Limited vs Unlimited Atonement

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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 ūüôā

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 shepherdthesheep.com.