The view that the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross has made available God’s salvation only to the elect is held by many Calvinists. They maintain that many Bible passages lend support to the doctrine of limited atonement. These theologians often cite Matthew 1:21, which states that Christ ‘will save his people from their sins’ as an example of texts which clearly teach that Christ did not die on Calvary for the salvation of all human. Other passages often cited include John 10:15, where Jesus, the good shepherd, is said to lay down his life for the sheep’, and Ephesians 5:25, where the bridegroom is said to give himself up for his bride, the church.
The Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is the logical implication of the doctrine of double predestination. According to Calvin, predestination is ‘God’s eternal decree by which he holds determined with himself what he wishes to become of each man. For not all are created in the same condition. For some eternal life is preordained, for others eternal condemnation’. This divine preordination, Calvin insists, is not made on the basis of God’s foreknowledge of the sinner’s response to his grace. Rather it is based on God’s eternal decree issued before the foundation of the world. On the basis of the doctrine of double predestination, Christ’s death, some Calvinists argue, provided atonement only for those whom God has preordained for salvation.
Theologians like Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof have presented the doctrine of limited atonement in its classical form, while preachers like John Piper are responsible for popular versions of the doctrine.
Although the doctrine of limited atonement is still commonly held by many Calvinists, it is rejected by Christians in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Most Christians would maintain that Christ died for all sinful humanity and not just for those whom God has predestined for salvation. Methodists, and those who belong to the Wesleyan tradition, likewise also reject this doctrine. Against the hyper-Calvinists of his day who taught that Christ died only for the elect, John Wesley insisted that God sent his Son to die for the whole world, which he loved. This means that Christ really died for all humanity so that the offer of salvation is really made to all. The doctrine of universal atonement finds deep echoes in the writings of the medieval theologians and the early Fathers of the Church.
Numerous passages of the Bible support the doctrine of universal atonement. In John 1:29, John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ The verse that most Christians (including Calvinists!) have committed to memory from a very young age also makes the same emphasis: ‘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’ (John 3:16). The argument, forwarded by some Calvinist scholars, that ‘world’ in these and similar passages refers to people of different races and classes and not to all human beings is rather forced. ‘World’ simply refers to ‘all human beings’. Paul, in his letter to Timothy emphasizes this unequivocally when he wrote that Christ ‘gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim 2:6).
It is difficult to square the doctrine of limited atonement with passages that clearly and explicitly state that God’s offer of love and salvation extends to the whole world. Chief among these passages is 2 Peter 2:12, which states that God does not want ‘anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’. To put it differently and perhaps more straightforwardly, there appears to be a direct contradiction between the scriptural teaching regarding the love of God for the world and for all persons and the view that Christ died only for the elect. In their attempt to make sense of such passages, Calvinists often introduce the awkward distinction between what God ‘desires’, and what he actually ‘wills’, thereby subordinating love to will. But such distinctions are contrived and not warranted by the texts themselves. The doctrine of limit atonement therefore has no scriptural basis.
The many passages in the New Testament that speak about the universal proclamation of the Gospel have also rendered the doctrine of limited atonement untenable. In Matthew 24:14, we are told that ‘this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations’. The same emphasis is made in two significant passages in Acts. The first is Acts 1:8: ‘You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. And the second is Acts 17:30: ‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent’. And finally, we have the great statement by Paul in Titus affirming that ‘the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men’ (Titus 2:11).
Such texts compel us to ask: If Christ died only for the elect – as the proponents of the limited atonement theory insist – can the offer of salvation to all humans escape the charge of insincerity and dishonesty on the part of God? How could the offer of salvation be made to all persons, if Christ in fact did not die for all? But if, as these passages clearly proclaim, God does offer his gift of salvation to all humans, on what basis can we maintain that Christ died only for the chosen few?
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (March 2014).