Within Christianity there are only two schools of theology whereby we view the Atonement: an Arminian or Calvinistic view. Your theology, whether you know it or not – whether you choose to believe it or not, is influenced by either an Arminian reading of the text, or a Calvinistic reading of the text. That’s just the way it is. But which one is correct? I will argue that Scripture and Church History side with the Calvinist view of the Atonement. This view is known as “Limited Atonement”.
John Calvin taught the doctrine of Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption which states that the death of Christ did not just make salvation possible but actually paid the price and secured salvation for sinners. I agree with the doctrine of Limited Atonement or what is also known as Particular Redemption. Since both Arminian and Calvinist teach Limited Atonement my attempt is not to prove the doctrine but to clarify the doctrine. The Arminian position teaches that the atonement is limited. They believe that Christ died on the cross for every single individual that ever and would ever live. They hold to an all-inclusive atonement. Yet they limit its power. The position as I understand it basically states that the death of Christ secured salvation for no one in particular but made it possible for anyone on his or her own free will to make a self determined choice to be saved. Therefore they limit the power of the atonement
Calvin on the other hand taught that the atonement was limited in its scope; that the power of the atonement was sufficient to purchase and save the intended target. In other words Jesus’ death paid a definite price and secured salvation, it did not just make salvation possible. In Isaiah 53:8 the prophet says that Jesus was stricken for “the transgression of my people”. He was not stricken for the transgression of the world (all people without exception), but God’s people. In Isaiah 53:11 the prophet spoke of the atoning work of Christ and its purpose:
“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see an be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one my servant, make many to be accounted righteous and he shall bear their iniquities”.
In the latter part of verse 12 Isaiah writes, “yet he bore the sin of many”. Jesus bore the iniquities of many, which speaks of a price paid. The scope of the atonement was meant not for every single human being, but for those whom God predestined before the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:3-7 speaks of this truth. God chose, predestined some for adoption and redeemed them from their sins. In Matthew 1:21 the Bible says that Jesus would, “save His people from their sins”. In John 10:15 Jesus said that he would lay down his life, not for the world, but “for the sheep”. Does the sheep consist of all humanity or those whom the Father predestined before the foundation of the world?
Some might argue that Jesus died for the whole world by quoting John 3:16. But when we read this in context we see that Jesus was speaking to a Jewish leader and the concept of God loving the whole world, Gentile nations included, was foreign to Jews. Jesus was saying that God does not just love the Jews but Gentiles as well and the Christ came to fulfill the promise of Abraham that all the nations of the earth will be blessed, not just Israel. To make “the world” mean every single human being creates to many problems. For instance, In Luke 2:1 when Caesar Augustus issued a decree that “all the world should register” did that included people living in South America, or China? In John 12:19 the Pharisees claimed said, “Look, the world has gone after him”. Well we can simply ask the question, did Pilate go after him? Did Herod go after him? Also, in John 12:32 Jesus makes the following statement, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” What did Jesus mean by all? Did he mean every single person without exception? Was Jesus trying to say that he would draw to himself every single person that ever lived on the face of the earth? If you rip this verse out of its context then yes that is what Jesus said. But, if you read the verse in its context then you see that Jesus was saying that he would not only draw Jews to himself, but Greeks, Italians, Polish, Chinese, etc. He said this in the context of Greeks seeking him. It is true that Jesus will draw all people groups, but not every single person. Obviously to take the term “the world” and “all” to mean every single individual brings with it far too many problems.
John 3:16 suggest that God loved all nations of the world and not just Jews. So this proof text that most critics use has little weight in refuting Limited Atonement. If Christ’s purpose was to save every single human being then he failed miserably. In this way the Arminian also limits the atonement.
So the real issue is not who limits the atonement, but who has a correct biblical view of Limited Atonement.
For more on Limited Atonement see:
Limited Atonement – Did Jesus Die for the Whole World