Note: For all Biblical quotations, the NKJV is used, unless I am citing the Greek Old Testament (LXX), for which the NETS is used. The italics in Biblical quotations are from the translators to note words added for clarity that are not present in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
A key pin in soteriology debates is atonement doctrine. Atonement theories address the question of how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection play into the salvation of men (or perhaps the entirety of creation). There are a number of popular atonement theories. Some include Christus Victor, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, Satisfaction Theory, and Governmental Theory. Lutherans often borrow from more than one atonement theory but see Christus Victor and Penal Substitutionary Atonement as particularly important. Explaining these theories is beyond the scope of this post, but is helpful to know for those familiar with atonement theories that haven’t looked into Lutheranism and are wondering from which approach Lutherans consider the question of the extent of the atonement. For the sake of clarity, we will be primarily considering Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
The extent of the atonement is a debate primarily between Arminians and Calvinists in contemporary discourse. Generally, two sides are given: Limited Atonement (Calvinist) and Universal Atonement (Arminian). Arminians argue that the atonement is universal in extent; that is, Christ died for the redemption of every person that will ever live. Calvinists argue that the atonement is limited in extent; Christ died for the redemption of the elect (IE it is limited to the elect). For the clarification to the reader, John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, may not have believed in Limited Atonement, and there is scholarly debate on this subject. That said, many who came after Calvin in the Calvinist tradition, did affirm Limited Atonement, and this view is now synonymous with “Calvinism” in common parlance.
Different subsets of Arminianism and Calvinism have different nuances to their approaches, but the below confessions contain a summary of both sides, and perhaps the most central focus of this debate in history. Best representing the Arminian view is Article 2 of the Five Articles of Remonstrance, which were condemned by the Continental Reformed at the Synod of Dordt. Best representing the Calvinist view is Article 8 of the Canons of Dordt.
That agreeably thereunto, Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”Five Articles of Remonstrance, Article 2
Note the use of “savior of the world… for all men and for every man… for them all.”
For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father…Canons of Dordt, Article 8: The Saving Effectiveness of Christ’s Death
Note the use of “chosen ones” to describe those for whom Christ redeems, and further, the section on “every people, tribe, nation, and language.” While the latter half sounds universal at first glance, this is an interpretation of the passages that say Christ died for the “world” as meaning “people from all over the world, but still only those were chosen.”
Lutherans, often left out of this debate, side with Arminians with regard to the extent of the atonement. The best expression of this in simple terms are in the 1592 Saxon Visitation Articles, which are generally considered an Appendix to the Lutheran Confessions.
The pure and true Doctrine of our Churches on this Article.
1] That Christ died for all men, and, as the Lamb of God, took away the sins of the whole world.
2] That God created no man for condemnation; but wills that all men should be saved and arrive at the knowledge of truth. He therefore commands all to hear Christ, his Son, in the gospel; and promises, by his hearing, the virtue and operation of the Holy Ghost for conversion and salvation.1592 Saxon Visitation Articles, Article IV On Predestination and the Eternal Providence of God.
Calvinists often call Lutherans inconsistent when Lutherans state the universal extent of the atonement since Lutherans believe in Monergistic Election and Perseverance of the Elect. To this, the Saxon Visitation Articles provide further explanation.
3] That many men, by their own fault, perish: some, who will not hear the gospel concerning Christ; some, who again fall from grace, either by fundamental error, or by sins against conscience.
4] That all sinners who repent will be received into favor; and none will be excluded, though his sins be red as blood; since the mercy of God is greater than the sins of the whole world, and God hath mercy on all his works.1592 Saxon Visitation Articles, Article IV On Predestination and the Eternal Providence of God.
Thus, Lutherans believe in a universal atonement but believe that those who reject God also reject God’s grace and the Gospel that is offered to them freely.
This post will not be addressing the related topics of monergistic election, perseverance and apostasy, or single vs double predestination (dedicated post in the future), which are discussed in other posts. Below, the Lutheran position is defended.
The Patristic Witness
In this post, it is sufficient enough to state that there is no significant support for the opposition in the church fathers and many discuss Christ’s death for the salvation of the world and for all. A handful of notable quotes are found below but are by no means comprehensive.
The entirety of Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John Book VI 37-38, which addresses this very topic but cannot all be placed here, is one of the earliest writings to address this question and concludes with a universal atonement.
The Father of Jesus is therefore a tender and loving Father, though ”He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up” as His lamb ”for us all,” that so ”the Lamb of God,” by dying for all men, might ”take away the sin of the world.” It was not by compulsion, therefore, but willingly, that He bore the reproaches of those who reviled Him.Origen, Against Celsus VIII.43 (248 AD)
Origen has several relevant quotes, but the two above examples seem sufficient.
Where our Lord Jesus Christ, who took upon Him to die for all, stretched forth His hands, not somewhere on the earth beneath, but in the air itself, in order that the Salvation effected by the Cross might be shown to be for all men everywhere: destroying the devil who was working in the air: and that He might consecrate our road up to Heaven, and make it free.Athanasius of Alexandria, Letter 22 (297-373 AD)
“I have need to be baptized by You, and You come to me.” [ Matthew 3:14 ] For, because the baptism was ”of repentance,” and led men to accuse themselves for their offenses, lest any one should suppose that He too ”comes to Jordan” in this sort of mind, John sets it right beforehand, by calling Him both Lamb, and Redeemer from all the sin that is in the world. Since He that was able to take away the sins of the whole race of men, much more was He Himself without sin. For this cause then he said not,”Behold, He that is without sin,” but what was much more, He ”that bears the sin of the world,” in order that together with this truth you might receive that other with all assurance, and having received it might perceive, that in the conduct of some further economy He comes to the baptism. Wherefore also he said to Him when He came, ”I have need to be baptized by You, and You come to me?”John Chrysostom, Homily 12.1 on the Gospel of St. Matthew (347-407 AD)
“So Christ was once offered.” By whom offered? Evidently by Himself. Here he says that He is not Priest only, but Victim also, and what is sacrificed. On this account are [the words] ”was offered.” ”Was once offered” (he says) ”to bear the sins of many.” Why ”of many,” and not ”of all”? Because not all believed. For He died indeed for all, that is His part: for that death was a counterbalance against the destruction of all men. But He did not bear the sins of all men, because they were not willing.John Chrysostom, Homily on the Pestle to the Hebrews 17.4 (347-407 AD)
Chrysostom has several relevant quotes, but the two above examples seem sufficient.
Moreover, he adores the only begotten God Himself, after His Father, and for Him, giving Him thanks that He undertook to die for all men by the cross, the type of which He has appointed to be the baptism of regeneration. He glorifies Him also, for that God who is the Lord of the whole world, in the name of Christ and by His Holy Spirit, has not cast off mankind but has suited His providence to the difference of seasons…Apostolic Constitutions VII.43 (400 AD)
To this forgiveness the traitor Judas could not attain: for he, the son of perdition, at whose right the devil stood, gave himself up to despair before Christ accomplished the mystery of universal redemption. For in that the Lord died for sinners, perchance even he might have found salvation if he had not hastened to hang himself.Pope Leo the Great, Sermon 62.4 (On the Passion, XI) (400-461 AD)
Here it is clear that redemption is universal, so much so that Christ even died for Judas.
In some pictures of the venerable icons, a lamb is painted to which the Precursor points his finger, which is received as a type of grace, indicating beforehand through the Law, our true Lamb, Christ our God. Embracing therefore the ancient types and shadows as symbols of the truth, and patterns given to the Church, we prefer ”grace and truth,” receiving it as the fulfillment of the Law. In order therefore that ”that which is perfect” may be delineated to the eyes of all, at least in colored expression, we decree that the figure in human form of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, Christ our God, be henceforth exhibited in images, instead of the ancient lamb, so that all may understand by means of it the depths of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory his conversation in the flesh, his passion and salutary death, and his redemption which was wrought for the whole world.Council of Trullo, Canon 82 (692 AD)
Notably, some will point to Augustine (354-430 AD) and later Augustinians Prosper of Aquitaine (390-455 AD) and Fulgentius of Ruspe (465-530 AD) as those who taught limited atonement. Augustine notably discusses double predestination, which can imply a limited atonement; however, he gives very little explanation of this doctrine at all, leaving him ambiguous at best for the Calvinists. Furthermore, Augustine writes the following:
The Passion of the Lord is the price for the whole world. He has redeemed the whole world.Augustine, Letter 171 to Donatists
Just as our Lord was the Creator of all, so also as the Restorer of all He has absolved the whole world with a single death. For we must surely believe that He who has given more than the whole world was worth has ransomed the whole world.Augustine, Sermon 193 (PL 39:902)
Furthermore, [Christ suffered] outside the city and outside its walls that you may understand that He is the universal victim offered for humankind and therefore is its universal purification.Augustine, Sermon 155 (PL 39:2047)
And Prosper of Aquitaine writes in Pro Augustini Doctrina Responsiones Ad Capitula Objectionum Vincentianarum that Augustine said the following in response to opponents that accused him of teaching that Jesus did not suffer for the redemption of all men:
Against the wound of original sin by which the nature of all men was corrupted and made liable to death in Adam and out of which developed the disease of all lusts, the true and powerful and unique remedy is the death of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, etc. As far as the magnitude and power of the price are concerned, and as that price is related to the one cause of the human race, the blood of Christ is the ransom for the whole world. However, those who pass through this life without faith in Christ and without the sacrament of regeneration are foreigners to redemption, etc. The cup of immortality, which was prepared from our weakness and from God’s power, has in itself indeed the power to benefit all people. But if they do not drink it, it does not profit them.Prosper of Aquitaine, Pro Augustini Doctrina Responsiones Ad Capitula Objectionum Vincentianarum
Prosper of Aquitaine discusses double predestination (though different from Calvin’s doctrine). Prosper’s doctrine states that God reprobates (I.E. eternal condemnation, the opposite of election) based on their foreseen demerits, I.E. their actual sins. This is different from the view of any notable early Calvinist. Prosper later rejects this position, however, and holds to a single predestination. This is seen expressly in his work The Call of All Nations. Fulgentius of Ruspe embraces a universal atonement early in life and later embraces a more limited atonement (see To Euthymius II.2-3), but his view is, once again, different from the Calvinists. Fulgentius of Ruspe retains a very high view of sacraments. While Calvinists insist that sacraments are only efficacious for the elect, Fulgentius states that they are effective for all who receive them; furthermore, Fulgentius’ form of double predestination is even more explicit than Prosper’s that reprobation is based on foreseen demerits.
Prosper devotes large portions of The Call of All Nations to the topic at hand, but this quote is particularity relevant:
There can, therefore, be not reason to doubt the Jesus Christ our Lord died for the unbelievers and the sinners. If there had been anyone who did not belong to these, then Christ would not have died for all. But He did die for all men without exception. There is no one, therefore, in all mankind who was not, before the reconciliation which Christ effected in His blood, either a sinner or an unbeliever.Prosper of Aquitaine, The Call of All Nations II.16.139-141 (450 AD)
Fulgentius states the following on predestination in his work Ad Monimum Book I:
God has not predestined the wicked to lose righteousness the way He has predestined the saints to receive righteousness… If we were to say that a man has been predestined by God to some wicked deed, we would be ascribing to a merciful God—heaven forbid!—the sort of work where one cannot find a merciful or just God… God could never have predestined man to that which He Himself determined to forbid by commandment, wash away with His mercy, and punish in His justice.
God destined those for punishment who He foreknew would depart from Him by the fault of their wicked will.Fulgentius of Ruspe, Ad Monimum Bk 1 (465-530 AD)
With regard to the Vessels of Wrath in Romans 8, he writes the following:
[They] cannot be called the wrath of God except when the iniquity of man is believed to have preceded it.Fulgentius of Ruspe, Ad Monimum Bk 1 (465-530 AD)
At best, Calvinists can only appeal to these figures by saying that they taught a position with some similarities to Calvinist doctrine, but with some apparent and important differences. Lutheran dogmaticians Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard discuss the work of the Augustinians and notes that their form of double predestination is different from Calvinists.
There are later figures to which the Reformed can appeal for support for their doctrine, namely figures such as Thomas Gottschalk of Orbais (808-867 AD). Gottschalk, however, was condemned as a heretic for his views. Other figures after Gottschalk also have a similar doctrine to the Reformed (though these figures are not the major theological figures in their respective eras), but what is notable is that there is no robust support for such a view prior to the ninth century.
The Scriptural Witness
Salvation for All
Isaiah 53:6 reads, “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
“Him” in this passage refers to Christ and the context discusses Christ’s life and death.
John 12:30-33 reads, “Jesus answered and said, ‘This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die.”
Jesus is answering the people by him who heard the Father from heaven speaking, who the people thought was an angel. Christ says he will draw all to himself in his death on the cross.
Romans 5:15-19 reads, “But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. 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.) Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”
This passage is clear that Christ’s atonement was comparable to Adam’s sin in that Adam’s sin brought death to all, yet Christ’s atonement brought life to all. For this passage to read otherwise, Adam’s sin, and with it death, would have to read as not applying to all people, yet it is clear that all sin and all die.
Romans 8:31-32 reads, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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?”
1 Corinthians 15:20-22 reads, “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
See the note from Romans 5:15-19.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15 reads, “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.”
2 Corinthians 5:17-19 reads, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
Here it is clear that Christ died for both all and the world.
Colossians 1:19-20 reads, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”
This passage, in line with 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, highlights that Christ died not only to reconcile men to himself but all of creation, which includes all men.
1 Timothy 2:3-6 reads, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
Here it is stated that Christ not only desires all to be saved but also that he ransomed (atoned) for all.
1 Timothy 4:9-11 reads, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”
Apologists for limited atonement will point to this passage as example of the doctrine of limited atonement since the atonement is “especially for those who believe,” yet the clear intent of the passage is that Christ died for all, not only those who believe.
Titus 2:11-14 reads, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 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.”
The grace of God that brings salvation, which certainly includes the atonement, has appeared to all men in this passage.
Hebrews 2:8-9 reads, “For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.”
This passage uses slightly different language, “everyone” rather than “all,” in English, but the Greek reads the same as the other passages using the Greek word for all (Gr: pas).
2 Peter 3:9 reads, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
God is willing that all come to repentance. This is not an explicit statement against limited atonement but is implied in that a limited atonement would not generally suggest that Christ desired all to be saved.
Salvation for the World
After John the Baptist preached of the coming of Christ, John 1:29 reads, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'”
This famous proclamation from John the Baptist was considered essential to the early church and appears in the historic Sunday services in a canticle called the “Agnus Dei.”
John 3:14-17 reads, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
In this famous passage, the limited atonement must confess that John is using the word “world” in two different senses (though there is little contextual evidence to support this claim) or that God does not love the whole world but only people throughout the world.
1 John 2:1-2 reads, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
John is clear here that Christ died not only for the sins of the recipients of the letter but also the whole world. Apologists for limited atonement will argue that “holos” in Greek (translated as whole) here means “throughout” and/or that John is clarifying that Christ died not only for the recipients but also Christians throughout the world. The latter argument does not match the context of the letter. The former argument is not an entirely invalid reading, but is not the most common use of the term “holos.”
1 John 4:12-16 reads, “No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”
Salvation for the Ungodly
Romans 5:6-8 reads, “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Limited atonement apologists will point out that all men, even Christians are ungodly. This reading does work in context, but the phrasing does put into question the underlying beliefs of Paul. If Paul believed in limited atonement, would he use such phrasing in this context without clarification?
2 Peter 2:1-3 reads, “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.”
Here, it is clear that Christ bought (that is, atoned for, see Acts 20:28) the false teachers who “bring on themselves swift destruction” and whose “judgment has not been idle” and “destruction does not slumber.” The false teachers are apostate Christians who are condemned, yet Christ still bought them. Limited atonement apologists will respond that the false teachers merely thought that Christ bought them, but because they were not elect, Christ didn’t actually buy them (this rests on the premise of perseverance of the saints, IE that those who truly believe cannot fall away). This interpretation is wanting in the text. Alternatively, another argument is that the false teachers received evanescent grace, a doctrine taught by Calvin that some receive a fleeting and in-genuine faith. This interpretation (and the doctrine of evanescent grace in general) is wanting in the text.
Arguments for Limited Atonement (as with many doctrines) generally fall into a defense against the opponents (negative arguments) or defending the doctrine with their own reasons (positive arguments).
Negative arguments generally consist of the following: Any and all of the passages saying Christ died for the (whole) world are referring to Christ dying for people throughout the world but not every person, and any and all passages saying Christ died for all are referring to all Christians or all of the people being immediately addressed. While perhaps being a possible reading in some passages, such usage of the Greek word “holos” (all world) and “pas” (all) is wanting in many (if not all) the above passages. To claim such an interpretation across such numerous passages without the context of the passage justifying this interpretation undermines this argument. The passages on atonement for the ungodly have been addressed above.
Generally, there are six positive arguments seen in favor of limited atonement. One is an appeal to a select few church fathers and medievals– this has already been addressed above. One is an appeal to reason; drawing from passages on predestination, the Calvinists conclude those that are not predestined to salvation are predestined to condemnation, and therefore, Christ did not atone for them. I will address double predestination in a future post.
The other four arguments are scriptural arguments. The first two scriptural arguments presented are very similar; both look at passages regarding Christ’s atonement that refer to the atonement as “for many” or “for the church” and after this conclude that the writer is implying that Christ did not die for the others. The flaw in this reasoning should be apparent to the reader. Dying for some does not preclude dying for others, especially when there are numerous passages that point to a universal atonement as seen above and the testimony of nearly the entire history of the church is in concord with such a doctrine. The relevant verses have been placed below for the reader to examine themselves. A few notes have been added for clarity.
The final two arguments are interpretations of sections of two passages– namely the Parable of the Good Shepherd and Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. These passages are addressed individually below.
Christ Died for Many
Matthew 20:27-28 reads, “‘And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.'”
Matthew 26:28 (cf. Mark 14:24, Luke 22:17-20) reads, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many* for the remission of sins.”
*The text in Luke reads “shed for you (pl.)” rather than “shed for many.”
Hebrews 9:28 reads, “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.”
Christ Died for His People/The Church
Isaiah 53:8, 11 reads; “He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken…. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.”
Matthew 1:20-21 reads, “But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.'”
Acts 20:28-29 reads, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”
Romans 8:33-34 reads, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.”
In this passage the argument is roughly that if it is Christ that justifies and condemns and Christ that intercedes, then he must atone solely for those for whom he justifies and intercedes, but this is drawn from reason, not from the text. Some Lutherans also handle this text with an appeal to universal objective justification, but is beyond the scope of this article.
Galatians 1:3-4 reads, “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”
Ephesians 5:25-27 reads, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.”
A further counterargument given against the limited atonement interpretation is to apply the interpretation used to other texts and note the conclusions you must draw. An example of this is Galations 2:20, which reads, “‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.'” Applying the same rule to this text as the limited atonement apologists use in the above passages, we must conclude that Christ died for Paul, but not others, which nobody puts forth as a true interpretation.
John 10 – The Parable of the Good Shepherd
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.
Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 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.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 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.”
…. [Later] the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
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 10:1-16, 24-30
The limited atonement apologist interprets the phrase “I lay down My life for the sheep” to mean that Christ lays down His life for the church but not others. This argument fails on three grounds. First, like the other texts on Christ atoning for the church and for many, a text saying that Christ dies for one group does not exclude Christ dying for others. Second, when Christ says the he lays down His life for the sheep, he states it in context of being the good shepherd, contrasting that He lays down His life but the others do not. His focus is not on the extent of the atonement but in telling of His goodness and grace in protecting His flock. Third, if the limited atonement interpretation were to be taken at face value, this would still prove to be a poor passage on which to ground other doctrine. Parables are neither perfectly clear nor precise and thus shouldn’t be used to interpret other clear passages.
John 17 – Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer
“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. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
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. O 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.”John 17:6-24
In this passage, the limited atonement interpretation is that when Christ says, “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours,” He is referring to the fact that He is praying for the elect, but not for the non-elect; therefore, it follows that Christ did not die for the non-elect since He did not intercede for them here. This interpretation fails on two grounds.
First, not interceding for a group in this passage does not necessitate that Christ did not die for this group, but even if this argument were true, who is it that are given to Christ in this passage and who is the world? Christ says, “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” “Them,” “those whom You gave me” must refer to the Apostles as the next clause says “none of them is lost except the son of perdition.” It would not make sense to say “none of the elect is lost except the son of perdition” as the son of perdition (Judas) is not of the elect. Reading “them” to be the apostles also makes the most sense based on the previous clause that reads “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in your name,” suggesting that “them” is a group with whom Christ spent time while on earth.
This reading is further bolstered in the next paragraph. Christ says, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” “These alone” refers to “them” from the previous paragraph, and Christ then prays for “those who will believe in me through their word.” “Those who will believe” is self-explanatory and “their word” must refer to the preaching and writing of “them” from the previous statement, which can only be the Apostles as it was through the word of the Apostles that the rest who believed heard of Christ.
Thus, in this passage, Christ is first praying for the Apostles then for all the believers to come. Still some may argue that the second paragraph then reads, “I pray for the Apostles. I do not pray for the world but for the Apostles, for they are Yours.” Thus, Christ still did not pray for the world here. This argument fails on two grounds as well.
The first argument still holds. Not interceding for a group in this passage does not necessitate that Christ did not die for this group. The second argument regards the context of the prayer. In the end of John 16, Christ is telling the Apostles warnings and comfort, the work of the Holy Spirit, the sorrow and joy of His death and resurrection, and of how He has (ironically for the limited atonement apologist) overcome the world, thus worrying is of no need. The content leading up to the High Priestly Prayer is not regarding the elect, whom will and will not be saved, or other similar notions. The context is on comforting the Apostles and and the future church. The High Priestly Prayer is thus directed toward the same subject: the Apostles and the church. Christ is not outlining the doctrine of election or the atonement so much as praying for the comfort of the Apostles and the perseverance of the church to come.
Universal atonement is nearly unanimous in the history of the church. Among those who dissent, their framework for the doctrine is different from that of the most commonly promoted Calvinist position. The scriptures are clear in their assertion that Christ died for all people, the entire world, and even the ungodly. Supposed passages for limited atonement fail to support the doctrine upon further examination on multiple grounds. The doctrine of universal atonement stands as both the most historic and most scriptural teaching.