Thursday is for Theological Terminology:
The Study of Specialized Words relating to Theology

May 5, 2011

Ron F. Hale, Associate Pastor, West Jackson Baptist Church, Jackson, TN

Definite Atonement . . . (also known as Limited Atonement and Particular Redemption)

One definition: “The belief that Christ bore the wrath of God for God’s elect alone. God, the Father, chose certain persons to be His children, and on the cross the Son died for those persons alone. This is the “L” of TULIP. It is often referred to as the fifth point of Calvinism; if one is a four-point Calvinist, or Amyraldian, this is the point that is denied” (Shawn D. Wright, “Glossary of Some Important Theological Terms,” in the book, Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, Nashville: B & H, 2008, 281).

The Case For Definite Atonement

James Montgomery Boice and Philip G. Ryken argue in their book The Doctrines of Grace (p. 31):

What Reformed people want to say by these words is that the atonement had a specific object in view, namely, the salvation of those whom the Father had given the Son before the foundation of the world, and that it was effective in saving those persons. Thus it would be better to call this doctrine definite atonement, or particular redemption.Particular redemption signifies that the death of Christ has saving efficacy for the elect and for the elect only. Christ made satisfaction for sin when he died on the Cross, offering himself as the perfect substitute for God’s chosen people. Therefore, according to the plan of salvation, Christ’s death atoned for the sins of the elect but not for the sins of those who never come to him in faith.

Boice and Ryken’s last sentence seems inconsistent with their next paragraph on “irresistible grace” in that they believe the Holy Spirit only extends an “inward call” to the elect; therefore, would it not be impossible for the non-elect to come to God in faith?

The Case Against Definite Atonement

Dr. David Allen writes in his chapter entitled “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” in the book Whosoever Will: A Biblical Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (p. 62) “Atonement, in modern usage, refers to the expiatory and propitiatory act of Christ on the cross whereby satisfaction for sin was accomplished. One must be careful to distinguish between the intent, extent, and application of the atonement.”

He explains, “Extent of the atonement answers the question, ‘For whom did Christ die?’ or ‘For whose sins was Christ punished?’ There are only two options: for the elect alone (limited atonement) or for all of humanity (universal atonement).”

Later in his chapter (p. 91) Dr. Allen shares,

With no respect to the intent and extent of the atonement, high-Calvinists believe the following: God loves all people (but not equally), God desires the salvation of all people, but Jesus only satisfied the sins of the elect and not others. Moderate-Calvinists and all non-Calvinists believe the following: God loves all people, God desires the salvation of all people, and Christ died for all people in the sense that His death satisfied for the sins of all people.

So do you have a better definition of Definite Atonement? Are you pro or con in your understanding of this doctrine? Which verse(s) of Scripture best represents your leaning?

Ron F. Hale

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Tony Byrne

Hi Ron,

Since I worked with Dr. Allen as a research assistant on his chapter on the atonement (see footnote #15 on page 66), I would like to continue to help Southern Baptists try to think clearly about these categories, even if they do not choose to believe in any variety of Calvinism.

The labels “limited atonement,” “particular redemption” and “definite atonement” are vague, though they are usually associated with the strict/”5-point” viewpoint today (i.e. the position of Wright, Boice and Ryken). In order to understand what Calvinists believe, it is best to distinguish between I.) intent, II.) extent and III.) application, as Dr. David Allen does in his chapter. The term “intent” gets at the saving will of God question. The “extent” term points to sin-bearing, or the imputation of sin to Christ. The decisive cause and nature of the “application” also comes up, since it is in some sense related to God’s “intent” and how some conceive of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction.

Within orthodox or mainstream Calvinism, the will of God is complex, so they distinguish between God’s revealed will and His secret will, or the will of precept (voluntas signi) and the will of good pleasure (voluntas beneplacitii), etc. The revealed will is not necessarily efficacious while the secret or “decretal” will is always efficacious. Calvinists usually use the term “intent,” “purpose” or “decree” for the efficacious will of God.

These terms and concepts are relevant because the Son concurs with the will of the Father, as does the Holy Spirit. If it is the case that the Father unconditionally elected or appointed some of mankind to eternal salvation (the elect), then the Son concurs and came to express that “purpose” in the death He died. The Son only “efficaciously wills” the salvation of the elect. There must, therefore, be that sense of “particularity” or “limitation” in all Calvinistic models.

However, mainstream or orthodox Calvinists also believe that the Godhead desires the salvation of all men in the revealed will. They try to account for this in various ways in the death of Christ as well, such that there is some sense of a “universal aspect” in addition to the “particular aspect.” The nature of this “universal aspect” gets confusing since many Calvinists today are not clear on what they mean (especially on the sense of “sufficiency”). It can range from 1) certain common grace benefits or providential bounties overflowing to all men by way of Christ’s death, or the “universal aspect” may also mean that 2) Christ suffered for the sins of all men (unlimited imputation of sin to Christ).

The Calvinists who maintain this broader sense of the “universal aspect,” such that they believe Christ satisfied for the sins of all (unlimited imputation), are sometimes called “moderate Calvinists” historically, even though they still maintain the sense of “particularity” in the will of Christ in His coming. These moderates also label their “universal aspect” differently (some call it “universal redemption” [John Davenant] while others call it “universal substitution” [the later Andrew Fuller], “universal atonement” [W. G. T. Shedd] or “universal expiation” [R. L. Dabney]), which can confuse the modern reader who is not familiar with these categories and nuanced labels. We can further consider the issue of the “universal aspect” under the “extent” area.

As Allen says in his chapter, this question deals with the imputation of sin to Christ, or “for whose sin was Christ punished?” There are only two answers:

1) for the sin of all men or
2) only for the sins of the elect.

This is where Calvinists divide among themselves, as Allen’s chapter also points out. Some opt for position #1 (all the early Reformers, many at the Synod of Dort, about a third of the Westminster divines and many prominent Puritans, etc.) while others opt for position #2 (Beza, many at the Synod of Dort, most Westminster divines, Rutherford, Gillespie, Owen, Turretin, etc.). To confuse things further, men in each of these camps still talk about Christ’s death as “sufficient” for all (the first half of the Lombardian Formula, i.e. sufficient for all/efficient for the elect), but they don’t mean the same thing by that. As the death of Christ relates to the non-elect, those in position #1 believe that Christ’s death is sufficient to save all men since He actually satisfied for all men. This is sometimes called an “ordained” or “extrinsic” sufficiency. Those in position #2 think that the death of Christ is sufficient for all since the nature of His person and work is of infinite intrinsic value, even though He only actually satisfied for the sins of the elect. This is sometimes called a “bare” or “intrinsic” sufficiency as it relates to the non-elect. For more on these distinctions by way of analogy, see here (click).

Men like John Owen knew he was revising the Lombardian Formula, so he changed the first part to a hypothetical, such that Christ’s death could have been sufficient for all, if Christ had paid a price for all, if God so intended, etc. Some have just explicitly abandoned all talk of Christ’s death being “sufficient for all” since they believe He only satisfied for the sins of the elect, but others who believe the same thing (that Christ only satisfied for the elect) still like to use the language of universal sufficiency since it was used by the Synod of Dort (as a result of the English delegation primarily, especially John Davenant’s profound influence there).

Here is something still more remarkable, as Dr. Allen points out in footnote #2 on page 62. J. L. Dagg (a strict Calvinist) knew about a Calvinistic position in his day that distinguished between “atonement” and “redemption,” and believed that Christ made an atonement for the sins of all men, but still believed in “particular redemption” since only the elect believed and experienced redemptive freedom. In other words, in addition to the aforementioned Calvinists who believed that Christ satisfied for the sins of all men (using the labels “universal redemption,” “universal substitution,” “unlimited atonement” and “unlimited expiation” for that concept), some of these still said they believed in “particular redemption,” since they reserved the term “redemption” for those that believe. My friend David Ponter has explored and documented this early American phenomenon and found it in Samuel H. Cox, George Payne, Albert Barnes, Henry Smith, R. L. Dabney, W. G. T. Shedd, William Weeks, Bennet Tyler, Ransom Welch, and Edward D. Griffin. This interesting and relevant historical material is almost entirely forgotten today by Calvinists.

While all Calvinists must see a sense of “limitation” or “particularity” in the “intent,” “purpose” or “efficacious will” of Christ, not all of them see a further sense of “limitation” in Christ’s sin-bearing. Some think Christ’s substitution was universal, of all mankind (and label that idea various ways), while others think His substitution was strictly for the elect alone (and subsume that idea under their modern label of “particular redemption” or “definite atonement”).


As with the “intent” area, this is another place where all Calvinists must see some sense of “limitation” or “particularity.” This is the case because the Holy Spirit concurs with both the Father and the Son in terms of His will to effectually apply the work of the Son to the elect alone, as some point in their lives. This application of the Spirit accords with the special intent of the Son and the decretal purpose of the Father in election. Why do the elect alone believe? All Calvinists maintain that the elect alone believe because the Spirit is working in unison with the eternal “intent” of the Father in appointing some men to eternal life. Consequently, the decisive, ultimate, and efficacious cause in the application of the eternal benefits of the Son to some men and not to others rests in God’s will alone, not in the will of man. Even though it is man’s act to believe, this believing act of theirs stems from a prior operation of the Spirit in their hearts that goes back to the Father’s eternal purpose.

These are elements of “particularity” or “limitation” in the application that all Calvinists, of whatever variety, must believe. However, since some Calvinists (who believe that Christ satisfied for the elect alone) think that Christ literally purchased things on the cross, such as faith, they think the application of Christ’s death to the elect alone stems from the nature of His satisfaction. Since Christ only bought faith for all those for whom he died (John Owen), His death cannot faith to be applied to all for whom He died. Not all Calvinists think this way. Some of them reject the “purchased faith” idea, such as Richard Baxter, and do not think that Christ’s death will be applied for all for whom He died. Even though all Calvinists must see “limitation” and “particularity” in the application of Christ’s death to the elect alone, they do not arrive at this conclusion the same way.

IV. Conclusion
To “limit” or not to “limit” is one question, but where to see “limit” is another significant question. All Calvinists see “particularity” or “limitation” in Christ’s will/purpose/intent in coming to die, but not all of them see “limitation” in the imputation of sin to Christ. Nor do they conceive of the manner of the efficacious application in the same way, since some introduce the idea of “purchased faith” at the cross that therefore guarantees the application of His death to all for whom Christ died.

The issue of the design of the atonement is very complex, and Southern Baptists need to be far more nuanced in the way in which they dialog about these things, even if they reject all Calvinistic models. Misrepresentations abound on all sides of this dispute, and that calls for all parties to strive for an objective understanding of the categories so as to accurately describe them to others before they go on to prescribe what ought to be believed to others. We must all strive for accurate labels and terminology, especially on this highly complex topic. A cluster of other crucial beliefs are layered underneath this dispute on the design of Christ’s death, and a surface level understanding will not suffice.

Dig deeper, biblically, theologically and historically, is my recommendation, whether they are Calvinistic or not.

peter lumpkins


Excellent board from which to spring some good discussion.

With that, I am…


What I am about to say may sound strange because I know that if there’s one controversial soteriological doctrine, it’s the extent of the atonement, but I believe that definite atonement should be the least controversial. What I mean is that Arminians and Calvinists of all stripes should agree on this one.

I prefer the phrase definite atonement over limited atonement or particular redemption because it captures that essence that Christ’s death atoned for a definite group of people. Limited atonement is a poor phrase because both sides of the debate limit the atonement. The Calvinistic side of the debate limit the intent and the extent. The Arminianistic side limits the effect of the atonement. Both sides limit the application. I really have no beef with particular redemption as a phrase other than the fact that it changes the focus from atonement to redemption, which although similar, have different referents.

The problem with the way the doctrine of atonement is traditionally argued is that it doesn’t consider God’s prescience (I intentionally use that word to represent the fact that God knows the future because Calvinists usually equate foreknew in Romans 8:29 with unconditional election instead of knowing the future). So, the question is this: Did God at the point of the crucifixion at least know who would and would not believe on Jesus? If you believe that God knows the future, you must say “Yes.” God at least knew who would believe on Christ and who would not. Isn’t that how conditional electionists argue? God elected those who would believe on Jesus. Okay, we’re just carrying that logic over to the atonement.

If the atonement is substitution, then it must be actual substitution and not potential substitution. Therefore, Christ died for all who will believe on Him. See how, I’ve argued this from God’s prescience. Therefore, from this line of argument, the intent, extent, effect, and application have the same definite group in mind.

I would like to say much more, but I’ve had to write this hurriedly. I pray I’ve made clear what I’m trying to put forth. In summary, Christ died for a definite group, namely all who will believe on Jesus. The only person who should reject definite atonement is the Open Theist who doesn’t believe God knows the future.

Ron Hale

Thanks for your insights into this matter and threading the needle in showing the different takes between strict- Calvinists and moderate- Calvinists on the intent, extent, and application.

The readers need to be aware of Dr. Allen’s footnote (p.66) concerning your work, he says, “I would like to thank Tony Byrne for his research and writing assistance. Some of the material used in this chapter was originally posted on his blog site Tony is a moderate-Calvinist and a former student of mine at The Criswell College. He has far outdistanced his professor on the subject of the extent of the atonement.”

I remember reading the following on (p.66) … “This essay is going to argue the case for unlimited atonement (an unlimited imputation of sin to Christ) and against limited atonement (a limited imputation of sin to Christ) without ever quoting a single Arminian or non-Calvinist. The best arguments against limited atonement come from Calvinist writers”.

This statement encouraged me to continue reading those five important areas of your joint efforts on: historical considerations, exegetical considerations, theological considerations, logical considerations, and practical considerations.



The Mystery of the Incarnation is not considered in the concept of limited atonement in that Adam and Eve’s descendants include among them Our Lord, as the Incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became Man (2 natures).

In the Incarnation, Christ has descended from Adam and Eve through Mary.
The implications of this are not considered in that, as a descendant of our original parents, Christ’s human nature is shared by all human beings in every regard, except for sin. The Eastern Orthodox faith celebrates the Incarnation more specifically than does Western Christianity, both as a part of our salvation, and in time, as the beginning of the renewal of all Creation.

Steve Lemke

Ben, I am appreciative of your kind spirit, and thus I don’t believe you understand how problematic what you say is. I think you are confusing the foreknowledge of the Father with the knowledge of the Son, which was not comprehensive in the incarnation (we know, for example, that He did not know the time of His return). We don’t know the exact limits of Jesus’ knowledge in the incarnation, but if Jesus didn’t know everyone for whom He was dying on the cross, the atonement could not have been specific or definite for Him.

Obviously, your “prescience/foreknowledge” word play sidesteps the entire issue. Calvinists want to retranslate “foreknowledge” into “forelove” because they know that the plain meaning of the text of Romans 8:39 does not match up with their theology. It would seem, however, that if God meant to say “forelove,” He would have said “forelove.” So God predestines on the basis of those whom He foreknows will respond to Him in faith.

Here is where I find your comments so dismissive and (frankly) insulting, though I don’t think you do so intentionally. To cast everyone as either “Arminian” or “Calvinist” is to overlook a few people in the middle — about 14 million of us, to be exact — America’s largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists. We are neither Calvinist nor Arminian (lest you protest, if we were Calvinist we would baptize babies, because that’s what Calvin taught). There are Calvinst doctrines we deny, and Arminian doctrines we deny. To overlook the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists (which LifeWay statistics indicate that over 90 percent are not five point Calvinists nor five point Arminians) is blind on your part and insulting to us. If you are a Southern Baptist, you’ve unfortunately been educated in a bubble that did not present to you what the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists believe.

Your statement that anybody who doesn’t agree with you about the definite atonement is an Open Theist commits the logical fallacy we call reducio ad absurdum. There are many mitigating positions, incuding that of General Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and most Southern Baptists (see paragraph above). To simply ignore our position is condescending and dismissive.

Again, Ben, I don’t sense that you intended to be insulting at all. But I just wanted you to know how this sort of talk that we all believe in definite atonement even though we consciously deny it is condescending to those who disagree.


    Steve, I’ll try to respond to you a piece at a time.

    As for sidestepping the issue, with all due respect I’m afraid that’s exactly what you do when you and your cohort try the “I’m neither Calvinist or Arminian. I’m Baptist” line. I’ve read the article you co-authored or co-signed with the other men and frankly am surprised that learned men as yourselves would commit such a blatant category error of this type. Obviously, the scope of the Arminian-Calvinist debate in the Southern Baptist Convention is soteriological. Therefore, you can be an Arminian Baptist or a Calvinist Baptist (even Southern Baptist ones).

    I have to agree with Olson when he labeled your position as Arminian. I know it’s not full-blown Arminianism. It’s at least majoritarian Arminian. It’s essence is Arminian. I’m not being pejorative when I say that. I’m just stating facts. I’m sorry that that offends you.

    The Southern Baptists as I understand them as a majority are 4-point Arminian. They maybe nuance those 4 points such that it’s somewhat distinguishable from full-blown Arminianism, but the essence of those 4-points are decidely Arminian.

    As for your first paragraph, I’m not sure if you read me wrongly, or I’m reading you wrongly. If I’m reading you correctly, are saying that Jesus did not know for whom He was dying? Anyway, I’m arguing my position from the knowledge of the Father. He certainly knew for whom Jesus was dying.

    As for “prescience,” I’m just trying to use clear language. Those of the Arminian slant understand “foreknew” in Rom 8:29 to speak of God’s simple knowledge of the future, His prescience. However, those of the Calvinist slant understand “foreknew” to speak of God’s forelove, as you put it. I suppose that I am sidestepping the issue a bit. Actually, I’m ceding the Arminian understanding for the sake of the argument here. I don’t agree with the position. If you want to understand what God means by “foreknew” in Romans 8:29, simply look at Romans 11:2. When God uses “foreknew” in these two verses, I do believe He’s using them in the forelove sense. But at any rate, I’m simply using “prescience” to distinguish exactly what I’m talking about—God’s knowledge of the future.

    Dear brother, I did not say that everybody who rejects definite atonement is an Open Theist. Neither did I say that you believe in definite atonement even though you consciously disagree with it. That’s “absurdum.” What I said was, “The only person who should reject definite atonement is the Open Theist who doesn’t believe God knows the future.” In other words, many believe in an indefinite atonement and God’s full knowledge of the future (although there’s some in your circle that flirt with middle knowledge). I’m just saying that in my opinion it’s inconsistent to do so.

    When the Father sacrificed Jesus on the cross, there were humanly speaking innumerable persons who had already in time died, rejecting God’s grace. Also, when the Father sacrificed Jesus on the cross, the Father at least knew exactly who would not receive His grace through faith in Jesus in the millennia to come. For these people, Jesus did not pay for their sins. He only paid for the sins of those who had believed and would believe on Jesus. Even the Old Testament saints came by grace through faith in Jesus. They didn’t have the light that we have this side of the fulfillment, but they had the promise, and they believed on that promise.

    So, if I may, I’m going to try again to put forth my position briefly. Full-blown Calvinists, full-blown Arminians, and every shade in between should believe in the doctrine of definite atonement, in that Jesus paid for the sins of a definite group of people, namely all who believe on Jesus. Those who believe in unconditional election and those who believe in conditional election should both believe the doctrine of definite atonement. Both sides should be able to agree with the first sentence of Wright’s definition from the original post: The belief that Christ bore the wrath of God for God’s elect alone. Although the two sides might disagree on how the elect became elect, they should agree on this doctrine of atonement.

    However, while they should believe the same doctrine of the atonement, they have to come at it from different ways. Those who are more Calvinistic have to come at it from God’s decrees, just like they come at election from God’s decrees. Those who are more Arminian have to come at it from God’s prescience, just like they come at election from God’s prescience. Either way, not a drop of Jesus’ blood is wasted. He died as sacrificial substitute only for all who will believe on Him.

    I’m not sure what you’d call this position of arguing for definite atonement from a conditional election perspective based upon God’s prescience (please no smart aleck answers).

    Thanks for the conversation!

Steve Lemke

It is interesting that in responding to my expression of concern about your being dismissive and condescending in your remarks, you responded by . . . being even more dismissive and condescending in your remarks!

You said:

“I’ve read the article you co-authored or co-signed with the other men and frankly am surprised that learned men as yourselves would commit such a blatant category error of this type.”

In so doing, you express your arrogance and condescension by asserting your intellectual superiority over a President of an SBC seminary, two former SBC Presidents, the Deans of three of the largest seminaries in the nation, and two Oxford-trained scholars who signed the statement you reference. That, my young friend, is the height of arrogance. I think I would have swallowed hard before making a condescending statement like that!

What is particularly disappointing in that statement is that it is so patently false. You accuse us of making a category mistake in that “the scope of the Arminian-Calvinist debate in the Southern Baptist Convention is soteriological.” Yes, one of the main doctrines addressed in the Arminian-Calvinist debate is soteriology. But it is you, my friend, who is making a category mistake, not us. It is you who is confusing “Calvinist” with “Calvinist soteriology.”You are confusing the whole with the part. THAT is a category mistake. If you can’t understand why you are making a category mistake in blurring one particular doctrine with an entire system of doctrines, I’m afraid I can’t help you much, though as a professor of philosophy I do try to train people in Logic. What is happening is that these scholars are trying to speak with theological precision, and you are blurring categories.

But since you are so dismissive of us Baptists, perhaps you’ll listen to a True Calvinist, Richard A. Muller, who when he wrote this was at Calvin College and writing for Calvin Theological Journal:

I once met a minister who introduced himself to me as a “five-point Calvinist.” I later learned that, in addition to being a self-confessed five-point Calvinist, he was also an anti-paedobaptist who assumed that the church was a voluntary association of adult believers, that the sacraments were not means of grace but were merely “ordinances” of the church, that there was more than one covenant offering salvation in the time between the Fall and the eschaton, and that the church could expect a thousand-year reign on earth after Christ’s Second Coming but before the end of the world. He recognized no creeds or confessions of the church as binding in any way. I also found out that he regularly preached on the “five points” in such a way as to indicate the difficulty in finding assurance of salvation: He often taught his congregation that they had to examine their repentance continually in order to determine whether they had exerted themselves enough in renouncing the world and in “accepting” Christ. This view of Christian life was totally in accord with his conception of the church as a visible, voluntary association of “born again” adults who had “a personal relationship with Jesus.”

In retrospect, I recognize that I should not have been terribly surprised at the doctrinal context or at the practical application of the famous five points by this minister – although at the time I was astonished. After all, here was a person, proud to be a five-point Calvinist, whose doctrines would have been repudiated by Calvin. In fact, his doctrines would have gotten him tossed out of Geneva had he arrived there with his brand of “Calvinism” at any time during the late sixteenth or the seventeenth century. Perhaps, more to the point, his beliefs stood outside of the theological limits presented by the great confessions of the Reformed churches – whether the Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformed church or the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches or the Westminster standards of the Presbyterian churches. He was, in short, an American evangelical. (Richard A. Muller, “How Many Points?” Calvin Theological Journal 28, no. 2, November 1993:425-426).

So, you see, it’s not just Baptists who make this distinction, but Calvinists as well. There is more to Calvinism than soteriology. There’s a BIG difference between a Calvinistic Baptist and a Baptist Calvinist — to be Calvinistic is to have affinities with various aspects of the position; to be “Calvinist” is to embrace fully the entire theological system.

But let’s grant your point for the sake of the argument — that “Calvinism” in Baptist life can be understood just in regard to soteriology. So, you’re saying that as a Baptist Calvinist you accept the full import of covenant theology? You’re saying that (as the Westminster Confession affirms) children of believing parents are saved? You are saying that the Bible does not teach believer’s baptism? If you say “yes” to any of these questions, you might be a Calvinist, but you’re not a Baptist. Even the somewhat soteriologically Calvinistic Particular Baptists parted with the soteriology of the Westminster Confession on all those points. If your answer is “no,” then you do not even affirm a fully orbed Calvinistic soteriology, much less the full-blown system of Calvinism that Muller advocates.

I wonder why you would discount the statement of the authors of Whosoever Will for their affirmation that “we stand in the great Baptist tradition that is neither fully Calvinist nor Arminian but is informed by both,” insisting that we should just admit that we are predominantly Arminians? Indeed, a recent book on Classical Arminianism characterized the contributors to our book as “moderate Calvinists”! I think your calling us moderate Arminians, and some Arminians calling us moderate Calvinists, suggests that we are exactly what we said we are — BAPTISTS who are informed by both traditions.

With those things said, I want to suggest three reasons you should be cautious about correcting our own self-description of our theology. First of all, not only did we insist that we were neither Calvinist or Arminian repeatedly in our book, but after some early reviews we reiterated our position in published statements (primarily our “Neither Calvinists Nor Arminians, But Baptists” statement) . Our point is that the five points of the TULIP are simply not the way we would even characterize or frame our own theology. The whole framework of the TULIP imposes an interpretive grid on our theology which is foreign to our approach. So, you can refuse to believe our repeated assertions of where we are, but that seems a little unkind.

Second, to be described as an adherent of Arminianism requires that we be conscious followers of Jacob Arminius and his theology. I’ll just speak for myself in saying that I was only peripherally aware of Arminius through at least my MDiv training. I never read primary material from Arminius until much later. Tom Nettles (my Baptist History teacher and Sunday School teacher) never seemed to mention him much (:-). So to suggest that Arminius played any significant role at all in shaping my theology (and, I believe, almost all the contributors in Whosoever Will) is simply mistaken.

Third, just because people happen to affirm a few beliefs in common does not make them the same or identical. For example, Americans are in agreement with the Chinese that alien invaders with ray guns are bad. That does not mean that Americans are Chinese. It just means that we are united against a common foe. More to the point, in a Second Century Seminar that I participated in for several years in the Dallas area, we often found the conservative Baptists, DTS Bible church guys, Church of Christ, and Cistercian Catholics to be on one side, and the liberal Protestants (Presbyterian, Methodist, moderate Baptists, etc.) to be on the other side. The fact that we happened to agree with the Church of Christ guys or Catholic guys on those particular issues did not make us Catholics, for instance; it just meant that we had affinity with their views on that particular issue. We were not “four point Catholics,” we just happened to agree with them for our own reasons on some issues of interpretation. There is a difference. So, the fact that we might agree with Calvinists or Arminians on various parts of the TULIP does not make us either of these belief systems. We are Baptists.

Tony Byrne

Perhaps it would be useful to apply the distinctions I made above to unpack some problem areas in Ben’s statements and objectively clarify the terms and categories of the debate further.

Ben said:

“I prefer the phrase definite atonement over limited atonement or particular redemption because it captures that essence that Christ’s death atoned for a definite group of people.”

Me now:
The label “definite atonement” also has its problems. Ben says he prefers it because “it captures [the] essence that Christ’s death atoned for a definite group of people.” Actually, Ben’s position means a limited definite group of people. Moderate Calvinists and non-Calvinists also believe that Christ made an atonement for a definite group of people, but not a limited definite group, but rather all mankind (not angels, etc.). In other words, Christ satisfied for the sins of all men (an extremely large definite group), not merely the elect (a smaller definite group). The difference between the moderate Calvinists and the non-Calvinists is the idea that Christ accomplished that all-sufficient act with a special, efficacious intent that concerns the elect alone, or that He died for them *especially*.

I would also point out that Ben seems unaware of the historical diversity undergirding the label “particular redemption” as well. When Ben uses this term, he automatically thinks of the Owenic position that not only involves a limited decretal intent in Christ, but also a limited imputation of sin to Christ, or the idea that Christ only atoned for the sins of the elect. However, there is another group of Calvinistic preachers and theologians that J. L. Dagg (a strict Calvinist) knew about that held to “particular redemption” and yet believed that Christ atoned for the sins of all men. So, while the label “particular redemption” has only one meaning for Ben, one can see that it has multiple meanings in early American Calvinistic history.

Ben first erroneously characterizes others who disagrees with him, as if they don’t believe Christ atoned for a definite group of people, when they do. If Ben wants to accurately target the position of the non-Calvinists, he should say that they don’t believe that Christ died for anyone *especially* (i.e. the elect), rather than say they don’t believe Christ died for a definite group. Moreover, Ben and others today need to be aware of the fact that the label “particular redemption” was used by some Calvinists who believed that Christ made an atonement for the sins of all men, unlike Ben. Those who maintain “particular redemption” are not monolithic in their beliefs concerning the *extent* of Christ’s death.

I will address more of some things Ben said in what follows.

Tony Byrne

Ben said:

“Limited atonement is a poor phrase because both sides of the debate limit the atonement.”

Me now:
Ben is equivacating on the term “atonement” in the above statement. In modern usage (R. L. Dabney notes older uses of the term), the term “atonement” references Christ’s satisfaction for sin on the cross, and those who differ with his strict view are not “limiting” that. Ben is, along with all other Calvinists in the Owenic trajectory. What Ben means to say, as he clarifies below, is that “Both sides limit the *application*” [of the atonement]. But that is not the same thing as saying they both limit the atonement itself, or Christ’s legal representation in His substitution.

There is also a problem in Ben’s simplistic statement “both sides.” There is more than two sides (the Owenic vs. the Arminian) in the debate, so Ben is unknowingly creating a false either/or dilemma in the way he’s setting up the discussion. This is far too common for people to do on all sides of the debate. This history of the debate is much more complex than this two-sided simplistic presentation.

Ben said:

“The Calvinistic side of the debate limit the intent and the extent. The Arminianistic side limits the effect of the atonement. Both sides limit the application.”

Me now:
Notice Ben’s monolithic representation of “The Calvinistic side of the debate…” It’s inaccurate and too simplistic, again. As I noted above, all Calvinists limit the [decretal] intent behind Christ’s death in accordance with their view of election, but it is only *some* on the Calvinistic side (i.e. those in the Owenic trajectory) that limit “the extent.” Ben incorrectly represents them all as monolithically limiting the extent of Christ’s death, or the imputation of sin to Him. Ben is correct in saying that Arminians limit the “the effect of the atonement,” but even that statement shows he is distinguishing “the effect” [or “application”] from the “atonement” itself, which is problematic for his earlier equivocal statement that said “both sides of the debate limit the *atonement*.”

Ben is also correct in saying both sides see limitation in the application, but I’ll just add that this is the case for different reasons. The ultimate decisive cause for the limitation in the application on the Calvinistic side is the special, efficacious will of God, in their conception. It seems to me that the ultimate decisive cause for the limitation in the application for Arminians is the will of man, since some [of their libertarian free will] choose to appropriate Christ’s death while others [of their libertarian free will] do not. God *equally* wants all men to believe in that system of thought, and is exerting all His power in prevenient grace to persuade them all to believe and thereby appropriate the saving benefits of Christ’s death, but it is man that is the ultimate decisive cause in the application. This, Calvinists have traditionally argued, leaves ground for boasting, hence this area in the *application* is also highly disputed.

Tony Byrne

Ben said:

“I really have no beef with particular redemption as a phrase other than the fact that it changes the focus from atonement to redemption, which although similar, have different referents.”

Me now:
I am not sure what Ben means here, as I don’t know what distinction he is making between “atonement” and “redemption.” With respect to the atonement, some Calvinists (mostly modern) use it for Christ’s satisfaction at the cross (or “the expiation for guilt provided in Christ’s sacrifice,” as Dabney puts it), while others prefer to use it for the at-one-ment that believers alone experience (or “the individual reconciliation of a believer with his God”).

Also, some Calvinists use the term “redemption” for BOTH Christ’s accomplishment on the cross (either in a limited sense [Owenists] or an unlimited sense [some moderates, such as Davenant]) AND for the application that believers experience, hence they talk of “redemption accomplished and applied.” The paying of the ransom price on the cross is called “redemption” by them, as well as the deliverance, release or freedom that comes about when a sinner believes. Other Calvinists (such as Fuller, Shedd and Dabney) prefer to reserve the term “redemption” exlusively for the application of Christ’s death to the believer alone, or for “deliverance effected,” but use the term “atonement” for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross instead of using the term “redemption” for that as well.

Consequently, “particular redemption” can mean at least two different things historically:
1) An electing purpose or intent in Christ to save only the elect, which then issues in limited sin-bearing (limited imputation) on the cross with an effectual application resulting therefrom, or
2) An electing purpose or intent in Christ to save only the elect, but no limited sin-bearing (unlimited imputation) in His death, with an effectual application.

The first view very basically represents the Owenic trajectory within the broad Calvinistic paradigm, while the second view very basically represents the moderate or dualistic trajectory within the broad Calvinistic paradigm. Both camps can be said to hold to a kind of “particular redemption,” depending on their own preferred labels for these categories. This is what Dagg notes in his Manual.

For all I know, Ben could mean that the terms “redemption” and “atonement” may have different (yet overlapping) connotations biblically, and otherwise. If so, that seems biblically sustainable, and it seems that all parties in the dispute (Calvinistic and otherwise) can agree with that.


Steve, I’m afraid I’ve struck a nerve with you. However, you couch your response in being offended too much. You’ve given two responses, and both times you’re flabbergasted at how offended you are. Obviously that is a polemical tool you like to use, but I thought we were trying to have a conversation. I was invited by this post to discuss Definite Atonement, which I wrote about in my original post, but you have sought to change the subject and discuss Baptist identity, or whatever more theologically precise term you will suggest I use. It must be a pet-peeve of yours.

Is it arrogant to simply disagree with somebody who has more degrees and accolades than I? I think not. As I said in my last post, WITH ALL DUE RESPECT, I do believe that you are making a blatant category error. There are Southern Baptists who are more Calvinistic, and there are Southern Baptists who are more Arminian. Arminian, Calvinist, and Baptist are not mutually exclusive terms when we’re speaking about soteriology. To simply say that you’re Baptist isn’t clear enough. Great, you’re a Baptist, but where do you stand on depravity, election, atonement, calling, perseverance? Baptist must be further spelled out. In other words, what sort of Baptist are you? That’s why I believe you are committing a category error.

Therefore, soteriologically speaking, you may be either a Calvinistic Baptist or an Arminianistic Baptist (I’m not sure if “Arminianistic” is even a word, but what I’m trying to say is that there are Baptists whose soteriology is more Arminian in essence).

Maybe I need to tune into the SBC more often, but is there somebody in the SBC making the argument that babies should be baptized and that children who die are saved if their parents believe? I’ve not heard that debate. I thought the debate in the SBC dealt with the extent of depravity, the nature of election, the extent of the atonement, and the nature of God’s calling unto salvation. I thought the SBC was in agreement on who should be baptized (believers by immersion) and who is saved (all before they come to the moment of accountability & then only those who repent and believe on Jesus).

Since you are familiar with logic, to say that you can’t be labeled an Arminian because you don’t follow Arminius is a “non sequitur.” You’re well aware that the labels Calvinism/Arminianism are simply theological short hand and really have nothing to do with the figurehead men whose names have become synonymous with the doctrines. The positions were already debated long before the Remonstrants came forward in the early 17th century, even in the day of Augustine and Pelagius. Suggest other names instead of Calvinism and Arminianism, and I’ll be glad to use that so that we’ll get rid of this “You follow Calvin. You follow Arminius,” hogwash.

I suppose why the “I’m not a Calvinist or an Arminian line. I’m a Baptist,” line grates on me (other than being a category error in my opinion) is that I believe it’s an attempt to say that your position is the true Baptist position. I believe it’s an effort to say that more Calvinistic Baptists are not true Baptists, or not true Southern Baptists at least, since that’s the denomination you’re speaking from. Are more Calvinistic Baptists, even 5-point Calvinists true Southern Baptists? Should Baptists who agree with the 5 points of Calvinism say, “I’m not a Calvinist. I’m a Baptist,”?

Steve, here is my primary question for you: What theological short-hand do you suggest for those who are decidedly Baptist but affirm the majority of the 5-points of Calvinism and for those who are decidedly Baptist and affirm the majority of the 5-points of Arminianism? I’m afraid that “majoritarian” and “minoritarian” won’t do.

Once you answer these questions, may we please talk about Definite Atonement instead since that’s why I came here?

Steve Lemke

I’m sorry, but although you’re using some nice logical terms, you’re evidently confused about what they mean. Not being an Arminian because I don’t follow Arminius is in no way a non sequitur. It is attempting to speak with theological precision, which is profitable for fruitful discussion. In fact, to say that people who don’t follow Arminius are Arminians is PRECISELY a non sequitur. I don’t have any problems at all with your word “Arminianistic.” That is much more accurate and precise than “Arminian.”

Let me give an example of why this is important. I cited a quote from Spurgeon on my Facebook page this week in which Spurgeon made a strong argument against fatalism: “Perhaps they have been brought up among people who taught them that the work of salvation was something of God altogether apart from the sinner . . . . It is a horrible falsehood. It is fatalism, not predestination, that makes men talk as if there is nothing whatever for them to do, or that there is nothing they can do.”

Some wondered in comments why a Calvinist would be against fatalism, but they were commiting the same imprecision with language that you are. Calvinism is not fatalism (James Galyon made that specific point in the FB discussion). For one thing, Calvinism believes that God, not fate, determines the future. However, (some) Reformed theology may be accurately described as fatalistic (which is what the Facebook commentators should have said), which is the affirmation that the future is fixed and we cannot change it. Words matter.

The distinction I have proposed (as you’ll see in Whosoever Will, is “Calvinistic” rather than “Calvinist.”

And, I’m happy to free you to discuss the definite atonement! (:-)


    Thank you, Steve, for the conversation. What theological short-hand do you suggest for those who are decidedly Baptist and affirm the majority of the 5-points of Arminianism?


Tony, since you are pointing out things, notice how Steve and Tony have jumped on aspects of my post that really have nothing to do with the main thrust of my original post. ;o) However, I do sincerely appreciate Tony at least being on topic.

Tony, I also really appreciate the precision in which you write. It seems that you have really poured yourself into understanding all these different lines of thought and nuances. I have to admit ignorance in some of these nuances, but your first post is helping me along.

I find your definition of the atonement interesting. I would equate atonement with propitiation, which includes the application of atonement, so that “atonement” references Jesus’ death satisfying the sinner’s debt to God and actually quenching God’s wrath toward that person. Of course, this works out in time by grace through faith in Jesus.

I suppose that I am Owenic in that I believe that Christ actually paid the debt for those for whom He died such that there is nothing left for them to pay. It was not a potential atonement. It was an actual atonement. The blood was only shed for and applied to those who would believe on Jesus.

When I say that Arminians limit the “effect,” I’m not simply talking about the “application.” What I mean is that Arminians (sorry to speak in simplistic generalities) do not believe that Jesus’ life and death bought and secured faith for those for whom Christ died. For the Arminian, the atonement is efficacious for none of the ones for whom Christ died. In this understanding, Jesus dies for everybody, and it’s up to them as to whether or not the blood is applied to them. Not everyone for whom Christ died will experience the fruit of having their sins paid for. For the Calvinist, the atonement is efficacious for every one for whom Christ died. Every one of them come to faith and experience the fruit of having their sins paid. So, the Arminian limits the atonement in this regard.

When I say that both sides limit the “application,” I mean that only those who believe on Jesus Christ have God’s wrath quenched toward them. Everyone will not be in heaven. Only those who repent and believe on Jesus will be. I suppose that we could push the application back to the decrees of God or the decision of man, but I was just trying to guard against Universalism.

Back to my original post, what I was trying to put forth was a position whereby both conditional and unconditional electionists could uphold definite atonement. Both positions, I believe should believe that Christ died only for the elect (unconditionalists through God’s decree, conditionalists through God’s prescience). To capture this more precisely, I say that Jesus died for all who will believe.

Tony, thanks for challenging me to be more specific. I hope I’ve done so.


It’s looks like the conversation is over here, but I thought I’d add a little more in response to Tony for the record.

Tony, please explain to me why the term “definite” was the adjective chosen for the position. Obviously, it’s meant to capture the fact that Jesus died for certain people only out of all of humanity, namely all who will believe on Him. So, there’s no need to qualify “definite” further and say “limited definite atonement.” In these theological phrases, we’re dealing with opposites: definite v/s indefinite, limited v/s unlimited, particular v/s universal. To say that Arminians believe in a definite atonement in that they believe that Jesus died for the definite group of every person who’ll ever live and not angels is to obfuscate the debate.

Tony, like I said in the original post, atonement and redemption are similar but have different referents. Atonement refers to sin being covered such that God’s wrath is quenched. Redemption refers to slaves to sin being bought and freed. Similar but different.

Tony, you’ve helped me to understand the other position better. For the other position, atonement is separate from the application of Jesus’ work and from propitiation. My position combines Jesus’ work and the application of Jesus’ work such that atonement includes propitiation, quenching God’s wrath toward those atoned for. My position seems to uphold complete or actual atonement and redemption as opposed to a partial or potential atonement and redemption.

Tony, you seem to have done a lot of research in this area. Have you ever come across a conditional electionist who argued for definite atonement through God’s prescience?

Tony Byrne

Ben said:

“Tony, please explain to me why the term “definite” was the adjective chosen for the position.”

Me now:
As far as I know the history, the preference for “definite atonement” is fairly modern. I think that label is preferred because the advocates of the strict view on Christ’s death 1) want to distance themselves from the equivalentist view, and 2) the label “limited atonement” just doesn’t sound good.

First, the strict advocates don’t want to give the idea that there view is that Christ’s death is less than infinite in value, or that it is a case of a certain quantity of suffering for so many sins. The “equivalentist” view is sometimes associated with “commercialism,” and those in the Turretinian and Owenic trajectory want to distance themselves from that. Whether they have done so sufficiently is a matter of debate.

Secondly, saying “I believe in limited atonement” won’t sell. It just doesn’t sound good. So, in order to put the best possible spin on it, they prefer some other label that seems less offensive, such as “particular redemption” or “definite atonement,” even though these terms are also historically vague. The label “limited atonement” actually describes the strict view just fine, I think, except that it has the possible crass commercial connotations of “limited in value,” a “stingy atonement,” “limited quantitative suffering,” etc. If the term “limited” just means “for the sins of the elect alone substitutionally” and not for everybody, then the label should be accepted. Own it as yours, but add qualifications if you will, as everybody else does.

Ben said:

“Obviously, it’s meant to capture the fact that Jesus died for certain people only out of all of humanity, namely all who will believe on Him. So, there’s no need to qualify “definite” further and say “limited definite atonement.” In these theological phrases, we’re dealing with opposites: definite v/s indefinite, limited v/s unlimited, particular v/s universal. To say that Arminians believe in a definite atonement in that they believe that Jesus died for the definite group of every person who’ll ever live and not angels is to obfuscate the debate.”

Me now:
But it seems to me that the term “definite” is no different from the term “limited.” “Definite” is trying to capture the idea of “this group alone [the elect] and not others.” If that’s the case, then “limited” means the same thing: “this limited group within humanity [the elect] and not others.” “Definite” is put in contrast to “indefinite,” and it is commonly imputed to others that they don’t believe Christ died for “anyone in particular,” as if Christ did not have particular people in mind when He substituted himself for sin. All parties agree that He did, but some think the “particular” group was all mankind, rather than merely the elect alone. Rather than that, Calvinists should more accurately describe non-Calvinists as believing that Christ did not die for anyone *especially.* This precisely gets at their notion of God *equally* willing the salvation of all men by way of terminology that I think is fair.

Most of the labels in the “TULIP” and in the alternatives are not critically examined for accuracy. They’re thrown out like slogans, and few pause to think if they are really being fair. When it comes to the issue of the extent of Christ’s death, I think the most accurate labels are “limited imputation” vs. “unlimited imputation.” That’s precisely where the difference is. Some think the sin of the elect alone was imputed to Christ and others think the sin of all men was imputed to Christ. That’s a dividing line precisely drawn and described, and no one should object to those labels. However, things get more complicated as one looks at the issue of intent and application. Some (in fact most) limited imputationists still affirm that God desires all men to be saved in the revealed will (“highs”) and some do not (“hypers”). The limited imputationists, then, are at least of two sorts. To use my desciptions, they “high Calvinists” and “hyper-Calvinists.”

Then there are the “unlimited imputationists” that believe the punishment due for the sin of all men was imputed to Christ. These include some Calvinists (what I call the “moderates”) and some non-Calvinists that still believe in penal substitution. As for the “moderate Calvinists” who believe in an unlimited imputation, what shall we describe them with? Some of them say they believe in “particular redemption” (Shedd, Dabney, Smith, etc.), so it doesn’t seem fair, at least historically, to exclusively use that label for the limited imputationists. Shall we say that these moderates don’t believe in “definite atonement”? Well, it depends on what one means by these terms (see the Dabney link above). Also, they still affirm that Christ had his elect in mind *especially* when He died, and aimed at their ultimate salvation according to the secret will. Shall we deny their significant element of particularity in the design of Christ’s death by simply saying they don’t believe in “definite atonement”? That doesn’t seem fair either. In fact, that seems quite simplistic, as are most conversations on this topic. Even the information in advanced systematic theological textbooks written by men with doctoral degrees is misleading, since they are not made self-aware by an indepth study of the history.

Since you bring up “the debate,” here’s the strategy of the “non-Calvinists” in talking about the design and extent of Christ’s death in polemical contexts:
1) Bring up the issue that the bible says Christ suffered for the sins of all men.
2) Bring up the obvious inference from this first idea (and other passages) that God loves and therefore wills all men to be saved.
3) Bring up the idea that this is incompatible with the Calvinistic idea of an unconditional election of some to life.
4) Bring up the notion that it is ridiculous and irrational to bifurcate God’s will as orthodox Calvinists do.
5) Nullify Calvinsitic arguments for their concept of election by continually employing points 1 through 4, on various subjects, ad infinitum.

If the bible teaches #1, they’ve got you. You’ve been effectively hit. If the bible teaches #2, and you deny the doctrine, they’ve got you. And if #1 and #2 are logically incompatible with election, they’ve got you. Your system is doomed. If it is irrational to believe that a perfect being can truly will (the salvation of all) what He nils (the salvation of the non-elect), or nils (the effecting of some good) what He truly wills (the good), then they’ve got you. You’ve been whacked. This is the type of thing that is going on in this dispute, and the Calvinists have their own strategies, but they are a complex group (like the non-Calvinists), not monolithic. “The debate” is far more complex than people realize, and to present “the debate” with simplistic labels and in simplistic dilemmas (Owenists vs. Arminians) is not clarifying or helpful, I don’t think.

Anyway, if you, Ben, want to label your position “definite atonement,” that’s fine. Just realize some of the diversity involved in Calvinistic history, and strive for fair descriptions of those who differ.

Tony Byrne

Ben asked:

“Tony, you seem to have done a lot of research in this area. Have you ever come across a conditional electionist who argued for definite atonement through God’s prescience?”

Me now:
Since the label “definite atonement” is well-known today as meaning “a limited intent to save the elect alone coupled with a limited imputation of sin to Christ,” the non-Calvinists are not going to use the term for themselves. The same goes with “limited atonement.” Incidentally, Dr. David Allen and I have joked around in conversations by saying he could say he believes in “limited atonement.” If “atonement” refers to the at-one-ment the believer experiences, then he can believe that the at-one-ment is limited to believers alone. It’s just a way of pointing out the ambiguity involved in the label, but we all know what that label means today, so no non-Calvinist or non-strict Calvinist would use it for their own view. “Limited atonement” is code language today for Owenic strict particularism, just as with “definite atonement” and “particular redemption.”

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