A Defense of Unlimited Atonement


Some Common Objections Answered

"Christ died for all men, but His death benefits the non-elect only in a temporal sense. He did not really pay the penalty for their sins."

This is the position of John MacArthur (see Tape GC 56-19, "Saving Grace"-Part 2, Titus 2:11, distributed by GRACE TO YOU, P.O. Box 4000, Panorama City, CA 91412) and others. It is a way to say that Christ’s death was for all without really meaning that He paid sin’s penalty for all. John MacArthur does not believe that Christ died as a Substitute for all men: "He [Christ] did not ‘pay the penalty of sin’ for those who reject Him, because if He did then they would not have to pay it themselves in hell....The atonement is limited in the sense that Christ acted as a substitute only for those who believe in Him" (from a letter from Dave Swavely, personal assistant to John MacArthur, writing on John MacArthur’s behalf, 3/20/96). This implies that Christ did not die as a Substitute for those who persist in rejecting Him (those who have not been chosen).

MacArthur (in the tape mentioned above) teaches that the death of Christ is for all men, but the non-elect benefit from Christ’s death only in a temporal sense (they are not destroyed instantly, they benefit from the rain and sun, they benefit from "common grace" etc.). However only the elect benefit from the death of Christ as far as an actual payment for their sins.

Swavely, in the same letter mentioned above, explains MacArthur’s position in this way: "He did not pay the penalty of sin for those who reject Him...but the ramifications of His sacrifice extend beyond that primary purpose of securing salvation for the elect. All of God’s creatures, including those men and women who reject God, reap many benefits from the death of Christ, not the least of which is life itself. God could have justly destroyed the world immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, but He graciously allowed it to flourish and sustained it by His hand for thousands of years....So John believes that even the non-elect are affected positively as a result of the atonement of Christ....The atonement is limited in the sense that Christ acted as a substitute only for those who believe in Him. The atonement is unlimited, however, in the sense that its benefits extend to all of God’s creation." What good are these "temporal benefits" as far as the non-elect are concerned? Would not the non-elect have been better off if God had destroyed the world immediately after Adam and Eve sinned? Jesus told Judas that it would have been better if he had never been born. There is a sense in which this is true for all those who persist in unbelief. Not ever having been born is better than spending eternity in the lake of fire.

When John MacArthur teaches that Christ died for all men (using verses such as John 3:16; Hebrews 2:9; 1 Timothy 2:6 etc.), what he really means is that there are some temporal blessings that benefit the non-elect. He does not mean that Christ paid sin’s penalty for the non-elect. According to Tape GC 56-19 and according to Swavely’s letter, John MacArthur believes and teaches that Christ died as a Substitute only for the sins of the elect. This teaching is contrary to the IFCA doctrinal statement, which MacArthur signed, which states the following: "We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross for all mankind as a representative, vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice."

The Lord Jesus provided a perfect and eternal salvation for all men. He desires all men to be saved eternally, not just temporally (1 Tim. 2:4). He paid redemption’s price to make this possible, even for the sins of the whole world. However, the sinner does not possess these eternal benefits until He believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. Only then does he procure that which has been provided at Calvary.

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