The Unlimited Limited Atonement

There is a strand of Calvinism that teaches that Christ atoned for the only sins of the elect and nothing more—this is called limited atonement—however, it may be more appropriate to call it X-limited atonement. This is a minority view, and one would have to examine each Calvinist and what they wrote and preached to know how they understood Christ’s atoning work on the cross. (I am going to explain what I believe now.)

Because there are such misperceptions concerning what it means to be a Calvinist, it is best not to lump anyone and everyone who espouses some association with Calvinism into one category. Certainly, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon would not agree with each other on every point, yet both are referred to as Calvinists.

So we need to be careful in putting people into a box. Baptists have stood for soul competency and the right of every human being to form their own opinions concerning religion and their interpretation of religious writings—most especially the Bible. We should do that today. The definition of a heretic is NOT someone who disagrees with me. Heresy has some very narrow criteria and how one understands the atoning work of Christ does not fall into that narrow criterion; nevertheless, the doctrine is important and it is appropriate to think about it and be able to articulate what you believe about Christ’s work on the Christ.

To those who suggest or teach that Christ died exclusively for the sins of only the elect, 1 John 2:2 is a problem.

1 John 2.2 states that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, for also for the sins of the whole world.”

Now that is exceptionally clear. In fact, it is overwhelmingly clear. Nothing stands in the way of the greatest sinner being saved but his own refusal to repent and believe the gospel—there isn’t anyone on the planet who would like to be born-again, but the problem is that Jesus didn’t die for them. Let me say that again. There isn’t and never will be anyone who desires to be born-again, and it is impossible because Christ didn’t die for them.

The Apostle John understood that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was for the sins of the whole world.

Jesus is the propitiation. What does John mean by propitiation? Propitiation describes Jesus’ atoning work as the sacrifice for sin. It communicates that Christ absorbed God’s wrath against sin in place of the elect, where the elect are defined as all those who are in Christ (past, present and future).

How sufficient was the atonement? How much of a debt can it pay? How many could be freed because of it? When the sinless Son of God died for sin how sufficient is that? Is it sufficient only for the elect? Was it limited to some huge number to something power?

Certainly God knew at the moment He was punishing Christ—in my place—the exact number of the elect. He knew and has always known who would believe, yet this isn’t the limit! This isn’t the limit in sufficiency. John also wrote: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

When the sinless Son of God—the spotless lamb of God—God Himself shed His blood for the remission of sins—it is sufficient for the “sins of the whole world.”
But WAIT. Please wait just a minute—at this point, you might be thinking pastor, I can’t imagine why anyone would have ever described atonement as limited.
But you must realize Christ’s atonement is limited—the Bible makes it perfectly clear that the whole world is NOT going to heaven. There are those who perish.
In fact, according to John 3:36 there is a group of people who do NOT believe; therefore, the wrath of God abides on them.

Although Christ’s atonement is sufficient for the sins of the whole world, it is NOT effectual or salvific to anyone who hasn’t repented and believed the gospel.
The wrath–absorbing, substitutionary atonement is limited to only those who BELIEVE. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the sins of the entire world past, present and future but simultaneously limited.
Christ satisfied God’s judgment against sin without limit—yet God placed a limit on the effectualness of that atoning sacrifice, and that limit will be revealed in the future by God.
If the atonement is NOT limited to only those who believe, then more are justified than those who believe and God would be unjust in condemning them.
The atonement is sufficient for anyone you and I share the gospel with, but we must also tell them it is limited. If they don’t repent and trust Jesus as their Savior, the wrath of God will remain on them. If the wrath remains on them, then it isn’t on Christ—God can’t remain just and pour wrath on Christ and still hold it against the person—that’s double jeopardy.
There is a difference between sufficient and efficient.
Sufficient means that it is enough; in Christ there is a sufficient quantity of righteousness for the entire world to be declared righteous.
However, God has limited the sufficiency of that atonement to only those who turn toward Him—repent and place their faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. At which point it becomes efficient or effectual.
Christ’s work on the cross did not instantaneously result in the entire world’s sins being pardoned—that would be a Universalist’s theological perspective.
The reason Jesus began His public ministry preaching “Repent and believe the gospel” was because He knew His atoning work on the cross would be limited to only those who believed. Therefore, it was imperative that the Jews He was preaching to turn toward God with broken and contrite hearts and believe the Good News that Jesus was the Messiah come to seek and save the lost for the remission of their sins.

The atonement is unlimited in its sufficiency, but very (John 14.6) limited in its efficiency—where efficiency is understood as producing the desired effect. The atonement of Christ produces the desired effect only in the lives of those who believe and no one else—for the rest the wrath of God continues to remain on them and will for all eternity if they don’t repent.


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  2. Pastor Sean,
    The argument in your position is the conjecture that a man, like an animal, might be sacrificed in your place and result in a satisfactory solution between you and God that grants relief from the penalty of eternal death. But the sacrifice of a man has an entirely different outcome than the sacrifice of an animal. For there is without exception the residual component of God attached to any man's life taken by bloodshed of having to account to God for taking a man's life by bloodshed. Gen. 9:5 NIV. God also states in this verse that it his intent for each man to give him an account regarding the life of one man that will be taken by bloodshed. Therefore all those who teach a system of salvation that explains the crucifixion of Jesus as a satisfactory sacrifice in place of persons teaches a heresy. For the command Repent in Acts 2:38 can only be satisfactorily obeyed by the faith of confessing directly to God that you are sorry Jesus was crucified. Each man can only be forgiven of all sins by the faith of using this narrow Way and be baptized into it or remain unforgiven of all sins.
    Theodore A. Jones
    Sandhill Heights Baptist Church
    Elgin, SC

  3. I found this article very helpful, thankyou.

    To Theodore A. Jones - (if by any chance you happen to take a look at this article again two years later) - I'm not sure I quite understand your point. Are you saying that Jesus death is not sufficient for salvation, because salvation also requires repentance? If so, I do agree with this - if there was not an 'additional requirement' for salvation, then everyone would be saved.

    Would you agree, though, that repentance is not what saves us (we are saved by grace), but it is repentance that leads god to make the death of Jesus effective in us?

    To put it another way - I guess I am trying to argue that repentance would be classified as 'works' (or maybe that is my mistake, that repentance is just part of grace, because it is God who grants us repentance), and that as repentance is part of works, it cannot be repentance that saves us - yet we are still not saved without repentance. So we need repentance to be saved, but it is not that repentance that saves us?

    Any thoughts would be welcome.

  4. Hi Sean, I agree with what you wrote 100%. That said how is it different from the canons of Dort? The canons of Dort also first highlight that the atonement is sufficient for all and it's not due to any deficiency of the atonement that some do not believe the gospel, but entirely their fault due to their own sinfulness. I know you call it unlimited limited atonement, but really there's no difference with the limited atonement of the reformed confessions (canons of dort), i.e. sufficient for all but effective only in the believer.
    I would appreciate if you can clarify for me how is it different what you wrote from how the reformers answered arminians in the canons of dort.


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  6. Thank you for this great article! I found it very interesting and helpful in understanding Calvinists view of limited atonement. Though I would consider myself a Wesleyan Arminian in theology as I read this article, I quite frankly found little I disagree with (it's amazing how when the scripture is the focus instead of in-read doctrine, more people must agree). I appreciate your differentiation between limited atonement as to those who believe, and unlimited atonement as sufficient for all. I feel this is a distinction and clarification that is often missed.

    I did have one clarifying question. You said in your article: "There isn’t and never will be anyone who desires to be born-again, and it is impossible because Christ didn’t die for them." This statement is seemingly hard to follow. Are you saying that people outside of God's prevenient grace have no desire to be born again, or are you saying that people in general, with or without the prevenient grace of God, do not desire to be born again? The answer may be obvious, but I thought I would clarify your statement to better understand your view.

    Thank you again!