By Dr. John Hobbs
The third cardinal doctrine in Calvinistic Theology is the doctrine of “Limited Atonement.” It is the “L” in the T-U-L-I-P acrostic. Most Calvinists prefer the term “Particular Atonement” or “Definite Atonement.”
What Calvinists Believe About Limited Atonement
The Canons of Dort, article 8, states, ‘It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and only those, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.’
Henry Fish, a Baptist wrote in 1850, ‘Did the atonement, in its saving design, embrace more then the elect? The elect only; for whatever he designed he will accomplish, and he saves only his people from their sins.’
David Steele and Curtis Thomas wrote, ‘But He came into the world to represent and save only those given Him by the Father. Thus Christ’s work was limited in that it was designed to save some and not others.’
WJ. Seaton said, ‘Christ died to save a particular number of sinners.’
Lorraine Boettner said, ‘The value of the atonement depends upon, and is measured by, the dignity of the person making it; and since Christ suffered as a Divine-human person the value of His suffering was infinite … The atonement, therefore, was infinitely meritorious and might have saved every member of the human race had that been God’s plan.’
Ralph Gore wrote, “Christ died for the elect. The extent of the atonement is identical with the intent of divine election.”
Paul Enns wrote, ‘If God is sovereign (Eph. 1:11) then His plan cannot be frustrated, but if Christ died for all people and all people are not saved then God’s plan is frustrated.’
R. B. Kuiper said, ‘God purposed by the atonement to save only the elect and that consequently all the elect, and they alone, will be saved.’
The question may be put this way: When Christ died on the cross, did he pay for the sins of the entire human race or only for the sins of those who he knew would ultimately be saved? Calvinists would answer the latter group.
Wayne Grudem wrote: The term that is usually preferred is particular redemption, since this view holds that Christ died for particular people (specifically, those who would be saved and whom he came to redeem), that he foreknew each one of them individually (cf. Eph. 1:3-5) and had them individually in mind in his atoning work.
The Foundational Basis for Limited Atonement
The doctrine of Limited Atonement is based on the concept of double jeopardy (trying a person twice for the same crime). The argument goes like this: If Jesus died for the sins of all men, then the sins of all men are paid for and one has already been judged for those sins. On the Day of Judgment, if God would bring a man into judgment and commit him to hell even though Jesus had already paid for his sins, God would be putting that person in double jeopardy. God would be unjust – something he is not (Deut. 32:4).
The argument is: Since we do not permit double jeopardy in our own legal system, surely we would not expect God to do something we would not do.
Calvinists argue therefore – Jesus actually died only for the sins of the elect, the chosen, the saved.
However, just because there is an analogy from a human viewpoint, this does not prove that it coincides with the truth of God’s word.
Isaiah 55:8-9 states, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Proverbs 14:12 states, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man; but the end thereof are the ways of death.” We are warned: “Lean not upon thine own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).
We do not formulate doctrine by analogies or examples. They may illustrate doctrine, but they do not prove doctrine. We must determine truth from the Word of God and not human reasoning. There are some great truths of scripture which are beyond our comprehension and we accept because the Bible teaches them (such as, the Trinity, God’s love, nature of sin, and such like), and therefore are not proved by reason, but are known by revelation.
Scriptures Used by Calvinists to Support Limited Atonement
Matthew 1:21 states, “For it is he that shall save his people from their sins.”
Jesus “loved the church and gave himself up for it” (Eph. 5:25).
Romans 4:25 reads, “Who was delivered up for our trespasses.”
Romans 5:8 says, “But God commendeth his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:10 reveals, “We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”
Romans 8:32 declares, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.”
Acts 20:28 states, “To feed the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood.”
In John 10:15 Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “Him who knew no sin he made to be [a] sin [offering] on our behalf.”
Galatians 1:4 says, “Who gave himself for our sins.”
Ephesians 1:7 says, “In whom we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.”
Titus 2:14 states, “Who gave himself for us.”
Calvinists use the above Scriptures as proof texts that Christ died “only” for the elect.
Christ died for his people. That is the main point of these verses! However the Bible does not teach Limited Atonement – that Christ died “only” for the elect, “only” for a limited class.
Calvinists “twist” and “pervert” other plain Scriptures that clearly teach that Christ died for all men. They do so unto their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:15-17). When we come to the Bible, we must take all of it to arrive at total-saving truth. Psalms 119:160 states, “The sum of all thy word is truth.” Matthew 4:4 says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” It takes all of Scripture for the man of God to be complete (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We must preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Christ died for all men. Christians appreciate the fact that Christ died for them. The verses used by Calvinists emphasize that point. Unbelievers do not appreciate that fact and therefore do nothing about it.
A True Story Concerning Hebrews 2:9
In 1980, I took second year New Testament Greek through Wheaton College at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas, Texas. My professor was Dr. John Werner, an outstanding world-recognized Greek scholar. But, he was a Calvinist through and through. One day we were reading the book of Hebrews in class. When it came my time to read, I was to translate Hebrews 2:9. I translated the verse, “But we behold him who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God he should taste of death only for the elect.”
My professor and the class laughed. After the laughter subsided, I added, “Excuse me – that should be – for every man.”
Brethren, if the grammar makes sense, anything else is nonsense. To deny that Jesus tasted of death “for every man” is to deny the plain and clear teaching of Scripture! Dr. Werner agreed that the verse should be translated “for every man.” But, he denied that is what it meant. He believed that it meant “every redeemed man” even though that is not what the text says!
We should not base biblical doctrine on “feeling” or “thinking.” Biblical doctrine is based on God’s Word!
If the Holy Spirit wanted to say that Christ died only for the elect, he could have easily done so. But, he did not do so. There is no “specific” passage in the entire Bible that teaches Limited Atonement.
Wayne Grudem, a Calvinist, says, “Hebrews 2:9 is best understood to refer to every one of Christ’s people, every one who is redeemed.”
Grudem is reading the Bible with his rose colored glasses on and sees what he wants to see instead of what is really there! The text does not say that Christ tasted of death for every “redeemed” man. Grudem is reading into the text something that is not there. This is something that God’s Word explicitly forbids (Rev. 22:18-19; 1 Cor. 4:6; Gal. 1:8-9; 3:15; 2 John 9-11; Matt. 4:4; Prov. 30:5-6; Deut. 4:2; 12:32).
The words every man in Hebrews 2:9 are translated from the Greek word pantos (in form it is a genitive masculine or neuter singular word from the adjective pas, pasa, pan meaning “all” or “every”).
So far as the form goes, pantos might be masculine (“everyone”) or neuter (“everything”); but since our author’s concern is with Christ’s work for humanity, and not with cosmic implications of His work, it is more probable to be taken as masculine.
Alford says, “The singular brings out, far more strongly than the plural would, the applicability of Christ’s death to each individual man.” Jesus died for each individual person (which equals all mankind). The singular pantos emphasizes his care and love and concern for every human being!
This fact is a strong factor for each individual person to give his life back to him and live a holy God-fearing life (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
This same Greek word, pantos, is found in Matthew 13:19 and is translated “when any one.” It is obvious in Matthew 13:19 that the Greek word refers only to lost human beings.
It is interesting that the Greek New Testament uses the word pantos at least once specifically to refer “only” to condemned human beings. Calvinists say that the word pantos in Hebrews 2:9 refers “only” to saved “redeemed” people. If the word pantos in Matthew 13:19 refers only to lost people who will spend eternity in hell, does that mean that in Hebrews 2:9 that the same group is being considered? No!
Can the word pantos refer to all mankind including those who appreciate Christ’s death for them? Of course! Christ “tasted of death for every man.” It is important to understand that the meaning of pantos will have to be determined by the context. Therefore, we can conclude that in Hebrews 2:9, the Greek word pantos refers to all humans period – not just the saved, not just God’s special people. Jesus died for all humans – those who are lost and those who are going to heaven. Calvinists deny the plain teaching of God’s Word and add to it when they say Jesus tasted of death for every “redeemed” man.
An Examination of God’s Word and Limited Atonement
The Bible is very clear that Jesus died for the sins of “all men” and not just for “the elect.”
Consider these passages as to who Jesus died for:
- John 1:29: “the one that taketh away the sin of the world” – i.e. all mankind
- John 3:16: “the world” – i.e. all mankind
- John 4:42: “This is indeed the Saviour of the world” – i.e. all mankind
- John 12:47: “I came … to save the world” – i.e. all mankind
- Romans 5:6: “Christ died for the ungodly”
- Romans 5:8: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”
- 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “he died for all”
- 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” – i.e. all mankind. Those who believe in Limited Atonement say this refers to “the world of the elect.” Again, they are adding to the Word of God.
- 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”
- Timothy 2:6: “Who gave himself a ransom for all”
- 1 Timothy 4:10: “Who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe”
- Titus 2:11: “bringing salvation to all men”
- Hebrews 2:9: “He should taste of death for every man.”
- 2 Peter 2:1: “Denying the Master that bought them” – Christ provided redemption for the false prophets but they refused to accept it.
- 1 John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.” – i.e. all mankind
- 1 John 4:14 “The Father hath sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” – i.e. all mankind
A Study of 1 John 2:2
One passage that must be the focus of our attention is 1 John 2:2. Here John wrote, “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
Vine defines “propitiation” as “a means whereby sin is covered and remitted.” The text is very clear that sin covering has been provided “for our sins” – that is, Christians’ and “for the whole world,” or all humanity. If there was ever a verse in the Bible that taught the possibility of unlimited salvation – this is it!
Brown says that the word “world” is the “sphere of human beings and of human experience.” The apostle John uses the word “world” several times to refer to all humanity (John 1:29; 3:16-17; 4:42; 12:46-47; 1 John 4:14).
It is sad that some people “twist” the scriptures from their true meaning (2 Pet. 3:15-17). The same basis for forgiving one man’s sins is also the same basis for forgiving the sins of all men – the death of Christ.
It is not implied or taught that sins are forgiven unconditionally. The Bible does not teach the doctrine of Universalism, i.e. all men will be saved. The Bible does teach that only those who appropriate the blood of Christ over their sins will be saved (Rom. 6:3-4, 17-18; 1 Pet. 1:22; Rev. 2:10; 7:14).
Wayne Grudem, a Calvinist, writes, “The preposition ‘for’ [in 1 John 2:2] is ambiguous with respect to the specific sense in which Christ is the propitiation “for” the sins of the world.
The Greek word translated “for” in this verse is peri, and means ‘concerning’ or ‘with respect to.” It does not define the way in which Christ is the sacrifice with respect to the sins of the world.
It is consistent with the language of the verse to say that John is simply saying that Christ is the sacrifice available to pay for the sins of anyone and everyone in the world.”
There are several problems with Grudem’s twisting of Scripture:
(1) Grudem does not deal with the word world in his defense of Calvinism. It is obvious that John uses the word “world” in the verse and in the other verses cited to refer to all humanity. Jesus died for all mankind.
(2) It is true that the word for in the phrase for the whole world is the Greek word peri. I agree that it means “concerning” or “with respect to.”
Robertson says that pen has a sense similar to hyper in the verse. The word hyper means “in behalf of.” It must be pointed out that the word for in the phrases for our sins and not for ours only in 1 John 2:2 is translated from the Greek word peri.
The Holy Spirit inspired John to use the Greek word peri three times in 1 John 2:2. This word is sufficient to define the way Christ is the sacrifice “for our sins” but not “for the sins of the whole world.”
Grudem says that the preposition peri “is ambiguous.” He is straining the gnat and swallowing the camel in order to avoid accepting the clear truth. Grudem would say that its third use in the verse is ambiguous but not its first and second uses.
The emphasis in the verse is on Christ’s “propitiation” — not the preposition “for.”
John says Christ’s propitiation is “for our sins” and “not for ours only” but also “for the sins of the whole world.”
A Study of 1 Timothy 4:10
Paul wrote, “For to this end we labor and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of them that believe.”
This verse is important to the discussion. Here the apostle clearly states the salvation of all men. He does not teach Universalism. But, he does teach that salvation has been provided for all men, i.e. all humanity. However, that salvation is appropriated and appreciated by those who believe. All men are potentially saved by Christ’s death, but only those who appropriate the blood of Christ over their sins will be saved.
He [Jesus] is referring to God the Father, not to Christ, and probably uses the word ‘Savior’ in the sense of ‘one who preserves people’s lives and rescues them from danger’ rather then the sense of ‘one who forgives their sins,’ for surely Paul does not mean that every single person will be saved.
Grudem misses it again.
(1) No, Paul is not teaching that every single person will be saved. No New Testament writer ever taught that.
(2) There is no problem with taking the word Savior as referring to God the Father. He is the Savior of all men in that He sent Jesus to die for all men (John 3:16; 1 John 4:10). The Father and the Son are one in purpose, aim, plan, and design (John 10:30).
(3) For Grudem to say that the word Savior does not refer to “sins” shows his theological bias. In Matthew 1:21, the child is to be called Jesus. Why? Because he will save his people from their “sins.” The word “Jesus” means “Savior.” Grudem does not want 1 Timothy 4:10 to refer to “sins,” so he denies it.
(4) God desires “all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). Salvation for “all men” has been provided (1 Tim. 4:10). However, this salvation is “specially” for those who “believe.” This word does not imply that all will be saved. The Greek word malista translated “specially” is also translated “particularly” or “especially” in 1 Timothy 5:17 and “above all” or “especially” in 2 Timothy 4:13. Paul is saying that God is potentially the Savior of all men. For the individuals who “will” to come to the Lord, these individuals “will in no wise be cast out” (John 5:40; 6:37).
J.W. Roberts wrote, “He is the savior (potentially) of all men, but especially (or actually) of believers.”
Dr. J. C. Davis states, “God is the potential Savior of all men (John 3:16; Rom. 10:13; 2 Pet. 3:9). God is the actual Savior of believers” (Heb. 5:8-9; 2 Thess. 1:8; Rev. 2:10).
J. N. D. Kelly wrote, “Paul is no doubt giving expression to his conviction that the certainty of salvation belongs in an especial degree to those who have accepted Christ.” True!
1 Timothy 4:10 is like Galatians 6:10. Christians are to “work that which is good toward all men and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith.” We have an obligation to do “good toward all men” (even the ones who have not named the name of Christ). But, we have a special obligation to help those who are Christians. Christ died for all men but especially for those who believe.
An Invitation Is Given to All Men
In Matthew 11:25, Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The church, the bride as it is called, and the Holy Spirit perpetuate that invitation as shown by John in Revelation 22:17:
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.
The invitation is given to all men. Why offer salvation to all if that is not possible? The text says “whosoever” will.
God Desires All Men to Be Saved
In (2 Peter 3:9) we read:
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
God wants “all” to come to repentance! Boettner, a Calvinist, denies that it is God’s plan for all to be saved. Seaton, a Calvinist, asks, “The over-riding question must always be the Divine intention; did God intend to save all men, or did He not?”
The fact that God desires that “all” should come to repentance implies that God has provided provisions for “all.” Christ died for all men. This verse teaches that if a man is lost, it is against God’s will because he wants “all” to come to repentance and be saved.
In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul wrote, “Who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.” Here again God’s Word is clear. God desires that all men be saved.
In (Ezekiel 33:11) we read:
As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
God desires that the wicked turn from his evil ways and live. God does not want or wish that any person be lost.
Paul Enns, a Calvinist, wrote, “If God is sovereign then His plan cannot be frustrated, but if Christ died for all people and all people are not saved, then God’s plan is frustrated.”
God is sovereign, but his plan involves the free will of man. His plan is that those who by their free will elect to believe and become obedient will be saved.
God is “frustrated” or “grieved” when men do not respond to his saving grace (Gen. 6:5-6; Mark 3:5; Luke 19:41; Eph. 4:30).
God’s desire and will is frustrated when men are lost. God wants “all” to come to repentance and “all men” to be saved. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9).
But, some will perish — not because Jesus did not die for them. He died for each individual person to show his intense love. If an individual is lost, it is because he has rejected God’s intense love. God does not desire it that way. But, he respects the right of a person to make his own decision.
Pardon for Sins Can Be Rejected
It is possible for pardon and salvation to be offered and rejected. In 1829 two men, Wilson and Porter, were apprehended in the state of Pennsylvania for robbing the United States mail. They were indicted, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. Three weeks before the scheduled execution, President Andrew Jackson pardoned one of the men, George Wilson. This was followed by a strange decision. George Wilson refused the pardon! He was hung because he rejected the pardon.
Today, God has provided eternal salvation and pardon for all men. He has accomplished this by sending his one-of-a-kind Son to die for the sins of each and every individual person. However, this salvation can be refused.
If one chooses not to appropriate the blood of Christ over his sins initially and continually, he is refusing and rejecting the salvation which has been provided for him by God Almighty. While we can recognize the foolishness of such a decision, we must be aware of the fact that the majority of mankind will refuse their pardon (Matt. 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-24). How sad!
Why Did God Create Man?
A lady asked me, “Why did God create man if he knew so many would be lost?”
This is a thought-provoking question. I answer this with two thoughts:
(1) Whatever God does is right and just. We may not understand what he does but that is because we are human and finite while he is divine and infinite (Isa. 55:8-9). Deuteronomy 32:4 states, “For all his ways are justice: A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he.” God himself asked Job, “Wilt thou even annul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be justified?” Job attacked and condemned the present righteousness of God. Job sinned by doing this. Job later repented Job 40:35; 42:1-6).
(2) I think the answer to this tough question is that God respects our free moral agency. If a man is lost, it will be his fault — not God’s! God has done everything possible for the salvation of each person. God will not overtake one’s will and force him to obey. Life is what we make it! We can avail ourselves of God’s love or we can spurn it and reject it. The choice is ours (Deut. 30:11-15; Joshua 24:15; Acts 2:37, 40).
Seaton, a Calvinist, said, “If it was God’s intention to save the entire world, then the atonement of Christ has been a great failure, for vast numbers of mankind have not been saved.”
Seaton misses it. Christ’s death was not a failure. The failure is man’s free moral will. Man by his own free will chooses not to obey. Christ is “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:9; cf. John 3:36; Rom. 6:17-18; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17).
On the Day of Judgment if a person is cast into the Lake of Fire for all eternity, it will be his own failure – not God’s! The failure lies with man not with God.
Calvinists say they focus on God’s sovereignty while we focus on man’s free will. I say it is not an either/or situation; it is a both/and situation. Both of the these concepts are respected in the scriptures. We must accept both.
To deny the Bible teaching that Christ died for all is to make God a respecter of persons – unjust and unmerciful. The doctrine of limited atonement is false. All men are potentially saved. If a person refuses pardon, death is not the fault of the one who offered mercy, but of the one who refused to accept it.
(Editor’s Note: The word atonement means to cover or conceal. It is an Old Testament word and is not found in the New Testament. The sins of people before the cross could be atoned, but after the cross the sins of the obedient believer were forgiven. There is a dramatic difference. Under Moses there was a remembrance made of atoned sins year by year [Heb. 10:3 — the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins]. The blood of animals could cause God to overlook sins while remembering them year by year, but could not remove the sins. This was atonement. The blood of the Lamb of God is able not to merely cover or bypass sins, but to remove every transgression and disobedience. To receive the forgiveness available in the blood of the cross, one must obey [Heb. 5:7-8].)