Limited Atonement vs. “Unlimited” Atonement

Most people tend to think that if one is reformed one is required to hold to the doctrine of limited atonement, the doctrine which says that the cope of Christ’s atoning work is accomplished on behalf of and applied only to the elect.

Stations of the Cross

In a recent article on “hypothetical universalism” (hear unlimited or universal atonement, not universalism), the doctrine by which the atoning work of Christ is universal in its sufficiency but applied only to an elect number less than the total number of fallen humanity Oliver crisp argues that there is significant room within some key reformed confessions in which one can hold to a doctrine of atonement that excludes limited atonement and is open to universal atonement. In this article (found in his most recent book Deviant Calvinism) he makes the historical case that this is so, there have been reformed theologians throughout history who have not compromised reformed orthodoxy by holding on to universal atonement. How is this the case? Essentially it hangs on a Lombardian dictum that Christ’s atoning work is sufficient for all humanity yet effective only for the elect, i.e. those that are predestined. Briefly the argument goes like this:

1-Atonement is sufficient for all of humanity.

2-Faith is a necessary condition to receive salvation.

3-God intends the work of Christ, i.e. atonement, to be effective for all those who have faith.

4-Faith is a divine gift.

5-God provides faith for the elect.

6-Thus only the elect, who have been given faith, receive salvation i.e. the effective work of Christ.

Do you think this argument works? What are the flaws in the argument?


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

3 thoughts on “Limited Atonement vs. “Unlimited” Atonement

  1. I think what you have said might logically make sense, but they fall down when you consider what atonement and faith actually are.

    If you’re atoned for all your sins, that must include the sin of unbelief – which is the sin of rejection and hatred of God and everything that He stands for. If you’re atoned for everything except faith, then you still have pretty much everything left to be atoned for!

    You can’t make atonement a finished thing and only effective for some – Jesus has paid your fine for your sins, or he hasn’t. If he has paid your fine, and you don’t believe, how can you still receive judgment? It’s paid! So this idea breaks down.

    1. Thanks for the comment Nathan. You certainly bring up a good point. John Owen says…

      Unbelief is it a sin or is it not? If it be not how can it be a cause of damnation? If it be, Christ died for it,or he did not. If he did not, then he died not for the sins of all men. If he did, why is this an obstacle to their salvation? Is there any new shift to be invented for this? Or must we be contented with the old, namely because they do not believe? That is, Christ did not die for their unbelief, or rather, did not by his death remove their unbelief, because they would not believe, or because they would not themselves remove their unbelief; or he died for their unbelief conditionally, that they were not unbelievers. These do not seem to me to be sober assertions. (Works, 144)

      Or elsewhere, Owen says…

      God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men or all the sins of some men or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved… If the second, this is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe. But this unbelief is it a sin, or is it not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent punishment for it or not. If so why mus that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then he did not die for all their sins. Let them chose which part they will. (The Works of John Owen, 173-74)

      Essentially Owen is arguing that unbelief is a sin – therefore it is a cause for damnation. If Christ died for the unbelief of all of humanity then all of humanity would be saved, because he would have atoned for all the sin of humanity (unbelief included.) However, not all of humanity is saved, therefore Christ could not have died for everybody’s unbelief – therefore we need limited atonement to make sense of why we don’t claim universalism.

      I take it that you are making a similar argument…

      However one might want to say that even if unbelief is dealt with at the cross, under universal atonement, faith is still required for the application of the atonement that has been accomplished. If this is the case, then Christ has surely died for even the reprobate’s sin – unbelief included – however if they do not have the faith necessary to have the benefits of his death applied to them then they suffer the just punishment for their sin.

  2. I believe John Owen’s teaching to be unbiblical, I think that we need a confessional reformed denomination that adheres to the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus who wrote the catechism teaches in his commentary on article 37 of the Heidelberg catechism that Christ satisfied for all, why all do not go to heaven is because there is a condition, i.e. faith. Christ paid the debt for all men, this cancellation of debt or universal propitiation of sins of the whole human race does not benefit anybody unless it is applied by faith (Romans 3:25). So John Owen’s argument that God cannot send to hell those whose sins have been atoned for is a gross misinterpretation of scripture, because Christ’s atonement, both his death and resurrection, although a necessary condition for salvation (1 Corinthian’s 15:17) is not sufficient to save anybody unless they repent and believe. Faith is necessary for salvation, the payment for sin at the cross that Christ made does not profit everybody, and this is solely because they lack faith not because there was a defect in the atonement and the sins of some men were not covered. Unlimited atonement was John Calvin’s teaching, and it is the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism. Limited atonement, as expressed in the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dort ought to be rejected as despicable heresy that destroys the gospel. Christ died while we were still sinners, and enemies of God, Christ died for the ungodly (5:6-8), Christ died for all sinners whether they believe or not, whether they are elect or reprobate. With that said if we look at the atonement with regard to the benefits it grants, everybody will agree that only the elect benefit from the atonement, only the elect can come to faith and to them alone is the atonement applied.

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