For Whom Did Christ Die? A Defense of Unlimited Atonement

May 08, 2018 |
References: John 3:16Hebrews 2:91 Timothy 2:3-61 John 2:15-171 Corinthians 15:3-4
Topic: Atonement

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For Whom Did Christ Die? A Defense of Unlimited Atonement

Today I want to look specifically at the crucial question, for whom did Christ die? There are two ways to answer the question: either Christ died for the sins of some people—namely, the elect only, or Christ died for the sins of all people.

High Calvinists (sometimes referred to as 5-point Calvinists) believe that Christ died only for the elect. That is, before the foundations of the world, in eternity past, God chose those whom He would save—the elect—and those whom He would pass over (or reprobated)—the non-elect.

On this view, Jesus came and died only for His elect. He did not die for the non-elect, which makes up the vast majority of humanity. This is called limited atonement. This view is held by well-known Calvinist pastors like John Piper, John McArthur, Tim Keller, and Kevin DeYoung. So, this is the first possible answer to the question: Christ died for the sins of the elect only.

The second possible answer is that Christ died for the sins of all people. This is called unlimited atonement. This was the dominant, historic view held by Christians for the first sixteen centuries of the church and is held by moderate Calvinists (sometimes referred to as 4-point Calvinists) and non-Calvinists. And I’m convinced this is the view that best lines up with what the Bible teaches.

Before going any further, I want to make sure we all understand what is meant by the word atonement. When Christians speak of the atonement, we are referring to the expiatory and propitiatory work of Jesus on the cross whereby satisfaction for sin was accomplished.

Now you probably didn’t use those terms over breakfast this morning so let’s define them. Expiatory (or, expiation) has to do with removing the guilt of our sins. Christ’s death on the cross removes, or erases, our sin debt. For example, John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away [removes, erases] the sin of the world” (John 1:29). David, in the Old Testament, writes, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).


So there is an expiatory work at the cross, but there is also a propitiatory work. Propitiatory (or, propitiation) has to do with absorbing the wrath of God. Jesus pays the penalty that we deserve by satisfying the judgment of God. God punishes Jesus in our place. John says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Isaiah says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities . . . 10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.


This is what we mean by atonement. And it was made for either a limited group—the elect, or it was made for an unlimited group—all people.

Okay, we’re almost done with terminology. Don’t fall asleep on me yet!

If we are going to understand the atonement, then we need to distinguish between the intent, extent, and application of the atonement.

The intent of the atonement looks at the question, what is the purpose of the atonement? (Is it intended to save everyone, or only some?)

The extent of the atonement looks at the question, for whom did Jesus die?

The application of the atonement looks at the question, when and to whom is it applied?

These three aspects are related, but separate. We need to do our best not to conflate them.

In our time together, I’d like to focus on the extent question, for whom did Jesus die?

Point #1: The Bible clearly teaches that Christ died for the elect.

As evidence for their view, high Calvinists site so-called “limited texts.” These are verses that clearly state that Christ died a specific group—namely, the elect.

For example, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus is clear: Christ died for the sheep.

Likewise, Paul tells us, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). From the context, the “her” being referred to is the church. So Christ died for the church.

Defense Scripture 2

Announcing the virgin conception of Jesus, the angel tells Joseph, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

“So there you have it,” someone might say. “Christ only died for the elect, not the non-elect.”

Well, not so fast. Notice what these verses say and what they don’t say. True, Christ died for the elect. There is no question about that. But it never says that He only died for the elect, and, therefore, didn’t die for the non-elect. That inference, which is made by many Calvinists, is a logical misstep. In fact, it is called the negative inference fallacy.

Let me give you an example to help illustrate the error in thinking. If I tell you, “I love my family,” it would be wrong to conclude from the statement that I do not love my non-family (e.g. my friends). It is the negative inference fallacy to argue, Tim loves his family; therefore, he does not love his non-family.

Similarly, it is the negative inference fallacy to argue, Christ died for the elect; therefore, He did not died for the non-elect.

If you really want to see the absurdity of this thinking, look at Galatians 2:20. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Here Paul tells us that Christ died for him. Does that mean Christ died only for him? Of course not! It would be absurd to cite Gal. 2:20 (that Christ died for for Paul), and then jump to the conclusion that Christ died only for Paul and no one else. But this is exactly what high Calvinists do with these other so-called “limited passages.”

Granted, the Bible says that Jesus died for the sheep, the church, his people, and for Paul, but it never says that Jesus died only for the sheep, or only for the church, or only for Paul. Therefore, appealing to these “limited texts” alone will not do.

Point #2: The Bible clearly teaches that Christ died for all human beings.

John the Baptist declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In light of the context, it is clear that John does not mean only the church, or the elect, but all human beings.

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

Defense Scripture 4

The author of Hebrews writes, “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” (Hebrews 2:9).

Paul writing to Timothy says, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved [that’s the intent] 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, [that’s the extent] which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:3-6).

Defense Scripture 6

Writing to Timothy, Paul says, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). There is a general sense in which Christ is Saviour to all people. How so? Well, He died for all people making a provision for their salvation, even though some reject it. However, there is a special sense in which Christ is Saviour to those who believe.

One of the most important passages dealing with the extent of the atonement is in First John.

1 John 2:1-2 – My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

How do those who hold to limited atonement explain this text? Well, some have tried to make “the whole world” mean the world of the elect, or the world of elect Jews and elect Gentiles. But this amounts to doing hermeneutical gymnastics to fit a theological bias into a text.

It is hard to imagine a clearer passage describing the universal extent of the atonement. A few verses later, John describes the world he is referring to:

1 John 2:15-17 – Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

If that wasn’t enough, John uses the same phrase “the whole world” one other time in his letter and it clearly refers to unbelievers.

1 John 5:19 – We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

Defense Scripture 9

The high Calvinists would have us believe that John uses the term one way countless times and then in this one instances to mean the exact opposite. John couldn’t be clearer. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but also for the whole world.

There are some passages that specifically teach that Christ died for those who are non-elect. For example, the apostle Peter tells us that Jesus died for the sins of false teachers.

2 Peter 2:1 – But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.

There can be little doubt that this is talking about the unsaved—the non-elect. They are called “false teachers” who promote “destructive heresies,” which leads to their own “swift destruction.” Yet, notice the phrase, “even denying the Master who bought them.”

Peter informs us that the blood of the Christ-Redeemer has bought (paid for, redeemed) even the vilest, Christ-rejecter. What’s interesting is, the same Greek word is used when speaking of believers who have been purchased by Christ’s blood.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 – “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

In addition, notice that “denying the Master who bought them” is part of reason why they are “bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Denying the One who provided their atonement adds to their judgment.

This lines up with John’s words, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, [Why?] because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). The lost stand condemned and under God’s judgment because they have rejected the atonement that was made and offered to them.

Point #3: Common objections to unlimited atonement.

Objection #1: If Christ paid for all sins, then it would be unjust for God to demand a second payment from those who die in unbelief.

The most common argument against unlimited atonement—that Christ died for the sins of all people—is what’s known as the "double payment" (or "double jeopardy") argument. Calvinist John Owen made this argument popular in his book Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

Here’s the question: why do unbelievers pay for their sins in Hell if Jesus has already paid for their sins on the cross? Isn’t it unjust for God to demand a second payment?

This challenge has several issues, but the most serious problem with the “double payment” argument is that it assumes a false understanding of the atonement. Namely, it relies on a commercialistic view of the atonement. Some of you are thinking, what is that? Stay with me.

Imagine Stacey (my wife) and I go out to a nice restaurant. We’re hitting Wendy’s and I got “Two Can Dine” coupons. At the end of the meal, we ask for the check. But to our surprise, we find out that the check has been taken care of—it’s paid in full. The restaurant doesn’t care who paid the bill as long as the bill is paid. A debt was owed, and a debt was paid. This is commercial debt. And, on this view, it would be wrong for the restaurant owner to demand that we pay a second time—a double payment—since our meal has already been paid for.

Commercial Debt

Now listen carefully. This is not how Christ’s atonement works. Our sin debt isn’t merely a commercial debt. If it were, then faith would not be required. Everyone would be justified at the cross. But no one is justified and saved at the cross!

Our debt is a legal and moral debt, not a commercial debt. Even though the debt is paid at the cross, it’s not applied to me until the conditions of the debt are satisfied (i.e. faith in Christ). Those who choose to reject the payment for sin that Christ made on their behalf will pay for their sins themselves.

Objection #2: If Jesus paid for the sins of all people, then He paid for the sin of unbelief. Therefore, God cannot hold people accountable for their unbelief and all would be saved.

Once again, this objection blurs the biblical distinction between the extent of the atonement and the application of the atonement. It mistakenly assumes that the payment for the sin of unbelief is automatically applied to the unbeliever at the cross (apart from faith). Do you see the commercialism creeping in here?

But this is demonstrably false. In fact, Ephesians 2:1-3 obliterates this challenge. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, there is a man from Ephesus named Eddie. And let’s also imagine we know Eddie is one of the elect. Now consider how Paul describes Eddie before his conversion. According to Paul, he was “dead in trespasses and sins” and are under God’s wrath like the rest of mankind while in unbelief (Eph. 2:1-3). Now here are some questions to ask the challenger about Eddie prior to his conversion:

Did Eddie have their sins paid for at the cross? Answer: yes!

Did these sins include the sin of unbelief? Answer: yes!

Was Eddie still morally accountable to God for his unbelief? Answer: yes!

(But the challenger assumes the opposite. “God cannot hold them accountable for their unbelief”)

Was Eddie saved? Answer: no!

(But the challenger assumes the opposite. “They would be saved”)

Ephesus Eddie

So, according to Paul, Jesus can die for a person’s sins—including the sin of unbelief—and yet they still remain morally accountable for their unbelief and not saved (until they express faith in Christ).

That’s the state of all people in unbelief. Christ paid for they’re still accountable to God.

Objection #3: Christ died to save people, not to make people savable.

This response may sound appealing, but it is fallacious as well. This is an example of a false dilemma fallacy. Did Christ die to save people, or make people savable? The answer is, yes! He does both. He makes all people savable and He saves all people who put their faith in Him.

I think even the high Calvinist needs to recognize this point. Think again about those unbelieving elect we just talked about. On the Calvinist worldview, they are now savable, but not yet saved.

Once again, there is a distinction between atonement accomplished and atonement applied. The provision is made at the cross, but the application of the provision is still necessary.

Jesus offers a very helpful analogy. He says,

John 3:14-16 – And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.”

Defense Scripture 12

Notice the comparison that Jesus is making in this famous salvation text. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must Jesus be lifted up that whoever believes will have eternal life. The Jews listening to Jesus would have been familiar with the story of the bronze serpent being lifted up in the wilderness. It’s found in Numbers 21:4-9.

The Israelites are headed to the land of Edom and have grown impatient on the way. They start complaining to God and Moses about their situation so God sends poisonous snakes as a judgment.

Numbers 21:7-9 – And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

Defense Scripture 13

A provision of healing was made for all the people, but the healing was only applied when they looked at the bronze serpent. Looking was the only condition to receive healing, but you had to look. The bronze serpent didn’t automatically heal anyone. Rather, there was a provision for physical healing in the bronze serpent for all who looked upon it in faith. In the same way, there is a provision for spiritual healing—salvation—in the atonement for all who looks upon it in faith.

Bottom line: Does the bronze serpent actually heal, or make healing possible? The answer is, yes! And does Christ’s atonement actually save, or make saving possible? The answer is, yes!

Point #4 – The Gospel can be sincerely proclaimed to all people because there is atonement made for all people.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul records the clearest statement of the gospel in the whole Bible.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 11 – Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . . . 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Defense Scripture 14

Paul reminds his brothers and sisters at the Church at Corinth of the explicit gospel message that he preached to them. What was the gospel message that Paul preached? We are not left guessing. He tells us, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

There may be some ambiguity over what is meant by “our sins.” However, I think that ambiguity is clarified with the expression “in accordance with the Scriptures.” What was Paul’s Bible? Answer: the Old Testament.

Where does Old Testament Scriptures talk about Jesus dying for our sins? Most theologians agree that this is a reference to Isaiah 53. If we turn to Isaiah 53:6, we read these incredible words:

Isaiah 53:6 – All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Defense Scripture 15

In this theologically packed passage, Isaiah uses a literary device called an inclusio. This is where an author begins and ends a section of text with the same word or phrase to add emphasis. In this case, Isaiah begins and ends this sentence with the word “all.”

Now watch what Isaiah is doing. Isaiah draws a parallel between the number of people who have gone astray and the number of people who the suffering servant died for.

How many people have gone astray and turned to his own way? The answer is, all. Not all the elect, but rather every single human being. All have sinned! The first all is inclusive of everyone.

How many people had their iniquity laid on Christ? The answer is, all. Again, he’s not speaking of a limited number of people. The first all and the second all stand and fall together. Even John Calvin himself argued that Isaiah 53 teaches that Christ died for all.

This issue has huge implications for evangelism and missions. Think about this.

If limited atonement is true, then Jesus did not pay for the sins of the non-elect. Therefore, it is impossible for the non-elect to be saved since there is no atonement for them. Even if they believed, they could not be saved.

You see, nearly everyone agrees that the offer of salvation should go out to everyone. But what is it that is being offered to the non-elect? For an offer to be valid and genuine, you have to possess the thing you’re offering. If there is no atonement for some people, then those people aren’t savable. If they aren’t savable, then they are not offer-able. What are you offering those people? Answer: Nothing, because there is nothing there for them.

It’s like inviting someone over for dinner, but there is no chair for him at the table, no plate, and no food. It’s a disingenuous offer. Even if I know they will decline the offer, it would be disingenuous to make the offer if I have nothing to offer.

We are called to offer the gospel to all people because all people are savable. And all people are savable because there was atonement made for all people.

— Tim Barnett —

No, I think we are called to offer the gospel to all people because all people are savable. And all people are savable because there was atonement made for all people.

There are over 7.5 billion people on the planet as we speak, and I believe the Bible is clear Christ bore the penalty of them all. Let me proclaim it as boldly as I can, CHRIST DIED FOR YOU. And if you’re here this morning and you haven’t applied Christ’s atonement to your life through faith in Him, it’s time to make that decision today.