A Defense of Unlimited Atonement


Does It Really Matter?


The issue of the extent of the atonement is more than a theological issue. It is a very practical question. The Scriptures clearly teach that we have good news for lost men. Is this good news only for the elect? Our understanding of the gospel and the atonement will greatly affect the way in which we present the gospel to lost men. It does make a difference. Dr. Jay Adams, on page 70 of Competent to Counsel, shares how he believes Reformed Christians should present the claims of Christ to the unsaved: "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" (emphasis mine).

One of the greatest missionaries of the past would strongly differ with Jay Adams. The following is related by James Morison: "One of the greatest missionaries of modern times [Mr. Moffat], one of the most gifted, one of the most devoted, one of the most honoured and successful, when asked by me somewhere about the year 1841, what gospel he preached to his poor Africans, replied that it was a maxim with him and his true yoke-fellows, to tell all and sundry that Christ died for them [see Morison, The Extent of the Atonement, p. 112].

Those who believe that Christ died only for the elect must be very careful, like Jay Adams, in how they present the gospel. I once asked an extreme Calvinist this question: "Who did Christ die for?" He answered in general terms: "Christ died for sinners!" But a believer in limited atonement would even need to be careful in preaching this. If he were to say to an unsaved audience, "I have good news for you! Christ died for sinners!", even this would be misleading because he might be giving a non-elect person the impression that Christ died for him. He might think, "I know I am a sinner, so the good news must be that Christ died for me!" If the doctrine of limited atonement were true, then we could accurately state the following: Christ died for sinners, but not all sinners. In fact, He did not die for the great majority of sinners, only for a very few (compare Matthew 7:13-14 where we learn that only few are saved). Such a message is good news only for a small minority of sinners!

Sincerity in Presenting the Gospel

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 He 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 says it this way:

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" (A System of Biblical Theology, 2nd volume, page 111; and see Lightner pages 117-118).

Robert Lightner states the issue clearly: "Unless Christ died for all men, the message of God’s love and Christ’s death must be given with tongue in cheek and with some reservation, because some may hear who are really not to be numbered among those whom God loved and for whom Christ died....Therefore, to tell all men that these things are true and that salvation is available for them is to speak that which is not true if the limited view be accepted" (The Death Christ Died, p. 15).

Those who believe in a "Definite Atonement" (Gary Long’s term for limited atonement), if really honest and sincere, are forced into a very indefinite presentation of the gospel:

"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" (Article in Walvoord: A Tribute, p. 166).

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