1 Timothy 4:10
In 1 Timothy 4:10 Paul tells Timothy:
“For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
Paul tells us in this verse that God is the “Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
To begin with, we need to determine the identity of “all people” here:
First, when Paul says, “of all people, especially of those who believe,” he is obviously implying that “all people” includes all believers in Christ and others who don’t believe in Christ. So the “all people” must be a larger group than all believers in Christ.
Second, Paul surely doesn’t mean that “all people” is all the elect, including those who are never able to believe, because, for example, they die in infancy. Not only is this much too obscure, but it also fails to explain why God would especially be the Saviour of those in the elect who are able to believe. The “all people” must therefore include people who are not among the elect.
In view of these points, the only reasonable interpretation of “all people” is that it means all human beings. So Paul is saying that God is the Saviour of all human beings.
Next, we need to consider in what way God is the Saviour of all human beings.
There are two potential options.
(1) He has provided atonement for every human being.
(2) He hasn’t provided atonement for every human being. However, the cross of Christ has provided some benefits before death for every human being.
Under option (2), God would be described as the “Savior” of people whose sins are, and will forever be, unforgiven, and who are firmly on track for hell. It is extremely difficult to think that Paul would have said this.
By contrast, option (1) looks good. God is the Saviour of all people, in the sense that He has provided atonement for everyone. Yet He is especially the Saviour of those who believe, in the sense that only they receive the benefits of the atonement. This must be Paul’s meaning.
In conclusion, then, this verse is a huge piece of biblical evidence that the doctrine of Limited Atonement is an error.
In Hebrews 2:9 the author states:
“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
Note here how the author says that Jesus suffered death so that He might taste death for everyone. This certainly means that He died for everyone.
Supporters of Limited Atonement often claim that in this verse “everyone” refers not to all human beings but to all the elect.
This is a very problematic interpretation.
To begin with, without any indication in the context that “everyone” means all the elect, this term much more naturally suggests all human beings.
Furthermore, the book of Hebrews contains no teaching at all on election. So, even in the broader context of the book as a whole, nothing encourages us to take “everyone” as a reference to all the elect.
To put it another way, if the author wanted his readers to understand “everyone” in this verse as the elect, he has expressed himself very poorly.
However, we should say instead that he has done a fine job of expressing himself, and that he means that Jesus died for all human beings.
Given the message of Hebrews as a whole, the reference to dying for people in this verse must have Christ’s atoning work in view. And, because “everyone” means all human beings, the verse must be saying that He has provided atonement for all human beings.
Furthermore, the way that the author says that Jesus died “for everyone,” putting them all in one category, speaks volumes against the idea that Jesus died to provide atonement for some people but only in a weaker, non-atoning sense for other people.
The upshot of all this is that this verse is a powerful piece of biblical evidence that Limited Atonement is an error.
2 Peter 2:1-3
In 2 Peter 2:1-3 Peter writes:
“1 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 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”
Peter prophesies here that false teachers will arise among his readers. And in v. 3 he says that these teachers will experience “condemnation” and “destruction.” Verses 4-9 make it clear that the condemnation and destruction he refers to in v. 3 involves punishment in hell.
That is not to say that every single one of these false teachers would necessarily end up in hell. Some may turn from their sins and accept salvation in Christ. But nevertheless, generally speaking, we can say that the people Peter refers to in verses 1-3 will not receive eternal salvation.
Next, we must note in v. 1 how Peter says that these people “[deny] the Master who bought them.”
When Peter says “bought them,” this must be a reference to Jesus paying the price for their sins on the cross. It is the same metaphor that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6:20, where he says about the Corinthians believers:
“. . . for you were bought with a price.”
There is no other conceivable kind of buying that Peter can have in mind. As far as I am aware, everyone, including supporters of Limited Atonement, agrees about this.
In this passage, then, Peter refers to people for whom Jesus paid a price on the cross, yet who will die unsaved. This seems clearly to contradict Limited Atonement.
From what I have seen, the way that supporters of Limited Atonement try to get round this conclusion is by saying that Peter didn’t really believe that Jesus paid the price for the sins of these people, but that he only speaks as if Jesus did this.
This interpretation, however, fails completely. There are two points to make here:
First, there is not the slightest hint in the text that Peter doesn’t in fact mean what he seems to mean. So we should certainly take his words at face value.
Second, when Peter says that these people deny the Master who bought them, he is specifically contrasting their bad treatment of Jesus with His good treatment of them. He bought them by paying the price for their sins, and what is their response? Is it gratitude? No. Is it just indifference? No. What, then? They deny Him! They respond to His wonderful treatment of them by doing a despicable thing to Him in return.
Peter is surely making this contrast. But the contrast only makes sense if Jesus really did buy them.
We should have no hesitation, then, in concluding that in this passage Peter is referring to people for whose sins Jesus paid the price on the cross, yet who will end up in hell. And this contradicts the doctrine of Limited Atonement.
1 John 2:2
In 1 John 2:2 John writes:
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Supporters of Limited Atonement claim that in this verse John is referring to two groups of God’s elect. They say that “our” and “ours” refer to a Christian group that John is part of, and that “the whole world” refers to the rest of the elect throughout the world.
Some of those who interpret in this way claim that the first group is Jewish members of the elect and the second group is Gentile members of the elect. Others say that the first group is John’s Christian circle and the second group is all the elect who are not in John’s circle. But in each form of this interpretation, it is said that “the whole world” is a reference to a group of elect people.
However, firstly, if this is what John meant, we have to ask why he worded things the way he did. “The whole world” much more naturally seems to imply all human beings than just the elect throughout the world.
Secondly, we need to consider the use of the first person plural in this letter.
It is true that in 1 John 1:1-5 John uses the first plural to refer to Christians who had seen and heard Jesus in the flesh, i.e., to a select group of believers.
However, after 1:5, whenever the first plural is used to refer to genuine Christians, it always seems to be referring to all Christians (e.g., 1 John 1:7, 9; 2:3; 3:1, 2, 14, 16; 4:6, 9, 11, 17, 19; 5:2, 4, 11, 14, 19). So it would be very unexpected if “our” and “ours” in 2:2 referred to a select group.
Thirdly, there are various other passages in 1 John where “we/us” and “the world” are contrasted (1 John 3:1; 4:5-6; 5:4-5, 19). In none of these passages is the contrast between a group of the elect that includes John and other elect people elsewhere in the world. Rather, the contrast is between Christians and non-believers.
In view of these three points, it makes very good sense to think that “our sins” means the sins of all people who are already saved, and “the sins of the whole world” means the sins of all those who are not currently saved, including both those who will and will not be saved in the future.
So John is apparently saying that Jesus is the propitiation not only for the sins of those who are already saved, but also for the sins of every human being who is not currently saved. And this would clearly contradict Limited Atonement.
The upshot is that this verse is a significant piece of evidence that Limited Atonement is a false doctrine.
The combined weight of the passages we have looked at should leave us in no doubt at all that Limited Atonement is a big mistake.
The Bible is clear that Jesus died on the cross to provide atonement for all human beings, even if most never accept the benefits of what He did.
WHY DO FIVE-POINT CALVINISTS BELIEVE IN LIMITED ATONEMENT?
In view of how the Bible so clearly contradicts the doctrine of Limited Atonement, why is it that five-point Calvinists insist on holding this view?
I am sure that the reason is a theological rather than an exegetical one. In other words, it isn’t that they find this doctrine on the pages of Scripture, but that they feel compelled to hold it because of what else they believe.
Five-point Calvinists, like all Calvinists, hold to the penal substitution theory of the atonement. This theory says that on the cross Jesus was punished for sins in the place of sinners, as their substitute.
So five-point Calvinists argue in this way:
On the cross, Jesus was punished for sins. However, some people will end up in hell, where they will be punished for their sins. So, if Jesus was punished for the sins of every human being, this would mean that the sins of those who go to hell would be punished twice, once on the cross and once in hell. But if God punished the same sins twice, that would be unjust, and God is not unjust. So Jesus cannot have been punished on the cross for the sins of those who will end up in hell.
I think this is the main reason why five-point Calvinists hold to the doctrine of Limited Atonement, whether they admit it or not.
So how do we respond to this line of argument?
There are three points to make, the third of which is by far the most important.
The penal substitution theory of the atonement
First, I should say immediately that I am a big fan of the penal substitution theory of the atonement. I think it fits well with Scripture, and I am sure that it is head and shoulders above all theories that rival it, such as the ransom theory, satisfaction of divine honour theory, moral influence theory and governmental theory. (Some other theories of the atonement aren’t really rivals of the pen. sub. theory, since they can complement it.)
The only thing I wonder, though, is whether the reality of the atonement might be more complicated than pen. sub. leads us to believe.
On the cross a profound mystery took place. The God-Man dealt with human sin. Yet God is infinite and timeless, while man is finite and time-bound. Mind-bogglingly, Jesus had all these qualities within one person!
The pen. sub. theory of the atonement is very simple to understand. I just wonder, in view of the profound mystery of the God-Man dying on the cross, if perhaps this theory might be a bit too simple.
Let me stress that I am not saying that any other well-known theory of the atonement that rivals pen. sub. might be correct. I’m sure that none of them is. Furthermore, if pen. sub. is not correct, then something very close to it must be correct, since this theory seems to fit so well with Scripture. There is surely a big penal element to the atonement and also a big substitutionary element. And it may well be the case that the pen. sub. theory is in fact completely correct.
But personally I don’t feel confident about saying for sure that this theory is perfectly correct, and that things are as simple as that. I think the mechanics of the atonement might perhaps be more complex than proponents of pen. sub. realise. It could even be beyond human ability to understand properly how the atonement works.
Avoiding simplistic conclusions
Second, we need to be careful not to draw simplistic conclusions about God’s justice.
Again, we must remember that the atonement is a profound mystery that involves the intersection of the divine and the human, and of eternity and time. Maybe in this context, in some way we can’t understand, it isn’t unjust for sins to be punished twice. So maybe the pen. sub. theory is precisely correct without there being any injustice.
I would suggest that many Western Christians are very overconfident about their ability to understand the things of God, including the atonement.
We do well to remember how the Lord says in Isaiah 55:9:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
And we should also remember how Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12:
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
In the first century, mirrors were made of polished metal and gave an indistinct image. Paul is saying that Christians’ understanding of things is often partial and hazy.
I would therefore caution believers against drawing overly simplistic conclusions about God’s justice.
The Bible takes precedence
Third and most importantly, what the Bible says must be allowed to take precedence over reasoning.
It is true that when we are trying to understand biblical teaching, reasoning forms a valid part of the process. We not only read various passages to see what they have to say, but we also use reasoning to try to draw inferences from what we read. Both these things are legitimate.
However, the former is by far the more important. Because the Bible is from God, it infallibly teaches us what is true in all that is of importance for life and faith. By contrast, our ability to understand things is weak and inconsistent, and we should recognise that as a fact.
So when we find that the Bible teaches something, but we can’t understand how it can be true, we should side with Scripture over our own ability to understand.
There are many five-point Calvinists who have got things exactly the wrong way round in this area. They can’t understand how unlimited atonement fits with other things they believe. So what they should do is question those other things, or conclude that things fit together in a way that they can’t understand. But instead, they exalt their own ability to understand above biblical revelation, and they end up denying what the Bible teaches. What they need to do instead is lose confidence in their ability to understand, and allow Scripture to speak freely.
Basically, the Bible teaches that Christ died to provide atonement for all human beings, and somehow this must fit into the grand theological scheme of things, whether or not we can understand how.
Let’s end, where we began, with my church’s notice board. As I said, it tells any passer-by who chooses to read it that Jesus died for them.
This is an important truth. Those Christians who refuse to tell people who are not yet saved that Jesus died for them are making a serious mistake. Instead, we should have no hesitation or reserve in telling anyone who will listen that Jesus suffered on the cross to atone for their sins. What they have to do is accept that atonement by faith.