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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Doctrines of Grace

"The Atonement"
By Fred Butler

Christianity is unique in that it exclusively teaches man’s need for a sacrificial and redemptive atonement to cover his sin, in order that God can be approached.  All other world religions, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for instance, teach that men can, by themselves, earn their own favor or merit with their gods.  Muslims, for example, are appalled with the idea of atonement for sin.  This also rings true for many pseudo-Christian faiths like Mormonism.  Mormons believe Christ died to give them the opportunity to do good works.


As careful students of the Bible, we want to have a solid grasp on what the Bible teaches regarding the death Christ died.  The reason this is such an important doctrine is that Christ’s death is the central theme of both the OT and the NT.  The cross is the watershed of all human history. It is significant that human history is divided into B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (anno  domini, the year of our Lord).


With that in mind, we come to the most controversial of all the 5 points of Calvinism, Limited Atonement.  Limited atonement is one of the most despised theological doctrines, as well as one of the most misunderstood.


Definitions of Limited Atonement:



Christ’s work on the cross was definite in design and accomplishment – that it was intended to render complete satisfaction for only those chosen by the Father and given to the Son.  Steele and Thomas: The 5 Points of Calvinism.


Christ intended or purposed that His atonement should pay for the sins of only those the Father had given Him.  In other words, Christ died, not for everyone, as in “every single person who has or will live,” but only for “His people” (Matt. 1:21), “His sheep” (John 10:15, 26), and “the Church” (Acts 20:28).  Edwin Palmer: The 5 Points of Calvinsim.



The Arminian Position:


In contrast, the Arminians believe in what is called universal atonement or unlimited atonement.  Essentially, they believe that Christ died for every man without exception.  The atonement is made to be a possible or potential pardon for the sinner.  Christ’s saving work was designed to make it possible for God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe upon Christ.  They would teach that salvation has been accomplished, but all that needs to be done to activate it on behalf of the sinner is the sinner’s faith upon that atonement.  In other words, God has met His part of the equation; men now supply their part of the equation – belief by faith.


¨       The Problem of Terminology


The term limited is a confusing one.  Those who say Christ’s atonement is limited are often misunderstood to be saying that Christ’s power to save is limited. The word limited sounds as though the atonement is narrow or lacks some merit, where as the word unlimited implies abundant power, and in the mind of the Arminian, magnifies the grace of God.

We must establish that Calvinists believe Christ’s power to save is unlimited.  His power to save was sufficient to save ten thousand worlds of sinners.  The issue is that God has a limited purpose. Thus, the extent of the atonement is not really in relation to “how many are saved,” but in relation to what God sovereignly purposed to accomplish with the atonement – The salvation of His people.  In other words, it was designed to secure the salvation of the elect only. 


With that in mind, it is better to say the atonement was definite, or particular for the salvation of the elect.


NOTE: Arminians limit the atonement of Christ as well, though they refuse to admit it.  The real question as to the limit of the atonement comes down to “who does the limiting, God or men?”


The Arminian who teaches free will and universal atonement believes that man’s will limits the success of God’s great plan of redemption.  In other words, God can only redeem those who are willing.


Does man’s “sovereign” and fickle will decide God’s intentions and purposes for the atonement? OR, Does God’s sovereign grace and purpose dictate the ultimate success of the redemptive work of Christ?


The Calvinist believes the Bible teaches the latter.



­      The Need for Atonement


A Review of Man’s Sin


As we saw with our study of total depravity, man’s sin has separated him from God.  Adam’s fall into sin plunged the human race under the curse of God, (Gen. 3:16-19).  From that point on, the entire human race was under that curse, separated from the presence of a holy God.


We noted the following regarding man’s sin nature:


(1).  It is in him at conception.

(2).  His nature affects his whole being, heart, mind, affections and will. 

(3).  Man’s sin has darkened his understanding of spiritual truth, so that he cannot

       comprehend God and His word. 

(4).  It also makes him unable to come to God.  He cannot choose to do spiritual good,

       or do anything that merits salvation.                    

(5).  Most significantly, man’s sin nature has placed him under God’s wrath.  It is only just for

       a holy God, who created the universe, to punish that individual who acts contrary to His holy character.


This last point is important to our discussion of atonement.

The Bible is clear that God is holy, separated and exalted above His creation.  The Bible is also clear that God is just and righteous and He must deal with those who transgress His laws accordingly.


Sin has separated God from man.  The two cannot have fellowship until the sins of man are dealt with justly.  The problem, however, is that man is unable to merit the requirements that restores fellowship with God.


The condition of the elect


As we have learned, God has elected some of sinful humanity to salvation.  Their election alone does not save them, only marks them out for salvation.  God cannot grant them forgiveness of sin and restored fellowship with Himself based upon their election alone.  To merely overlook the sin of the elect with out dealing with it according to God’s righteous standard would violate God’s holy character.  The elect must meet God’s divine standard of righteousness as well.  This is where Christ’s atonement is applied.



­      Definitions of Atonement


In the Old Testament


In the OT, the general word for atonement is kapar.  Kapar means to cover over, or to pacify.  We are familiar with yom kippur, “the day of atonement.”  Kapar is first found in Genesis 6:14 in reference to the pitch Noah uses to cover over the ark. 

Kapporet is translated mercy seat, the slab of gold that covered the Ark of the Covenant, on which the blood of the sin offering was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).  The kapporet was the central point at which Israel, through the high priest, could have their sins forgiven for that year.


In the New Testament


When we come to the NT we find some specific and specialized words for atonement.


Reconcile, reconciliationkatallasso  means to change, exchange.  The idea is to make a change in relationship between God and man.  Men are changed from enmity to friendship with God.

There is a strong form of katallasso, apokatallasso, which is also translated as reconcile.  This stronger word has the meaning of reconciling completely.  It means to reconcile to the point of removing all enmity and leaving no impediment to unity and peace. 

It is used in Colossians 1:21 where the believer, who was once alienated toward God, has been reconciled to Him.


A proper theological definition of reconciliation would be: The sovereign work of God the father in which alienation from sinners is removed through the death of Christ the son.


Propitiationhilaskomai has the idea of to appease.  This is a significant word, for propitiation entails more than just the covering over, forgiveness, and the canceling of sin.  It is the turning away of God’s wrath – appeasing His wrath against sinful men. 


A proper theological definition of propitiation would be: That work of Christ wherein He turns away the wrath of God against the sinner through the substitutionary sacrifice of Himself to God. 



­      The Nature of The Atonement


How is the atonement outlined in scripture?  When we examine the following points, it will be demonstrated that Christ’s atonement was totally effectual in securing the salvation of all the Father gave to Him.


The Atonement rendered satisfaction to God


Atonement makes its primary impression upon the person to whom it is made.  In other words, if a person wrongs another person and the offending party makes a satisfaction for that wrong, that satisfaction is intended for the offended party, not the offending party. 


Thus, Christ’s atonement turned God’s wrath away from the sinner, and placed him into renewed fellowship with God.  God just anger is appeased and He can be reconciled to the sinner.

Romans 5:1, 8-10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21


The Atonement was vicarious


VicariousActing on behalf of, or as representing another, or Something performed by one person with the results applied to the benefit or advantage of another.


There are a couple of basic ideas with vicarious.


A.  First, vicarious can have the idea of one party making a payment on behalf of a second party.  In a sense, taking the responsibility of setting them free from debt.


B.  Secondly, vicarious has the idea of one party literally standing in place for another.  The first party is actually treated as if he were the other.  Simply put, the first party has become a substitute for the second.


With those definitions in mind, there are a few biblical words and phrases that help shape our thinking of vicarious


Ø       Ransom and Redeem


Both words, ransom and redeem, are translated from the root word lutron.  It means something to lose with.  It is used to describe a person who is in massive debt and needs cash to be free from that debt.  The cash that frees the person from that debt is a ransom or redemption price.


The Bible states that Christ became our ransom and our redeemer.

Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6; Galatians 3:13; Ephesians 1:7,14; Titus 2:14


The key behind the truth of lutron is that freedom must follow the price being paid or there is no real ransom, nor redemption.  In other words, when Christ paid the ransom for sinners, He did not leave some of those sinners still in debt.  The ransom and redemption were completed in full.  The blood of Christ did not make us merely redeemable but it actually redeemed us.


Those who teach a universal atonement teach that Christ’s death only made it possible for us to be redeemed, but our faith is the decisive factor that enables God to actually redeem us.


Ø       The prepositions huper and anti


Vicarious also has the meaning of substitutionone party standing in place of another.  The two Greek prepositions, huper and anti, carry that meaning. 


huperfor, for the sake of, in behalf of, or instead of.

anti – Has the dominant meaning of, instead of and is often translated for.

Matthew 20:28; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:22-25.


These two words are found through out the NT especially in connection with words describing Christ’s death.  The significance of the two prepositions is that they indicate actual substitution, not merely a potential or possible one. 


A possible salvation for all men with Christ’s death is contrary to the biblical concept of substitution. 

An OT illustration of such an absurd contradiction would be Abraham sacrificing the ram, but then sacrificing Isaac as well.


Because Christ’s death was an actual substitution, according to these two words, there is a serious theological problem created that contradicts scripture if we understand the atonement to only be a possible one dependent upon man’s belief. 

If Christ’s atonement is universally provisional in scope, making a way for all men to come to God, then Christ was a universal substitute.  He then died in behalf of, or for all men with out exception.  Thus, all men have their sin paid for by Christ regardless of whether men volitionally believe upon Christ or not.  Hence, the erroneous doctrine of universalism would be affirmed.

However, we know scripture tells us that men will be judged and condemned for their sin.  But, if Christ’s atoning work were universally provisional in its scope, then those men, who are eternally judged, would be paying for their sin in which Christ already paid on their behalf. 


The Atonement removes guilt and imputes righteousness


Understanding the doctrine of imputation is helpful in shaping our thinking about the atonement.


Imputation – From the Latin, imputare, is a word meaning to reckon, or to charge to one’s account.

The essential idea with imputation is to answer how sin came into the world, and why men are guilty with their sin, and how the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to the sinner.


The primary passage that discusses imputation is Romans 5.  Paul compares the imputation of Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience.



Ø       Adam’s Disobedience:


Romans 5:12 states that all men sinned because of Adam’s disobedient act. 


Note the following regarding Adam’s act:


-          One man, Adam, brought this condition upon humanity.

-          The scope of his sin is universal: It is spread to all men.

-          Humanity is thus as equally guilty in disobedience as Adam.

-          The principle of death, (Romans 5:13-17), is demonstration of the consequence of this disobedience.


Paul is stating that Adam was mankind’s representative.  When he sinned it was as if we were there with him in seminal or seed form.  Adam’s disobedience made all men equally guilty. 


Ø       Christ’s obedience:


Romans 5:18, 19, however, states that Christ’s righteous obedience takes away that guilt.


Note the following regarding Christ’s act:


-          One man, Christ, brings justification upon all.

-          The scope of that justification is universal: It is to all men.

-          Instead of bringing death, Christ brings righteousness.


Paul is saying that Jesus Christ was also a representative.  All of those men for whom Christ represented at the cross in obedience have sin cancelled and righteousness imputed to them.


What is meant by “all men” and “many”?


You will notice the word all and many found here in Romans 5.  Those of Arminian persuasion argue that in the same way Adam’s disobedience affected all of mankind without exception; Christ’s obedience affects all of mankind without exception. 


The conclusion, then, is that Christ’s atonement has saving benefits for everyone without exception.  All that is needed is the exercise of belief on the part of men.  God has done his part to provide salvation by Christ, and when a person believes, Christ’s death is imputed to him or her.

All and many is understood as every person in the entire world.


There are some problems with that general idea.


1). First, if Christ’s atonement is imputed when a person believes, then Adam’s guilt had to have been imputed when that person initially disobeyed.  In other words, this position grants the possibility that men were born sinless.  It would then be understood that people are declared guilty sinners at their first act of disobedience.

(Just an historical footnote – There have been heretics who have taught that men are born sinless and experience their own personal “fall” when they first disobey).


2). The grammar in Roman’s 5 does not allow for the interpretation that Christ’s atonement is potentially saving, IF a person only believes in it.  Note the following:


·         The first thing prominent about the words in this passage is that they are past tense. 

 justified, 5:9; reconciled, 5:10. These are actions that have been completed and accomplished

       on behalf of those for whom it was done. 

·         Also, the action completed in the past has present, as well as future results. Adam caused sin, death, and condemnation to enter, 5:12, 18. Christ brings righteousness and eternal life, 5:19,21.

       There is nothing potential or possible in regards to this atonement.  It is a finished work and it has been applied                               to those who are bestowed with abundant grace, 5:17.

What, then, is meant by all and many?


Paul is saying that just as all men for whom Adam represented with his disobedience are condemned (every person with out exception); all men for whom Jesus represented with his obedience (the elect – those given to Christ by the father), are justified and declared righteous (5:19).


Adam represents allthe whole human race.

Jesus represents allthe new race of the redeemed.


The Atonement is only extended to God’s People.


Now that we have examined some exegetical data regarding the atonement, we can correctly conclude that God’s purpose with the atonement was to only extend salvation to His people.


There are some pictures of this truth also found with in the OT.


Ø       Noah


We saw earlier that the Hebrew word for the pitch used to cover the ark is translated from kapar, which means to cover over.  Kapar is also translated as atonement in other OT passages.


The description of the pitch in Genesis 6:14, is a theological picture of the application of the atonement.  In fact, Noah’s ark pictures the atonement, and that ark was designed to protect Noah, his family, and the animals.  The rest of humanity in Noah’s day could had been saved by the ark, it was sufficient to protect anyone, it was designed, however, for only Noah and the other occupants called into it by God.


Ø       The Passover


The Exodus narrative tells the history of God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt.

In Exodus 12, Moses is told by the Lord to command the people of Israel to take a lamb, slay and eat it, and then take some of the blood and smear it on the doorposts of the house. 


The reason for the blood was that God was going to judge Egypt by slaying the first-born of all men and animals, (12:12).


Note the following with regards to the Passover:


-    It was atonement in blood.  The blood demonstrated that a death had occurred.

-    It was only extended to Israel, God’s people.  The Egyptians were not equal partakers

     in the Passover.

-    It would most certainly secure the deliverance from the destroyer. (12:23)


The Passover is a picture of what Christ did on the cross.  He secured the deliverance of those for whom He died.


Ø       The Day of Atonement


Leviticus 16 describes the ceremony the priests, particularly the High Priest, performed to make atonement for Israel.


The notable aspect to this ceremony on the Day of Atonement is found in 16:17 - It is performed for Israel alone. The gentile nations surrounding Israel were not equal partakers in this atonement.  It was only for those individuals, (the People of Israel), who were in a covenant with God.


Christ performed the same duty for His people, (Acts 10:28).  It is atonement for them alone.



­      Objections and Problem Passages to Limited Atonement


Those who believe Christ atoned equally for all men, appeal to passages that seem to indicate the atonement is universal in scope.  Calvinists are called upon to explain how they can reject passages that clearly teach Christ’s atonement is universal for the entire world.

That is a fair question.  If Calvinists believe Christ died to secure salvation for the elect only, how are those apparent universal passages to be understood?


Interpretative Principles


Before we can begin an examination of those various key passages, we must be reminded of some basic hermeneutical principles of biblical interpretation.


¨       The context of a passage must be kept in mind.  The context will include the entire verse, the passage where the verse in found, and the chapter where the verse is found.


¨       The individual, or audience being addressed in the book, must be considered.  In narrative literature, such as the Gospels and Acts, the individuals speaking to one another must be identified, as well as who is speaking to whom.  In doctrinal literature like the epistles, the receivers of the epistle need to be remembered.


¨       The theme and writer’s intent should be considered.  We need to discover what exactly the writer of the passage had in mind when he wrote.  What was his purpose? Did he have an issue to address?  An error to correct? Does he consistently use certain themes no other writer uses?


¨       Specific theological words will help to lend clarity to other words in a passage.  The word “world” for instance, on the surface appears to mean every person in the world, but the word’s conection to other theological words and themes found in the verse, and surrounding verses, can shape its meaning.


With these basic principles in mind, let us consider the major passages that seem to teach a universal atonement.


John 3:16


For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.”


This classic verse is probably the first one memorized by new Christians.  It is also one of the first texts the universalist uses to prove a general atonement for every person in the world.  On the surface, it appears as though the verse proves their point; but does a study yield that conclusion?


John’s use of the word “world.”  John, more than any other NT writer, makes uses the word world regularly in his Gospel, his epistles, and Revelation.  John’s frequent use of this word causes the reader to consider his use of it.

World is translated from the Greek word kosmos.  In John’s writings, he has three primary uses of kosmos.


1). Mankind in general.

2). The system of darkness and wickedness as opposed to the spiritual realm.

3). The scope, or sphere of God’s redemptive action.

The context of the various passages will define John’s use of kosmos.


The context of John chapter 3.  Nicodemous, a Jewish Pharisee, comes to Jesus and questions Him about spiritual matters.  Jesus launches into a dialog about the kingdom of God.  One interesting comparison Jesus uses is the narrative of the fiery serpents found in Numbers 21 (John 3:14).  Jesus states that in the same way Moses lifted up the serpent and the Israelites were saved, so must the Son of God be lifted up, but in this case, not only is Israel saved, but also the world.

Jesus is essentially telling Nicodemous that God’s Kingdom has moved out of the bounds of national Israel to now encompass the rest of the world – Gentiles as well as Jews.


The meaning of “whosoever believeth.” The word believeth is translated from a present active participle.  Believeth can be rendered, the believing ones, or the ones believing.  What that means is that grammatical emphasis is placed upon individuals from a group, not the whole group.  Thus, the purpose of the gift God gave (His son) is intended for specific individuals (those believing). 

Who are the believing ones? It is the ones who have been born again  (3:3-8).

See also John 17:2, where the Son gives eternal life to those who are given to him.



Jesus is telling Nicodemous that God’s redemptive work is no more limited to the Jews, but will also encompass the gentiles throughout the whole world.  Those in the world, who are born again and believe on Jesus, have the gift of eternal life bestowed upon them.


1 John 2:2


       And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”


More has been written on this passage than any other when it comes to the extent of the atonement.   Those who believe Christ’s death makes all men savable come running to this passage as a proof text.


If the verse is given a cursory reading it appears to teach a universal scope for the atonement.

John states that Christ propitiated for the sins of the whole world.  However, when 1 John 2:2 is placed under the search light of proper exegesis, we can see what John actually meant by the whole world, and the universal position fades.


The context of John’s epistle.  In his epistle, John contrasts believers with unbelievers, the saved with the unsaved, sons of God with children of the devil, and those who walk in light, with those who walk in darkness.  It is apparent John is pointing out a stark contrast between two classes of men. 

With that in mind, why would John put believers and unbelievers together as equally sharing in the benefit of Christ’s death here in 2:2?  To do so would not be consistent with John’s theme of contrast.


The immediate context of John 1 and 2.  In the end of the first chapter, John is offering comfort to believers struggling with sin.  John’s offer of comfort is to remind those believers they have an advocate with the father (2:1), as well as a propitiation in Jesus Christ (2:2).

It would also be inconsistent with John’s point here if he were offering that comfort equally to unbelievers as well.


Understanding the word “propitiation” in this passage.  Earlier, we saw that the word propitiation means “an appeasement.”  In connection with Christ’s death, propitiation has the idea of turning away God’s wrath.

The universalist weakens the word propitiation in order to make it equally applicable to all the world.  In other words, the universalist has reduced propitiation to a definition of pro-vision, not a procurement, and thus the quality of the atonement is decreased.


The universalist cannot get around the fact that propitiation means that Christ has most certainly appeased the wrath of God.  If the universalist wishes to maintain a proper meaning for the word propitiation, then he is left explaining the verses that speak of God’s wrath presently abiding upon the unbeliever.  To conclude that John is saying Christ atoned for the whole world, forces one into the position of absolute, universal salvation and the Bible does not teach that.


Cross-referencing similar passages.  John 11:51-52 helps our understanding of 1 John 2:2.  In that passage, the high priest makes a prophetic announcement,


 “…but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation, and not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in on the children of God that were scattered abroad.”


The phrase structure is similar to 1 John 2:2.  There is an expansion from a narrow group to a larger group. 

Another place is John 17:20, “Neither do I pray for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word.”  Note the similar structure to the previous two passages.


1 John 2:2 is not advocating a universal atonement that makes all men savable.  John is proclaiming to his readers that Christ made a propitiation for their sins, but also the sins of others out side their sphere of life, who live in the rest of the world.  It is not the whole world individually, but the whole world in its totality that John has in mind here.

On final passage that rounds out our understanding of “world” is Revelation 5:10. Here, John states that there are individuals from out of every tribe, tongue, people group and nation present around the throne of God in heaven.  In other words, people from the whole world. 


1 Timothy 4:10


       “…we trust in the living God, who is the saviour of all men, especially of those that believe.”


What is meant by God being the savior of all men? The first thing noticeable is that God is described as the savior, not Jesus Christ.  The idea of an atoning sacrifice is absent from this passage, for Jesus’s work on the cross is not mentioned.


Savior – translated from soter, meaning also, deliver, preservation, or protection.



Paul does not have in mind solely the idea of eternal salvation with these words.  He is describing one aspect of God’s attributes; God being a compassionate and caring God, and that care extends to all men in the earth.

All men experience temporal blessing of friends, family, good crops, and the general well being of life.

In a special sense, however, God is a special savior to those with whom He has a relationship through Christ.  They have been delivered from sin and judgment, and have entered into a new covenant with God through Christ.

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