Limited or Universal Atonement: One Evangelical’s Perspective

The last primary issue in The Evangelical Debate which I want to share my perspective on is the nature and intent of the Atonement. The classical Arminian view is that the Atonement of Christ is universal in nature, but conditional in application. That is, they believe that Jesus died for every person, but people are only benefitted by that sacrifice when they repent of their sins and trust in Christ for salvation. The classical Calvinist perspective is that the sacrifice of Christ was only made on behalf of those whom God had elected, and therefore only they will benefit from that death. For the Calvinist, Jesus died for only a certain number of people, and that same number of people will be ultimately saved by trusting in Christ.

A Universal Atonement

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death has spread to all men, because all have sinned. For until the law, sin was in the world. But sin is not counted when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam’s sin, who was a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if through the trespass of one man many died, then how much more has the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. The gift is not like the result that came through the one who sinned. For the judgment from one sin led to condemnation, but the free gift, which came after many trespasses, leads to justification. For if by one man’s trespass death reigned through him, then how much more will those who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as through the trespass of one man came condemnation for all men, so through the righteous act of One came justification of life for all men. For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One the many will be made righteous.

Romans 5:12-19

My little children, I am writing these things to you, so that you do not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels to suffer death, crowned with glory and honor, so that He, by the grace of God, should experience death for everyone.

Hebrews 2:9

I disagree with the Calvinist on the nature of the Atonement. Though I accept the penal substitution view of the Atonement, I do not discount many other views. I won’t here go into all those different perspectives on the Atonement but will only focus on my disagreement with many Calvinist’s understanding of the nature of penal substitution.

I believe that Jesus suffered the wrath of God on the cross for our sin. Most Calvinists would agree with that statement, if not all. But the real question for them would be, “Who do you mean by “our” sin?” Once I answered, the race of Adam, they would no longer agree with me. If I understand their view, and I might not, they believe that Jesus died for each individual sin ever committed by every one of the elect. Spurgeon and others old preachers have given me this impression. In other word, Jesus died for every sin I ever committed, suffering the wrath that was due for each individual sin. This same thing would apply to ever person God elected for salvation from before the creation for the world. This is one reason they say that Christ died for our past, present and future sins. If I am misrepresenting the Calvinist perspective, I trust one of the Calvinist brethren will comment below, and patiently explain it better.

This is not how I understand Christ’s atoning death. I believe that Adam, as the head of the human race sinned, and in him the whole race fell into sin, death and condemnation. I believe that Jesus came as the Last Adam. I believe that He was sinless but took the death and condemnation of Adam’s fall upon Himself on the cross. But, since He was without sin, God raised Him from the dead and seated Him at God’s right hand to rule forever.

After that all men are still born under sin, death and condemnation. But now there is One who has taken the just death penalty for sin and conquered death and condemnation. Though this is so, no one can share in that victory because they are still in Adam and under wrath. But when one repents of sin and trusts in Christ they are born again of God’s Spirit and brought into Jesus Christ. In Him death and condemnation are defeated.

So, the sacrifice of Christ was not offered for specific sins of specific individuals, but Christ took upon Himself the condemnation that Adam brought upon the whole race, and through His righteousness and His resurrection He reversed the curse. Anyone who is born in Adam is under the curse. But Christ as a Man bore that curse on the tree. Now, all the children of Adam can renounce the “old man” of sin and submit to Jesus Christ as Lord. For those that seek refuge in Him “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1).

To me this is the meaning of the penal substitutionary Atonement. I could only call this “limited,” in the sense that it is limited to the human race and will not benefit fallen angels. I believe that anyone who is a child of Adam could benefit from it by coming to Christ and submitting to Him. No one is excluded by the nature of the Atonement. They are only excluded by their love for sin, their hatred of God and their rejection of Christ. The nature of the Atonement is universal.

A Universal Atonement With A Particular Intent

I am the good shepherd. I know My sheep and am known by My own.     Even as the Father knows Me, so I know the Father. And I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep who are not of this fold. I must also bring them, and they will hear My voice. There will be one flock and one shepherd.

John 10:14-16

She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.

Matthew 1:21

even as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:28

And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

I disagree with the Calvinist on the nature of the Atonement. But I disagree with the Arminian on the intent of the Atonement. Many passages in Scripture point out the universal nature of the Atonement, and I believe my Calvinist brethren work harder than they need to when they try to explain such passages away. On the other hand, I believe my Arminian brethren waste energy trying to explain away the many passages of Scripture that make the Atonement of Christ something He did specifically for those whom He foreknew from the foundation of the earth.

The Calvinist believes that God chose certain individuals to be saved. The Classical Arminian believe that God knew who was going to accept salvation by prevenient grace and be saved. Arminians that hold to corporate election believe that God knew which individuals would be saved, unless they are not actually Arminian, but open theists. So, for Arminians and Calvinists, God knew who was going to actually benefit from the death of Christ. From God’s perspective, when He created the world and planned the Atonement, He knew whom it was for. He had particular persons in mind when He sent His Son to die on the cross. He knew who was going to be His child throughout all eternity because of the death of His Son. The Atonement was particular in its intent.

My Perspective

On this issue, I believe I fall more on the Arminian side of the debate. In my view anyone who desires can come to the cross and they will find a Savior waiting for them that has fully conquered sin, death and hell. But God is not ignorant of who will come. He planned the cross with certain individuals in mind. This is true whether one is a Calvinist or an Arminian.


2 thoughts on “Limited or Universal Atonement: One Evangelical’s Perspective”

  1. Great read. Although, I agree with many of your points, here is where I wrestle with the Arminian view:

    For people to have a choice to accept salvation, means that they can write history. If they can create history, then God would be limited in knowledge.

    Therefore, I side with that God has predestined who would be saved from the beginning of time.

    1. I must not have written clearly. I also believe that God has predestined whom He will lead to saving faith in Christ. On the issue of election I am closer to the Calvinist position than the Arminian.
      Thanks for the input

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s