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
"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 dont 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
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 wont.
I laughed. "Well, I agree it doesnt 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 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
"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
"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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own
blood, suffered outside the gate.
Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and
to give His life a ransom for many.
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
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.
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.'
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
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.'
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in
Me through their word....
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.
For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for
the remission of sins.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death
through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned....
(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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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