Definite Atonement
by Douglas Wilson

I stirred nervously in my seat, and cleared my throat. I was not at all sure I wanted to ask the next question, but I also realized I had to.

"You have already told me you have no desire to be called a 'Calvinist."'

"That is correct," Martin nodded.

"Is this just a concern over party labels, or is there any key theological area where you disagree with the Calvinists?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, I was talking with someone at my home church, and he told me something that horrified me. He said that Calvinists believe in something they call limited atonement. They think that Jesus only died for Christians, and not for all men.

Martin laughed, and then said, "I'll answer your question, if you promise to hear me out."

I had a sinking feeling that this meant he did believe it, but I nodded my head anyway.

"First, all orthodox Christians believe in a limited atonement. Every Christian who believes that there is an eternal Hell limits the atonement. One group limits its power or effectiveness, and the other limits its extent. But both limit the atonement."

I nodded, so he went on.

"Secondly, I don’t know who came up with the phrase limited atonement to describe this position. He may have been a theological genius, but when it comes to public relations, he must have been a chucklehead."

"In what way?" I asked.

"One fellow says he believes in a limited atonement, and another says he believes in an unlimited atonement. Which one appears to be doing justice to the Scriptures?"

"The second one, of course."

Martin smiled. "Of course. God so loved the world; Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; One died for all, and so forth."

I nodded again, wondering where on earth he was going.

"Now suppose we hear the same two fellows, but this time the language is changed. The first says now that he believes in a definite atonement, and the second affirms his belief in an indefinite atonement. Who sounds more biblical now?"

"Well, now the first sounds more biblical."

"Of course. Christ laid down His life for the sheep; Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it; and He gave Himself up, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed. When He went to the cross, Christ had a definite end in view for a definite group of people."

"Okay. Then it seems to me that when it is put the first way it shows that one group does justice to the universality of the redemption, and when it is put the second way, it shows that their theological opponents do justice to the efficient purpose of the redemption. And both sides have their verses."

"But both sides, if they believe that the whole Bible is from God, must affirm both types of verses."

"How can you do that? If you believe in a definite atonement, how can you square that with some of the universal passages you quoted earlier?"

"One of the reasons I object so strongly to terms like limited atonement is that it does nothing but reinforce a theological caricature that many have in their minds. I believe that Jesus purchased a definite number of people when He died. But there is no reason we must believe that the number was a small one. He came into the world to save the world, and He will be content with nothing less than a saved world."

"Do you believe that there will be more people saved than lost?"

"Certainly. It says in 1 John 2:2 that He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world."

"Wait a minute," I said. "That just means that every person can be forgiven for their sins if they come to Christ."

"But that is not what it says. It says that Christ was the propitiation for the whole world. Propitiation means that God's wrath is turned aside. If Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, then God's wrath is turned away from the whole world."

I sat silently for a moment, and Martin went on.

"Notice how the verse does not read. It doesn't say that He is the propitiation for our sins, because we believed, and not only for ours, but He is a potential propitiation for the whole world, if only they believe, but of course we know they won’t.”

I laughed. "Well, I agree it doesn’t say that."

"See, the difficulty with verses like this, from the universalist standpoint, is that they prove too much."

"What do you mean by that?"

"The Bible teaches that Christ's death is powerful to save. This power comes through in many of the universal passages. So I reject the position that wants the universality of the passage, but not the efficacy of it. In other words, there is no potential propitiation in I John 2:2. It is actual. Real. In the cross of Christ, the wrath of God has been turned aside from the world."

"Does this present any Calvinists with a problem?"

"It surely does. When the Bible speaks of all men, or the world, there is no grammatical reason in Greek to refer it to each and every man. But at the same time, I believe it is impossible to refer such wonderful universal statements to a tiny snippet of humanity."

"I don't understand you."

"Suppose you went to a football game at your school, and the attendance was spectacular. Would you be lying if you said that the whole student body was there, when in fact Jones was in his room sick?"

I laughed. "No."

"But suppose you said the whole student body was there, when it was just you and Jones. Would there be a problem now?"


"Because... ?"

"Because in the first instance my language would not be at all misleading, while in the second instance it would be."

"Correct. Those who believe what the Bible says about election, but who believe the elect to be few in number, have the same problem. They are confronted with glorious texts about a saved world, and they turn them into texts about a saved church, comprised of the few that will be saved. Of course, their theological opponents are not much better. They turn glorious texts about a saved world into texts about a world which could be saved, but probably won't be."

"So if we continue in this vein, we will no longer be talking about the atonement, but rather eschatology?"

"Well, yes. Although my eschatology is based on this understanding of the atonement, it would take us off track at the present. Some future discussion perhaps? It should suffice to say that the Bible teaches us about an atonement that is efficacious and definite on the one hand, and universal on the other. All those for whom Christ died will be saved, and Christ died for the world."

"And you are saying that this is different than saying Christ died for each and every person."

"Yes. The problem people have with this comes from assuming that both sides of this dispute mean the same thing by for."

"What do you mean?"

"Given that not all men are saved, contrast these two statements: First, Christ died for each and every man. Second, Christ died for His people.

"The word for has a completely different meaning in each of these sentences. In the first, it means that Christ died in order to provide an opportunity of salvation to each and every man. In the second, it means He died to secure the salvation of His people. So the debate is not about the extent of the atonement so much as it is about the nature of the atonement."

"Can you illustrate what you mean?"

"Sure. Suppose you have a philanthropist giving away money. He walks down the street handing out $100 bills. It is easy to assume (falsely) that the one position says he gives $100 to everybody, while the other side maintains he will give money to only some of the people. In this scenario, the debate is about the extent of generosity, and whether or not the philanthropist is being stingy. But on this understanding, both sides agree that the gift is the same (money), while the generosity varies."

"Okay," I said. "What is the debate about?"

"In one view, the philanthropist is not giving out $100 bills. He is giving out tickets to an awards ceremony, where every person attending will be given $100, if they decide to show up. He is giving away an opportunity to get $ 100. This contrasts with the other view which has the philanthropist out in the street, stuffing the money into pockets. He is not giving away opportunity; he is giving away money. So now the debate is over the nature of the gift. Is the gift money, or an opportunity to receive money?"

I thought for a moment. "So in the area of salvation, you are saying that Christ did not die to give men the opportunity of redemption, if they believe, but that He died to redeem men."

"You've got it."

"Well, I think I understand it anyway. But you'll have to excuse me if I don't accept what you are saying right off. This is going to take some hard thinking and Bible study."

"That is exactly what it takes. And don't rush it. Don't agree to anything until you see it in the Scriptures. So which does the Bible teach? Redemption, or an opportunity to be redeemed?"

Texts on the Atonement

2 Corinthians 5:21
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Galatians 1:3,5
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Titus 2:14
Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.

1 Peter 3:18
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.

Ephesians 5:25,27
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.

Hebrews 13:12
Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.

Matthew 20:28
Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

John 10:10
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.

John 10: 14,18
I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.

John 10:25-30
Jesus answered them, 'I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand. I and My Father are one.'

John 17:1.11
Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: 'Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do.

And now, 0 Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.

I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word.

Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.

I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.

And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them.

Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.'

John 17:20
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word....

John 17:24-26
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
0 righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.

Matthew 26:28
For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

Romans 5:12
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned....

Romans 5:1749
(For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous.

John 11:49,52
And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, 'You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.'

Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.

Romans 8:32-33
He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.

Hebrews 9:15
And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

Hebrews 9:27-28
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a
second time, apart from sin, for salvation.

Revelation 5:9
And they sang a new song, saying:
'You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals; For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth.'

This Dialogue has been adapted from Douglas Wilson's Easy Chair's Hard Words by Canon Press