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 fundamental issue--determinism 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.

Historically, 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.

Christ’s redeeming 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 propitiatory 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 article 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 outright.

Propitiation and Substitution

The following 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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