Explaining Limited Atonement


Whom did Christ die for?One of the fundamental affirmations of the Reformers was the doctrine of limited atonement, but this is something that a lot of Christians today wrestle with. It’s often posed with the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Did Christ die for everyone? Or did Christ die only for the elect? This is a really important question for the believer to work out, and one that I want to take the time to answer. Bruce Demarest, author of The Cross and Salvation, is right to say that “Christ’s death on the cross is not a peripheral issue or a secondary theme; it is the central, indeed crucial doctrine of the faith.” 1 I think we can all readily affirm that, whether or not you believe in a limited atonement. I will say this however, if you do not believe in a limited atonement, it’s probably because you have a wrong definition of the atonement. That might be somewhat simplistic, but I think it’s true nonetheless. Therefore, before discerning whether Christ’s atoning sacrifice was limited or unlimited, we have to define our terms. Only after this can we understand the extent of Christ’s work.

What does “atonement” mean, and what does it mean to say that Christ “atoned” for my sin?

Atonement in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament (OT), the primary word used for atonement is kaphar, which means “to make amends, to be exempted from punishment, to be atoned, covered, dissolved,” or “to be forgiven.”2 Furthermore, “to cleanse, ransom,” or “redeem” are appropriate translations, but even more importantly, the verb is always used “in connection with the removal of sins or defilement.” 3 However, it’s important to remember that the main difference between “atonement” in the OT from the NT, is that the OT atoning sacrifice was insufficient to completely remove sin, since sacrifices had to be continually made (Heb. 10:3). In other words, it wasn’t permanent, but looked forward to the sacrifice to come (cf. Ps. 40:6; 51:6; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:6-8; Rom. 3:25). Christ’s death changed that. It was perfect and permanent, and His atoning sacrifice cleanses sin that is past, present, and future.


Atonement in the New Testament
Christ’s death was the perfect and final atoning sacrifice, accomplishing everything the OT sacrifices failed to accomplish. Where the OT sacrifices were incapable of fully atoning for sin, Christ’s death fully atoned for sin once for all (Heb. 9:26; 10:10). Furthermore, where the OT sacrifices could not clear the conscience (Heb. 9:9-10), Christ’s death did (Heb. 9:14; 10:22), while also promising an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15). So, in summary, Christ’s atoning sacrifice 1) fully atones for sin, 2) clears the conscience, 3) permanently takes away sin, and 4) promises an eternal inheritance. This is possible because of the perfect life lived by Christ, and His offering as the penal substitute for man’s sin. That being said, one of the most illuminating passages in Scripture describing the nature of Christ’s atonement is found in Isaiah 53.

Although Isaiah 53 is obviously an OT text, it provides a lot of clarity about what Christ’s atoning sacrifice accomplished and it’s substitutionary language for sins is clear (Isa. 53:4-5). He was the guilt offering (53:10), satisfying the wrath of God and justifying the many (53:11). The NT affirms this (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Lk. 22:19, 37; Jn. 1:29; 11:49-50; 15:13; 1 Cor. 5:7; 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13), which also attributes Christ as the ransom sacrifice (Matt. 10:28; Mk. 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:5-6). These passages demonstrate that Christ’s atonement has the idea of ransom, redemption, propitiation, expiation, cosmic victory, and moral influence 4

So, in summary of Scripture’s teaching on the atonement in both the Old and New Testaments, it can be said that the atoning sacrifice of Christ permanently cleanses sin, satisfies God’s wrath, reunites the sinner with Him, and redeems from the bondage of sin as Christ bore the penalty of man’s sin in his place. This is often called “penal substitution,” or “vicarious atonement,” since Christ stood in the place of man on the cross and paid the penalty for man. Now, since this is what the atonement actually is and accomplishes, you can begin to see why an unlimited atonement is an impossibility unless we universally accept that all humanity is saved. If Christ atoned for (died for) the whole world, as in every single person, then for what are they judged?

Nevertheless, this is what James Arminius (from whom we get Arminianism) says:

Jesus Christ, the Saviour 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 the forgiveness of sins, except the believer.

That doesn’t really make a lot of sense logically, let alone Biblically. If Christ redeemed and provided forgiveness for every man, a work that is accomplished and perfectly complete, how can it NOT be enjoyed by every man? If the atonement provided forgiveness, then for what does man need to be forgiven? You can see how easily this kind of thinking would lead one to say, “Well, if I’ve been forgiven, then what do I need to confess?” And, if there’s not confession, then there’s no forgiveness of sins either. So, I contend that if you really (and by “really,” I mean REALLY), fully accept this thinking, then you cannot be saved… unless you change the meaning of the word “atonement!”why substitutionary atonement is crucial

Here is why: Christians already believe in a limited atonement. They have to, but they just don’t realize it. By default, to come to Christ in faith, repentance, and seeking forgiveness, demonstrates that they are asking for something they don’t already have. They seek forgiveness, because they don’t have forgiveness. They haven’t been cleansed from their sins. They haven’t been atoned for. John Murray articulates this error:

The very nature of Christ’s mission and accomplishment is involved in this question. Did Christ come to make the salvation of all men possible, to remove obstacles that stood in the way of salvation, and merely to make provision for salvation? Or did He come to save His people? Did He come to put all men in a savable state? Or did He come to secure the salvation of all those who are ordained to eternal life? Did He come to make men redeemable? Or did He come effectually and infallibly to redeem?

This is where probably most Christians err, because they believe that Christ’s atonement makes every man “redeemable,” rather than “redeemed.” But then what happens at salvation? Christ’s death only makes man “redeemable,” but doesn’t “redeem,” so Christians are “saved” but not redeemed in any special way from the unbeliever. If that’s the case, then the real question is, “Who really limits the atonement? Arminianism? Or Calvinism?” I would much rather say that the atonement is unlimited in its effect and limited in its extent, than say it’s limited in its effect and unlimited in its extent. Furthermore, if you accept the latter, that Christians aren’t redeemed in any special way from the unbeliever, you can see why the Arminians reject “once saved, always saved” (the preservation of the saints), since Christians aren’t totally purchased by the blood of Christ anyway. R.B. Kuiper summarizes what I’m saying better, that “Scripture makes it clear that Christ died not a potentially but an actual sacrificial death on the cross (1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 9:23, 26; 10:24).5


But what about those “all” passages? I’m quickly running out of space to address the all the problem passages, but I’ll quickly take the time to point out the most problematic ones.

2 Peter 2:1 – “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bring swift destruction upon themselves.”

There’s no question that this is a challenging passage, since it can be assumed that the “Master,” if He purchased the false teachers, also purchased all men in a redemptive sense. However, it might surprise most people that Calvin himself had no problem readily affirming the truth contained in this verse.6 Why? Francis Turrettin explains, “When heretical, apostate teachers are said ‘to deny the Lord that bought them,’ we are not to understand buying to mean a literal atonement redeeming the sinner from the wrath and curse of God, and from eternal death.”7 But Turrettin would have to have an exegetical reason for saying so, and there is one.

Gary D. Long makes an interesting and acute observation about the word “Master” (despotes) in this verse that presents a significant challenge for the unlimited atonement advocate to overcome. Although “Master” definitely refers to Christ in this passage, never in Scripture is it used as a redemptive title for anyone, including Christ, unless it’s being used that way here. However, whenever “Christ is referred to as ‘mediator,’ one of His redemptive titles… (mediator) is always used or the redemptive price is made explicit or stated in the context.8 This is not true of 2 Peter 2:1, which means the Arminian actually has more exegetical hurdles to overcome to validate his theology than the Calvinist.

1 Tim. 2:5-6 – “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.”

crown of thornsThose who reject a limited atonement claim that this passage clearly demonstrates that Christ purchased the condemned as well as the elect. But again, I want to point you back to our conclusion regarding the nature the atonement, that Christ’s atonement “redeems,” as opposed to, “makes redeemable.” So, can we really say that Christ “ransomed” in the sense that He purchased every man from the consequence of sin? Not unless you want to affirm universalism. Therefore, we need to understand the “all” in context. It’s obvious that “all” is being used categorically, as it is in vs. 4, where even though God desires all to be saved, not all are.

So… although the debate concerning the extent of the atonement can become somewhat complicated amidst the accusations, concerns, refutations, and so on, there is no need to be confused if you have an accurate understanding of what the atoning work of Christ actually does.

  1. Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 166.
  2. L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner, and J.J. Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 2 v. Revised by Walter Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm. Translated and edited by M.E.J. Richardson. (New York: E.J. Brill, 1994-2000), 494.
  3. R. Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., “kaphar,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. 1:452-53, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 452-53.
  4. Bruce Demarest, 176-82). Therefore, the death of Christ accomplishes an actual substitutionary atonement in which Christ “paid the penalty, bore the curse, and died the death that our sins deserve, enduring the full penal consequences of our sins and satisfying divine justice.”[5. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 671.
  5. R.B. Kuiper, For Whom Did Christ Die? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), 5.
  6. See John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 393.
  7. Francis Turrettin, The Atonement of Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 173.
  8. Gary D. Long, Substitutionary Atonement (Sterling, VA: Grace Abounding Ministries, 1977), 50-52.
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About Matt Tarr

Matt currently serves as pastor-teacher at High Point Baptist Church, Larksville, PA. Prior to his ministry at High Point, Matt also served in the counseling department at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, and as a chaplain at the Scranton-Wyoming Valley Rescue Mission. He enjoys spending time with his wife Melody and his two children, Jonathan and Timothy.