Universal Atonement & The Sin of Unbelief

In a recent blog I posted I summarized Oliver Crisp’s recent argument that there is significant room within some key reformed confessions for one to hold on to a doctrine of atonement that excludes limited atonement and is open to universal atonement. I.e. that Christ died no just for the sins of the elect, but for the sins of all humanity. Essentially 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.

However another blogger made a great observation, he said that the argument logically makes sense, however it has one major fault, he said that I had ignored the fact that Jesus died for the sin of unbelief…

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!

This blogger certainly brings up a good point! Essentially he is making an argument similar to one that John Owen (the Puritan) had made. Here is what 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)

A Portrait of John Owen - author of the "The Death of Death in Christ"
A Portrait of John Owen – author of the “The Death of Death in Christ”

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 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.

This is exactly what this thoughtful blogger pointed out!

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.

Faith is a necessary condition for appropriating the saving benefits of Christ’s death.

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6 thoughts on “Universal Atonement & The Sin of Unbelief”

  1. So, Christ died for all your sins – paid for them all – yet if you reject that provision, you have to pay for it too? What was Christ’s payment, then?

    1. Thanks for pushing back Nathan. These are all really good questions! What you are referring to is called the “double payment objection.” It seems unjust that Christ paid for it on the cross, and if you reject Christ’s work that you are punished too. However this objection hangs on the notion that Christ’s work on the cross offered pecuniary or commercial satisfaction rather than forensic or penal satisfaction. Let me illustrate – if you get a parking ticket it doesn’t matter who pays the fine, it could be you or somebody else. However forensic or penal satisfaction requires that there is a connection between the perpetrator and the satisfaction being made. (Charles Hodge makes this distinction in volume 2 of his systematic theology). Hodge, I think rightly, believes that atonement is forensic and not pecuniary. If atonement is pecuniary then God would be unjust to make the sinner pay for the sins that Christ has already paid, however if it is forensic then it seems just that God punish the unrepentant sinner, namely because the person has no sort of union with Christ i.e. there is no connection with the perpetrator and the satisfaction being made.

  2. cwoznicki, why would you say that Christ atoned for the sin of unbelief and then require faith for salvation ? This does not make sense to me. I do believe that Christ does require faith for salvation, and this is because the sin of unbelief has not been atoned for. This is the position of Charles Spurgeon and many other respected reformed theologians. Unbelief persisted to death has not been atoned for. It is a mistake to teach that Christ atoned for all sins, when scripture clearly teaches he has not. Charles Spurgeon summarized it beautifully :

    http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0003.htm

    Spurgeon:
    “5. And now to close this point—for I have been already too long—let me remark that you will observe the heinous nature of unbelief in this—that it is the damning sin. There is one sin for which Christ never died; it is the sin against the Holy Ghost. There is one other sin for which Christ never made atonement. Mention every crime in the calendar of evil, and I will show you persons who have found forgiveness for it. But ask me whether the man who died in unbelief can be saved, and I reply there is no atonement for that man. There is an atonement made for the unbelief of a Christian, because it is temporary; but the final unbelief—the unbelief with which men die—never was atoned for. You may turn over this whole Book, and you will find that there is no atonement for the man who died in unbelief; there is no mercy for him. Had he been guilty of every other sin, if he had but believed, he would have been pardoned; but this is the damning exception—he had no faith. Devils seize him! O fiends of the pit, drag him downward to his doom! He is faithless and unbelieving, and such are the tenants for whom hell was built. It is their portion, their prison, they are the chief prisoners, the fetters are marked with their names, and for ever shall they know that, “he that believeth not shall be damned.” “

  3. Just to add to what Spurgeon said which I agree 100% with, the sin of unbelief is the only sin that was not atoned for at Calvary. This is why the preaching of the gospel demands faith, he that believes shall be saved he that does not believe shall be condemned. So the question is how does God deal with the sin of unbelief if he did not deal with it at Calvary ? The answer is the sin of unbelief is dealt with in regeneration when God creates faith through the preaching of his Word. Unbelief was not dealt with at Calvary, but is dealt with in the elect at the time of regeneration when the atonement is applied. What do you think ?

  4. At the end of your article you stated, “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.” How are you able to use two contradicting terms, ‘required’ and ‘accomplished’ in the same sentence? It is either accomplished or it is not. It can not both be accomplished and not accomplished (thereby requiring a requirement) at the same time.

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