Limited vs Unlimited Atonement


duty_callsThere are a handful of debates between polar opposite views in theology. None probably more popular or infamous than limited vs unlimited atonement. Most Christians have probably discussed, debated, or contemplated the issue internally or with someone else. In no way will I win the argument and neither will you (in fact, I really don’t like to discuss it at all). Too much baggage accommodates the debate to “win the day.” When we get to heaven, sit in Theology 101, then we will all learn the truth 🙂

But until then, debates will rage, ink will spill, keyboards hammered, and late night blogger wars will ensue while our spouses sit in the other room asking if we really have to stay up late because someone is wrong on the internet.

A few perspectives should be kept when discussing the issue. First, most of the people on both sides of the aisle disagree with universalism. A universalist has zero biblical support. Adherents to limited atonement would do well to not immediately charge the unlimited adherent with universalism or ignoring God’s sovereignty. Likewise, unlimited adherents should recognize holding to limited atonement does not mean disregarding human culpability or personal evangelism.

Second, Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, Mark, Luke, Matthew, and Paul in Hebrews do not consider this debate as important. WHAT??? How dare you say that!!!!!!!! Paul spends no time denouncing the unlimited / limited adherents. This discussion developed a rhetoric not collaborated by Scripture. Paul and Scripture authors spend no time discussing limited vs unlimited in the same manner or with the same depth we do. But, turn in your Bible where Paul says, “Limited atonement is the biblical view despite the unlimited adherents.” Or vice-versa.

UnknownThird, a person can be your opponent and not be a false teacher OR your comrade-in-arms can be a false teacher (but for other reasons). Just because a preacher believes in unlimited atonement does not make him a false teacher or apostate. He may be a wolf in sheep clothing, but probably for other reasons (denying the true nature of Christ, resurrection, failure to submit to God’s will and word, no fruit, or etc). “But if you don’t believe in (my view) then logically you believe this.” Let me to be clear. This line of thinking makes me illogical because I am asserting a logical fallacy. Instead of immediately crying “false teacher”, spend time understanding him — be slow to speak and quick to listen.

In fact, when one evaluates the biblical evidence there seems to exist a tension between both views. What does this mean?

It means there are bigger, focusclearer issues we should be focused on. Apparently Paul, led by the Spirit, was not concerned enough with the issue to think it mattered for conforming us to His image! This debate rages because of our theological practices. 

God clearly communicates what matters. Sometimes He does not answer questions we have nor develop minor points of doctrine like we desire. He does clearly communicate. Jesus for one is clear! The Father is clear. The Holy Spirit is clear. Scripture is God’s Word, authoritative: clear. Let us focus on, preach, and teach what is clearly seen! Let us spend time in those texts advocating Scripture because we KNOW Scripture will save and edify people. Apparently Paul did not get the memo and forgot to convey the importance of (insert your view here). Let us focus, discuss, and preach the big issues. Jots and tittles are good when too much time is on our hand. A person can repent without understanding limited / unlimited atonement. God saves people who do not have their theological ducks in a row.

Yet having said this, let me bring some balance to this article. It is not wrong to wrestle with the text of Scripture and come to theological conclusions. Do not leave my article thinking theology is a worthless endeavor. To know your God better is an endeavor we should actively pursue. The only way to know him with clarity, precision, accuracy, and ultimately conviction is through His Word! We must be faithful to His Word!

Since I brought up the discussion. Dr. Trevor Craigen provided great content regarding this issue from his class. The following information is helpful to both sides of the debate because each side MUST wrestle through each text! Personally, I respond suspiciously when a person says, “Well, that text doesn’t mean what you think it means.” This may by true for a few verses, but when communicated for every opposing verse it smells of personal bias.

**** Below is an excerpt from Trevor Craigen’s syllabus on Soteriology******

The Biblical Testimony

“What is the whole teaching of Scripture?” is the right question to ask as the subject is approached with a passionate desire to be true to the clear statements of the text. After these are first established, then, and only then, can various questions pertaining to “Why this?” or “Why that?” and “What about this?” or What about that?” be validly tackled.

Verses of general specification

John 1:29 Lamb…who takes away the sins of the world
John 3:16 God so loved the world that He gave…
Jhn 4:42 the Christ, the Savior of the world
2 Cor 5:19 God was in Christ reconciling the world
1 Jhn 2:2 propitiation for the sins of the whole world
1 Jhn 4:14 Son sent to be the Savior of the world
2 Cor 5:14 one died for all, therefore all died
Col 1:20 through Him to reconcile all things to Himself
1 Tim 4:10 Savior of all men, especially of those that believe
1 Tim 2:6 gave Himself a ransom for all
Tit 2:11 bringing salvation to all men
Heb 2:9 taste death for every man
Isa 53:6 laid on Him the iniquity of us all
Lk 19:10 Son of Man…to save that which was lost
Rom 5:6 Christ died for the ungodly

Verses of particular specification

Mtt 1:21 He…will save His people from their sins
Jhn 10:15 I lay down my life for the sheep
Acts 20:28 church of God…purchased with His own blood
Eph 5:25 loved the church and gave Himself for her
Rom 5:8 Christ died for us
1 Cor 15:3 Christ died for our sins
Gal 1:4 who gave Himself for our sins
Gal 3:13 Christ redeemed us…being made a curse for us
Eph 5:2 and gave Himself for us, an offering
Isa 53:5 wounded for our transgressions…for our iniquities
Mtt 20:28 have His life a ransom for many
Mtt 26:28 blood…shed for many for remission of sins
Heb 9:28 Christ once offered to bear the sins of many
2 Pet 2:1 denying the Master who bought them [false teachers]

The concluding cautions from the texts

  • That reducing the whole debate to a strict “either/or” alternative is not the ‘hermeneutically-honest’ route to adopt.
  • That focusing on the very specific object of certain verses is not a ‘rationally-honest’ restriction to make.
  • That proposing a “both/and” alternative is the ‘textually-honest’ solution to offer. Refer to Zemek, Appendix H, 271-, for an intriguing chart based on Jhn 3:16.
  • That reading back election into these texts so as to redefine their scope or reprogram intent and design is not a “‘perspicuitively’-honest” application to undertake.
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Jason Vaughn

About Jason Vaughn

Jason is a graduate of the Master’s Seminary and the pastor of Cornerstone Las Vegas, a Grace Advance church plant. He loves Christ, his wife Kyla, sometimes his kids :), the church, missions, people, and coffee. You can also follow him on his personal blog at

  • Eric Dodson

    If you’re looking for a helpfu sermon on the topic, I’d recommend one by John MacArthur titled “Twin Truths: God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility.” It can be found here:

    Ono a side note, this sermon is a part of new series GTY will be airing from MacArthur’s latest teaching in John chapter 3 called “The Second Birth.” It starts airing on Monday, January 12th.

  • So, Jason… how would define “atonement?” What does it accomplish/are the things it accomplishes according to OT and NT usage of the word?

    • Jason

      Well Matt, the article is really about the debate on the extent of the atonement, but if we want to focus on more important issues then I’m all in on this one!

      The way I explain the atonement (as if you were in my congregation — not trying to find some great theologian’s definition) AND, not trying to be completely exhaustive. Here is a snapshot definition: Christ died in my place on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin so that I can be forgiven, washed clean, sealed with the Holy Spirit, made a New Covenant family member, with an eternal inheritance (imperishable, undefiled), and therefore united to Christ — making me in the family of God as an adopted child.

      Discussions on the atonement would do well to center on the what Scripture overly emphasizes. That is the sacrifice of Christ, the perfect lamb, for the restoration. I think Hebrews spells out the details of the atonement the best explaining the details and necessary components. Christ tasted death for everyone to bring many sons to glory.

      • I think that’s a great definition 🙂 Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s important to define the atonement (even if preliminarily) before describing its extent. So… by your definition, I have to ask, how is that effectively applied to unbelievers?

        • Jason

          1st, you missed an important small word “my” 🙂 You just assumed I attempted to reconcile the tension present. The Bible overwhelmingly emphasizes what the atonement provided for believers while at the same time presenting “all” or general specification. Yet, we must recognize, there is a general extent. He is the savior of the entire world, especially believers. We must wrestle with what the text says and not try to box it into either or. If you try to set this discussion up in a way to narrow it down to either/or you will ask me (and others) to ignore evidence we must consider. Why are you scared of tension? Jesus isn’t. So we have to ask, why is it okay for God to use the word “All” — which by the way means all, unless you’re willing to say All [the elect] are dead in their trespasses . . . meaning the non-elect have a different problem 🙂 No, we all mean all, everyone when we say everyone / all have sin. so why do we flip our logic when talking about the atonement? If i used your same logic to describe sinners you’d cry foul. 🙂

          So, here is one good thought regarding unlimited (your words, not mine) atonement:

          In the words of the great Dr. Barrick,

          “The world of humanity is reconciled to God in reference to their “trespasses” (2 Cor 5:19)—God is not imputing or counting them against the world even though they are continually offending His holiness. Because of this reconciliation, God is able to delay their judgment until those various times He has set for consigning them to the final state of spiritual (or, eternal) death (Rev 19:20; 20:10-15). The same statements may be made of the spirit beings who are reconciled to God. The unbelievers are yet enemies of God but their condemnation has not been actualized due to their present reconciliation to God (see Rom 5:9-10).”

          Dr. William Barrick, The Extent of the Perfect Sacrifice of Christ.” part V.

          • K… I agree that there are common grace benefits of the atonement and in that way is applied to “all.” One such benefit, if I understand Barrick correctly, is that God’s wrath is delayed for unbelievers giving them opportunity to repent, in a similar way that OT sacrifices did, which did not remove sins, but delayed God’s wrath as it covered them? Then, specifically, the atonement removes sins for the believer. So, this is a broader definition of the atonement than I think I would define (i.e., as particular redemption – which we all agree is only applied to the elect). That’s why I think a definition is important. Did Christ die for all? Yes… cf. the verses you referenced. But HOW? I think being hermeneutically honest reveals that Jesus was not saying that “all” refers to every single person, but categorically all, especially considering the context of those passages. It’s not that I’m afraid to recognize tensions – that’s an ad hominem! I have no problem believing in, say, the doctrine of the Trinity! So, it’s not fear of tension that makes me affirm limited atonement, but my exegesis of those texts. 🙂

          • Jason

            I’m not sure you’re afraid of tension, I just ask. In experience a lot of TMS guys are afraid 🙂

            You’re welcome to view those “alls” that way. Personally I’m uncomfortable using all have sinned to reference every person but then change all to a categorical in salvation passages. I think Dr. Craigen has accurately described the hermeneutical problem here, “That reading back election into these texts so as to redefine their scope or reprogram intent and design is not a “‘perspicuitively’-honest” application to undertake.”

            However, I will not tell you how to use hermeneutics, just tell you what I feel more comfortable doing. In the end, it’s a minor issue and I could sit under your preaching and never leave upset rather edified and thankful for you.

          • Then I’m not sure if I agree with Dr. Barrick’s definition 😉 *gasp, see? I’m not afraid of tension! lol. Really, I need more contextual explanation for that statement before I can say I agree. I agree that God is patient, and that He is not presently bringing the immediate punishment the world deserves, but I don’t think that means that He isn’t “counting them against the world.” Rom. 2:5-15. But I’m not ready to say that God’s Divine patience is a part of His atoning work, so much as it’s a common grace benefit of His atoning work – particularly as I see the atoning sacrifices function in the OT and their relationship to the nations. As for reading my theology back into the text? Again, I think I’m just considering the context, which is actually the opposite of imposing my “worldview” if you will, onto the text. 🙂

          • Jason

            PS, I think you missed an important sentence in Barrick’s paragraph serving as the foundation for your interpretation, “God is not imputing or counting them [trespasses] against the world even though they are continually offending His holiness. Because of this reconciliation. . .”

  • Jason

    Personally I think a lot of pastors (theologians) are scared saying “Christ savior for the world” will communicate universalism. But God isn’t scared of that language (John 4:42 and of course see above). And true believers will not undermine Christ and His work on the cross by claiming universalism. His holiness and glory matter too much for us to believe people can live under their own sin and still get to heaven. True believers want to obey, follow, love, and glorify Him. I think overly narrowing this discussion down we forget the role of other truths in how those truths manifest themselves in a believer’s life — Spirit leading, obedience, belief, repentance, etc.