In this series, I forward a considered case for a universal atonement, presenting what I find to be the most compelling arguments for it, defining what exactly it entails, and interacting with the most common and persuasive objections against it.
This is the introduction to the series, in which I define the views under discussion, itemize my four arguments, and list the objections I’ll consider.
This article has been revised to avoid defining the debate along the divide between high and moderate Calvinism.
For some time now, “four-and-a-half-point Calvinism” has been the object of irregular deliberation for me. This started originally when Darryl Burling and I had an exchange on the nature of the atonement, in which I amended my strictly limited expiation view. It also bled over into my involvement in the atonement debate on Seth McBee’s blog, and later into my dispute with Ron di Giacomo on whether God desires the salvation of all, as well as some discussion on Gene Bridges’ article ‘Warrant to Believe’. Most recently, I discussed the matter with my friend Chris Good, who lent me Election and Predestination by Paul Jewett,1 and also linked me to Jim Ellis’ article ‘Sufficient for All’. Given my occasional forays into this topic, and the fact that it’s a point of contention among many Calvinists today, I’d like to take some time to systematically lay out my own view, and gather the most compelling arguments for it—and objections against.
The views defined
I think it’s wise that I describe, at the outset, the two major views which are represented in this debate, along with one other that isn’t. Obviously I can’t hope to do them justice in any comprehensive way in a summary like this, but I can at least be sure to demarcate their pertinent distinctives. This seems particularly important given how these sorts of discussions tend to become, shall we say, weighed down with labels.
Limited or particular atonement
In this series I’ll be opposing the view typically called limited or particular atonement. The term “limited” can be confusing, because there is certainly a sense in which I affirm a “limited atonement”—the devil is in the details. The limited atonement I’m opposing is that which affirms these things:
- God’s desire, as regards human salvation, is for the elect only, with no attending desire for the salvation of the reprobate; therefore,
- Jesus, in his death, expiated the sin of the elect only, thus making provision for their salvation, but not for the salvation of the reprobate.
This is a view now often associated with “high” Calvinism; but also with hyper-Calvinism. These are not the same things. Some high Calvinists hold to particular atonement, and I will refer to these as particularists to avoid confusion. Typically, particularists develop their view in a different direction than hyper-Calvinists, because their larger theological framework is markedly dissimilar. I should not want it thought that I’m calling one the other. Although I will argue that particular atonement logically entails at least some hyper-Calvinist doctrines, particularist Calvinists would disagree.
So as to be clear, let me briefly describe what particularist Calvinists don’t believe, by way of describing what hyper-Calvinists do:
Hyper-Calvinism is the denial that God in the preaching of the gospel calls everyone who hears the preaching to repent and believe. It is the denial that the church should call everyone in the preaching. It is the denial that the unregenerated have a duty to repent and believe. It manifests itself in the practice of the preacher’s addressing the call of the gospel, “repent and believe on Christ crucified,” only to those in his audience who show signs of regeneration and, thereby, of election, namely, some conviction of sin and some interest in salvation.2
Contra hyper-Calvinists, particularist Calvinists do affirm both the universal call of the gospel, and the duty of all those who are called—including the reprobate—to repent and believe. They affirm this even though, in their view, Christ did not die for the reprobate. Therein lies, I believe, a tension, around which much of my argument hinges.
Unlimited or universal atonement
At the other end of the Calvinistic spectrum, there are those like myself who affirm what is typically called unlimited or universal atonement. I don’t personally like the “limited” and “unlimited” qualifiers, because they can refer to more than one thing and are therefore confusing—I affirm that the atonement was in one sense limited, but in another sense unlimited. Therefore, for what it’s worth, I’ll normally speak of universal atonement instead. As opposed to the particularist view, universal atonement affirms these things:
- God’s desire, as regards human salvation, is for the elect especially, but with an attending though contingent desire for the salvation of the reprobate also; therefore,
- Jesus, in his death, expiated the sin of all mankind, thus making provision for the salvation of both the elect and the reprobate, though with the intention of saving only the elect.
This is a view generally associated with “moderate” Calvinism, and is represented widely throughout the history of Reformed theology. It’s also a view unfortunately associated with Arminianism, because Arminianism shares a doctrine of universal atonement. Of course, anyone caring to glance at the two distinctives above would note that they are incompatible with, and indeed contradict Arminianism. The Reformed doctrine of universal atonement ought to be evaluated on its own grounds, and not conflated with the Arminian doctrine. Nonetheless, particularist Calvinists sometimes dismiss it as a doctrine only believed by Arminians. An adherent to it who identifies himself as a Calvinist may be denied that title, and instead be labeled an Arminian who has cherry-picked some Calvinist doctrines; even though his view on the atonement is anti-Arminian. I want to express my contempt for this strategy. The list of great Calvinist theologians who have affirmed some version of universal atonement is long. This doesn’t automatically make it right—but it does make it Calvinistic. So I’ll have no name-calling here. Such tactics ought to be beneath those I’ve seen employ them. Calvinists who believe in a universal atonement are no more Arminians than Calvinists who believe in a particular atonement are hyper-Calvinists.
Universal atonement is sometimes described as “sufficient for all; efficient for some”. I’ll avoid this phrase since (a) it doesn’t distinguish my view from the Arminian one; and (b) it can be used by particularists anyway, who say that in principle the atonement was sufficient for all, even though in practice it’s only efficacious for the elect. As with the word “limited”, both sides can use the same term but mean different things. I affirm that the atonement was sufficient for all in practice.
Some people may infer, from this, other beliefs which I do not hold. So, to be sure I’m accurately representing myself, here’s a list of beliefs which some non-Calvinistic proponents of universal atonement may affirm, or which some Calvinists may think universal atonement entails, but which I deny:
- That God univocally desires all people without exception to be saved, or that there is no distinction between his desires toward the elect and the reprobate,
- or indeed that all people without exception will be saved, or that universal atonement implies this;
- that God has “two wills” in the sense of having two, incongruent sets of intentions, or that he has frustrated desires in the sense that human beings do; and
- that the presentation of the gospel must involve telling sinners that Christ died for them.
These denials should give some indication of the way in which I’ll couch this discussion. This series is largely about God’s desires and intentions toward people, as regards salvation particularly, and how these play out in the atonement.
The following four reasons are, in my opinion, the strongest for believing in a universal atonement over and against a particular one:
- Particular atonement is incongruent with federal headship and forensic imputation;
- particular atonement removes all grounds for the universal gospel call (either as a command or as an invitation); and
- particular atonement removes the objective grounds for Christian faith.
There are three main objections against the universal position which, in my estimation, are compelling enough to warrant discussion. These are:
- Universal atonement implies that God’s desires are frustrated in some sense;
- universal atonement implies either universal salvation or double payment for sins; and
- universal atonement fails to actually accomplish redemption for anyone.
Exegetical arguments for and against
Although I will refer to the text of Scripture as I consider the arguments and objections outlined above, I won’t be delving deeply into any exegetical arguments for or against my view. Why? Firstly, because it’s in the deliverances of reason, and not the study of languages, that I have been gifted. In exegetical issues I am qualified only to repeat the arguments of others; whereas in matters of theology and philosophy I am free to develop arguments. I don’t see much value in merely repeating what has already been said by more qualified people. Hence I don’t blog about synchronized swimming. Secondly, in that vein, experts on both sides of the issue seem able to forward good exegetical arguments for their positions. The simple fact is that some passages of Scripture seem to read most naturally as referring to a limited atonement, while others seem to read most naturally as referring to an unlimited one. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that the Bible does actually teach both, in a manner of speaking. I’ll expand on this as I work through the arguments and objections in later posts.
Ultimately, I think that a Christian would be justified in taking either a particular or a universal view of the atonement, if he were to rely solely on his understanding of the text of the Bible. It simply seems very difficult for a lay Christian to make an informed and definitively reliable decision going on exegesis alone. Therefore, little would be achieved if I were to investigate the exegetical arguments in this series. Rather, I am going to concede that both views have some support in Scripture—so, given this, I propose to turn to reason to discover which is the more consistent with Calvinistic theology.
- Paul K Jewett, Election and Predestination (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1985).
- David J Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1994), pp 15–16.