This is commonly known as a belief in a “limited atonement” (some Reformed men prefer to call it “definite atonement”). It is the teaching that Christ died on the cross and paid the penalty only for the sins of the elect. He did not die for the ones who eventually will be in the lake of fire. Often it is worded as follows: “Christ died for all men WITHOUT DISTINCTION but He did not die for all men WITHOUT EXCEPTION.” This is a subtle game of semantics which makes it possible for them to say that He died for all without really meaning that He died for all. What they really mean is that Christ died for all kinds of people and all classes of people, but He did not die for every single person. That is, He died for Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, etc., but it is understood that He died for only elect Jews and Gentiles, only elect rich and poor, etc.
Dr. Paul Reiter has clearly and simply summarized the Scriptural teaching on this issue.4 FOR WHOM DID CHRIST DIE? HE DIED…
- For all (1 Tim. 2:6; Isa. 53:6).
- For every man (Heb. 2:9).
- For the world (John 3:16).
- For the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
- For the ungodly (Rom. 5:6).
- For false teachers (2 Peter 2:1).
- For many (Matt. 20:28).
- For Israel (John 11:50-51).
- For the Church (Eph. 5:25).
- For “me” (Gal. 2:20).
It is evident that the extreme Calvinist must ignore the clear language and obvious sense of many passages and he must force the Scriptures and make them fit into his own theological mold. Limited atonement may seem logical and reasonable, but the real test is this: Is it Biblical? “What saith the Scriptures?” (Rom. 4:3). In childlike faith we must simply allow the Bible to say what it says.
Those who promote this erroneous doctrine try to tell us that “world” does not really mean “world” and “all” does not really mean “all” and “every man” does not really mean “every man” and “the whole world” does not really mean “the whole world.” We are told that simple verses such as John 3:16 and Isaiah 53:6 must be understood not as a child would understand them but as a theologian would understand them. That is, we must reinterpret such verses in light of our system of theology.
The true doctrine of the atonement could be stated as follows:
The Scriptures teach that the sacrifice of the Lamb of God involved the sin of the world (John 1:29) and that the Savior’s work of redemption (1 Tim. 2:6; 2 Pet. 2:1), reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19) and propitiation (1 John 2:2) was for all men (1 Tim. 4:10), but the cross-work of Christ is efficient, effectual and applicable only for those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10; John 3:16). The cross-work of Christ is not limited, but the application of that cross-work through the work of the Holy Spirit is limited to believers only.
The extreme Calvinist would say that the cross was designed only for the elect and had no purpose for the “non-elect” (persistent unbelievers). But the death of God’s Son had a divine purpose and design for both groups. For the elect, God’s design was salvation according to His purpose and grace in Christ Jesus before the world began (2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Thess. 2:13). For unbelievers, God’s purpose and design is to render the unbeliever without excuse. Men are CONDEMNED because they have rejected the Person and WORK of Jesus Christ and refused God’s only remedy for sin (John 3:18; 5:40). Unbelievers can never say that a provision for their salvation was not made and not offered. They can never stand before God and say, “The reason I am not saved is because Christ did not die for me.” No, the reason they are not saved is because they rejected the One who died for them and who is the Savior of all men (1 Tim. 4:10). They are without excuse.
This issue is not merely academic. It is extremely practical. It affects the very heart of the gospel and its presentation. The gospel which Paul preached to the unsaved people of Corinth was this: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). Do we really have a gospel of good news for all men (compare Luke 2:10-11)? In preaching the gospel, what can we say to an unsaved person? Can we say, “My friend, the Lord Jesus Christ died for you. He paid the penalty for your sins. He died as your Substitute”?
One Reformed writer said this:
But counselors, as Christians, are obligated to present the claims of Christ. They must present the good news that Christ Jesus died on the cross in the place of His own, that He bore the guilt and suffered the penalty for their sins. He died that all whom the Father had given to Him might come unto Him and have life everlasting. As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, FOR THEY CANNOT SAY THAT. No man knows except Christ Himself who are His elect for whom He died.5
As C.H.Mackintosh has said,
“A disciple of the high school of doctrine [extreme Calvinist] will not hear of a world-wide gospel—of God’s love to the world—of glad tidings to every creature under heaven. He has only gotten a gospel for the elect.”
How can we sincerely offer to men what has not been provided for them? How can we offer them a free gift if the gift has not been purchased for them? How can we urge them to drink from the fountain of life if no water has been provided for them? How can we tell them to be saved if the Lord Jesus Christ provided not for their salvation? How can we say to a person, “Take the medicine and be cured!” if there is no medicine to take and no cure provided? W. Lindsay Alexander explains: “On this supposition [that of a limited atonement] the general invitations and promises of the gospel are without an adequate basis, and seem like a mere mockery, an offer, in short, of what has not been provided.”6
If the Reformed preacher were really honest about it, he would need to preach his “gospel” along these lines:
“Perhaps Christ died for you.”
“Maybe God so loved you.”
“Christ shed His blood for you, perhaps.”
“Salvation has been provided for you, maybe.”
“Possibly God commendeth His love toward you.”
“Hopefully He’s the propitiation for your sins.”
“There is a possibility that Christ died as your Substitute.”
“I bring you good news, maybe.”
“It’s possible that Christ died for you. If you get saved then we know that He did die for you, but if you continue to reject Him then He did not die for you.”
“Christ died for you only if you believe that Christ died for you (thus proving you are elect), but if you do not believe this and if you continue in your unbelief until the day you die, then Christ did not die for you.”
Those who hold to a definite or limited atonement do not present the gospel in this way, but would not such a presentation be consistent with their theology? Would it not be a correct and cautious and sincere way of sharing with the unsaved? An extreme Calvinist must be very careful how he presents the cross-work of Christ to an unsaved person because he never really can be sure if Christ has made provision for that person. As Robert Lightner has said, “Belief in limited atonement means that the good news of God’s saving grace in Christ cannot be personalized. Those who hold to such a position cannot tell someone to whom they are witnessing that Christ died for him because that one may, in fact, not be one for whom Christ died.”7
John Bunyan made this observation: “The offer of the Gospel cannot, with God’s allowance, be offered any further than the death of Christ did go; because if it be taken away, there is indeed no Gospel, nor grace to be extended” (Bunyan’s Works). In other words, how can you offer the gospel to a person if Christ did not die for that person? How can we offer the sinner what has not been provided? As Lightner has said, “No maxim appears more certain than that a salvation offered implies a salvation provided.”8
Boettner says: “Universal redemption means universal salvation” (cited by Lightner, The Death Christ Died, p. 96). The extreme Calvinist argues that Christ must save everyone that He died for. They reason thus: “If Christ died for everyone, then everyone will be saved.” Let’s think about the logic of this statement. This would be like saying, “If medicine is available for everyone, then everyone must be healed.” This is obviously false. The medicine, though available, will not do any good unless it is taken. “There is more than enough cool, refreshing water for every thirsty person in the village.” Does this mean that every person in the village will have his thirst quenched? Only if every person drinks! We need to make a difference between redemption accomplished and redemption applied.
“Lord, I believe were sinners more
Than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
For all a full atonement made.”
Nikolaus L. von Zinzendorf, 1739
| For a more detailed study of these important issues you may order the following papers: For Whom Did Christ Die? –A Defense of Unlimited Atonement (50¢), “Savior of all men” —The Meaning of 1 Timothy 4:10 (5¢), and God’s Willingness and Man’s Unwillingness (15¢).
Books recommended for further study: The Death Christ Died, revised edition by Robert Lightner (Kregel, 1998); Did Christ Die Only for the Elect? By Norman F. Douty (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR) and Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer (Vol. III, pages 183-205).