Occasionally the idea of Limited Atonement keeps me up at night. Five-point Calvinists argue that Christ did not die for the sins of every single human being, but that instead, he died only for the elect. Sometimes this is called “Particular Redemption.” I want to clarify that not all Calvinists believe in Limited Atonement, and this post is not targeted at Calvinists or Calvinism, but the teaching that Jesus did not die for all. This post is to inform our readers of the biblical evidence for the wonderful good news that Jesus died for the sins of every single human being.
The debate over predestination, election, and the nature of the atonement has been ongoing since the middle ages. This kind of debate is not always the most practical, and because it has gone on for so long, it is hard to say something new about it. Nevertheless, how we see these issues does impact our worldview, our preaching of the gospel, whether or not we can expect miracles, and almost every other post we’ve written on this blog.
Why This Matters to Supernatural Living
Much of what we believe and what we have written is based on the truth that Jesus deserves what he paid for on the cross. That includes the salvation, healing, and deliverance of every human being. While not every human being is saved, healed, or delivered, as ministers of reconciliation, we contend for these things, making every effort to fulfill God’s desire.
But what if Christ did not die for everyone? What if Christ only died for a portion of the world that He chose before the foundation of time? What if Jesus didn’t die for the sins of your neighbor, or the sins of the person you meet in the mall, or the sins of your family members?
In this post, I want to lay out some simple arguments for Unlimited or Universal Atonement; the doctrine which teaches that Jesus Christ died for the sins of every single human being.
The Bible teaches that God loves all of humanity. God desires all of humanity to know him. The Father sent Jesus, and Jesus died for the whole world. God makes salvation available to all and saves those who put their trust in Him.
What Does the Bible Say About Atonement?
Jesus Died for the World
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. —John 3:16 (ESV)
In this verse, the point of contention is not as much on the “whoever” (because proponents of Limited Atonement would argue that only the elect believe) but the term, “the world.” Did God love and send His son for “the world” or only for the elect?
The plain sense of the text is that God loved all of humanity and gave his Son to make salvation available to all. Those enabled by His grace to believe and receive it will be saved. Those who reject His mercy will be condemned.
Proponents of Limited Atonement argue that “the world” actually refers to the elect or to the people God chose in the world, not to the world as a whole. They might claim that God’s love for the world does not connect to Him sending His Son.
In John 17:6-9 Jesus’s high priestly prayer makes it clear, however, that “the world” is different from those who believe. Notice how Jesus uses the term “the world” to mean those who don’t believe:
I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; 8 for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. 9 I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; —John 17:6-9 (ESV, emphasis added)
Clearly, the way Jesus uses “the world” in this passage cannot refer to the elect or those who believe.
Let’s look at another verse in the gospel of John that uses the term “the world”.
“The Lamb of God, Who Takes Away the Sins of the World”
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! —John 1:29 (ESV)
John the Baptist clearly says that Christ takes away the sin of “the world,” not just the sin of the elect. Jesus takes away all sin by paying the price for disobedience. Proponents of Limited Atonement will argue again that “the world” in this case refers to the elect who are in the world. They go one step farther and also argue that Jesus can’t actually take away the sins of the world, because then the whole world would be saved. They believe that Universal Atonement (the belief that Jesus died for everyone) leads to Universalism (the belief that all will be saved). But I am not a Universalist, and most people who believe in Universal Atonement would abominate Universalism.
We believe that Jesus paid for the sins of the world to be taken away, but that faith provided by God’s grace is required in order to receive that sacrifice. Human beings can choose to reject the mercy that God provides. They can choose to refuse the sacrifice that removes their sins, and tragically, many refuse to humble themselves and receive God’s free gift.
“I Will Draw All Men”
Jesus refers to the future cross saying, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, [ESV]). Jesus speaks of the cross, the atonement, and then states that he will draw “all people.” How will the cross draw all people if the atonement is not for all but for some? Proponents of Limited Atonement argue that only the elect are drawn (they use John 6 to make this argument) and that this verse does not actually refer to “all people” but to “all kinds of people” or “all, with exceptions.”
We believe that John 12:32 teaches us that Christ died for all and is drawing all people to Himself. There isn’t a single verse in Scripture that expressly states that those whom God draws are automatically saved. There isn’t a single verse in Scripture that explicitly states that human beings cannot resist His drawing. In fact, the testimony of Scripture is the opposite. Throughout the Bible, God grieves over the pride and stubbornness of those who refuse to repent.
“Not for our Sins Only”
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. —1 John 2:1-2 (ESV)
Jesus is the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice, for the sins of those who believe. But John doesn’t stop there. Jesus is also the propitiation for the sins of the whole world! Jesus took God’s wrath on sin and He is the living propitiation for all of humanity. Those who believe by God’s grace receive that propitiation, those who do not believe reject it and place themselves under the wrath of the Lamb.
Those who believe Limited Atonement must argue that John does not mean “the whole world,” meaning humanity, but “the whole world of the elect,” meaning believers that John is writing to specifically and those he is not writing to in this letter. They further argue that if Jesus propitiated the sins of the whole world then the whole world would be saved.
We do not believe that the whole world is saved, but that Jesus lives as the propitiating sacrifice, and makes Himself available as the propitiating sacrifice for every single human being. This does not secure their salvation but provides propitiation.
Who Did the Master Buy?
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 Peter 2:1 (ESV)
In this verse, Peter writes that false prophets deny the Master (that’s Jesus) who bought them. The context of this verse makes it clear that the false prophets will not be saved, but this verse states that Jesus bought them with His sacrifice on the cross. Jesus paid to redeem them from the curse of the law, the stain of sin, and the power of Satan. Yet they will not be saved.
Those who believe that the atonement is limited must argue once more that these words do not mean what the plain sense implies. They must argue that Jesus did not, in fact, purchase these false prophets. They must argue that the term “Master” does not refer to Christ and/or that the word “bought” does not refer to redemption.
Taste Death for Everyone
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. —Hebrews 2:9 (ESV)
Here the subject of the verse is undeniably Jesus and the verse clearly refers to the atonement, His death. Rather than “all” or “the world,” the word used to clarify that Jesus died for every single human being is “everyone.” Those who argue for Limited Atonement must again find a way for that word to exclude the non-elect. They would argue that the term means “everyone, with exceptions” and that the context in the rest of Hebrews chapter 2 uses terms that refer to the elect rather than to the world. However, the verses in the context refer not to the atonement, but to salvation, which does indeed belong to God’s people not to the whole world. Christ’s atoning work was for all, but salvation belongs to the people of God—those who put their trust in Him.
Mercy on all
In Romans 11:32, Paul makes an argument specifically about God’s choice in how He works salvation and uses the term “all” twice in a way that cannot be misconstrued.
For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. —Romans 11:32 (ESV)
All have disobeyed. This word cannot mean “some” or “all with some exceptions.” Every evangelical agrees that, except for Jesus, every single human being has sinned, and every single human being has disobeyed. But the next part of the verse becomes controversial, “that he may have mercy on all.” God had mercy on every single human being at the cross, by providing Christ as the sacrifice for the sins of every single human being. This mercy does not guarantee salvation because many reject that mercy.
God Calls All to Repent
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, —Acts 17:30 (ESV)
God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” He commands all to do so because he made a way for all to do so through the cross. Because Jesus died on the cross for all and God is drawing all to Himself, God commands all to repent. His grace provides faith for those who believe and are saved. Those who reject His mercy and refuse to repent are condemned.
Once again, those who believe that Christ did not die for all must argue that “all” refers to “all of the elect everywhere,” or that God commands people Christ did not die for to repent when they have no ability to do so.
Jesus Died for Judas
Christ’s mercy and atoning work is so great, He even extended it to Judas, who we know was not saved. Yet Jesus told Judas at the last supper that the wine was the blood that He shed for each present:
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this. —Luke 22:20-23 (ESV)
Judas was present in the room when Jesus said “poured out for you,” and He even goes on to mention His betrayer specifically. If the atonement included Judas, then it cannot be for the elect alone, as Judas was clearly not elect. God saw Judas’ heart and chose him to betray the Lord and become “the son of perdition.”
The Old Testament Witness
Throughout the Old Testament God prepared the world for the atonement that would come through Christ. He provided pictures of atonement through Adam and Eve, Abraham, and Moses. He gave Israel laws that an atonement sacrifice was to be made every year for the sins of all the nation. Those who participated would be atoned for; those that willfully chose not to participate would be cut off from the people.
These Jewish ceremonies serve as a shadow of the truth of Christ’s atonement. Christ died for all people. God provides grace to participate in receiving that atonement by faith. Those who willfully refuse to participate are cut off forever.
Jesus saves all who place their trust in Him. Jesus longs to gather all people to Himself (Matthew 23:37), but the atonement can be rejected as can the gift of faith. The testimony of Scripture is that God gives us a choice to receive or refuse the faith that He provides by grace (John 1:12, 3:16, 4:14, 4:23, 5:38, 5:40, 5:43, 6:36). From the beginning of time, God chose a community of people to be saved—those who believe. All who put their trust in the atonement of Christ become part of this community of faith, one of the chosen people, and one among the elect of God.
Check out these articles for more on how to share the Gospel:
Jesus died for the sins of the whole world—meaning every single human being. You don’t have to wonder if Christ’s death on the cross really applies to your friend, your neighbor, or the stranger you meet on the street. You can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus paid for their sins and their restoration. All they have to do is repent and believe. God loves them. God longs for them. God reaches out to them and draws them. You may boldly declare to the world that Jesus died for them. All they must do is humble themselves, repent, and believe.
Apart from searching the Scriptures, I have learned the most on this topic from theological debates. I recommend the following, which informed this post: