A Defense of Unlimited Atonement


Some Common Objections Answered

"If Christ bore the iniquity of everyone and died for all, then universal salvation would be the necessary result."

The great preacher George Whitefield once wrote a lengthy letter to John Wesley on the topic of election.  Whitefield wrote in love, but with great passion, seeking to convince Wesley of his doctrinal errors.  Sadly, Wesley did hold to certain erroneous doctrines such as sinless perfection and his belief that a saved person could lose his salvation.  Wesley also held to what was then called "universal redemption."  This was an unfortunate term but it corresponds to what we would now refer to as a belief in an unlimited atonement, that Christ died for all. Whitefield believed in a limited atonement and he wrote to Wesley as follows:  "Universal redemption, as you set it forth, is really the highest reproach upon the dignity of the Son of God, and the merit of His blood...Universal redemption, taken in a literal sense, falls entirely to the ground. For how can all be universally redeemed if all are not finally saved?"  Whitefield believed that if Christ died for all, then all must finally be saved.  And he believed that the logical outcome of Wesley's teaching would be universalism, that all men would eventually be saved.  A more recent theologian, George Boettner, makes the same argument: "Universal redemption means universal salvation" (cited by Lightner, p. 96). The believer in a limited atonement believes that Christ must save everyone that He died for.

Note:  The term "universal redemption" as used by Whitefield and Boettner can be confusing.  Certainly those who believe in an unlimited atonement strongly believe that redemption is not universal, but is limited only to those who by faith have trusted the Redeemer and have been set free from the bondage of sin (Eph. 1:17;  Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).  Only those who are saved have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 5:9).  However, we also recognize that the Redeemer shed His blood, not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world, and paid a price even for the ungodly (2 Pet. 2:1).  And yet, only the saved benefit from Christ's work of redemption.

"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 (the price being paid) and redemption applied (by personal faith).

The Passover lamb was slain but this did not automatically procure deliverance for the Israelites.  The blood of the lamb had to be personally applied to the doorposts of each Israeli house.  God's redemption is provided for all (1 Tim. 2:6), but individuals are not actually redeemed unless they personally appropriate what Christ has done by faith.  Christ gave His flesh for the world (John 6:51--universal provision) but no one is actually saved unless he "eats the flesh of the Son of man, and drinks His blood" (John 6:53--personal appropriation by faith).   What Christ accomplished on the cross does not benefit anyone until salvation is personally received by faith (John 1:12).  

The cross-work of Christ can be rejected by the unbeliever.  But in the limited atonement view, how can an unbeliever reject what was never done for Him?   The gospel is "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3) but if Christ did not die for those who are not elect, then there is no gospel or good news for them.  But the Bible makes it clear that there is good news and there is a Saviour for all men (Luke 2:10-11), and that it is possible for this good news to be rejected and for this gospel to be disobeyed (2 Thess. 1:8).  Men do not perish because there was no Saviour who died for them; they perish because they have rejected the Saviour who died for them.  He is the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10).

"The Bible says that Christ died for MANY, not ALL."

The Bible clearly states that Christ died for ALL in 1 Timothy 2:6, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 and Isaiah 53:6. See also Hebrews 2:9 where we learn that He died for every man (each individual). It is true, however, that there are passages which teach that Christ died for MANY:

"He bore the sin of MANY" (Isaiah 53:12).

"For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom FOR MANY" (Mark 10:45).

"For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed FOR MANY for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:28).

The term "MANY" is most often used, not as a contrast to the word "all," but as a contrast to the word "few." The opposite of the word MANY is the word FEW, not the word ALL. This can be seen in Matthew 7:13-14 where MANY are on the broad road to destruction and FEW are on the narrow road to life. See also Matthew 20:16 – "for MANY are called, but FEW chosen." In this verse the MANY includes more than the elect (the chosen ones). A contrast is made between the MANY who are called the the FEW that are chosen.

If MANY is the opposite of FEW, then instead of referring to a small number (few) it refers to a large number (many). There are some cases where this large number is equivalent to ALL. A fifth grader could give out birthday party invitations to all 35 students in his class at school. ALL the students in this class were invited. But only 7 actually show up at the party. MANY (all) were invited but only FEW actually came. A very clear example from the Bible where MANY is equivalent to ALL is found in Romans 5:12--"For as by one man’s disobedience MANY were made sinners." Compare this with Romans 5:12 and it is evident that the MANY of verse 19 is the same as the ALL MEN of verse 12.

It is possible for the word MANY to refer to God’s elect. Such is the case in Acts 18:10 where the Lord assured Paul by saying, "I have MUCH (MANY) people in this city." Paul was thus encouraged that his labors were not in vain because MANY, not just a few, would come to know Christ in the city of Corinth.

What does the word MANY mean when it is used in connection with the cross-work of Christ? In Isaiah 53 the "many" of verse 12 is defined in the context as referring to ALL OF US:

"He bore the sin of many" (v.12)
"The LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all [the iniquity of all of us]" (v.6)

He died, therefore, as a Substitute, not for just a FEW, but for MANY, yea, for all of us!

We find the same to be true when we compare Mark 10:45 with 1 Timothy 2:6:

"to give his life a RANSOM FOR MANY" (Mark 10:45)
"Who gave himself a RANSOM FOR ALL" (1 Tim. 2:6 and see the "all men" of verse 4).

We conclude, therefore, that when the Bible says Christ died for MANY, the meaning is this: He did not die for just a few, He died for many, yea, for all men. Or as John states it, "And 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). We fully agree with Calvin’s comment on Mark 14:24: that when Jesus said that His blood was poured out for many, He meant "not part of the world only, but the whole human race."

Calvin understood "many" to mean "all" in certain contexts. See his fascinating commentary under Romans 5:15.

For a very significant and helpful discussion about how the word MANY [Greek-polloi] is used in relationship to the atonement of Christ, see the article on polloi by J. Jeremias in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Kittle), Volume VI, pages 536-545. The author argues that the term "many" in Isaiah 53, Mark 10:45; Matthew 26:28 etc. is to be understood inclusively, following Semitic usage, the meaning being that Christ died on behalf of all.

"If Christ has died for you, you can never be lost" (Charles Spurgeon, cited by Lightner, p.93).

People are not lost because Christ did not die for them. They are lost because they have rejected the Christ who died for them. It is better to re-write Spurgeon’s quote as follows: "If you persist in rejecting the Christ who died for you, you can never be saved." Also, Spurgeon should have realized that even the elect are LOST before they come to Christ by faith, though Christ died for them.

Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. If any Israelite perished, it was not because there was no remedy. It was because he refused to look and live.

A.W. Pink said something similar to Spurgeon’s quote above: "Not one for whom He [Christ] died can possibly miss heaven" (cited favorably by Dr. John MacArthur in his Tape GC 80-123 on Hebrews 10:5-18). If this were true then everyone would be saved, because Christ tasted death for every man (Heb. 2:9)! No one will ever stand before God and be able to say, "I will miss heaven because the Saviour did not die for me." On the contrary, every mouth will be stopped because God’s great salvation was both provided at the cross and offered to every sinner. It almost seems blasphemous to blame the doom of sinners on the supposed fact that Christ did not die for them.   The fault does not lie with God's ample provision; it lies with man's wicked rejection of the Saviour and the so great salvation which He died to provide.

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