what do we do with 1 John 2:2? Calvinists typically say that when one properly understands the context of 1 John, along with placing the text within the entirety of the biblical witness, his point in saying that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world means that Christ is the Savior of all kinds of people—Jews and Gentiles. Christ is the Savior of all without distinction, not all without exception.

Furthermore, the Bible also discloses the particularity of Christ’s atonement. For instance, Ephesians 5:25 asserts that Christ gave himself for the church. Acts 20:28 specifies that he purchased the church with his own blood. Revelation 5:9 says that Christ purchased people from every tribe, people, language, and nation.

We’re Almost Done
Admittedly, we could keep going, and my Arminian friends could respond with several passages of their own to counter my arguments. But my goal isn’t to answer every objection and refute every opposing claim. The point is to understand each other and perceive the differences between Calvinists and Arminians.

As is obvious from this post, these are massive differences. They are fundamental, not incidental.

Why care about this pastorally? Briefly, because who God is matters and what he sets out to accomplish in redemption is momentous. We dare not take it lightly, think about it incorrectly, or contemplate it wrongly.

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[1] I am slightly modifying the definition found in Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 18.

[2] For more on this point see Donald Macleod, “The Work of Christ,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 351–352.

[3]Less Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry (London: The Latimer Trust, 2012), 14.

[4] For a helpful overview see Kyle Claunch, “What God Hath Done Together: Defending the Historic Doctrine of the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56:4 (2013): 781–800. On why this is especially important when considering penal substitution, see Keith E. Johnson, “Penal Substitution as an Undivided Work of the Triune God,” Trinity Journal 36 (2015): 51–67.

[5] I am indebted to Ryan McGraw for some of this language. See his article “For Whom Did Christ Die?” Tabletalk 43:4 (April 2019): 24. This also illustrates why the so-called “five points” stand or fall together. Matthew Barrett shows how this relates to the effectual call: “The efficacious nature of grace also reveals the particularity of God’s choice” (see his “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will,” in Reformation Theology, 492).

[6] McGraw, “For Whom Did Christ Die?” 25.

[7] Kevin DeYoung, Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 57.

[8] I realize that not all Arminians agree on this point. Some Arminians are actually more semi-Pelagian in their thinking.

[9] J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, PA: The
Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 9–10, emphasis mine.

[10] In making this point, I am not suggesting that penal substitution is the only way the Bible portrays what Christ accomplished in the atonement. Since I won’t go into detail on this point, I happily direct interested readers to Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 174–226.

[11] Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 230.

[12] Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation, 48, 50. That said, it is true in one sense that God will renew the whole world and reconcile the whole world (the cosmos) to himself (2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:10). Cosmic restoration is part of God’s plan for the world. Still, the Bible gives no hope to those who reject Christ (2 Thess. 1:7–8; Heb. 9:27).