Limited Atonement – Did Jesus Die for The Whole World?

The following is taken from Chapter 9 of “The Truth of the Cross” by R.C. Sproul

Is it conceivable that Jesus would be willing to die for the whole world but not pray for the whole world? That doesn’t make sense. He was being consistent. He had come to lay down His life for His sheep. He was going to die for His people, and He made it clear here that those were the ones for whom He was about to die. There is no question here of indiscrimination. Jesus was about to make atonement, and that atonement would be effective for everyone for whom He intended it to be effective. – R.C. Sproul


When I lived and ministered in western Pennsylvania, the residents of the small town of Greensburg became upset about some work that was done by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. It seemed that a crew from the department painted new white lines down the center of the highway outside Greensburg, and then another crew came and put a fresh asphalt topping over the new white lines. Not surprisingly, the taxpayers were scratching their heads about this kind of procedure.

You may wonder what this story has to do with the atonement. There has been a great controversy in the history of the church concerning the intent of God the Father and of God the Son in the act of the atonement. The question is, “For whom did Christ die?” In other words, what was God’s design and purpose in the whole dynamic activity of the cross? In my opinion, some responses to that question function just like the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation—they paint white lines, then cover them up.

The Reformed branch of the church has answered this question with the doctrine of limited atonement, also known as the doctrine of particular redemption. When people hear of limited atonement, they immediately tend to think of Calvinism, because the idea of limited atonement is linked historically to the name John Calvin and the term Calvinism. Indeed, the doctrine of limited atonement is one of the so-called “five points of Calvinism.”

It is somewhat of a misnomer to speak of Calvinism as having five points. Calvin himself did not summarize Reformed theology by listing five points. Nowhere in his voluminous writings will you find such a summation of his theology. The five points actually were compiled in Holland in the seventeenth century, when there was a reaction among Dutch clergymen to their own historic brand of Calvinism. A group led by James Arminius protested against certain doctrines that were part of orthodox Reformed theology. These protesters, who were called the Remonstrants, listed five particular doctrines of Reformed theology with which they disagreed. The Synod of Dort was called to answer the complaints of the Remonstrants, and the delegates to that synod reaffirmed historic Reformed theology and repudiated the Remonstrants’ positions. In doing so, they summarized the classical Reformed position on each of the five points the Remonstrants had questioned, and since then we’ve heard of the five points of Calvinism. Reformed theology teaches a lot more than five points, but these five points are definite distinctives of Calvinistic doctrine.

It is important to note that the doctrine of limited atonement was not introduced by Calvin and is not unique to Calvinism. The debate over the atonement intensified as early as the fourth century, when the focus was on the teachings of Augustine over against those of the British monk Pelagius. It was Augustine who most clearly articulated the concept in a theological way for the early church fathers. In fact, Calvinism is really just a later synonym for Augustinianism, which we touched on briefly in Chapter 1.

In any case, these five singular points of Calvinistic doctrine are often summarized by the acronym TULIP, with each letter standing for one of the five points. The T stands for total depravity, the U is for unconditional election, the L signifies limited atonement, the I is for irresistible grace, and the P stands for the perseverance of the saints.

Each of these doctrines is questioned and debated by many in the church, but I doubt that any of these five points has created more controversy than the L. In fact, there are hosts of folks who call themselves four-point Calvinists because they just can’t swallow the doctrine of limited atonement. Sometimes they say, “I’m not a Calvinist and I’m not an Arminian, I’m a Calminian.” I think that a four-point Calvinist is an Arminian. I say that for this reason: When I have talked to people who call themselves four-point Calvinists and have had the opportunity to discuss it with them, I have discovered that they were no-point Calvinists. They thought they believed in total depravity, in unconditional election, in irresistible grace, and in the perseverance of the saints, but they didn’t understand these points.

Only once have I encountered an exception to this general rule, one self-proclaimed four-point Calvinist who was not a no-point Calvinist. This person happened to be a teacher of theology. I was interested in his position, so I said to him: “I want to hear how you handle this, because I trust you. I know you’re knowledgeable in theology, and I want to hear how you think this through.” I expected that he would not have an accurate understanding of the T, U, I, and P. But to my astonishment, when he went through them, I found that he had them down as clearly as any strict Calvinist ever articulated them. I was rejoicing, but I was also amazed. I said, “Now tell me about your understanding of limited atonement.” When he gave me his understanding of limited atonement, I discovered this man was not a four-point Calvinist, he was a five-point Calvinist. He believed in limited atonement and didn’t know it.

My point is that there is confusion about what the doctrine of limited atonement actually teaches. However, I think that if a person really understands the other four points and is thinking at all clearly, he must believe in limited atonement because of what Martin Luther called a resistless logic. Still, there are people who live in a happy inconsistency. I believe it’s possible for a person to believe four points without believing the fifth, although I don’t think it’s possible to do it consistently or logically. However, it is certainly a possibility given our proclivity for inconsistency.

To begin to unravel the misconceptions about this doctrine, let’s look first at the question of the value of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Classical Augustinianism teaches that the atonement of Jesus Christ is sufficient for all men. That is, the sacrifice Christ offered to the Father is of infinite value. There is enough merit in the work of Jesus to cover the sins of every human being who has ever lived and ever will live. So there is no limit to the value of the sacrifice He made. There is no debate about this.

Calvinists make a distinction between the sufficiency and the efficiency of the atonement. That distinction leads to this question: was Jesus’ death efficient for everybody? In other words, did the atonement result in everyone being saved automatically? Jesus’ work on the cross was valuable enough to save all men, but did His death actually have the effect of saving the whole world?

This question has been debated for centuries, as noted above. However, if the controversy over limited atonement was only about the value of the atonement, it would be a tempest in a teapot because the distinction between the sufficiency and efficiency of the atonement does not define the difference between historic Reformed theology and non-Reformed views such as Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. Rather, it merely differentiates between universalism and particularism. Universalists believe that Jesus’ death on the cross did have the effect of saving the whole world. Calvinism disagrees strongly with this view, but historic Arminianism and dispensationalism also repudiate universalism. Each of these schools of thought agrees that Christ’s atonement is particular and not universal in the sense that it works or effects salvation only for those who believe in Christ, so that the atonement does not automatically save everybody. Therefore, the distinction between the sufficiency and efficiency of Jesus’ work defines particularism, but not necessarily the concept of limited atonement.

As an aside, let me say that while not everyone is saved by the cross, the work of Christ yields universal or near-universal concrete benefits. Through the death of Christ, the church was born, which led to the preaching of the gospel, and wherever the Gospel is preached there is an increase in virtue and righteousness in society. There is a spillage from the influence of the church, which brings benefits to all men. Also, people around the world have benefited from the church’s commitment to hospitals, orphanages, schools, and so on.

The real heart of the controversy over limited atonement is this question: what was God’s intent or His design in sending Christ to the cross? Was it the purpose of the Father and the Son to make an atonement that would be made available to all who would put their trust in it, with the possibility that none might avail themselves of its benefits? In other words, was God’s purpose in sending Christ to the cross simply to make salvation possible? Or did God from all eternity plan to send Christ to die a substitutionary death in order to effect an actual atonement that would be applied to certain elect individuals?

Historic Reformed theology takes the biblical doctrine of divine election seriously. Because of it, Calvinists believe that God had a plan from all eternity to redeem a people for Himself. That plan encompassed only a portion of the human race; it was never God’s intention to save everybody. Remember, given our sin and His justice, God was under no obligation to save anyone. Indeed, He would have been perfectly just if He had consigned all people to eternal damnation, but in His mercy, He chose to save some. If it had been God’s intention to save everybody, then everybody would be saved, but God’s purpose in redemption was to save a remnant of the human race from the wrath they had earned for themselves and justly deserved. These people will receive God’s mercy; all others will receive His justice.

The design of the atonement was that Christ would go to the cross, as He Himself said, as “ ‘a ransom for many’ ” (Matt. 20:28b). He would lay down His life, as He said, “ ‘for the sheep’ ” (John 10:11b). The purpose of the atonement was to provide salvation for God’s elect. Simply put, Reformed theology teaches that Jesus Christ went to the cross for the elect, and only for the elect. That, in a nutshell, is the doctrine of limited atonement.

People have trouble with that, particularly if I use those words to describe the doctrine. What if I say Jesus went to the cross to make an atonement for believers, and only for believers? In that statement, I declare that it was God’s design that Jesus should die not for everybody indiscriminately, but only for those who would believe. If you accept that, you see that only the elect are believers and that only believers are the elect. I’m not saying anything different when I say that Christ died only for the elect. Can you conceive of people who are believers who are not elect, or of people who are elect who are not believers? That kind of disjunction is utterly foreign to the New Testament.

Many other objections are raised to limited atonement. One of the major stumbling blocks is Scripture’s own statements that Jesus died for “the world.” Such statements must always be weighed against other biblical propositions that clearly state specifically for whom Jesus died. Also, we must strive to gain a true understanding of the meaning of the word world in the Bible. The point the New Testament writers were making, particularly to a Jewish audience, is that Jesus is not just the Savior of Jewish people, but that people from every tongue, race, and nation are numbered among the elect. In other words, the atonement has implications for the whole world, but that doesn’t mean each and every person in the world is saved. That can’t be drawn from the text.

Some people react against the doctrine of limited atonement because it appears to take away from the greatness of the work of Christ. In reality, it’s the Arminian position that diminishes and devalues the full impact and power of the atonement. The point Calvinists stress is that Christ accomplished what He set out to accomplish, the job the Father had designed for Him to do. God’s sovereign will is not at the whim and mercy of our personal and individual responses to it. If it were, there is a theoretical possibility that God’s plan could be thwarted and, in the end, no one might be saved. For the Arminian, salvation is possible for all but certain for none. In the Calvinist position, salvation is sure for God’s elect.

Another frequently cited objection is that the doctrine of limited atonement undermines evangelism. All orthodox Christians, Calvinists included, believe and teach that the atonement of Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed to all men. We are to say that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life. The misconception exists that because Calvinists believe in the doctrine of limited atonement, they have no passion to go out and preach the cross to everyone. Calvinists have been careful since Augustine to insist that the gospel is to be offered to all men—even though we know that not everyone will respond to it. Many Calvinists have been zealous evangelists.

The doctrine of limited atonement, in reality, is helpful in evangelism. The Calvinist knows that not everyone will respond to the gospel message, but he also knows with certainty that some will respond to it. By contrast, the Arminian doesn’t know that not everyone will respond. In the Arminian’s mind, it’s a theoretical possibility that everybody will repent and believe. However, the Arminian also must deal with the possibility that no one will respond. He can only hope that his gospel presentation will be so persuasive that the unbeliever, lost and dead in his trespasses and sins, will choose to cooperate with divine grace so as to take advantage of the benefits offered in the atonement.

If we can get past such perceived problems with the doctrine of limited atonement, we can begin to see the glory of it—that the atonement Christ made on the cross was real and effectual. It wasn’t just a hypothetical atonement. It was an actual atonement. He didn’t offer a hypothetical expiation for the sins of His people; their sins were expiated. He didn’t give a hypothetical propitiation for our sins; He actually placated God’s wrath toward us. By contrast, according to the other view, the atonement is only a potentiality. Jesus went to the cross, paid the penalty for sin, and made the atonement, but now He sits in heaven wringing His hands and hoping that someone will take advantage of the work He performed. This is foreign to the biblical understanding of the triumph and the victory Christ achieved in His atoning death.

In His High Priestly Prayer in John 17:6–9a, Jesus said:

“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.… They have … known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. I pray for them.”

This was Jesus, the Savior, speaking here. Notice that He said He was praying for His disciples—not for the world. In the most poignant prayer of intercession He offered in this world as our High Priest, Jesus explicitly said He was not praying for everybody. Instead, He was praying for the elect.

Is it conceivable that Jesus would be willing to die for the whole world but not pray for the whole world? That doesn’t make sense. He was being consistent. He had come to lay down His life for His sheep. He was going to die for His people, and He made it clear here that those were the ones for whom He was about to die. There is no question here of indiscrimination. Jesus was about to make atonement, and that atonement would be effective for everyone for whom He intended it to be effective.

If you are of the flock of Christ, one of His lambs, then you can know with certainty that an atonement has been made for your sins. You may wonder how you can know you’re numbered among the elect. I cannot read your heart or the secrets of the Lamb’s Book of Life, but Jesus said: “ ‘My sheep hear My voice’ ” (John 10:27a). If you want Christ’s atonement to avail for you, and if you put your trust in that atonement and rely on it to reconcile you to almighty God, in a practical sense, you don’t need to worry about the abstract questions of election. If you put your trust in Christ’s death for your redemption and you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you can be sure that the atonement was made for you. That, more than anything else, will settle for you the question of the mystery of God’s election. Unless you’re elect, you won’t believe on Christ; you won’t embrace the atonement or rest on His shed blood for your salvation. If you want it, you can have it. It is offered to you if you believe and if you trust.

One of the sweetest statements from the lips of Jesus in the New Testament is this: “ ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ ” (Matt. 25:34b). There is a plan of God designed for your salvation. It is not an afterthought or an attempt to correct a mistake. Rather, from all eternity, God determined that He would redeem for Himself a people, and that which He determined to do was, in fact, accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ, His atonement on the cross. Your salvation has been accomplished by a Savior Who is not merely a potential Savior but an actual Savior, One Who did for you what the Father determined He should do. He is your Surety, your Mediator, your Substitute, your Redeemer. He atoned for your sins on the cross.

Sproul, R. C. (2007). The Truth of the Cross. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.

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