Christian Universalism is a school of Christian theology which includes the belief in the doctrine of universal reconciliation, the view that all human beings and fallen angels will ultimately be restored to right relationship with God in Heaven.

Is the atonement of Christ unlimited?

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  • Is the atonement of Christ unlimited?

    The Bible has much to say on the atonement of Christ. The question is whether His sacrifice provided limited or unlimited atonement. The word atonement means “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.” The doctrine of unlimited atonement states that Christ died for all people, whether or not they would ever believe in Him. When applied to Jesus’ finished work on the cross, atonement concerns the reconciliation of God and humankind, as accomplished through the suffering and death of Christ. Paul highlights the atoning work of Jesus when he says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:8–10).

    How this reparation of wrongs or reconciliation was accomplished and what was involved in the act, has been debated by theologians for centuries. There are at least nine different positions on the atonement of Christ, ranging anywhere from the atonement being merely a positive example for us (the Moral Example theory) to its being a judicial, substitutionary act (the Penal Substitution theory).

    But perhaps the most controversial debate concerning the atonement of Jesus centers on what is referred to as “limited” or “definite” atonement. One theological camp (comprised primarily of those holding to Arminianism and Wesleyanism) believes that Christ died on the cross for everyone who will ever live. The other theological camp—made up of Reformed thinkers, who are often called “Calvinists” after the Reformer John Calvin—say that Jesus only died for those whom the Father chose from the foundation of the world to be saved. This group of redeemed individuals is often referred to as the “elect” or the “chosen” of God. Which position is correct? Did Jesus die for everyone in the world or only a select group of individuals?

    Is Everyone Going to be Saved?
    In examining this issue, the first question to ask is this: is everyone going to be saved through the atoning work of Christ? Those holding to a position called universalism say “yes.” The universalists argue that, because Christ died for everyone and all the sins of humanity were laid on/punished in Christ, everyone will spend eternity with God.

    Scripture, however, stands in opposition to such teaching (which can be traced back to a teacher named Laelius Socinus in the 16th century). The Bible makes it abundantly clear that many people will be lost, with just a few verses highlighting this fact following:

    • “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2)
    • “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13–14)
    • “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22–23)
    • “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46)
    • “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
    • “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15)

    Since not everyone will be saved, there is one inescapable fact to understand: the atonement of Christ is limited. If it isn’t, then universalism must be true, and yet Scripture clearly teaches that not everyone is going to be saved. So, unless one is a universalist and can defeat the biblical evidence above, then one must hold to some form of limited atonement.

    How, Then, Is the Atonement Limited?
    The next important question to examine is this: if the atonement is limited (and it is), how is it limited? Jesus’ famous statement in John 3:16 provides the answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” In this passage, the necessary condition that limits the atonement is found: “whosoever believes” (literally in the Greek: “all the believing ones”). In other words, the atonement is limited to those who believe and only those who believe.

    Who Limits the Atonement?
    Both theological camps previously mentioned will not argue this point – the atonement of Christ is limited to those who believe. The disagreement occurs over the next question that arises: who limits the atonement—God or man? Calvinists/Reformed thinkers maintain that God limits the atonement by choosing those whom He will save, and thus God only placed on Christ the sins of those He had chosen for salvation. The Arminian/Wesleyan position states that God does not limit the reparation of Christ, but instead it is humanity that limits the atonement by freely choosing to accept or reject the offer that God makes to them for salvation.

    A common way for the Arminian/Wesleyan theologians to state their position is that the atonement is unlimited in its invitation but limited in its application. God offers the invitation to all; however, only those who respond in faith to the gospel message have the work of the atonement applied to their spiritual condition.

    To support the position that humanity, and not God, limits the atonement, the Arminian/Wesleyan lists a number of Scripture verses, including the following:

    • “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, emphasis added)
    • “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” (John 1:29, emphasis added)
    • “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51, emphasis added)
    • “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32, emphasis added)
    • “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5–6, emphasis added)
    • “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” (Hebrews 2:9, emphasis added)
    • “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1, emphasis added)

    In addition to the biblical references above, the Arminian/Wesleyan theologian also provides a number of logical arguments to support their case. The most common is that, if God is all-loving, how could Christ not die for everyone? Doesn’t God love each and every person (cf. John 3:16)? They see an atonement limited by God as a denial of the omnibenevolence of God.

    Furthermore, the Arminian/Wesleyan believes that an atonement limited by God is devastating to the gospel message. How can an evangelist preach that “Christ died for you” if Christ did not indeed die for all? There is a complete lack of confidence, they say, in making the statement to any one person that Christ died for them because the evangelist has no real idea (given an atonement limited by God) if that is really the case.

    Unlimited Atonement—the Conclusion
    Unless one is a universalist and believes that everyone will ultimately be saved, a Christian must hold to some form of a limited atonement. The key area of disagreement is over who limits that atonement—God or man? Those wishing to hold to a God-limited atonement must answer the biblical arguments put forth by those holding to a human-limited atonement and also explain how God can be described in Scripture as being all-loving and yet not have His Son die for everyone. - Gotquestions.org

  • #2
    Originally posted by William View Post
    To support the position that humanity, and not God, limits the atonement, the Arminian/Wesleyan lists a number of Scripture verses, including the following:

    • “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, emphasis added)
    • “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” (John 1:29, emphasis added)
    • “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51, emphasis added)
    • “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32, emphasis added)
    • “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5–6, emphasis added)
    • “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” (Hebrews 2:9, emphasis added)
    • “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1, emphasis added)
    Point by point, how does the Bible respond to each of these verses? They are not in my book, and present strong arguments for Arminians, though I know that the verses I present also are strong arguments for the Calvinists. I know which is right, but have a hard time thinking like an Arminian to see what they see that can ignore the Calvinist verses. In short, what argument would you present for each point of Scripture against Arminianism without using other Scripture? Does that question make any sense? These would be good verses to put in my book in the free will chapter, but I am stumped as to how to respond without "Scripture hopping".
    Comment>

    • #3
      Originally posted by Stratcat View Post
      Point by point, how does the Bible respond to each of these verses? They are not in my book, and present strong arguments for Arminians, though I know that the verses I present also are strong arguments for the Calvinists. I know which is right, but have a hard time thinking like an Arminian to see what they see that can ignore the Calvinist verses. In short, what argument would you present for each point of Scripture against Arminianism without using other Scripture? Does that question make any sense? These would be good verses to put in my book in the free will chapter, but I am stumped as to how to respond without "Scripture hopping".
      Hi Strat,

      Truth be told, Calvinist don't have "our verses" and Arminians don't have "their verses." God has "his verses," and therefore all of them belong to "us." If we have "our verses," then not even these teach what we think they do. After all, Scripture interprets Scripture, and if we feel compelled to embrace some passages over others in order to maintain consistency, we haven't really understood "our verses." This is not denying Calvinists have many pet arguments concerning the atonement.

      The Westminster Confession properly reminds us that not everything in Scripture is equally plain or equally important. We have to interpret the more difficult passages in the light of clearer ones. Scripture interprets Scripture, and we learn the whole meaning of Scripture by studying its parts and its parts by learning the whole. Arminians think that the clear and important passages teach the primacy of God's love (over other attributes), the universality of grace, and the libertarian free will of human beings. While Reformed theology never teaches God's sovereignty (predestination) as a central dogma from which every other doctrine is deduced, the love of God and a libertarian view of free will do function that way in standard Arminian systems. Arminians often acknowledge a stand-off: Calvinists enshrine God's sovereignty and predestination, while they make God's universal love and human freedom normative. "You have your verses and we have ours," is the oft-heard shrug that can only weaken the believer's confidence in the unity, consistency, and reliability of Scripture.

      Reformed exegesis does not start with predestination, the sovereignty of God, justification, or union with Christ. Its system arises from Scripture rather than being imposed upon Scripture. It does not, however, pretend merely to interpret individual passages apart from an account of the Bible's own broader motifs. There are three hermeneutical (interpretive) motifs that we believe arise naturally from the Scriptures themselves: a law-gospel distinction, redemptive-historical exegesis centering on Christ, and a covenantal scheme.

      Jesus himself told us how to read the Bible--all of it. The Pharisees were the guardians of the Bible. For their followers, they were its authoritative interpreters. Yet for them the Bible was primarily a story about Sinai: the covenant that Israel pledged to fulfill all of the commands of his law. It was not the subplot--the "schoolmaster" leading to Christ, as Paul described--but the main thing. When the Messiah finally arrived, he would drive out the Romans and reinstitute the Jewish theocracy. The Messiah was a means to an end, not--as Paul called Christ--"the end of the law."

      Jesus himself told the religious leaders, "You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5:39). Jesus taught his disciples to read the whole Bible (at that point, the Old Testament) in terms of promise and fulfillment, with himself as the central character (Luke 24:25-27; 44-45). No matter how well they had memorized certain Bible verses or how quickly they could recall key moments in Israel's history, the Bible was a mystery to them before Jesus explained it as his story.

      Christ is the thread that weaves together all of the various strands of biblical revelation. Apart from him, the plot falls apart into a jumble of characters, unrelated stories, inexplicable laws, and confusing prophecies. The disciples finally seemed to understand this point, since the gospel went from Jerusalem to the Gentile world through their witness. Even Peter, who had denied Christ three times, was able later to write as an apostle:

      Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet. 1:10-12)

      Originally posted by William View Post
      To support the position that humanity, and not God, limits the atonement, the Arminian/Wesleyan lists a number of Scripture verses, including the following:

      • “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, emphasis added)
      • “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” (John 1:29, emphasis added)
      • “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:51, emphasis added)
      • “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32, emphasis added)
      • “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5–6, emphasis added)
      • “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” (Hebrews 2:9, emphasis added)
      • “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1, emphasis added)
      Objections Answered: When these texts are handled carefully and honestly, considering their context and the intent of the author, and measuring Scripture against Scripture, apparent problems are nearly always readily resolved. For example, the Greek word for world (kosmos) has several meanings in Scripture. Sometimes it refers to the entire elect world, meaning both the Jews and Gentiles; sometimes it refers to the public who surrounded Christ, especially the Jews; sometimes it refers to all kinds of people, such as kings and subjects; sometimes it refers to humankind under the righteous judgment of God or to the kingdom of evil forces, both angelic and human, as related to the earth; sometimes it refers to creation, or to the earth itself, or in the classical sense, to an orderly universe; and sometimes it simply refers to a great number of people.'

      In 1 John 2:1-2, the apostle is saying that Christ's defense before God is so complete that it is sufficient for the sins of the world. He is also saying that the sacrifice Christ made was not only for the Jews or for a small group of first century believers, but for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation through all time. John Murray speaks about the ethnic universalism of the gospel, meaning that those for whom Christ died are spread among all nations. Abraham Kuyper shows that the Greek word translated "for" (peri, not hyper) means "fitting for" or "with respect to." Hence, the meaning of the Greek can be that Jesus is a propitiation just like we and the entire world need-or, just as Jesus is our propitiation, so the entire world needs that same propitiation."

      As for the texts that use the word all, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 uses all in the context of the unity of death and resurrection. Christ rises for those in union with Him; therefore, His death must be thought of in those same terms." The phrase "delivered him up for us all" in Romans 8:32 is in the context of God's foreordination of His people (vv. 28-30) and of Christ's intercession for the elect (vv. 33-39). The words "ransom for all" in 1 Timothy 2:4-6 are clearly set in the context of prayers being offered for all kinds of people (vv. 1-2). Since the word all does not always mean all individuals in either Greek or English usage, there is no compelling reason to conclude that the all in verses 4 and 6 refers to every single person.

      The text of John 6 comes up frequently whenever Calvinism is discussed. Upon being quoted John 6:44, the non-Calvinist's retort is almost always John 12:32 with an accompanying cry of, "All means all!". At this point, it becomes necessary for the Calvinist to address John 12:32 for the sake of progress in the discussion.

      The first of the above mentioned issues is Universalism. It is the Calvinist's contention that if John 12:32 is read back into 6:44, then the result is an affirmation of Universalism. The reason for this contention is in how both verses read. For instance, 6:44 reads thus: No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.

      And John 12:32: And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.

      The plain reading of John 6:44 is that no one can come to Christ unless first drawn to Him by the Father. Non-Calvinists will often concede this if pressed. It's the rest of the verse that causes problems for them as the verse goes on to state that those who are drawn (represented by "him") are also raised to life by the Son. What non-Calvinists are essentially doing then, is accepting the first half of the verse but denying the second half. This is done by going to John 12:32 and insisting that all men are drawn to Christ. Now, the problem should be obvious. If 6:44 states that all those that are drawn are then raised, and if all men without exception are drawn to Christ per 12:32, then you have an affirmation of Universalism. Since both sides reject Universalism, another explanation must be sought. For the non-Calvinist, this usually means an immediate switch to "all these other verses over here". For the Calvinist, it means dealing with these verses on their own and in their immediate contexts.

      Now, when John 12:32 is brought forward by non-Calvinists, there is never any mention about the context in which Jesus makes His statements. The only thing that seems to interest those using this verse against Calvinists is the appearance of the term "all". The assumption is that "all" always means all men everywhere. This assumption remains even when the Calvinist points out that the term "all" is often times limited by contextual considerations. So obviously, the question is what did Jesus mean when He said that He will "draw all men" to Himself? Did He mean all men everywhere, or all *kinds* of men?

      The important thing to note about the non-Calvinist's use of this verse is that "all men everywhere" are not in fact drawn to Christ. We know this to be true by both Biblical and experiential considerations. The Pharisees for instance, were not drawn to Christ unless one wishes to count their attempts at killing Him. Further, each of us knows or have known people who have never had an interest in Christianity outside of trying to disprove it. There is also the issue of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. So, either Jesus was mistaken in what He said, or He did not mean "all men everywhere" but rather, all kinds of men. In support of this, we find in John 12:20 that there were Gentiles who were wishing to see Jesus. When Jesus got word of this, He began to address a crowd that now comprised both Jew and Gentile. It is to this mixed crowd that Jesus made His comments about "drawing all men". And it is this consideration that makes the Calvinist's interpretation of this verse not only plausible, but probable. That is, the Calvinist believes this verse is limited by this contextual consideration coupled with the above mentioned issues. If the non-Calvinist's interpretation clashes with other texts, and makes no sense of the verse when considered on it's own, then the Calvinist's interpretation becomes the most probable. Indeed, it would seem that these considerations would make the Calvinist's interpretation the only one *possible*.

      Undoubtebly, the non-Calvinist will object with something like, "but you're changing *all* men into *some* men just to make it fit your doctrine!". But I would point out that this isn't a response to the argument offered. In fact, I haven't heard a non-Calvinist address the Calvinist's interpretation of 12:32 with anything other than comments like this. Indeed, in order to refute the Calvinist interpretation of John 12:32, the non-Calvinist will first need to:
      • Harmonize this verse with John 6:44
      • Show that all men since the time of Christ have in fact been drawn to Him
      • Refute the contextual argument derived from John 12:20 with the appearance of Gentiles seeking Jesus


      Without addressing these issues, the non-Calvinist will be obliged to hand over one of their primary prooftexts to Calvinism.

      Hebrews 2:9 - But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.

      “For every man,” ὑπὲρ πάντος, that is “man,” mentioned in verse 6; and the “man” there means all the faithful, to whom God in Noah restored the dominion lost in Adam; but this dominion was not renewed to man as a fallen being, but as made righteous by faith.

      Observe:
      • The wonderful humiliation and abasement, the exinanition and deep depression, of the glorious Jesus: he was made for a little time lower than the angels: that is, he was made man, and mortal, and did suffer death.
      • The manner of our Lord’s death: he tasted it, he did really taste of it, and but taste of it; he tasted death, that is, he died really, and not in appearance only, he lasted it. Implying that he underwent the bitterness of it: he found out experimentally what death was by dying, as a man finds out the bitterness of a thing by tasting. Again, he did but taste of it, he was not finally overcome and vanquished by it; he continued but a short time under it, it was not possible that he should be long holden of it; the dignity of his person rendered a short continuance of him under the power of death sufficient for our redemption.
      • The persons for whom he tasted death, or died: for others, not for himself; that is, for their room and stead; he underwent that death in our stead, which we should have undergone in our own persons.
      • The extent of Christ’s death; he tasted death for every man; that is, Christ by his death has made God propitious to every man, made sin remissible, and every man saveable; the death of Christ renders God willing to be reconciled unto all sinners; faith renders him actually reconciled. The reason why every man doth not obtain salvation, is not for want of a sufficient propitiation.
      • The moving cause which inclined God to deliver up Christ to death, and to transfer our punishment upon him, and that was his own grace and free good-will, that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
      • The glorious reward of our Lord’s sufferings with reference to himself. We see Jesus, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor. As Christ’s meritorious sufferings for us, so shall our patient suffering for him, be rewarded with the highest glory in heaven, 1 Pet. 5:10. “The God of all grace, who hath called us into his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after ye have suffered awhile, make you perfect,”

      God bless,
      William
      Comment>

      • #4
        William, you seem to write of these things better than I do. Maybe you should write a book, as there is much we can learn from you. I read some of what you wrote and wonder why I didn't put it in my book!
        Comment>

        • #5
          William,

          The write-up you provided is excellent. I am humbled by what I have learned here in this part of the thread. Thank you.

          In Him,
          Stratcat
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