Limited vs. Unlimited Atonement
Dan R. Smedra
The subject of
whether Christ's death was "Limited" or "Unlimited" has been debated
ad nauseam. The discussion is often a starting point for a far more
versus indeterminism. For some basic background, read
Human Freedom and the Sovereignty of God.
Further, theologians have long attempted to formulate explanations of how
Christ's death at Calvary might be "sufficient" for the whole world but only
"efficient" for the elect. Some of these theories appear strong and supportable
from Scripture. Others positions are weak.
Christians have unfortunately polarized into two camps.
Particular Redemption - Limited
Universal Redemption - Unlimited
Christ’s redeeming work was intended to
save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them.
His death was a substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in
the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting
away the sins of His people, Christ’s redemption secured everything
necessary for their salvation, including faith which unites them to
Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to
all for whom Christ died, therefore guaranteeing their salvation.
work made it possible for everyone to be saved but did not actually
secure the salvation of anyone. Although Christ died for all
men and for every man, only those who believe (and all can) on Him
are saved. His death enabled God to pardon sinners on the
condition that they believe, but it did not actually put away
everyone’s sins. Christ’s redemption becomes effective only if man
chooses to accept it. All men possess an adequate freedom to
exercise faith and believe the Gospel.
Yet for many
growing believers, neither position seems fully biblical and a detailed study of
Scripture supports that conclusion. Christ's work of atonement includes
both unlimited and limited
aspects. Typically, those who deem themselves "moderate Calvinists"
recognize both. As Biblicists, we find support in Scripture for an
“unlimited atonement.” However, this is not the same ‘indeterminist”
doctrine that is advocated by Arminians and Christian humanists. Among
moderate Calvinists, two approaches have become popular for understanding
Christ’s death for “all”. The following are brief summaries.
1) John N.
Darby proposed that Christ’s atonement had two aspects—the propitiatory
(God-ward) and the substitutionary (Man-ward) and that both Arminians and
Calvinists were both guilty of exclusively seeing only one or the other.
Drawing upon the work of Christ pictured in the two goats of Leviticus 16,
he makes the case that the
aspect of Christ’s death was for all, while the substitutionary
aspect was for the elect only. The fully biblical viewpoint was to
understand, embrace, and hold in balance both aspects. See
Propitiation and Substitution, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby,
Doctrinal No. 8, pp. 286-288.
2) Lewis S.
Chafer proposed a slightly different approach. He didn’t seek to limit
the substitutionary aspect of the atonement to only the elect, rather he
considered "the death of Christ as actual for the elect and potential or
provisional for the non-elect”, the differences hinging upon unconditional
election. Extensive details are outlined in his Systematic Theology
under the heading “For Whom Did Christ Die?” For a general
introduction to Chafer’s view of unlimited atonement, see Ron Rhoades
The Extent of the Atonement: Limited Atonement Versus Unlimited Atonement.
Views of the
atonement which are based upon indeterminism (free will), such as those held by
Arminians, Wesleyans, and all other “Christian” humanists, should be rejected
Propitiation and Substitution
truths are often overlooked. Christ's atonement was both a propitiation and a
substitution. Christ's Calvary death answered both God-ward and man-ward
issues. In the Father's wisdom, Christ's death contains BOTH "unlimited"
and "limit" aspects. The following is from the pamphlet ARMINIANISM
versus CALVINISM authored by Paul Wilson.
The "limited atonement" doctrine
[as well as "unlimited atonement"] is built upon a premise that lacks
understanding of the two views of the Cross of Christ as regards His work;
that is, propitiation and substitution. The types used on the day of
atonement in Leviticus 16 are set aside in deference to a theory, a doctrine
of men (be they good men or bad is not the point). On that memorable
day, which occurred once a year in Israel's history, there were, among other
similarities two goats--one called the Lord's lot, and the other the
people's. The goat of the Lord's lot was killed and its blood taken
inside of the veil by the high priest, where he sprinkled the blood once
upon the mercy seat and seven times on the desert sand before it. It
was there above the mercy seat that God dwelt among the people, and as they
were sinners He must needs have the evidence of death presented before
him--the blood was sprinkled there. This was propitiation--a
satisfaction rendered to God whereby He could act in grace toward a sinful
people. On the head of the other goat, the sins of the people were
confessed by the high priest, and it was led into a land not inhabited, so
that their sins were removed. This was substitution.
In a sense, both goats are one in
the matter of sins--the one being slain and its blood presented before God,
and the other bearing the sins away to be remembered no more--for without
the blood of the one goat there could be no bearing away of sins on the
other. Let us notice the words of another:
"There is a continual tendency in the
different classes, even of believers in Christendom, to ignore one or
other of these truths. Take for instance those zealous that the
gospel go out to every creature. It is notorious that most of
these deny God's special favor to the elect. They overlook or pare
down any positive difference on God's part toward His own children.
They hold that a man throughout his course may be a child of God today
and not tomorrow. This destroys substitution [seen in the live
goat led away]. They hold propitiation [seen in the blood of the
other goat as presented before God], and there they are right, and quite
justified in preaching the gospel unrestrictedly to every creature, as
the Lord indeed enjoined. But how their one-sidedness enfeebles
the proper portion of the saints!
"But look for a moment at the opposite
side, which holds that all God has done and reveals is in view of the
elect only, and that all He has wrought in Christ Jesus is in effect for
the Church, and that He does not care about the world, except to judge
it at the last day. This may be put rather bluntly, for I do not
present such grievous narrowness toward man and dishonor of God and His
Son in as polished terms as those might desire who cherish notions so
unsavory and unsound. But it is true that a certain respectable
class around us do see nothing but the elect as the object of God.
Their doctrine supposes only the second goat, or the people's lot.
They see the all-importance of substitution, but Jehovah's lot has no
place as distinct.
"How came the two contending parties
of religionists not to see both goats? The Word of God reveals
both. Plainly there are two goats. The goat of propitiation
is to provide in the fullest manner for the glory of God, even where sin
is before Him. In fulfilling it, what was the consequence?
Christ was forsaken of God that the believer should never be forsaken.
He bore the judgment of sin that God's glory might be immutably
established in righteousness. Thus grace in the freest way can and
does now go out to every creature here below.
"But there is much more. Besides
opening the sluices that divine love might flow out freely everywhere,
we also find another line of truth altogether: the fullest and nicest
care that those who are His children should be kept in peace and
blessing. God took care, not only to vindicate His own glory and
nature, but to give them knowledge of salvation by the remission of
their sins. The sins are all out to be borne away.
"Even the type demonstrates...that we
require these two distinct truths to maintain the balance of God's
truth. They are admirably held together; they compose God's truth.
It is quite true that in the first goat God has secured His majesty, and
His righteous title to send forth His message of love to every creature.
Again, in the second goat He has equally cared for the assurance of His
people, that all their sins, transgressions, and iniquities, are
completely borne away. How could the truth of atonement be more
admirably shown by types beforehand?"
Before leaving this part of the
subject, let us refer to the words of another servant of God:
"Christ is both high priest and
victim, has confessed all the sins of His people as His own, and borne
our sins in His own body on the tree. The two goats are but one
Christ; but there is the double aspect of His sacrifice--Godward, and
bearing our sins. The blood is the witness of the accomplishing of
all, and He is entered in not without blood. He is the
propitiation for our sins."
The error of the one-sided
Calvinistic theology in the denial of propitiation in its wide scope for the
whole world has necessitated a determined but futile attempt to remove or
explain away every scripture which supports it. Take the verse which
explains that Christ was the propitiation for our sins (I John 2:2), so that
His propitiatory sacrifice furnished the righteous foundation on which our
sins have been removed; it also says, "and not for ours only, but also for
the...whole world." The words in the King James translation "the sins
of" are definitely not in the Greek, and are shown in italics in many
Bibles, thus indicating that they were added by the translators. He
was not a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, but He is the
propitiation for the whole world.
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