The atonement is central to Christian understanding and experience. We are the benefactors when we pore over the Word to better grasp Christ’s work. When doing so, we often encounter questions. One common question that comes up when thinking about the atonement is this: Did Jesus die for everyone or only the elect?
My answer to this question is this: I believe Jesus died on the cross for the elect. He did exactly what he intended to do and accomplished redemption for all who would believe, and not every person who ever lived.
One might answer back, But when you read John 3:16 we see that God “loved the world” and then in Hebrews 2:9 “Jesus taste death for everyone,” and finally in 1 John the Bible says that Jesus was the propitiation “for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). In light of this, how can anyone say that Jesus did not die for everyone?
These are important verses and questions. In this post I want to think this through biblically, theologically, and logically.
First, let me start by saying that everyone limits the atonement. Everyone, that is, except for the heterodox theology of the universalist (the view that all will be saved). The Arminian limits the power of the atonement, saying that the cross did not definitively save anyone but made salvation possible for all. The Calvinist, on the other hand, limits the extent of the atonement, that it does not save every person, but only the elect.
Everyone (except universalists) limit the atonement. Some limit the power of it and others the extent.
As a Calvinist, I limit the extent of the atonement. But by doing so, I am not limiting the value of the atonement; it is infinite. There is no way to improve upon the work of Christ—it is infinite and perfect. To be clear, when Calvinists speak of limited atonement, we are not speaking in terms of its value but rather the extent of it.
When we are thinking about this limiting, we have a choice. As B. B. Warfield says, “The things we have to choose between are an atonement of high value or an atonement of wide extension. The two cannot go together.”
Jesus Christ either died for everyone, nobody, or the elect.
Nature of the Atonement
The Old Covenant sacrifices anticipate the death of Christ through types and shadows. They were patterned after their substance, the supreme sacrifice, the Lamb of God (Heb. 9:11-14; 13:10-13). When we read a passage like Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement, we find innocent animals beating the sin and guilt of the people. The priest was transferring the guilt of the people to the chosen animal by imputation. The sacrifice is then made with the offering of the animal in the place of the people. The Day of Atonement dealt with the sins of the people (even if only for a year). But the point is clear; they are not offering the animals as a potential redemption for every person who is alive that year. Instead, it is an accomplished atonement for the people of Israel.
Further, Jesus death was substitutionary. He offered himself in our place. He suffered and died vicariously in place of sinners.
He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:21)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13)
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; (1 Pet. 3:18)
John Murray in his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied writes:
If we concentrate on the thought of redemption, we shall be able perhaps to sense more readily the impossibility of universalizing the atonement. What does redemption mean? It does not mean redeemability, that we are placed in a redeemable position. It means that Christ purchased and procured redemption. This is the triumphant note of the New Testament whenever it plays on the redemptive chord. Christ redeemed us to God by his blood (Rev. 5:9). He obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12). “He gave himself for us in order that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify to himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). It is to beggar the concept of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and by power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people.”
Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people.
The real question comes down to this: did he or didn’t he?
Did Jesus Christ satisfy divine wrath upon that cross or didn’t he? If he didn’t, then who will? And when? But if he did, then for whom?
It would be unbiblical to conclude that Jesus satisfied the wrath of God and bore the sins for those already suffering in hell. If he did pay their penalty, why is God punishing them a second time?
Intent of the Atonement
What was the intent of the atonement? I like how Steve Lawson answers the question,:“The intent of the atonement is the extent of the atonement.”
What was Jesus’s intention? What was his plan for the atonement? He tells us that he would lay his life down for his sheep—and his sheep alone.
I am the good shepherd, and I know my own, and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15)
I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. (John 10:16)
Do you sense his design and resolve here? “I must bring them . . . they will hear my voice” Or if we may shorten it: “I must . . . and they will.” Jesus Christ is going to the cross with the certainty of what he will do and how his sheep will respond.
As he talks about the intent of his death, Jesus is interacting with some of the Jewish leaders. Amid their questions, Jesus tells them that the atonement is not for them. He limits the extent of his sacrifice.
But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep. (John 10:26)
Remember, Jesus has already told us that he is dying for his sheep (John 10:15). But right here he tells them that they cannot hear his words (they do not believe) because they are not of his sheep. The Lord is saying that his death is for those who are his sheep, and they will hear his voice. In other words, Jesus’s death is for the elect and not for those who will not believe.
He applies a similar limit in his High Priestly prayer the night before his death:
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. (John 17.9-10)
Jesus prays for those who are his. That is, he prays for his sheep, those who will believe upon his word.
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, (John 17.20)
Christ’s atonement has a vicarious, substitutionary nature. Jesus lived, died, and was raised for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3-5). This happened at a point of time that will never to be repeated again (Heb. 10:10). Therefore, Jesus accomplished the necessary redemption for all of his sheep. He fully satisfied and removed divine wrath while earning divine favor for his people. When we speak of limited atonement, we are referring to a limited scope, not a limited value or power. This is why many theologians prefer the language of particular redemption or definite atonement.
Some Supposed Unlimited Atonement Passages
But we do see him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9)
Context is important. Who is the everyone? Verse 10 tells us that he brings “many sons to glory,” verse 11 calls them “brethren,” verse 14 calls these people “the children,” v.16 says that they are the descendants of Abraham, v.17 says that they are “his brethren,” and again “the people.” I do not believe that everyone here refers to everyone who ever lived, but rather to this particular group of people already mentioned: the many sons, the children, the descendants of Abraham, his brethren, and the people. In other words, it is referring to his sheep or all who would believe.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
This verse clearly says that God loves the world. But while the Son came into the world, the verse doesn’t say that the entire world will be saved. It limits the scope of salvation to those who would believe, “that whoever believes in him shall not perish.” God loved the world in this particular way, that those who believe (the participle is in the present tense), who keep believing (i.e., the believers) will have eternal life. We could put it is a bit more literally, “God loves the world in this particular way, that he gave his only Son that the believing ones will not perish but have eternal life.” The verse says that those who believe will be saved. Loving and saving are united by believing. John is not talking about the extent of the atonement but the motive behind (love) and the means of accessing it (faith). We sometimes think of “whosoever” as exceedingly broad (arms open wide) instead of the particularity with which John seems to point here (to believers).
1 John 2
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2.2)
I think there is a good reason for the debate about this passage. It’s this last phrase that’s caused people fits when understanding what John is talking about. The question is simply this: in what sense is Jesus the propitiation for the sins of the whole world?
We have three main questions to answer:
- What does propitiation mean? Propitiation means the act of making God favorable to sinners by satisfying his wrath against them and removing their guilt before him.
- When did the propitiation happen? Propitiation is something that happened in the past, at the cross. But, Jesus’s work as an advocate for his people is an ongoing reality. Having the timing down is important.
- What does “world” mean?
Sometimes it refers to all of creation, and sometimes it can refer to a broader group of people than initially focused upon.
If propitiation is accomplished and not every person who ever lived will be saved, then how can we understand John’s use of this word? Again, I think this is a harder passage. A rule of interpretation is to allow the more clear passages to shed light on those that we find to be less clear. Therefore, I’m okay with marshaling in many other passages that speak to the nature and extent of the atonement to help me understand this verse.
At the same time, I think there is a possible answer in John’s other writings. In the first-century Jewish world, you have the Jews and then the world—everyone else. John is a Jew and enjoyed a ministry primarily to Jews (Gal. 2). There was anticipation throughout the Old Testament that the Messiah would save not only the Jews but also the whole world, that is Gentiles (Gen. 12:1-3; Is. 56:8; Ezek. 34:23; 37:24; Luke 2:22-38).
We see this conclusion somewhat surprisingly articulated by Caiaphas in John’s Gospel:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. (John 11:49-53)
This sounds like Jesus in John 10:16, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
When I read 1 John 2:2 I think of what the word propitiation means, what Jesus did, and what else John teaches us about the nature and intent of the atonement, particularly with respect to non-Jews, it causes me to conclude that just as Jesus is the advocate for his people he is also the propitiation for the sins of his people. This includes all types of people, not just Jews, but people from every tribe and tongue (Rev. 5). I think by using the word “world” here, John is referring to a group of people from the nations, not just the nation of Israel.
John Owen’s Helpful Questions
I remember wrestling through this doctrine and trying to think through a number of biblical texts. As I was studying, I came across John Owen’s concise puzzle.
The Father imposed his wrath upon the Son, and the Son was punished for:
1. All the sins of all men.
2. All the sins of some men.
3. Some of the sins of some men.
In which case, it may be said:
a. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so none is saved.
b. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
c. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, Because of unbelief. I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it is, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or he did not. If he did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died? If he did not, he did not die for all their sins!
Patience and Precision
I started by saying that we are the benefactors when we pore over the Word to better grasp the work of Christ. As we do this to help ourselves and others learn, it must be done with a sense of humility. One should only have to think for a moment about how insensitive it is to find personal pride when arguing about atonement for our sins!
A conversation like this should be characterized by the gentleness, patience, and precision it demands.