Recovering the Gospel — Why Belief in an Unlimited Atonement Matters


By David L. Allen, Professor of Preaching, George W. Truett Chair of Ministry, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching, and Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Allen is co-author of Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism.


Article 3 addresses the Atonement of Christ. It consists of one proposition in affirmation and three in denial.

I expect there will be no disagreement on the affirmation regarding the penal substitution of Christ. The penal substitutionary atonement, though often attacked and vilified in modern theology, is the bedrock doctrine for explaining the work of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world. Sin can only be atoned by the shed blood of Christ on the cross as our substitute. The word “penal” connotes legal imagery. Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied the justice and wrath of God against our sin. Apart from Christ, there is no salvation. Apart from his atonement, there is no salvation. Only the cross of Christ provides an available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.

The first proposition in the denial states: “We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith.” The operative word here is “free.” The Scripture teaches that the atonement is only applied to those who meet the condition of repentance and faith. When it comes to the question of free will, it needs to be understood that all Calvinists affirm some form of divine determinism along with free will. Most affirm “compatibilism,” by which is meant God changes the will of the individual by means of irresistible grace, such that having been regenerated, he genuinely and freely desires to trust Christ. It should be noted that according to compatibilism, the individual does not have the ability to choose any differently. Compatibilism is heavily dependent on Jonathan Edwards’s concept that we always act according to our greatest desire.

We do not believe that compatibilism comports with genuine freedom. The reason should be obvious. In this construct, God imposes regeneration, and the individual is “free” to exercise faith but he is not free to choose any differently. By any normal understanding of freedom, this is not freedom. In order to have freedom, there must be the opportunity for a genuine choice between at least two options, and there must be no coercion made with respect to the choice. Acts committed under compulsion are not truly free acts. Furthermore, Scripture (Romans 7) and human experience illustrate that we do not always act according to our desires. In fact, sometimes we act against our desires. This question of free will is a difficult issue in theology. The first proposition in the denial should be understood to mean that we deny compatibilism and affirm genuine freedom. This is with the understanding that there is no such thing as absolute freedom, and that the freedom we do possess in no way conflicts with or ever overrides the sovereignty of God.

The second proposition in the denial states: “We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will.” This denial must be understood in light of the meaning of the first statement of denial and its explanation. While compatibilists argue that no one is saved apart from an exercise of their free will, we are simply saying that irresistible grace vitiates free will for reasons stated above. In the Calvinist system, the elect are regenerated by an act of God which it is impossible for them to resist. It seems to us that in that case, God is indeed “imposing” salvation. However divine sovereignty and human responsibility interact, we must affirm both for Scripture affirms both, and we must not go against Scripture nor should we go beyond Scripture.

The third proposition in the denial states: “We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.” This is our denial of limited atonement. This third proposition addresses the question of the extent of the atonement. This is a far more intricate subject that most realize. I shall only be able to address the issue in summary fashion.

When it comes to the atonement, it is crucial to keep three major concepts in mind: 1) intent, 2) extent, and 3) application. The “intent” of the atonement answers the question: “What was God’s purpose in providing the atonement. The “extent” of the atonement answers the question: “For whose sins did Christ die?” The “application” of the atonement answers the question: “When and to whom is the atonement applied?” Though these questions are interrelated, my comments below will be focused primarily on the question of “extent.”

With respect to the question of the extent of the atonement, there are only two answers: 1) Limited Atonement – Christ died for the sins of the elect alone; 2) Universal Atonement – Christ died for the sins of all people. Calvinists who reject limited atonement (four-point Calvinists) believe Christ died equally for all with respect to extent, but has an unequal intent or will to save all through the death of Christ (their view of election makes this so along with their notion of God’s two wills: revealed and decretal). But it is important to note that they do believe that Christ actually satisfied for the sins of all people. Most Baptists who are not Calvinists believe that Christ died equally for the sins of all people with equal intent to save all who believe. Thus, we agree with four-point Calvinists on the question of “extent,” but not on the question of “intent.” Five-point Calvinists believe that the “intent” and “extent” of the atonement are identical: Christ died only for the sins of those he intends (wills) to save. These are important distinctions.

Historically, the first person to advocate limited atonement was Gottschalk in the 9th century, and he was condemned by three French Councils. Within the broad spectrum of the Reformation, none of the first generation reformers on the continent or in England affirmed limited atonement, including Calvin. In the generations to follow, many well-known Calvinists rejected limited atonement and argued against it explicitly or implicitly in their writings: Davenant (signer of Dort), Amyraut, Baxter, Bunyan, Preston, Howe, and Charnock, to name only a few. Also added to this list would be Jonathan Edwards, David Brainard, Charles Hodge, Dabney, Shedd, and J. C. Ryle. Many others could be named, including Andrew Fuller who revised his famous work The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (2nd edition, 1801), where he totally rewrote his section on the extent of the atonement.

The key issue in the debate over the extent of the atonement has to do with the “sufficiency” of Christ’s death. All Calvinists will affirm this sufficiency as “infinite” to save any and all. But, and this is crucial, what those who hold to limited atonement mean by this is that Christ’s death could have paid for the sins of the whole world had God intended for it to do so, but He did not intend such and hence the death of Christ is limited to the sins of the elect. We believe, along with all Calvinists who reject limited atonement, that Christ’s death is actually sufficient for the sins of all because it actually paid for the sins of all. This is called “infinite” or “universal” sufficiency.

Oftentimes one hears the famous statement, originally coined by Peter Lombard in the Middle Ages, the death of Christ was: “sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect.” This statement originally meant that Christ died for the sins of all, but the benefits of His atonement are only applied to those who believe (the elect). This is the biblical position. When you hear a Calvinist use this statement, you must ask “what does ‘sufficient’ mean?” That is the key question! The third proposition in the denial is meant to affirm an infinite, genuine, universal sufficiency in the death of Christ in that He died for the sins of all people.

But enough history. What does the Bible say? There are two kinds of texts in the New Testament that play a key role in the question of the extent of the atonement. There are those texts which use words like “all” and “world” with reference to the death of Christ. Then there are those texts which speak of Christ dying for his “sheep” or for the “church.” Those who affirm limited atonement rightly understand these latter texts to be limited with reference to extent. This would not be surprising when the biblical speaker or author was specifically addressing those in the church. However, Calvinists then interpret the universal texts in a limited fashion, suggesting that in places like John 1:29, John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4-6, to mention three, “all” and “world” should be interpreted to mean “all without distinction” and not “all without exception.” Thus, the argument goes, “all” or “world” in these texts refers to either 1) all kinds of people, or 2) Jews and Gentiles as a group, or 3) the elect only.

This is a linguistic/exegetical issue. Sometimes the Bible uses the words “all” and “world” in a sense that does not mean, “all without exception.” This point is not in dispute. The problem lies in the invalid hermeneutical/exegetical legerdemain that transmutes the words “all” or “world” into something less than all humanity in the New Testament passages where it is used in direct and indirect reference to the extent of the atonement. Passages like John 1:29, John 3:16, and 1 Timothy 2:4-6 simply cannot be shackled with the limiting lexical chains which restrict the meaning of “world” and “all” to something less than all humanity. This is a huge linguistic mistake. D. A. Carson rightly pointed out, as have many Calvinists, that “world” in Scripture never means “the elect.” Context usually makes it clear whether “all” or “world” means “all without exception” and “all without distinction.” These three texts are clear, not to mention a dozen other New Testament texts. It is simply not exegetically possible to interpret “all” and “world” in the three texts listed above, and several others, in a limited fashion. I fear some of those who do are operating out of a pre-conceived theology which they bring to the text.

Much more could be said here, but space constraints push us to move on. Turning to theological issues, the key argument used by Calvinists for limited atonement is the double payment argument (see John Owen). In essence, it argues that justice does not allow the same sin to be punished twice. There are at least four strong arguments against this: 1) It is never found in Scripture, 2) it confuses a commercial understanding of sin as debt with a penal satisfaction for sin (the latter is the biblical view), 3) Even the elect are still under the wrath of God until they believe (Eph. 2:1-3), and 4) it negates the principle of grace in the application of the atonement since nobody is owed the application.

The other theological argument used to support limited atonement is the “Triple Choice Argument.” It is built on the double payment argument. Either Christ died for all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some of the sins of all men. If Christ died for the sins of all, then why are not all saved? The argument sounds good logically, but it is flawed. Scripture never says a person goes to hell because no atonement was provided for him. People are said in Scripture to perish because they do not believe. Even though Christ died for all, he does not apply salvation to all. Faith in Christ is the condition for salvation. Finally, the argument quantifies the imputation of sin to Christ, as if there is a ratio between all the sins of those Christ represents and the sufferings of Christ, an unnecessary move given the extrinsic sufficiency of Christ’s death for the sins of the world.

Let’s talk logic for a moment. Some read verses that say Christ died for his “sheep,” “church,” or “friends” and draw the conclusion that since these groups are limited, so the atonement must be limited. Not so fast! This line of argument is logically flawed because it invokes the “negative inference fallacy,” which says the proof of a proposition does not disprove its converse. When Paul says “Christ died for me” in Galatians 2:20, we cannot infer that he died only for Paul. This is the logical mistake made by all High Calvinists on this point. There is no statement in Scripture that says Jesus died only for the sins of the elect.

Some argue that if Jesus died for the sins of all people, then all people will be saved. This is a false conclusion for several reasons. First, the Scripture is clear that all will not be saved. Second, it confuses the extent of the atonement with the application of the atonement. No one is saved by the death of Christ on the cross until they believe in Christ. This point was made by Shedd, a Calvinist with impeccable credentials (Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, p. 477). As stated above, Ephesians 2:1-3 makes clear that even the elect are under the wrath of God and “have no hope” until they believe. Third, as 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 makes clear, reconciliation has an objective and subjective aspect to it. The death of Christ objectively reconciles the world to God in the sense that His justice is satisfied, but the subjective side of reconciliation does not occur until the atonement is applied when the individual repents of sin and puts faith in Christ. Along these lines, don’t miss Colossians 1:19-20 which speaks of Christ’s universal reconciliation of all things. This of course does not mean “universalism,” but it does mean that Christ’s death on the cross is a crucial aspect of his Lordship over all people and things (Philippians 2:9-11). Every knee shall bow.

Finally, we believe there are some negative practical implications for ministry entailed by limited atonement with respect to preaching and evangelism.

1) Diminishing of God’s Universal Saving will. First Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 affirm God desires the salvation of “all people” not just the elect. It is difficult to sustain this clear teaching of Scripture from the platform of limited atonement.

2) The “Well-Meant Gospel Offer.” Second Corinthians 5:19–20 states: “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” Here we have God himself offering salvation to all. But how can He do this according to limited atonement since there is no provision for the salvation of the non-elect in the death of Christ? Furthermore, how can God make this offer with integrity? It seems difficult to suppose He can. Without belief in the universal saving will of God and a universal extent in Christ’s sin-bearing, there can be no well-meant offer of salvation from God to the non-elect who hear the gospel call. It would be like being invited to the Master’s banquet table where no chair, table setting and food has actually been provided. This implicates and impugns the character of God in the making of the offer of salvation to the non-elect because in fact there is no salvation to offer: Christ did not die for their sins.

3) The “Bold Proclamation.” The bold proclamation of the Gospel is an old term used to refer to telling people individually or corporately that “Christ died for your sins.” Notice how some Calvinists use code language here. Those who believe in limited atonement will say “Christ died for sinners,” which is code for “elect sinners.” This is confusing at best and disingenuous at worst. Calvinists point out that they preach to all because they don’t know who the elect are. Certainly true, but this misses the point. Belief in limited atonement puts the preacher in the difficult position of preaching to all people as if Christ’s death is applicable to them even though they believe all are not capable of salvation. This creates a situation where preachers operate on the basis of something they know to be untrue. In addition, how will such a preacher respond to the following question from an unbeliever: “When you say Christ died for sinners, does that mean Christ died for me?” There is no way to answer that question with a firm “yes” from the platform of limited atonement. On the other hand, preachers who affirm universal atonement can boldly proclaim Christ died for their sins.

Let me be clear. We all agree that doctrine matters. Doctrine informs praxis. This is not an issue of whether someone is committed to preaching and evangelism. This is not a question of whether one is passionate about preaching and evangelism. I take it for granted that Calvinists as well as Traditionalists desire to obey the Great Commission. That being said, and for the reasons stated above, I am arguing the case that a belief in limited atonement necessarily entails a hindrance to preaching and evangelism. Paul said the content of the gospel he preached included the fact that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). This is what he preached pre-conversion, not post conversion. Limited atonement denies and distorts a crucial aspect of the gospel: that Christ died for the sins of the world.

Thus, for biblical, theological, logical and practical reasons, we deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved. We believe that Christ died for the sins of all to provide a genuine offer of salvation to all, and that his death not only makes salvation possible for all, but actually secures the salvation of all who believe. (For a more detailed presentation of the issues discussed in this response, consult David L. Allen, “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” in Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds. David L. Allen and Steve Lemke [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010], 61–107, along with chapters authored by Dr. Steve Lemke on Irresistible Grace and Dr. Jeremy Evans on Determinism and Human Freedom).


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Discussion of Article Three: The Atonement of Christ in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”

Note: As we discuss each article of the statement, today’s comments should focus on the affirmation and denial in Article 3. Please limit your comments here to Article 3.

Article Three: The Atonement of Christ

We affirm that the penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.

We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith. We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will. We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.

Psalm 22:1-31; Isaiah 53:1-12; John 12:32, 14:6; Acts 10:39-43; Acts 16:30-32; Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10-14; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:13-20; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:12-15, 24-28; 10:1-18; I John 1:7; 2:2