On the notice board of the building belonging to my church, there is the following statement:
“Jesus loves you, cares for you and died for you.”
Among other things, this is telling any passer-by who chooses to read it that Jesus died for them.
A large majority of Christians today would agree with the above words. They believe, as I do firmly, that when the Lord died on the cross, He paid the price for the sins of all human beings. Atonement has been provided for everyone.
That is not to say, of course, that everyone receives atonement. People still need to appropriate it by faith. And sadly, most refuse to do this.
But nevertheless, Jesus died to provide atonement for the sins of every human being, to pay the price for their sins. And a large majority of Christians accept this.
There is one group of Christians, however, who deny that Jesus has provided atonement for everyone’s sins, five-point Calvinists.
The five traditional points of Calvinism are often referred to using the acronym TULIP:
Perseverance of the Saints
The point we are interested in here is the third one, “Limited Atonement,” also often referred to as “Particular Redemption.”
This is actually where four- and five-point Calvinists differ. Four-point Calvinists, like other Christians, reject a belief in Limited Atonement, although they accept the other four points of Calvinism. Five-point Calvinists are, to my knowledge, unique among Christians in accepting Limited Atonement.
Limited Atonement, as the name suggests, means that the atonement Christ provided on the cross is limited in its scope. Those Calvinists who accept this point believe that on the cross Jesus provided atonement only for the sins of the elect, i.e., those whom God chooses to receive salvation and causes to come to Christian faith. But they deny that Jesus atoned for the sins of the non-elect, i.e., those whom God has not chosen to receive salvation.
To be fair, five-point Calvinists usually claim that Christ’s death on the cross benefits the non-elect in some minor, temporary ways. But they are clear that He has not provided atonement for their sins.
As a result, five-point Calvinists usually avoid telling people in general that Jesus died for them. They will say this to Christians, but not to anyone who has not yet come to Christian faith, because, in their view, that person might be non-elect and therefore not someone for whom Christ provided atonement.
THE AIM OF THIS ARTICLE
I am convinced that Limited Atonement is an error, and in this article I will try to demonstrate from Scripture that this is the case.
Before I turn to the Bible, however, I want to make two brief preliminary comments.
Calvin seems not to have believed in Limited Atonement
First, despite the above five points being known as the five points “of Calvinism,” there is strong evidence that John Calvin himself didn’t believe in Limited Atonement.
For example, in his commentary on Isaiah 53:12 Calvin writes:
“I approve of the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because the guilt of the whole world was laid on him.”
And in his commentary on Colossians 1:14 he writes:
“He says that this redemption was procured by the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death all the sins of the world have been expiated.”
Many more similar quotes could also be given.
It seems, then, that Calvin actually rejected a key point of the theology that has come to bear his name.
When belief in Limited Atonement began
The second preliminary comment concerns when belief in Limited Atonement began.
I am not aware of any evidence that any Christian between the end of the apostolic era and the second half of the 16th century believed in Limited Atonement.
In saying this, I am not implying that before the end of the apostolic era any Christian believed in this doctrine. I am just leaving a consideration of the apostolic era to the examination of New Testament passages to follow. But if we think of the period between about 100 AD and the second half of the 16th century, I know of no evidence that anyone believed in Limited Atonement.
I admit that I am not an expert in church history. So I am open to being shown that there is actually some evidence for belief in this doctrine during this time. But nevertheless, even if there is any evidence, belief in Limited Atonement during this time was certainly at most extremely rare.
So if Limited Atonement is an important doctrine, we need to ask why no one, or at most almost no one, believed it for the millennium and a half that immediately followed the apostolic era.
Of course, by far the most important factor in determining whether or not Limited Atonement is a correct doctrine is what Scripture has to say.
Let’s turn, then, to see what the Bible tells us about this topic.
Passages which say that Jesus died for the church
Five-point Calvinists often point to passages which teach that Jesus died for the church, and claim that these support Limited Atonement. They argue that Scripture wouldn’t say that He died for the church, if in fact He died for everyone.
It is certainly true that there are biblical texts which teach that Christ died for the church.
For example, in John 10:14-15 we find Jesus saying:
“14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version except where otherwise stated.)
Similarly, in Ephesians 5:25 Paul writes:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .”
However, these passages, and others like them, can easily be interpreted to fit with an unlimited atonement. There are three points to make here.
First, it is important to understand that there is no biblical passage which clearly teaches that Jesus died only for the church.
Second, we need to take account of what Paul writes in Galatians 2:20:
“And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Obviously, when Paul says that Jesus gave Himself for him, he doesn’t mean that He gave Himself only for him. Similarly, we mustn’t rush to conclude that passages which say that Christ died for the church must mean that he only died for the church.
Third, I do think there is a way in which Christ died for the church in a way that He didn’t die for the unsaved, but this in no way has to involve a limited atonement.
Let me explain what I mean.
God’s purpose in the crucifixion was to bring salvation to human beings. However, from all eternity, He knew (and in a sense planned) that only some people would accept the gift of salvation through faith in Christ. So in a very real sense the crucifixion was aimed at those who would accept Christ and not at those who wouldn’t accept Him.
Therefore, when the Bible says that Christ died for the church, we can easily understand things in this way:
Although Jesus provided atonement for all human beings, He chose to go through this suffering for the sake of those who would end up being saved. His focus was on them. So in this sense He died for the church and not for the unsaved.
This interpretation makes very good sense of those passages which say that Christ died for the church.
The combined weight of these three points shows that passages which teach that Jesus died for the church in no way have to mean that He provided atonement only for the church. In themselves, these passages could fit with this view or with the view that He provided an unlimited atonement.
There are other passages, however, which count strongly against the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Let’s turn now to look at some of these.
In Romans 5:18 Paul writes:
“So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone [eis pantas anthropous], so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone [eis pantas anthropous].”
(This quotation is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)
To begin with, I need to make two preliminary points about this verse:
(1) In verses 12-17, Paul has been talking about the way that Adam’s sin led to all human beings becoming sinners. So the “one trespass” that he refers to in this verse is Adam’s sin.
(2) In verses 15-17, Paul has been talking about the justification that results from Christ’s work on the cross. So the “one righteous act” that he refers to is the death of Christ on the cross.
With the preliminary points in place, let’s think more about what Paul says here.
Because the “one trespass” refers to Adam’s sin, when Paul says in the first half of the sentence, “through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone,” the “everyone” surely refers to all human beings without exception.
Importantly, in each half of this sentence we find the Greek phrase eis pantas anthropous, which is translated each time as “for everyone.” As I have just noted, in the first half of the sentence this phrase refers to all human beings without exception. So it makes good sense to think that in the second half of the sentence it also refers to all human beings without exception.
Therefore, Paul is apparently saying that through one righteous act, i.e., the cross, “there is life-giving justification for everyone,” i.e., for all human beings without exception. And this would surely mean that Jesus died to provide atonement for every human being.
The only way to fit this verse with Limited Atonement would be to say that eis pantas anthropous has a different meaning in each half of the sentence. We would have to say that in the first half it means “for everyone” in the sense of “for all human beings,” but in the second half it means “for everyone” in the sense of “for all people who are saved” or “for all the elect.”
It is difficult to suppose, however, that this Greek phrase suddenly changes meaning in this way within the same sentence, especially when the two halves of the sentence are parallel to each other.
It is true that if we take “for everyone” in the second half of the sentence as a reference to all human beings, then “there is life-giving justification for everyone” might at first sight seem to be suggesting that every human being will be saved. And we know from numerous biblical passages that many people will not actually be saved.
However, we can easily understand “there is life-giving justification for everyone” as a potential statement. Paul could mean that life-giving justification is potentially available to anyone who chooses to accept it.
A good example of a potential statement can be found in John 14:12, where Jesus says:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do . . .”
At first sight, Jesus seems to be saying here that every Christian will do the miracles that He did. Instead, however, the idea seems to be that being a believer in Jesus is all the qualification that people need in and of themselves to work miracles. For someone to actually work a miracle, God would still need to take the extra step of granting the ability to perform the miracle in that specific case. But believing in Christ qualifies believers to potentially work miracles if God enables them.
John 14:12, then, provides us with an example of a statement that should be understood potentially. And it is not difficult to think that the same is true of Romans 5:18.
At the very least, it is much more difficult to think that the Greek phrase eis pantas anthropous suddenly changes meaning mid-sentence. And this means that this verse is a significant piece of biblical evidence that Limited Atonement is a false doctrine.
1 Timothy 2:1-6
In 1 Timothy 2:1-6 Paul writes:
“1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people [panton anthropon], 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people [pantas anthropous] to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all [panton], which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
First, let’s consider verses 1 and 4 of this passage.
In the Greek text, each of these verses contains a phrase which consists of a plural form of the word “pas” along with a plural form of the word “anthropos.” Verse 1 has the genitive plural, “panton anthropon,” and v. 4 has the accusative plural, “pantas anthropous.” For our purposes, the variation between genitive and accusative is not relevant.
Anthropos means “human being, (human) person,” and by far the most common meaning of pas is “all, every.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, a large majority of commentators interpret the plurals panton anthropon and pantas anthropous in these verses as referring to all human beings. Under this interpretation of v. 4, Paul would be saying that God desires all human beings to be saved.
There are some Calvinists, however, who claim that panton anthropon and pantas anthropous should be interpreted differently. They argue in the following way:
In the Greek of the first century, the plural of the word pas sometimes meant “all sorts of.” It is natural to understand it in this way in v. 1. In this verse Paul is saying that he wants prayers etc. to be made for all sorts of people, and in v. 2 he gives some examples of sorts of people, i.e., kings and all who are in high positions. In v. 1, then, it seems that panton anthropon means “all sorts of people.” Given that this is its meaning in v. 1, we would expect the equivalent phrase pantas anthropous to have the same sense in v. 4 too. Therefore, in v. 4 Paul is saying that he desires all sorts of people to be saved, i.e., people from every social stratum of society. He is not saying that God desires all people to be saved.
So, how do we respond to this argument? Is it a strong one?
In a word, no.
It is true that in first century Greek the plural of pas sometimes meant “all sorts of.” And to avoid lengthening the discussion, let’s assume that “all sorts of” would fit the context in verses 1 and 4.
However, the meaning “all” also fits the context well in both these verses. And in first century Greek pas meant “all” far more commonly than it meant “all sorts of.” Importantly, when a reader reads a word that is very commonly used with a certain meaning and that meaning fits the context, they will automatically gravitate towards that common meaning, even if the word is also sometimes used in a rare way that would also fit the context. Just as importantly, we would expect the author to realise this, especially one who is being inspired by the Holy Spirit.
In other words, we would have to say that if Paul wanted his readers to understand panton anthropon and pantas anthropous in verses 1 and 4 to mean “all sorts of people,” he has done a very poor job of expressing himself. He has written in such a way that all or at least the vast majority of his readers will assume that he intends the much more common meaning of these phrases, “all people.”
However, instead of supposing that Paul has written poorly, we do much better to conclude that he really does mean “all people” in verses 1 and 4.
There are very good reasons, then, for thinking that in v. 4 Paul is saying that God desires all human beings to be saved. And this counts strongly against Limited Atonement, because it would be very strange for Paul to say this if Jesus never even provided atonement for everyone.
Next, we need to consider v. 6.
This verse contains the same Greek plural panton that we discussed above. Keeping this Greek word in the English translation for a moment, Paul says that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for panton.”
So how should we interpret the panton in this verse?
To begin with, it surely doesn’t mean “all sorts of (people).” This would be extremely obscure in the context, especially since, as we have seen, verses 1 and 4 seem not to be referring to all sorts of people. We should therefore translate panton by “all” and say that Paul is describing Jesus’ self-giving as “a ransom for all.”
Secondly, it is very difficult to think that “all” here means all the elect. The elect are not mentioned in the context or even in 1 Timothy as a whole. Instead, it is much more natural to think that “all” really does mean all (human beings) here.
So by far the most natural interpretation of v. 6 is that it is referring to Jesus’ self-giving on the cross as a ransom for all human beings. And this would obviously contradict Limited Atonement.
In conclusion, then, 1 Timothy 2:1-6 stands as a very strong piece of biblical evidence that the doctrine of Limited Atonement is false.