Why "Limited" and "Unlimited" Atonement Debates Miss the Point
Did Jesus come to earth to die only the sins of those who would trust in Him? Or did Jesus come to die for the sins of the whole world? Did Jesus die for everyone? Or only for the Elect? Alas, the questions that arise in theological discussions between Calvinism and Arminianism.
Those who hold that Jesus came to the world with the intention of dying only for the Elect espouse what is called “limited atonement” or “particular redemption.” Those who believe that Jesus’ intent was to die for the sins of all humanity hold to “unlimited atonement.” Both positions seem to have biblical support. But I believe that Scripture’s seemingly contradictory evidence for these views should alert us to the fact that we are probably asking the wrong question.
The debates regarding the extent of the atonement place a foreign paradigm on the biblical text and thus inevitably bring forth answers that are skewed by our presupposed theological framework. Both the limited and unlimited views of the atonement are misplaced, because they are putting emphasis on only one portion of God’s salvific work, instead of taking in the vast, universal scope of redemption described by Scripture.
First, the question of the atonement’s extent comes up when we seek to express the meaning of Christ’s atoning death apart from his triumphant resurrection. Indeed the Apostle Paul commands us to hold these two truths together when he writes that “if Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)
Secondly, the question of limited or unlimited atonement arises when we overemphasize God’s work in saving individual human beings to the exclusion of the Scriptural teaching of God’s restoration of the entire cosmos. (Romans 8:18-25, 2 Corinthians 5:19)
Christ’s death on the cross in the place of sinners is substitutionary. (1 Corinthians 5:7, Ephesians 5:2, Colossians 1:20, Romans 5:8-9) He, the innocent, righteous One drank the cup of God’s wrath in order that guilty sinners might not have to. (Mark 10:45) But in addition to this, Jesus died to “reconcile the world” to God (2 Corinthians 5:19) and to defeat the powers of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:25-26) that hold the creation in bondage and decay (Romans 8). Ultimately, the main point of Christ’s death and resurrection is not simply the salvation of individual human beings, but the restoration of the universe to its original shalom, which has as its ultimate end the glorification of God, that He may be “all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28)
Instead of taking the question of the atonement’s extent by beginning with our personal salvation in the center, I suggest we begin with the grand picture of God as “all in all,” and begin to work backwards from there to the question of limited or unlimited atonement.
The Gospel is first and foremost an announcement about Jesus. (Ephesians 1:16-23) Jesus is the King, the world’s True Lord. Christ’s atoning death is the obedience and sacrifice required by God in order to save and vindicate his people. Their vindication will be the evidenced in the resurrection of the physical body and participation in God’s new creation. Jesus is the firstfruits of this new creation. (1 Cor. 15:20-21) In the resurrection of Jesus, we see that God has declared him to be both “Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)
Therefore, Scripture can speak of the atonement using both limited and unlimited terminology. The atonement is limited in its application because Jesus’ blood covers only those who put their trust in him. In this sense, Jesus is the Lord over his church, a particular group of people who have been “called out” from among all tribes and tongues and nations. They have pledged allegiance to their King, confessing him as Lord and believing in his resurrection. (Romans 10:9-13) The called-out chosen ones of God are the only ones who will experience God’s new creation and avoid the wrath to come.
In another sense, the atonement is unlimited, because Jesus did not come only to die for the sins of his elect (the limited position), nor even for the sins of all people (the unlimited position), but in order that the entire universe might be brought back into the shalom for which it was originally created. In this sense, Scripture can speak of Jesus’ atonement being universal in scope (though not in the universalistic sense that guarantees salvation for all).
1 Timothy 4:10 speaks of Jesus as the Savior of all. How can this be? Obviously not everyone confesses Jesus as personal Lord and Savior! This verse teaches us that Jesus is Lord and Savior, whether people believe in him or not.
People can claim that George W. Bush is not the U.S. president and even refuse to submit to his authority. That does not change the fact of his presidency. In the same way, Jesus’ lordship and his identity as the Savior “of the world” (1 John 2:2) does not depend on my confession of him as such. He is the Savior of all and He is the Lord of all, even though he goes unrecognized by the majority of the world’s population. His lordship is objective reality, not dependent on my subjective experience. Scripture affirms that the day of his “appearing,” will come, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess his lordship (Philippians 2:11).
Jesus is Savior of all, and “especially of those who believe”. (1 Tim. 4:10) In one sense, the entire world benefits from Christ’s death on the cross through common grace, the blessings of living under Christ’s rule, the influence of the Church, and the beginning of new creation. In a more specific sense, however, only the elect benefit personally and eternally from Christ’s death through participation in the eternal state, the forgiveness of sins, and membership among God’s chosen people.
When God’s work of new creation is at the center of our thinking and not our own personal salvation, the question of “limited” or “unlimited” atonement is shown to be too narrow. Wondering about the atonement’s extent misses the point and fails to understand the meaning of Jesus’ blood within the larger picture of cosmic redemption brought through the cross of Christ.
written by Trevin Wax. © 2007 Kingdom People Blog