The question at issue here is whether Christ died with the intention of saving his elect only or if he had a wider intention in view.
After defining the question and the related terminology I will argue for “particular redemption” by surveying direct biblical statements and then the Bible’s related theological reasoning. Finally, I will survey passages that are most commonly used to indicate a universal atonement.
That we are saved by the sacrifice of Christ in our place is a basic point of Christian theology on which all Christians are agreed. This is the heart of the gospel, and it will be the subject of our praise forever (Rev. 5:9). Our question here is a narrow one: In his dying whom did our Lord intend to save? Just what was his death designed to accomplish? Many universalists have argued that in his death Christ has saved all men. Arminians have argued that his death provided for the salvation of all men if they will believe. By contrast, Reformed interpreters argue that by his death our Lord actually accomplished and secured the salvation of all his chosen people – that he died with the intention of saving them.
This question is variously described as the design or the intent or the extent of the atonement. Note that the question is not whether our Lord’s death was of sufficient value to save others – few have questioned that. The question here is not the value of the atonement, and the expression “sufficient for all, efficacious for the elect” is one that Reformed types have affirmed for centuries.
Moreover, we must be careful to understand the related terminology correctly. “Limited atonement” frames the question rather negatively emphasizing that Christ died only to save his elect. “Particular redemption” and “definite atonement” state the same only more positively – Christ died with the intention of saving his people. There is a certain rhetorical advantage or disadvantage with each of these designations. “Limited atonement” may call into question the infinite value of our Lord’s death; in this sense “unlimited atonement” has a distinct rhetorical advantage. On the other hand, “particular redemption” and “definite atonement” more positively highlight the saving efficacy of Christ’s death; in this sense “general” and “indefinite” atonement are at a distinct disadvantage. In any case, we should be clear on the question at issue: Just what did our Lord intend to accomplish by his death? Did he intend to save all? Did he intend to make salvation possible for all who believe? Or did he intend by his death to secure the salvation of his chosen people? This last option is the position I will argue here.
Direct Biblical Statements
We will approach this question in several ways. First, we should highlight some direct biblical statements. For example, in Revelation 5:9–10 the redeemed sing in praise to the Lamb,
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.
This song specifies that Christ’s death was a redemptive event, purchasing deliverance by the payment of a ransom price. But it is more specific than that. It affirms a selective redemption: by his blood he ransomed people to God “from (ek) every tribe and language and people and nation.” This is selective redemption by Christ’s blood. His blood was the ransom price that secured the freedom of men and women “out from” every nation. Simply put, the affirmation is that what distinguishes the saved from the lost is the blood of Christ.
Similarly, in Romans 8:32 we read, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Here the apostle Paul glories in the great truth that all for whom Christ died receive all the attending benefits. By his death he secured every saving benefit, and those for whom he died will inevitably receive them all.
So also in Romans 8:34 we read, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died.” Here again the plain meaning is that none for whom Christ died can possibly be condemned. Precisely because Christ died for them they must be saved.
There are many statements like this throughout the New Testament. In Revelation 1:5 the apostle expresses praise “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” His glory is that Christ has “freed us from our sins by his blood” – this basic saving blessing secured by his death belongs only to “us” who are saved. Christ’s death had this saving intent and effect.
We might say the same of many other New Testament passages:
- Matthew 20:28 – the Son of Man came “to give his life a ransom for many” (cf. Mark 10:45).
- John 10:11 – “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
- John 17:19 – “for their sake I consecrate myself.”
- Galatians 2:20 – “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
- Ephesians 5:25 – “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
- 1 Peter 2:24 – “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
The notion of particularity is at the core of all these and more. There is not only the “us” focus but also the affirmation of saving blessing secured uniquely for us by Christ’s death.
Indeed, we must say the same for the many “for us” statements in the New Testament:
- Romans 5:8 – “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
- Galatians 3:13 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
- Ephesians 5:2 – “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:10 – “who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”
- Titus 2:14 – “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
- Hebrews 10:20 – “the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh
- 1 John 3:16 – “he laid down his life for us.”
In all these there is both the particular focus and the affirmation of saving blessing secured uniquely for Christ’s people.
Biblical and Theological Reasoning
Very similar to all this is the way the biblical writers reason with regard to the atonement as having a necessarily particular focus.
The Nature of the Atonement
The very meaning of Christ’s death is substitution: Christ died in our place so that because of his substitutional payment of the penalty of our sin we will go free. Again, this is the shared view of all Christians. But once we have said that, we have spoken in exclusive terms. As we have just seen, this is the meaning of all the “he died for us” statements in the New Testament. Whether we say “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6) or “Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) or “he was made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13), etc., the meaning is the same: his death paid the debt of our sin substitutionally the consequence of which is that we are saved. If we were to say that Christ died “for” some who perish we change the meaning of his death altogether: it would no longer be an actual substitution of bearing sin in the sinner’s place. In this sense all of the verses in Scripture that affirm substitutionary atonement at the same time affirm particular redemption. The nature of the atonement determines its extent. John Owen spelled out this conundrum famously:
- Either Christ died for all the sins of all men – in which case all will be saved,
- Or he died for some of the sins of all men – in which case none can ever be saved,
- Or he died for all the sins of some men – in which case they will be saved.
Again, this is precisely Paul’s reasoning in Romans 8:32 – all for whom Christ died receive all the attending benefits. Or, Romans 8:34 – none for whom Christ died can possibly be condemned. Precisely because he died for them they must be saved.
The Efficacy of the Atonement
The New Testament repeatedly describes our Lord’s death in efficacious terms. That is, his death actually accomplished salvation. The necessary implication is obvious: If by his death Christ effected salvation (and if some in fact will perish), then his death had a particular design and intent. Some brief examples will suffice.
- Matthew 20:28 – the Son of Man “gave his life a ransom for many.” Jesus surely did not intend for us to understand this in terms of mere potential. By his death he actually ransomed sinners so that they go free.
- Acts 20:28 – “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Here again the affirmation is that Christ’s death actually secured a people.
- Romans 5:9 – “we have been justified by his blood.” Again, the connotations of efficacy are prominent: his death secured our justification.
- Romans 8:32 – Christ’s death actually secured all saving benefits.
- 2 Corinthians 5:14–15 – “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Many have assumed that the “all” in this statement indicates universal atonement. But notice the statement in full:
- Christ died for “all.”
- This same “all” died with Christ in his death.
- As a consequence this same “all” live in Christ and for Christ.
Again, the notion of the efficacy (and therefore the particular design) of the atonement is evident.
- Hebrews 7:22 – “Jesus the guarantor [surety] of a better covenant.” A guarantor or surety is one who puts himself in the place of another, paying their debt and thus releasing them from obligation.
- Hebrews 9:12 – “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” Here the statement is straightforward – in his death Jesus secured eternal redemption.
We must emphasize again that the nature of the atonement determines its design and extent. Everywhere in the New Testament Christ’s death is described as actually securing redemption; it therefore has a particular focus and effect. Faith in Christ remains the requirement, but that faith is part of what is secured in Chris’s death for his people.
The Unity of the Trinity and of God’s Saving Purpose
Scripture consistently characterizes God’s saving purpose as having a particular design: the salvation of his chosen people. Romans 8:28-30 illustrates this point well. In eternity past God chose whom he would save and predestined them to glory. In time called them, and when they came to faith he justified them. And these same people he will glorify. It is the same lot of people in view through out.
So also in John 6:35-40 and 10:10-28 and throughout chapter 17 our Lord tells us specifically that he came to save his chosen people, “his sheep” whom the Father had “given” to him. It was in fact the Father’s pre-temporal “giving” of a people to the Son that determined and defined the Son’s saving mission – he came to save them, to give his life for them so that when he calls them they will come and so that in the end they will be with him in resurrected glory. Throughout the entire unfolding of God’s redemptive plan the notion of particularism is prominent.
This consideration leads, in turn, to another that is very serious. In this saving purpose God the Father chose a people whom he would save and gave those people to his Son to save by his death; in turn, the Holy Spirit gives these same people faith and savingly unites them to Christ. However, to suggest that for his part Christ died for all people without exception would be to introduce a dissonance in the Trinity. It would suggest that the Son was working toward something other than what the Father and the Spirit were intent on accomplishing in the very same saving plan. But as we have seen, the Lord Jesus specifically affirms that he came to save the very people the Father had given him (John 6:38-39) and that it was for them he gave his life (John 10:11; 17:19). The note of particularism is constant.
The “Universal” Statements
We find several statements that describe our Lord’s death in universal terms, and we must be careful to understand them accurately. Space allows only a few samples here.
John the Baptist’s exclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” indicates either that, 1) all will be saved, because the sin of all people has been expiated, or 2) “world” is to be understood in comprehensive rather than exhaustively inclusive terms. This second option seems fairly obvious. Jesus’ death did not, in fact, expiate the sins of very last person: we know from other passages in Scripture that many will perish because of their sin. Clearly, John’s affirmation is that Jesus is the world’s savior (not just Israel’s).
Here John famously affirms that God so loved the world that he sent his son to save it. Transparently “world” here does not indicate that every last person will be saved but that the world will be reclaimed through Christ’s saving work. As Revelation 5:9 later confirms – men and women from every tribe and nation under heaven will be saved. This is biblical universalism.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
Here Jesus refers directly to his cross work which will result, he says, in drawing “all people” to him. What does he mean by this? He surely cannot mean that every last person to live will be drawn to him, for that is just not the case. The context determines this for us. Verses 20 and following tell us that some Gentiles had come asking to see Jesus. Philip wasn’t so sure about that, so he went to ask Jesus, and it was in direct response to that inquiry that our Lord says that in his death he will “draw all people” to himself. That is, his saving work will avail not for Jews only but also for Gentiles (cf. John 10:16; Rev. 5:9).
1 John 2:1–2
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.
Many have taken this verse to affirm universal atonement, but that presents a difficulty with regard to the word “propitiation.” Propitiation is the work of Christ whereby in his death he satisfied the demands of God’s justice and appeased his wrath against us. If by “whole world” John refers to every person without exception, then we would have to conclude that all people will in fact be saved because that is what propitiation means. That cannot be John’s meaning, for there are just too many New Testament indications that many will perish. And so many argue that this verse indicates that in Christ’s work God has made redemption available to all, that Christ “may be” the propitiation for anyone’s sins. But this is not what John says either. He does not say that Christ “may be” the propitiation but that he “is” the propitiation for our sins. Still, many have argued that Christ made propitiation for every person but that the salvation thus procured is not actualized apart from our faith. But again, we are left then to ask in what meaningful sense could we say that Christ is the propitiation for those who perish? Moreover, John offers this by way of giving assurance to sinning Christians, an assurance grounded in an accomplished salvation: “If anyone sins we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins!”
It would seem that the expression “the whole world” must be understood in a sense other than “every person without exception” – that Christ’s saving work accomplished salvation globally, just as the previous passages indicate also.
Scripture teaches plainly that in his death our Lord Jesus was the sinner’s substitute, paying in our place the penalty of our sin, thus satisfying God, appeasing his wrath, and thereby securing the salvation of his people. God sent his son not to condemn but to save the world, and in the end his people the world over – from every tribe and tongue – will testify that he has, in fact, accomplished that great redemptive work.
- Lee Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation: “Limited Atonement” in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry.
- John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished & Applied.
- Andrew Naselli and Mark Snoeberger, eds. Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views. See my review of this book here.
- John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (with introduction by J.I. Packer).