Over the past several years the evangelical world has had a resurgence of Calvinism. A new breed of young leaders have risen to prominence in evangelical circles. Their influence, not only among evangelical churches, but also within the churches of Christ, is growing through conferences, publications, and internet presence. This new resurgence brings to head old questions.
One of the fundamental questions of our faith is, “For whom did Christ die?” Those who are persuaded by the Calvinist understanding of soteriology (study of salvation) advocate a limited atonement. They argue that the Bible teaches that Christ died for those whom God gave Him to save (John 17:9). They state Christ died, indeed, for many people, but not all (Matthew 26:28). Specifically, Christ died for the invisible Church — the sum total of all those who would ever rightly bear the name “Christian” (Ephesians 5:25).
In essence limited atonement states that Jesus’ death was only for the elect. The word elect, as defined by the Calvinist, refers to individuals whom God has chosen to save. This salvation is irresistible. They are unable to choose not to be saved, rather God forces salvation upon them. It is this select group of people for whom Jesus died.
In support of this doctrine the adherents turn to several verses to make the case. From Matthew 1:21 they state that Jesus was only to save “his people.” From Matthew 20:28 they claim Jesus was only to pay the ransom for “many,” not for all. From John 10:15 they claim that Jesus was only dying for “His sheep.” From Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 5:25 the claim is made that Jesus’ death was limited to “His church.” Thus they argue that Scripture teaches that the death of Jesus is limited only to those who are His, and not available for everyone.
Before we look closer at the case presented above, we need to look at the verses in the New Testament which indicate that Jesus’ death was not limited. We should begin with the writings of John. In John 1:29 we are told that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In 1 John 2:2 we are told that Jesus was the atoning sacrifice (meaning of propitiation in the verse) for not only the sins of those who are in fellowship with God (the meaning of “us” in the verse), but for the sins of the whole world. It is clear in John that the “world”, when referring to people, is not in reference to those who are followers of Jesus, but rather it is reference to those who are opposed to Jesus (1 John 3:1, 13; 4:5; 5:19). Therefore John is making it clear that Jesus’ death was not just for His followers, but also for those who opposed Him. Jesus satisfied the wrath of God for all people.
This truth is also evident in the writings of Paul. Paul states that God wants “all to be saved,” and that He gave Jesus as a ransom for “all” (1 Tim. 2:3-6). Peter agrees as well stating that God does not want “any to perish” (2 Pet. 3:9). This would indicate that God would make the necessary provisions that all could come to salvation. In the first gospel message, after the ascension of Jesus, Luke records for us that the apostles proclaim salvation is available for “everyone” (Acts 2:21). The above passages from John, Paul, Peter, and Luke combined with the “whosoever” statements found throughout Scripture indicate that Jesus’ saving death is not limited to merely a predetermined small group, but rather to all the world.
How can Jesus’ death be stated to be both for a limited group of people (i.e. His disciples) and for all people? Three ways present themselves. First, everyone is saved by the death of Jesus. Second, the unconditionally elect are saved. Third, those who put their trust in Jesus are saved. The first option faces major challenges from Scripture, as the Bible states that some people will be lost (John 3:36). This leaves the final two options.
Option two does not do justice to the second set of verses, which make it clear that Jesus death was for all. This leaves us with option three, which is that those who put their trust in Jesus are saved. It reconciles both sets of verses. It can both be said that Jesus died for all and that Jesus died for the church. Jesus’ death made salvation available to all people, but it will only be received by those who through trusting obedience accept it.
The Bible does not teach a limited atonement. Rather it teaches an unlimited atonement, which makes salvation available to all men. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world–opening up the door of salvation to all men. However, it is only those men who will seek His forgiveness and are united to Him in baptism who will be the beneficiaries of Jesus death.