A Defense of Unlimited Atonement


The Use of Universal Terms in Connection With Christ's Death


Those who deny that the death of Christ was universal (for all men) must nevertheless admit that universal terms are used in passages which relate to the extent of the atonement. For example, Gary D. Long in his book Definite Atonement admits that such universal terms are used and that Christ is spoken of as dying for the "world," "all," or "every" (see page 32). Also John Murray in an article entitled "Redemption" in the Sword and Trowel admits that the Bible uses expressions which are universal in form such as "world" and "all" and "every one" and "all men."

If Christ died only for the elect, and if the Bible says that Christ died for "all," "the world," "every man," etc., then we must conclude that the elect are referred to by these universal terms. In other words, we must assume that in such cases terms such as "the world" and "all men" are synonymous with "the elect."

But this raises a problem. Concerning the doctrine of election, there is not one passage which uses universal terms to signify the elect. If such terms can indeed signify the elect, then why are they never used in key passages which set forth the doctrine of election? To give some examples, why do we never read verses such as these: "The world has not chosen me, but I have chosen the world" (compare John 15:16). "According as He has chosen all men in Him before the foundation of the world" (compare Eph. 1:4). "Who has saved every man and called every man with a holy calling...according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to all men in Christ Jesus before the world began" (compare 2 Timothy 1:9). "But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen the whole world to salvation..." (compare 2 Thess. 2:13).

I would argue the universality of the propitiation from the fact, that its extent is spoken of by the inspired writers in language very different from what they employ when they speak of election, justification, sanctification, or glorification . . . They speak of Christ making propitiation for "men," for "all men," for "every man," for "the world," for "the whole world," and even for "them who deny him, and bring upon themselves swift destruction." But where do they speak of God electing "men," "all men," "every man," "the world," "the whole world," and even "them who deny Christ, and bring upon themselves swift destruction"? Where do they speak of God justifying, sanctifying, and glorifying, "men," "all men," "every man," "the world," "the whole world," and even "them who deny Christ, and bring upon themselves swift destruction"? [Morison, The Extent of the Atonement, pages 72-73. The same argument is strongly set forth by Richard Baxter in his book, Universal Redemption of Mankind, page 279.]

How then do we explain the fact that the Scriptures, in speaking of the death of Christ, frequently make use of general and universal terms, extending it to all, whereas in mentioning divine election, the Bible always uses restrictive terms, limiting it to a few (that is, to believers)? If those for whom Christ died are the same as the elect, then why are not the same terms used to describe both? Why are universal terms used to describe those for whom Christ died but not used to describe the elect if the same group is being referred to? The fact that the Bible uses universal terms to describe those for whom Christ died and never uses such terms to describe the elect is one of the strongest arguments against the doctrine of limited atonement.

Understanding the Language of the Bible in a Normal and Natural Way

How should these universal terms be understood? Those who hold to a limited atonement tell us that "world" (John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19; John 6:51) does not really mean "world" and that "the whole world" (1 John 2:2) does not really mean "the whole world." Furthermore they insist that "all" (1 Tim. 2:6) does not really men "all" and that "all men" (1 Tim. 2:4) does not really mean "all men" and that "every man" (Heb. 2:9) does not really mean "every man" and that "us all" (Isa. 53:6) does not really mean "us all."

Sir Robert Anderson has written the following:

In the early years of my Christian life I was greatly perplexed and distressed by the supposition that the plain and simple words of such Scriptures as John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:6 were not true, save in a cryptic sense understood only by the initiated. For, I was told, the over-shadowing truth of Divine sovereignty in election barred our taking them literally. But half a century ago a friend of those days—the late Dr. Horatius Bonaródelivered me from this strangely prevalent error. He taught me that truths may seem to us irreconcilable only because our finite minds cannot understand the Infinite; and we must never allow our faulty apprehension of the eternal counsels of God to hinder unquestioning faith in the words of Holy Scripture.  [Sir Robert Anderson, Forgotten Truths (see the Preface).]

Dispensationalists have endeavored to follow this rule of Biblical interpretation: When the plain sense makes good sense seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense! But others have abandoned a literal approach when it comes to certain areas of Scripture. Limited redemptionists, for example, seem to have followed another rule: When the plain sense contradicts our theological system seek some other sense lest we end up contradicting our particular brand of Calvinism.

Over three hundred years ago Richard Baxter wrote the following:

When God telleth us as plain as can be spoken, that Christ died for and tasted death for every man, men will deny it, and to that end subvert the plain sense of the words, merely because they cannot see how this can stand with Christ’s damning men, and with his special Love to his chosen. It is not hard to see the fair and harmonious consistency: But what if you cannot see how two plain Truths of the Gospel should agree? Will you therefore deny one of them when both are plain? Is not that in high pride to prefer your own understandings before the wisdom of the Spirit of God, who indicted the Scriptures? Should not a humble man rather say, doubtless both are true though I cannot reconcile them. So others will deny these plain truths, because they think that [All that Christ died for are certainly Justified and Saved: For whomsoever he died and satisfied Justice for, them he procured Faith to Believe in him: God cannot justly punish those whom Christ hath satisfied for, etc.] But doth the Scripture speak all these or any of these opinions of theirs, as plainly as it saith that Christ died for all and every man? Doth it say, as plainly any where that he died not for all? Doth it any where except any one man, and say Christ died not for him? Doth it say any where that he died only for his Sheep, or his Elect, and exclude the Non-Elect? There is no such word in all the Bible; Should not then the certain truths and the plain texts be the Standard to the uncertain points, and obscure texts?  [Richard Baxter, Universal Redemption of Mankind, pages 282-283].

Richard Baxter then skillfully applied these principles to the case at hand:

Now I would know of any man, would you believe that Christ died for all men if the Scripture plainly speak it? If you would, do but tell me, what words can you devise or would you wish more plain for it than are there used? Is it not enough that Christ is called the Saviour of the World? You’ll say, but is it of the whole World? Yes, it saith, He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole World. Will you say, but it is not for All men in the World? Yes it saith he died for All men, as well as for all the World. But will you say, it saith not for every man? Yes it doth say, he tasted death for every man. But you may say, It means all the Elect, if it said so of any Non-Elect I would believe. Yes, it speaks of those that denied the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And yet all this seems nothing to men prejudiced. [Richard Baxter, Universal Redemption of Mankind, pages 286-287. The verses that are alluded to in this quote are John 4:42; 1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 2:1.]

I knew of a man who was not committed to the belief that Christ died for all men and yet he made this remarkable concession: "If Christ really did die for all men, then I don’t know how the Bible could say it any clearer than it does." How true! This same man later embraced the doctrine of unlimited atonement because he could not deny the clear and plain statements of Scripture.


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