Limited or Unlimited Atonement? (Yes)

Let me begin by giving one reason I confess what is commonly called “limited atonement.” I could go into a long treatise on the internal logical and theological consistency of a Calvinist approach to salvation, but instead I’ll just keep this simple and mention one verse. In Ephesians 5:25, Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” What did Paul mean by “Christ gave Himself up” for the church? In 5:2, Paul had already explained, “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Thus, by sacrificing His life as an offering to God, Christ gave Himself up for the church, that is, the elect.

How does this touch on the doctrine of limited atonement? Well, in Ephesians 5:25 Paul used Christ’s self-sacrificial love for the church as a model of a husband’s love for his wife—and vice versa. I contend that the sense of Paul’s exhortation to husbands requires the doctrine of limited atonement. Because if we confess that Christ’s love and sacrificial death applied equally and universally to all people, whether believers or unbelievers, then Paul’s entire argument for a husband’s exclusive, faithful love for his wife would collapse. Paul did not write, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her and for all people everywhere, equally and without exception.” The very nature of Paul’s exhortation demands that he perceived the sacrificial death of Christ to have been limited in its redemptive intension—focused specifically on the elect of the church.

There are other passages I could highlight that limit the scope of Christ’s death to “us,” to believers, to the church, to the elect, and to those “in Christ.” But I frankly don’t see the need to pile up proof-texts, especially in light of where I’m going in this essay. I believe the point of Ephesians 5:25 is sufficiently clear to show that in some sense—however that may be expressed—the self-sacrificial love of Christ for the church is qualitatively different than the love that Christ has for the unsaved world in general.

But this now brings me to the second part of my confession. I also confess that Christ died for all.

I hold this not merely because the New Testament teaches a universality of God’s love (John 3:16), but also because certain passages are quite difficult to interpret apart from the death of Christ having a universal benefit and scope. Although I personally believe 1 John 2:2 may be a reference to the global catholicity of the Christian faith rather than the universality of Christ’s propitiatory offering (see my article on this subject here), I believe 2 Peter 2:1 teaches that Christ’s death paid the price of redemption for non-elect heretics. Peter wrote, “There will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.” Though I have heard all the arguments to the contrary, I cannot get around two basic assertions in this passage: 1) the false teachers denied the Lord and taught heresy—marking them as outside the body of the elect; 2) these heretics had nevertheless been “bought” by the Lord. Thus, in some sense, the penalty of sin for the non-elect was paid by the death of Christ.

So, I confess both unlimited and limited atonement. Although Christ’s death paid the penalty for all, the saving effect of His death is limited only to the elect.

Even though the non-elect are not the object of God’s redemptive intention, this does not mean they do not receive real benefit from the death Christ died in their place. I believe that God’s general grace toward all humans is granted on the basis of Christ’s propitiatory death and the resulting gracious and merciful disposition of God toward the world in general. The forms of this general grace include the preservation of the world for the sake of the elect, the blessing of unbelievers in conjunction with the blessing of the elect, and, in fact, all good gifts from God that are bestowed upon humans in general, as well as the withholding of judgment and wrath for the purpose of executing His program of grace and mercy in the present age. Furthermore, because believers are raised on the basis of Christ’s resurrection, I also hold that unbelievers will be raised on the basis of Christ’s resurrection (see John 5:29; 11:25; and context). This is not a strange or novel idea. Calvin himself wrote in Institutes 3.25.9:

We know that in Adam we were deprived of the inheritance of the whole world, and that the same reason which excludes us from eating of the tree of life excludes us also from common food. How comes it, then, that God not only makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, but that, in regard to the uses of the present life, his inestimable liberality is constantly flowing forth in rich abundance? Hence we certainly perceive, that things which are proper to Christ and his members, abound to the wicked also; not that their possession is legitimate, but that they may thus be rendered more inexcusable. Thus the wicked often experience the beneficence of God, not in ordinary measures, but such as sometimes throw all the blessings of the godly into the shade, though they eventually lead to greater damnation. Should it be objected, that the resurrection is not properly compared to fading and earthly blessings, I again answer, that when the devils were first alienated from God, the fountain of life, they deserved to be utterly destroyed; yet, by the admirable counsel of God, an intermediate state was prepared, where without life they might live in death. It ought not to seem in any respect more absurd that there is to be an adventitious resurrection of the ungodly which will drag them against their will before the tribunal of Christ, whom they now refuse to receive as their master and teacher.

In short, Calvin said the blessings of God through Christ—intended for the elect—overflow in abundance and affect the wicked. However, because they are recipients of some blessings of Christ’s death, their failure to respond to God in worship and glory results in even greater guilt and condemnation.

I believe that from God’s perspective of actualized redemption, the scope and purpose of Christ’s death was limited to the elect. Yet from the perspective of his general love for humanity expressed by His general grace, and also from the theological perspective of the inexhaustible potential redemptive value of the God-man’s sacrificial death, I must confess that the benefits of Christ’s death can not be limited only to the elect.

Thus, I confess that Christ died for all. I also confess that Christ died only for the elect. This is neither a mystery nor a paradox. I believe in limited atonement when referring to God’s eternal perspective and purpose of salvation; and I believe in unlimited atonement when referring to the benefits bestowed on humanity in general in spite of their unbelief. These are real, intentional benefits of the atonement, but not intended for eternal salvation.

I’m generally irenic in my approach to theological dialogue, but I do not applaud artificial attempts at finding a via media at all costs, so I am not highly motivated by being labeled a “moderate.” It’s great to be “moderate” when being moderate is right, but if it’s simply a compromise for its own sake, I don’t find this commendable. So, in stating my current position on limited and unlimited atonement, the result has probably not been to satisfy both Calvinists and non-Calvinists simultaneously. Rather, I’ve probably just offended both. Of course, the latter effect was not my intention (I’m not a controversialist) . . . . but neither was the former.

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