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Unlimited atonement (sometimes called general atonement or universal atonement) is the majority doctrine in Protestant Christianity that is normally associated with Non-Calvinist Christians. It originated as a protest against the supralapsarian doctrines formulated in the post-Calvin environment. The doctrine states that Jesus died as a propitiation for the benefit of mankind without exception. It is a doctrine distinct from other elements of the Calvinist acronym TULIP and is contrary to the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement.
Modern Calvinists often charge that the doctrine of unlimited atonement was first formalized during the beginning of the 5th Century AD as part of the debate between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius. However it is the position of a majority of professing Christians that the atonement was held as unlimited by most of the early Church Fathers (ECF). Pelagius and his followers strongly held to unlimited atonement but rejected original sin. It was not until Jacobus Arminius that unlimited atonement, original sin, and total depravity were formally joined within one theological system. In response to the Remonstrants' Five articles of Remonstrance, the Synod of Dort published the Five points of Calvinism with limited atonement as one of the five points.
One of the stronger, more vocal proponents of Unlimited atonement was John Wesley. Those who opposed the view include George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. It should also be noted that the namesake of the Calvinist systematic theological viewpoint, John Calvin, seemingly expressed an unlimited atonement position in several passages from his published Commentaries.
The terms unlimited, universal, and general are somewhat of a misnomer and have been adopted primarily to distinguish this doctrine from a Calvinist understanding of limited atonement. More accurately, the call of the Gospel is universal and there are no limits on who can believe through faith, but the legal payment is still regarded as limited only to those that respond through faith in Jesus.
The following statements regarding what it states and what it does not state are subject to close scrutiny of which many distinguished theologians on both sides of this issue disagree.
What It States
- The purpose of the atonement was universal - Jesus died on behalf of all people, not just the elect.
- The atonement makes a way for all to respond to the Gospel call - Part of the effect of the atonement is the restoration of the ability to respond to God's call of salvation (see Prevenient grace).
- Salvation is available for all - The doctrine of unlimited atonement rejects the predeterminism associated with Calvinism and states that every human has the opportunity to accept Jesus through faith.
- The atonement legally pays for the sins of those who believe on Jesus - Only those who believe on Jesus are forgiven - only the believers' sins are paid
What It Does Not State
- Jesus paid the penalty for those who deny faith in Him, and His death was a substitutionary atonement for those who deny Him - Though the term unlimited atonement can easily give the incorrect assumption that Jesus' payment encompassed all people, Unlimited atonement maintains a limit on the legal effect. Jesus' death was indeed an offer of a substitutionary atonement to all, but this offer was resistible; though salvation is offered to all, not all are saved.
Amyraldism (commonly called "four-point Calvinism" holds to a view of Unlimited atonement that is very similar but not synonymous with the traditional Arminian understanding. Amyraldism teaches that God has provided Christ's atonement for all alike, but seeing that none would believe on their own, he then elects those whom he will bring to faith in Christ, thereby preserving the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.
All quotes from the NKJV unless otherwise noted, emphasis added:
Scriptures used to support
These are Scriptures commonly used by those who support Unlimited atonement:
- John 3:14-18 - "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
- 2 Cor 5:14-15 - "For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again."
- 1 Timothy 2:3-6 - For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time."
- 1 Timothy 4:10 - "For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe."
- Titus 2:11 (ESV) - "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people."
- 2 Peter 3:9 (KJV) - "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."
- 1 John 2:2 - "And He [Christ] Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world."
Scriptures that must be reconciled
These are Scriptures commonly used by those who deny Unlimited atonement:
- John 10:2-5,11,14-15 - But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers...I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep...I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.
- John 17:9 - ...I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.
- Acts 20:28 - Therefore, take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
- Romans 8:33-34 - Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.
- Ephesians 5:25 - Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.
Objections to the Doctrine
Unlimited atonement is contrasted with the Calvinist doctrine of Limited atonement. In many ways, at their core, the Arminian concept of Unlimited atonement and the Calvinist concept of Limited atonement are very similar, differing primarily in the presuppositions that come from their respective views on election & predestination.
Points of Agreement Between Limited Atonement and Unlimited Atonement
- The call of salvation can be genuinely made universally - to all
- Jesus paid the penalty only for those who have faith in Him
- Jesus' death was a substitutionary atonement only for those who accept Him
- Paul Hartog, A Word for the World: Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 2009).
- Ashby, Stephen M., "Reformed Arminianism", Four Views on Eternal Security (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) pp. 137ff
- Ashby, Stephen M (contributor) Four Views on Eternal Security (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) ISBN 0-310-23439-5
- Forster, R.T. and Marson, V.P God's Strategy in Human History (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000) ISBN 1-57910-273-5
- Hartog, Paul, A Word for the World: Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 2009).
- Klein, William W The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2001) ISBN 1-57910-573-4
- Picirilli, Robert Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2002) ISBN 0-89265-648-4
- Shank, Robert Elect in the Son (Bethany House Publishers, 1989) ISBN 1-55661-092-0
- Wesley, John Predestination Calmly Considered (variety of publications)
- Wiley, H. Orton Christian Theology (Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1952) ISBN 0-8341-1831-9
- Robert P. Lightner, "The Death Christ Died--A Biblical Case For Unlimited Atonement" (Revised Edition, 1998) [Kregel].
- Richard Baxter, "Universal Redemption of Mankind" 9printed in London, 1694)
- James Morison, "The Extent of the Atonement" (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1882)
- Unlimited Atonement Historically & Biblically Supported
- The Death Christ Died: A Case for Unlimited Atonement by Robert Lightner
- The Case for Unlimited Atonement by Ron Rhodes
- Calvin's Error of Limited Atonement by D.A. Waite
- "Father, Whose Everlasting Love" by Charles Wesley
- Sermon #128: "Free Grace" by John Wesley
- The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by John Owen (ISBN 0-85151-382-4)
- "For Whom Did Christ Die?", part 3, chapter 8 of Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology.
- "Limited Atonement", chapter 12 from The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner
- Articles on Definite Atonement at Monergism.com
- "Limited Atonement", a series of articles by Ra McLaughlin
- Limited Atonement by GotQuestions.org