Definite Atonement (Part 1/3): Engaging Arminian Proof Texts for Universal Atonement

Arminians charge Calvinists as guilty of diminishing the universal significance of Christ’s atonement by teaching definite (limited) atonement. However, Calvinists reject the charge as unwarranted since they affirm the atonement of Christ as “sufficient for all.” In truth, it is the Arminians who limit the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement by teaching that Christ’s atonement only … Continue reading “Definite Atonement (Part 1/3): Engaging Arminian Proof Texts for Universal Atonement”

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Arminians charge Calvinists as guilty of diminishing the universal significance of Christ’s atonement by teaching definite (limited) atonement. However, Calvinists reject the charge as unwarranted since they affirm the atonement of Christ as “sufficient for all.” In truth, it is the Arminians who limit the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement by teaching that Christ’s atonement only offers potential salvation for all, since there remains a possibility that Christ’s atonement may not achieve its intended purpose. [Re: Why Arminians Limit the Atonement More than Calvinists] This uncertainty precludes believers from enjoying any assurance of salvation. In contrast, Calvinists teach that Christ’s atonement does not merely make salvation possible; it accomplishes a definite purpose. It makes salvation certain as Christ really saves to the uttermost every one of those for whom he died. Christ’s atonement is “effective for the elect.” Hence believers may enjoy the assurance of salvation.

Arminians also reject the Calvinists’ understanding of the phrase, “for all” to mean “all without distinction” as hermeneutical gymnastics that go against the plain reading of Scripture which for Arminians, would require understanding the phrase, Christ died “for all” to mean “all without exception.”

The purpose of this post is to defend the Calvinists’ reading by engaging with several favorite Arminian proof texts for universal atonement. For convenience, I shall quote generously from several established commentators.

Engaging Arminian Proof Texts

1) John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

First, it should be noted that “world” has several usage in the Gospel of John:

Basically the word denotes order: The universe with all its harmonious relationships is the outstanding ornament…the human race this earth is the most significant part of the universe, so it is not surprising that the term came to be used for this world in which we live…It is a natural transition to using the word for the majority of people or a large number of people, for example, when the Pharisees said despairingly, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (12:19). But the majority has not usually been conspicuous for its zealous service of God. When Jesus came, the world at large opposed him, rejected him, and in the end crucified him. So it is not surprising that “the world” is used for people in opposition to Christ…The world hates his followers, and he could say, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (15:18). Long before this he said to his brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me” (7:7). In line with this several passages speak of the evil one as “the prince of this world” or the like (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). [Leon Morris, Gospel According to John (Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 112-113]

Second, D.A. Carson offers a more nuanced understanding of “love.”

But recall for a moment the outline I provided in the first chapter on the various ways the Bible speaks about the love of God: (1) God’s intra-Trinitarian love, (2) God’s love displayed in his providential care, (3) God’s yearning warning and invitation to all human beings as he invites and commands them to repent and believe, (4) God’s special love toward the elect, and (5) God’s conditional love toward his covenant people as he speaks in the language of discipline.

Carson adds,

If one holds that the Atonement is sufficient for all and effective for the elect, then both sets of texts and concerns are accommodated. As far as I can see, a text such as 1 John 2:2 states something about the potential breadth of the Atonement. As I understand the historical context, the proto-gnostic opponents John was facing thought of themselves as an ontological elite who enjoyed the inside track with God because of the special insight they had received. But when Jesus Christ died, John rejoins, it was not for the sake of, say, the Jews only or, now, of some group, gnostic or otherwise, that sets itself up as intrinsically superior. Far from it. It was not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world. The context, then, understands this to mean something like “potentially for all without distinction” rather than “effectively for all without exception”—for in the latter case all without exception must surely be saved, and John does not suppose that that will take place. [D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), pp. 75-77.]

Third, B.B. Warfield observes that the emphasis of the “world” is not on all men without distinction but on the intensity of the love of the holy God for a sinful world:

[The term “world”] is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his son for it.… The passage was not intended to teach, and certainly does not teach, that God loves all men alike and visits each and every one alike with the same manifestations of his love: and as little was it intended to teach or does it teach that his love is confined to a few especially chosen individuals selected out of the world. What it is intended to do is to arouse in our hearts a wondering sense of the marvel and mystery of the love of God for the sinful world—conceived here, not quantitatively but qualitatively as, in its very distinguishing characteristic, sinful. [B.B Warfield, “God’s Immeasurable Love,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), 516.]

2) 2 Cor. 5:14-15,19
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…That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

We should read this verses to mean that since Christ has died as the representative of all his people, therefore all believers are deemed to have died in the person of Christ, their representative.

[M]ost commentators admit that the most sensible reading is to take πάντες in all three occurrences as being coextensive (apart from the potential-actual reading). The definite article (οἱ) before πάντες in verse 14b is anaphoric, pointing back to the πάντες of verse 14a; and, whether one takes καί as epexegetic or conjunctive in verse 15a, the following phrase ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀπέθανεν is identical in sense to verse 14a. Thus it makes sense to take each πάντες to have equal reference. Certainly the context provides no indicators for different scopes.This would suggest option (3) is not worthy of support. Third, an undue focus on the word πάντες can neglect the important conjunctive ἄρα. In many ways the meaning of the verse turns on this one word: Christ died for all, therefore all died. The point that Paul wishes to make, inter alia, is that Christ’s death effects the spiritual death of others, such that (καί) he died for all so that (ἵνα) those who live (having died in Christ) should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and rose again (v. 15). In other words, Christ’s death is both effective and purposive and reveals there is an implicit union between Christ and those for whom he died, something that Paul makes more explicit in Romans 6:1–11. [J. Gibson, “For Whom Did Christ Die?,” in David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson, e.d. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway, 2013),  303.]

3) 1 Tim 2:4-6; 4:10
4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

It has been suggested that Paul is here correcting the problem of Jewish exclusivism.  The context shows that the inclusion of Gentiles alongside Jews in salvation is the primary issue here. Thus Paul emphasizes on the universal reach of God’s salvation because there is only one God, there is only one way of salvation, for “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (v.5). The universal reach of salvation is qualified by Paul charge that prayers be made “both to Jews and Gentiles.” Prayers are offered to all kinds of people since God desires to save individuals from every people group.

Thomas Schreiner explains why the phrase “all” refers to “all without distinction.”

The interpretation of “all without distinction” should be carried over into 1 Timothy 2:6. Here Christ is designated as the one “who gave himself as a ransom [ἀντίλυτρον] for all.” Clearly, we have the idea of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, where he gives his life as a ransom for the sake of others. It seems best to take the “all” (πάντων) in the same sense as we saw earlier (vv. 1, 4), meaning all kinds of people, since Paul particularly emphasizes his Gentile mission in the next verse (v. 7). Moreover, Paul most likely alludes here to Jesus’s teaching that he gave “his life as a ransom [λύτρον] for many [πολλῶν]” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), which in turn echoes Isaiah 53:11–12. As Alec Motyer demonstrates elsewhere in this volume, the referent of “many” in Isaiah 53, though it encompasses an undefined but numerous group of people, is still necessarily limited—it refers to those for whom redemption is both accomplished and applied—and therefore cannot refer to every single person. If these intertextual connections are correct, then Christ giving himself as a ransom for “all without exception” is ruled out.

First Timothy 2:6 supports the notion that Christ purchased salvation for all kinds of individuals from various people groups. The verse and context say nothing about Christ being the potential ransom of everyone. The language in verse 6—”who gave himself” (ὁ δοὺς ἑαυτόν)—is a typically Pauline way of referring to the cross, and always refers to Christ’s actual self-sacrifice for believers (Rom. 8:32; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:2; Titus 2:14). It stresses that Christ gave himself as a ransom so that at the cost of his death he actually purchased those who would be his people. The reason Paul can speak of Christ’s death in expansive, all-inclusive terms in 1 Timothy 2:6 is because he sees his ministry as worldwide (2:7; cf. Acts 22:15), his soteriology is universal in the right sense (2:5; cf. Rom. 3:28–30), and he is confronting an elitist heresy that was excluding certain kinds of people from God’s salvation (1 Tim. 1:4). Paul wants to make it clear: Christ died for all kinds of people, not just some elite group. [Thomas Schreiner, “Problematic Texts” for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles, in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, pp. 377, 379.]

4) Heb 2:9
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The expression “for everyone” does not imply universal atonement when read in context. The verses that follow immediately refer to a group of people whom Christ specifically or particularly saves, “in bringing many [not all] sons to glory.” (Heb. 2:10) “For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified…He is not ashamed to call them brothers.” (Heb. 2:11) “For every brother in the midst of the congregation in which he will sing praise.” (Heb. 2:12) “For every one of the “children” whom God has given him, and for whose sake he shared in flesh and blood.” (Heb. 2:13-14) and for every one of the “offspring” of Abraham, in a spiritual sense, whose nature he assumed.” (Heb. 2:16-17). Note the writer does not refer to the offspring of Adam (which may then be taken to suggest universal atonement), but rather he refers to the offspring of Abraham (which would be consistent with particular atonement).

When we place this description of Abraham’s offspring with the emphasis on the children God gave to Jesus and the use of the word “brothers,” we have significant evidence that Jesus’s death “for everyone” (v9) is particular rather than general. All of this fits with v17, which speaks of Jesus’s High Priestly ministry “to make propitiation for the sins of the people”… Given the focus on God’s elect and Jesus’s family in the context, it seems fair to conclude that here the emphasis is on the actual satisfaction accomplished in Jesus’s death for those who would be part of his family. [Schreiner, “Problematic Texts” for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles,” [From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, 396. Cf. P. T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 2010), 101-124.]

4) 1 John 2:2
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

The Apostle John emphasizes that because of the seriousness of sin, there is no other way to atone for the sin of the world apart from Christ.

1 John is written to a Christian community…Its concern, as we have seen, is with the sins of Christian believers after their conversion, emphasizing that “the blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7), that “if anybody sins we have an Advocate with the Father” and that he is a propitiation “for our sins” (1 Jn 2:1-2, my italics). But having introduced an explicit theology of atonement to deal with the specific problem of “our” sins now, after conversion and baptism, the author adds, almost as an afterthought, that of course this is God’s way of dealing with sin always and everywhere: “and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world”. There is not one “propitiation” for us and another for the rest of the world, but Jesus (kai autos) is the only sacrifice, and the only way of salvation for all. The point is not that Jesus died for everyone indiscriminately so that everyone in the world is in principle forgiven, but that all those forgiven are forgiven on the basis of Christ’s sacrificed and in no other way. [J. R. Michaels, “Atonement in John’s Gospel and Epistles,” C. Hill & F. James, eds. The Glory of the Atonement (IVP 2004), 116-17.]

The universal terms do not establish universal atonement when they are read in context.

We can find several reasons why John should have said “for the whole world” without in the least implying that his intent was to teach what the proponents of universal atonement allege. There is good reason why John should have said “for the whole world” quite apart from the assumption of universal atonement.
1. It was necessary for John to set forth the scope of Jesus’ propitiation—it was not limited in its virtue and efficacy to the immediate circle of disciples who had actually seen and heard and handled the Lord in the days of his sojourn upon earth (see I John 1:1–3), nor to the circle of believers who came directly under the influence of the apostolic witness (see I John 1:3, 4). The propitiation which Jesus himself is extends in its virtue, efficacy, and intent to all in every nation who through the apostolic witness came to have fellowship with the Father and the Son (see I John 1:5–7). Every nation and kindred and people and tongue is in this sense embraced in the propitiation. It was highly necessary that John … should stress the ethnic universalism of the gospel… “not for ours only but also for the whole world.”

We can readily see, therefore, that although universal terms are sometimes used in connection with the atonement these terms cannot be appealed to as establishing the doctrine of universal atonement. In some cases, as we have found, it can be shown that all-inclusive universalism is excluded by the consideration of the immediate context. In other cases there are adequate reasons why universal terms should be used without the implication of distributively universal extent. Hence no conclusive support for the doctrine of universal atonement can be derived from universalistic expressions. The question must be determined on the basis of other evidence. This evidence we have tried to present. It is easy for the proponents of universal atonement to make offhand appeal to a few texts. But this method is not worthy of the serious student of Scripture. It is necessary for us to discover what redemption or atonement really means. And when we examine the Scripture we find that the glory of the cross of Christ is bound up with the effectiveness of its accomplishment. Christ redeemed us to God by his blood, he gave himself a ransom that he might deliver us from all iniquity. The atonement is efficacious substitution.[John Murray, Redemption—Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 73, 75.

Related Posts:
Definite Atonement (Part 2/3): Biblical Evidence and Theological Arguments.
Definite Atonement (Part 3/3): The Logic of 1 John 2:1-2.
Why Arminians Limit the Atonement More than Calvinist.