Limited atonement

by Jake Burlaga. ( In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for TH212 Boyce college) edited for this blog. Posted with approval of the author.

In this paper, the argument is that Jesus Christ died explicitly for the elect. The paper will be split into three parts. Concerning the first part of the paper, it will include an introduction. The second part of the paper will present the view of unlimited atonement while the third part will consist of a case for limited atonement and wrestle with the objection of the word “all” that is seen in scripture. Lastly, a conclusion will be provided.

The talk of atonement is all over history, it is a formulated doctrine that Christ died for sinners so that He can be their wrath bearing sacrifice. But what about the atonement’s extent? The talk of the extent of the atonement has in actuality proven to be something that Christendom has borne witness to in its roots. The doctrine of limited atonement has stirred up discussion dating back to classical antiquity and through the scholastic ages, leading up to the reformation and finally to the present day. The predominant view in Christian history was in fact that Christ died for all people everywhere, it seemed early on and in at least the first thousand years of Christianity that limited atonement was irretrievable– that only a select few through the ages held it tightly. Augustine and his camp had held closely to the doctrine, but when Aquinas had come on the theological scene, he revised it on the opposite side of the spectrum. Aquinas took the side of universal atonement and after a few hundred years, the reformation split the divide theologically.(1) The reformers held to their reformed theology such as divine grace while the Catholics held to their own theology which was not consistent with ideas such as grace alone. Both groups differed on the extent of the atonement, the reformers such as those affiliated with the Westminster confession and Canons of Dordt were deeply opposed to those parties of the Catholics, and Arminians.(2) Therefore, in history there were always two positions on the extent of the atonement, but never was the idea manifested this big until the reformation had occurred. 

The extent of the atonement is something that is under much debate in the talk of Christian theology, as just mentioned; it’s concept is innate in Christian heritage. The extent of the atonement matters in our day; it matters because Christians need to know who Christ actually died for. The topic matters because if Christ died for everyone, is everyone then saved? These are theological questions that people are proposing and looking for answers to in the present day. More so, the scriptures talk about how God desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of him— it is very important to discern texts and infer from the text what is the case and what is the context and meaning. Christians strive to be the best stewards of their bibles and, deep study is required to be able to know the text and the argument. It is also worthy of discussion because monumental figures of the church such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin had taken up dialogue to discuss these matters of atonement and specifically its extent. 

One thing to be aware of is that both sides of the argument find agreement on imperative doctrinal beliefs in the Christian faith about the extent of the atonment. Those beliefs include such things as the Holy Trinity, the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and imputed righteous. Now, the focus will be on the positions of its extent. 

The position of the atonement of Christ being universal. 

The position of universal atonement is held by many theologians. These theologians argue that Jesus did not only die for the elect but also for all of the sin of mankind. Theologians in support of this positon argue their belief based on many scriptures. Some of the texts that universal atonement theology would site are: John 1:29, John 3:16, 2:9, 1 Tim. 2:4-6. 1 John 2:2. To look at a few, John 1:29 reads: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  In the context of this verse, the text indicates that this was the day after John had been baptizing and made his famous statement, “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: make straight the path of the Lord” (John 1:23). This verse was declared when Jesus had just arrived on the scene. In the very same chapter it declares that he is indeed the Word incarnate. Universal atonement theologians take John 1:29 to mean that Jesus died for the whole world, and in fact, the text shows that he is God’s lamb— commissioned to take the sins of the world wholly.

To mention another text from the Apostle John, John 3:16 reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is the iconic Christian verse in all its beauty and truth. And, its interpretation is open for discussion on its view of the extent of the atonement.  Many theologians suggest that just like the last text, this text is referring to the truth that God has given his only Son to the world. They infer that the Son was given for the entirety of the world. In order that those who believe will make the atonement complete. They suggest Christ’s life is given for all, but one must believe to receive its benefits. Those benefits of course are the propitiation made by the Lord Christ applied to the believers’ account. 

The next text to look at which is used for this position is 1 Timothy 2:4-6, it reads: “Who desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man is Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” This text clearly indicates God’s own heart and reveals the divine intentions of God. And it is true, God sincerely desires all men to be saved, the scripture attests to it directly above. God desires all to come to the knowledge of the truth and to know him. The argument presented is that since God desires all to be saved and that in the same context it says that Christ has given a ransom for all, it can be said that Jesus did in fact die for all peoples everywhere. Though the text is clear about a universality of the word “all” is also shows an interesting characteristic of God’s eternal wills. Theologians have classified there to be two types of divine wills; they have suggested a decreed will and a moral will.(3) The moral will includes God’s desire for us to obey, and His desires in general that do not come to pass. The decreed will is the will of God in which always comes to pass, an example would be in Ephesians 1 of how God has predestined some for eternal salvation. Scripture is clear that not everybody will be saved, yet God desires all men to be saved. Thus is can be concluded that the divine desire of God for all men to be saved is harbored in his moral will. Furthermore, in reference to the above text, the one in support of this position of the atonement’s extent believes Christ’s death to be the function that pays the ransom for sin.(4) Of course both parties agree on penal substitution— the atonement being deposited to the believer’s account when he is born again. However, those in support of this positon believe that even if those for whom Christ died reject him, they will be cast to hell. Thus God desires all men to be saved but his decreed will also reveals not all will be saved. 

One of the most used texts in favor of limited atonement is in 1 John 2:2, it reads: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Propitiation simply means wrath bearing sacrifice, and theologians use this text to infer that Christ has actually made a propitiation not only for those who are Christians but the entirety of the world. This interpretation of scripture is very clear about the reference to the whole world. These Theologians suggest the word “world” in this verse is implying the totality of those who live, will live, and who have lived. Since John is writing to the gentile nations, he infers that “all” must be in reference to the propitiation of all men.(5) These are some of the texts that are the main thrust of the argument for limited atonement.

Why Christ’s death was limited

As mentioned prior, there is much discrepancy on this topic and some scriptures seem to be in support of unlimited atonement. While some scriptures seem to indicate that the atonement had an extent— it appears to be ambiguous. An example that was just analyzed in the first section is 1 John 2:2, the text seems to indicate a universal atonement. An example in favor of limited atonement would be Mathew 1:21, it reads: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This text shows a declarative act, something that will in fact happen. Theologians classify this as a definite atonement. What is clear in this text is that the word “might” is not found in regards to the salvation of God’s people. Contrarily, there is a “will” in regards to the salvation of God’s people. Christ did not potentially save his people, but he completely saved them unto salvation by the accomplished work on the cross. As John Murry says: “Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people.” (6)Limited atonement stresses in its core that Christ has purchased a people, a people who can only belong to him. It stresses that his mission cannot fail, that means that those he died for will in fact be saved. In universal atonement theology Christ died for many who are in hell. In limited atonement theology Christ specifically died for his elect, and his mission cannot fail, as Mathew 1 says above, they “will” be saved from their sins. 

Another text that suggests limited atonement is John 6:38-39, it reads: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” The context of this verse is when Jesus exhorts why he is the bread of life, following the event when Jesus had fed the five thousand and walked on water. The above text is exhorting that Jesus in fact cannot lose those that the Father has given him, and in fact they were given to him for him to directly save. If indeed universal atonement was true, then surely Christ would not be able to keep all those he died for; but, the text explicitly exhorts that Christ will bring them to heaven on the last day because He accomplished his mission. As John Murray says on this specific text: “Security inheres in Christ’s redemptive accomplishment. And this means that, in respect of the persons contemplated, design and accomplishment and final realization have all the same extent.” Thus the hope of the believer, is in the truism that Christ has bought that person individually, as well as directly, and that they can look forward to a home in heaven. 

Another text to be used in support of limited atonement is in John chapter 10. This text of course was written by the same author as the last text analyzed; that author is the Apostle John. Specifically, verse 11 reads: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the context of this verse Jesus is describing how he is the good shepherd, and Jesus is the fulfilment of the Shepard that is spoken about in Ezekiel 34. In the passage of John 10 Jesus is describing himself in a parable. This text immediately follows after Jesus heals the blind man in chapter 9. But, in the above text what is evident is that the shepherd, who is Jesus, lays down his life for the sheep. It can be said that Jesus only lays down his life for the sheep. In verse 16 it describes that Jesus will lay his life down for other sheep who are not from the fold; Jesus is simply referring to future gentile believers. Overall, believers are the sheep and the Lord Christ is the shepherd, it can be inferred that in fact, Jesus had only died for those he calls his sheep. The texts are very clear.

Another text that is very clear in regards to limited atonement is John 17. The content of John 17 is Jesus praying his high priestly prayer in the garden of gethsemane, and the context is that this event is taking place the night before his crucifixion. John 17:9-10 reads: “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.” It would be indubitable to infer anything other than that would be to say that this prayer is not personal and intentional. The prayer of the Lord Christ is extremely intentional and directed towards a specific people who belong to the Father and the Son. Specifically, Jesus had said that he is not praying for the world, but those the Father has given him. As just analyzed in John 10, those whom the Father gives the son are sheep and thus believers. Jesus claims he is not praying for the world, which means he is not praying for those whom the Father has not chosen. As Louis Berkhof says in regards to this passage: “Why should He limit His intercessory prayer, if He had actually paid the price for all?”(7) He is on a mission and his divine intention is to save those whom heaven has been prepared for. His intercessory power is limited, thus his atonement must be. The text also instructs that Jesus is glorified in those whom he is praying for. If he was praying for the unbelievers, which he is not, how then can he specifically be glorified in those who reject him if the text says otherwise? In other words, Jesus cannot be glorified by those who are in the world, namely unbelievers. Then why would he die for them? More so, looking at the overall context of the passage, this is taking place the night before he is to die. His intentions in this recorded prayer seem to indicate that his motive of dying is for those whom he loves— which are those who are his sheep. His sheep are on his mind the night before the crucifixion. Thus it is without question that when the Father sent the Son, the Son specifically was intentioned to accomplish the mission of a definite atonement. 

All over scripture is the idea of a definite atonement. The act of salvation is the act done by God to save sinners, scripture presents salvation to be the object of what completely saves unbelievers from God’s own wrath. Romans 5:10 reads: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” And also, Galatians 1:4: “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our god and Father.” In the act of salvation, it is a complete declaration. It has always been God who declares it, and since God declares it, He always provide it in its full measure. God provides the atonement Christ made to be the full sacrifice for sins. In scripture there is a definite atonement; Christ died alone for the elect and in no way, shape, or form can his death be in vain under any circumstance. A denial of limited atonement is an agreement that Christ’s death was in vain for many. Arthur Pink puts it clearly:

For according to their theory God has only provided a precarious salvation, which is offered to the caprice of man’s acceptance, a mere possibility, which can only become actual through the sinner’s compliance with certain conditions; a possibility, which when properly examined, is seen to be an impossibility. How vast the difference between precarious salvation, and an infallible one! (8)

Pink is exactly right in his words, there is a complete distinction in actuality and potentiality. God has completely saved his people, and the mindset of a precarious salvation is troublesome for any believer. It is a definite atonement. 

Lastly, before the objections are dealt with, the problem that should be explored is the lack of consistency of those in support of universal atonement. If in fact Christ died for all people, and that atonement has been made for all people, wouldn’t that infer that every person’s sin has been atoned for? The issue with universal atonement is that it logically leads to universalism. If atonement is made for all, then why would Paul exhort believers to preach Christ crucified and what would be the point of the boldness of the Apostles in the book of Acts? Furthermore, there is an inseparable nature between the atonement and the bestowal of the atonement.(9)  Thus one cannot have one without the other, if one believes that an atonement has been made for everyone, than one has to believe the bestowal of the atonement has been poured over everyone. The advocate of this view must take his positon down the road it leads, and not try to nuance it. Louis Berkhof had mentioned: “it is impossible that they for whom Christ paid the price, whose guilt He removed, should be lost on account of that guilt.” It is impossible for those who have been atoned for their sin to be damned to hell on account for that sin. That thinking is completely contrary to the character and justice of God, because God in turn would charge someone guilty who had no sin. God would then be unjust to cast someone to hell if the atonement has been provided. These are the main points of the argument against universal atonement, and its frightening implications.

Dealing with the word “all”

One of the monumental concerns of limited atonement is in reference to the word “all” as examined in the presentation of the universal atonement positon. The word all is their support of their position; they believe all to include the totality of the human race. The word “all” in scripture has been rendered in very distinct ways. In Luke 2:1 Caesar Augustus initiates a census and claims that all the world should be registered. History shares that Rome did not own the entirely of the world, or even the entirety of the Greco-Roman world. Thus the “all” must be interpreted as a few. Again, in Romans 5 it is clear that the word “all” is used in two different connotations. When Paul mentions that death has spread to all men, the immediate inclination is to believe that all men have sinned— which is correct of course. But, when Paul mentions that one righteous act leads to righteousness of all men the inclination is to not believe the word “all” is really meaning all in that context. Thus both connotations of the word “all” in Romans 5 mean two different things, scripture is clear that “all” is never a definitive in meaning the whole world.

In John 1:29 the verse that was presented for the argument of universal atonement, the word “all” is used in reference to Jesus taking away the sin of the world. As mentioned, the word “all” is ambiguous and has a plethora of interpretations in scripture. If one holds that this verse is implying a removal of the sin of the world, then the verse analyzed in John 6:33-34 implies all will be saved which is something that goes far beyond what the universal atonement supporters hold. Also, there is a truism in this verse that God will take away the sin of the world completely in a final consummation of all things when a New Heaven and earth will be established. Thus one must infer that the meaning of this text cannot be what it may appear to say, God in fact does take sin away. He takes sin away from his saints who are in the world.

John 3:16 is one of the most famous texts in all of scripture, this verse is used in defense of universal atonement. The text shares a bit of the character of God; it shows that he loves, it shows the moral will of God, and it shows that he invites all to come. That is the beauty of the gospel, that God invites all to come to him! But, in no way does this text infer that Jesus has died for everyone; but what it does say is that for all of those who believe they will have eternal life. Only the elect will believe in the gospel, and have true faith so that can believe in it. So this verse means exactly what is says. God in fact will save those who come to him, and save them completely; scripture is clear of a definite atonement. 

In 1 Timothy 2:4-6 the text shows the moral will of God as analyzed as well as the word “all” in regards to the atonement of Christ. John Calvin, a monumental figure in Christian history, interpreted this text to mean all kinds of men instead of all men.(10) Calvin believes that not every human will be saved, but that a few from each segment of humanity would be saved.(11) This appears to be a solid interpretation of this verse, Calvin notes that Paul is not talking about individual men in the reference to “all” but believes Paul to be saying that no one group of people is excluded from the salvation of Christ(12).  Also, the great commission in Mathew 28 exhorts believers to go to every tribe, nation, and tongue preaching the gospel. There are other places in scripture as well that make clear that there will be a representative of every nation in heaven. Calvin affirmed this passage to be in the context of particular redemption. 

Lastly, in regards to the verse in 1 John 2:2 the verse actually gives off a different connotation after the first glance. As Pink says: ‘The very first word of this verse shows that Christ is the “propitiation” of those only for whom He is an “advocate with the Father,” and John 17:9 proves that He prays for no one but the elect.” Pink suggests that John wanted to show internal to the Jewish community that Christ died for the sins of the Jewish community; that’s why he says “our” and then immediately suggests that the whole world must mean the other believers scattered amongst the world.(13) In other words, since John is referring to Jewish believers when he says “all,” he certainly must be referring to believers everywhere when he says “the whole world.” More so, since believers are classified as having Christ as there advocate with the Father, which is language the Apostle John uses throughout his writings, it can be inferred that Christ obviously cannot be the advocate for everyone since some are damned. Thus Jesus cannot be the advocate, or so to speak, atonement for those who are in the whole world but only those who are abiding in Christ and resting in his advocacy. Overall, it can be said that the “all” nature in texts that refer to the whole world can be interpreted by the fact that God has extended his grace to the nations beyond Israel. A helpful example of this is in the latter half of chapter two of the book of Ephesians. God had extended his kindness and the mystery of salvation to the gentiles. 


In conclusion it can be said that God has saved a specific redeemed people. He is Lord over them, and in His kindness he has intentionally provided himself as the wrath bearing sacrifice that is needed. More so, the believer can glory in the fact that they have been intentionally bought in love, and that they will never be snatched out of the hands of God because of this particular redemption. Particular redemption is biblical, it is joyful, and it is an eternally comforting truth.  


Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Carlisle, PA. Banner of Truth Trust, 2012.

Lee, John. For whom did Christ die? An Exegetical and Theological Defense of the Doctrine of Unlimited Atonement. Master’s Thesis. Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. 2007.  ATLA. 

Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955.

Pink, Arthur. The Satisfaction of Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1955

Rainbow, Jonathan, H. The will of God and The Cross: An Historical and Theological study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption. Alison Park. Pennsylvania: Pickwick Publications. 1990. 

  1.  Jonathan H. Rainbow, The will of God and The Cross: An Historical and Theological study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption., Alison Park, Pennsylvania: Pickwick Publications. 1990. 38.
  2. Ibid. 1.
  3. John Lee, For whom did Christ die? An Exegetical and Theological Defense of the Doctrine of Unlimited Atonement, Master’s Thesis, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. (2007), ATLA, 23.
  4. ibid 23
  5.  Ibid40
  6. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955. 63
  7.  Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. Carlisle, PA. Banner of Truth Trust, 2012. 395.
  8. Arthur Pink, The Satisfaction of Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1955. 243.
  9.  Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. Carlisle, PA. Banner of Truth Trust, 2012. 395.
  10. Rainbow, The will of God and the Cross. 142.
  11.  Ibid. 142.
  12.  Ibid. 141.
  13.  Pink, The Satisfaction of Christ. 262.

Published by lwpink

Theological Student.

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