On September 2, 2019, The Gospel Coalition published Erik Raymond’s online article “Did Jesus Die for Everyone?” Raymond argues the case for limited atonement—that Jesus died for the sins of the elect only, and not for the sins of “every person who ever lived.”
I have noticed in recent weeks a number of articles on social media and Reformed websites championing limited atonement. All of these articles share certain things in common. One thing they share in common is a lack of substantive engagement with arguments against limited atonement by those within the Reformed camp, much less those like me who are not Calvinists.
Since I have written two books totaling over 1,200 pages published in the last three years on this topic, I feel it would be timely and helpful to weigh in.
The State of the Question Concerning the Extent of the Atonement
What exactly is the question concerning the extent of the atonement? The question is: “For whose sins did Christ die?” There are only two options: (1) for the elect alone (limited atonement) or (2) for all of humanity. Theologically speaking, limited atonement is the view that Christ bore the punishment due for the sins of the elect alone. Other synonyms for limited atonement used by Calvinists include definite atonement, and particular redemption. Unlimited atonement is the view that Christ bore the punishment due for the sins of all humanity, dead and living. This should not be confused with the theological error known as universalism, which teaches that in the end there will be universal salvation—i.e., that all people will be saved.
Raymond answers the question posed in his title: “I believe Jesus died on the cross for the elect. He did exactly what he intended to do and accomplished redemption for all who would believe, and not every person who ever lived.” Here Raymond clearly affirms his commitment to limited atonement, albeit in a confusing way. His answer is fraught with problems and needs careful unpacking.
First, lurking behind his answer is his assumption of the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of unconditional election. I merely point this out to show how often Calvinists assume their system in arguing for debated issues such as the extent of the atonement. I, along with most non-Calvinists, would understand biblical election differently. Setting aside for the moment the debate over the nature of election (unconditional, conditional, corporate, etc.), interestingly no atonement text in Scripture states that Christ died only for the “elect.” There is no atonement text in Scripture stating that God intends to save only the elect. There is no atonement text in Scripture stating that God wills only the salvation of the elect. Those texts that do speak in any way to the intention of the atonement as a sacrifice for sins never limit the recipients in terms of God’s intent to save or in terms of the extent of the atonement. This is a very important point.
Nonetheless, however we define the way election occurs we can all agree that in the end, all of those who are ultimately saved constitute the elect. Thus, for the sake of argument, I will grant Raymond’s understanding of election, especially since according to all moderate Calvinists (Calvinists who reject limited atonement and assert unlimited atonement), both election and unlimited atonement can be affirmed consistently, though most non-Calvinists don’t think the two can be affirmed consistently.
Second, notice Raymond’s use of the word redemption. He states, “Christ accomplished redemption for all who believe.” What Raymond actually means is that Christ accomplished atonement only for those who believe with the intention of applying the benefits of the atonement only to them (the elect). He is combining two meanings of the term redemption: “atonement” and “the application of the atonement resulting in actual salvation.”
The word redemption is used in different ways in Scripture. Sometimes it refers to the work of atonement, and sometimes it refers to the actual application of the atonement applied to the believer resulting in redemption, i.e., salvation. Likewise, theologians employ the term redemption in different ways as well. Nineteenth century Calvinist theologians often used the term redemption to refer to “atonement accomplished” but not atonement applied. One can see this in the writings of Hodge, Dabney, and Shedd, for example. On the other hand, sometimes the word is used by Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike to refer to the state of salvation resulting from the application of the benefits of the atonement to those who believe (the elect). Raymond seems to be using the term to include both notions of atonement accomplished and applied, a conflation that is problematic because scripture never speaks of the atonement as limited to the elect nor does Scripture speak of redemption as “final salvation” applied to all people.
Third, all non-Calvinists can agree with Raymond that Christ died for the sins of the elect. We just don’t believe, along with all moderate Calvinists, that he died for the sins of the elect only.
Fourth, Raymond’s statement that Christ “did exactly what he intended to do” could be affirmed by all non-Calvinists since we believe that Christ intended to lay down an atonement that satisfied for the sins of all people. In fact, all moderate Calvinists would affirm this statement in application to the atonement’s extent. But, Raymond means by his use of the word “intent” in context that Christ intended only to die for the sins of the elect with the intention of giving them, and them alone, effectual grace for salvation. Notice that all moderate Calvinists would affirm the latter statement but reject the former, while virtually all non-Calvinists would reject both.
Raymond mentions John 3:16; Heb 2:9; and 1 John 2:2 and imagines someone querying “In light of this, how can anyone say that Jesus did not die for everyone?” Indeed. That Christ died for the sins of all people is clearly taught, not only in these texts, but in Scripture in numerous places. The key passages asserting unlimited atonement include Isa 53:6; Mark 10:45; John 1:29, 3:14–16; Rom 5:18–19; 1 Cor 15:3–11; 2 Cor 5:14–21; 1 Tim 2:4–6, 4:10; Titus 2:11–14; Heb 2:9, 9:28; 2 Pet 2:1; and 1 John 2:1–2.
There are other texts that implicitly affirm unlimited atonement: Luke 22:20–23; John 17:21,23; Acts 3:26, 10:34; Rom 1:16, 2:11, 3:21–26, 5:15, 11:32, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11–12; 2 Pet 3:9; Jude 4; and Rev 22:17.
Why indeed, in the light of these texts, would anyone deny that Christ died for the sins of all people and affirm a strictly limited atonement? The answer is difficult to find in any exegetical evidence in Scripture. In fact, there is no single text of Scripture asserting Jesus died only for the sins of the elect. Limited atonement is a doctrine in search of a text. Limited atonement is mostly a theological deduction based primarily upon a certain understanding of predestination and election. Of interest is the fact that almost all the arguments against unlimited atonement and for limited atonement are logical and deductive in nature, as Raymond’s article illustrates.
Raymond acknowledges “these are important verses and questions. In this post I want to think this through biblically, theologically, and logically.” How well Raymond succeeds in these three categories remains to be evaluated.
Raymond’s first serious error is a common statement I’ve heard and read by Calvinists hundreds of times over: “First, let me start by saying that everyone limits the atonement. Everyone, that is, except for the heterodox theology of the universalist (the view that all will be saved). The Arminian limits the power of the atonement, saying that the cross did not definitively save anyone but made salvation possible for all. The Calvinist, on the other hand, limits the extent of the atonement, that it does not save every person, but only the elect.”
The claim that everyone limits the atonement is patently false. Everyone does not limit the atonement. All moderate Calvinists and all non-Calvinists do not limit the extent of the atonement. What all orthodox Christians limit is the application of the atonement. This is what Raymond wants to assert, but he confuses and thus conflates atonement accomplished with atonement applied.
He makes a second error when he asserts that the Arminian limits the power of the atonement. His error is three-pronged. First, he does not mention that moderate Calvinists, according to his theology and logic, would also limit the power of the atonement, since all moderate Calvinists affirm the cross does indeed make salvation possible for all, if they were to believe, but only effectual for the elect. Raymond has no historical or present-day category for the large group of moderate Calvinists who reject limited atonement and affirm universal atonement. He demonstrates this when he states: “The Calvinist, on the other hand, limits the extent of the atonement, that it does not save every person, but only the elect.” Raymond writes as if an entire wing of Reformed theology, namely, moderate Calvinists, do not exist. The historical reductionism here is, frankly, startling and disappointing.
Second, Raymond falls prey to the false dilemma fallacy of whether the atonement is potential or actual. Again he fails to distinguish between atonement accomplished, which is actual, and atonement applied, which is potentially possible for all people on condition of faith. There is nothing provisional about the atonement itself. It is an accomplished fact.
Third, Raymond also falls prey to the equivocation fallacy. The equivocation is the substitution of “atonement” for actual salvation. For more on this, see my The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ, 215–17.
Fourth, Raymond does not seem to appreciate that even for the elect the application of the atonement is not immediate at the cross, but is contingent upon the faith of the elect in time. As Paul clearly stated in Ephesians 2:1–3, even the unbelieving elect remain under the wrath of God until the atonement is applied to them (they were “children of wrath”). The fact that the cross was intended to be applied to them only in the Calvinist scheme, does not obviate the fact that if the unbelieving elect were to die in their sins, they remain under the “wrath of God.” Hence, the atonement does not, in and of itself, save, as the great Calvinist theologian Charles Hodge noted. Rather, the atonement is the ground of salvation.
The Value of the Atonement
Raymond continues by asserting that the limitation of the extent of the atonement does not limit the value of the atonement; its value remains “infinite.” Of course. No orthodox Christian disagrees. But here Raymond fails to distinguish between the worth and value of the atonement as “extrinsic” versus “intrinsic.” If limited atonement is true, the only way the atonement can have infinite value, including value to the so called “non-elect,” is in an “intrinsic” and “hypothetical” fashion. How do the non-elect benefit from the “value” of a limited atonement when there is no satisfaction for their sins? The “value” is only hypothetical with respect to the non-elect. Raymond’s point misses the real question in dispute and thus serves only to muddy the waters. Furthermore, what are the biblical, or logical, grounds for his appeal to Warfield’s statement that we must choose between an atonement of high value or one of “wide extension”? Why would a universal atonement be of any lesser value than a limited atonement? Neither Warfield nor Raymond explain. They merely assert.
The Nature of the Atonement
Raymond proceeds to discuss the nature of the atonement. He begins with the Old Testament Day of Atonement and its counterpart discussion in Hebrews 9:11–14 and 13:10–13. His point is the Day of Atonement sacrifice was not a “potential redemption for every person alive that year. Instead, it is an accomplished atonement for the people of Israel.”
Again, several problems ensue. First, the Old Testament makes clear that the Day of Atonement sacrifice atoned for the sins of the nation of Israel and for the sins of anyone else outside the nation of Israel who trusted in God and demonstrated such trust by adherence to Israel’s Mosaic Law. Second, was the atonement made for every person in Israel? The Scripture says yes. Was every person in Israel ultimately “saved”? Hardly. Atonement accomplished does not mean atonement applied. Third, Raymond should go back before the Day of Atonement to the first Passover in Exodus 12. There the typology of the extent and application of the atonement are clearly set forth, indicating a universal atonement but a limited application.
First Corinthians 5:7 indicates that the Old Testament Passover was a type of the death of Christ. According to Exodus 12, was the firstborn of the home protected from death merely because the lamb had been slain? No. God did not say, “When I see that the lamb has been slain, I will pass over you.” Rather, He said, “When I see the blood [on the two doorposts and on the lintel], I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:7, 13). The lamb had to be slain in order to provide salvation for the firstborn, but the blood also had to be applied before the provision became effective on his behalf. Peter shows that the “sprinkling of the blood,” in fulfillment of the type, speaks of the “obedience” of faith, the personal application, by faith, of Christ’s death (1 Pet 1:2).
Raymond’s next point is the substitutionary nature of the atonement. He quotes John Murray, “Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people.” Actually, Christ came to do both, as Scripture teaches. Murray’s statement is another example of the false dilemma fallacy. He, and Raymond, assume that these are the only two alternatives.
This mistake then leads Raymond to invoke the double payment argument: “It would be unbiblical to conclude that Jesus satisfied the wrath of God and bore the sins for those already suffering in hell. If he did pay their penalty, why is God punishing them a second time?”
The Double Payment Argument
Let’s analyze the double payment argument. If God punished the sins of someone on the cross and then punished the sinner again in hell, it is claimed this would be unjust on God’s part. Or, to put it another way, if the ransom is paid, justice demands that those for whom it is paid must go free. It cannot be said to be paid for any who are not eventually freed. Thus, limited atonement is deduced.
There are numerous flaws with this argument. First, the concept of double payment is never asserted in Scripture. The argument is a purely logical one. Second, the argument is based on a commercial understanding of the atonement. More on this below. Third, it fails to understand that the language of debt and ransom, when used of the atonement, is metaphorical and not literal. Calvinists often tend to confuse metaphorical language with literal language on this point. Fourth, the argument assumes that if Christ died for someone, this is equivalent to saving that person. The mistake is viewing God as a creditor because sin is metaphorically described as a debt. Sin as debt is about obligation, not about the death of Christ being a payment to a creditor (God). In fact, nowhere in Scripture is God ever viewed as the “creditor” who is paid a debt via the death of Christ.
The blood of Christ is metaphorically or analogically compared to pecuniary (commercial) transactions in Scripture via the use of debt language such as “ransom,” “redemption,” or “purchase.” Such language is not meant to describe the actual mechanism of how atonement works. Christ’s blood is not a literal commercial commodity. Sin is a debt, but it is more than a debt—it is a crime against God’s law with moral implications. Criminal debt is not equivalent to commercial debt.
For example, suppose you and I are dining in a restaurant. When the bill arrives, I suddenly realize I have no money on me. In my embarrassing situation, you kindly agree to pay my bill. The restaurant owner does not care who pays the bill as long as the bill is paid. What I owed is settled because you paid my debt. This is an example of a commercial, pecuniary debt.
But suppose, when the bill arrives and I don’t have the money to pay my debt, you pay the bill for both of us. Because I am so angry about not having any money, I go temporarily insane, rob the restaurant of $500 in cash, and abscond into the night. You, in your kindness, pay back the $500 I stole to the restaurant owner. Later, when I am apprehended, am I free to go because you paid my debt? No! Criminal debt is not equivalent to commercial debt. Sin and its payment are not matters of commercial debt, but of moral/legal debt.
Let’s alter the scenario slightly. Suppose that after I steal the $500, you are suspected of the theft, charged, and serve six months jail time. Later, it is discovered that I actually committed the crime, and after being charged and found guilty, I am sent to jail to serve six months. I cannot say, “You can’t send me to jail, the debt has been paid! Someone else has paid for my crime!” No, criminal “debt” obligations do not work that way. Just because the debt has been paid by one who did not commit the crime, it does not follow that I am liberated from my criminal obligation before the law. The atonement does not operate on a commercial basis such that the discharge of your sin debt ipso facto saves you. Jesus paid your sin-debt, but there is a condition for the benefit of that payment being applied to you: faith in Christ. All must still come to Christ in faith to receive the full discharge of their debt and guilt.
Fifth, the double payment argument negates the principle of grace. As Charles Hodge states, “There is no grace in accepting a pecuniary satisfaction. It cannot be refused. It ipso facto liberates. The moment the debt is paid the debtor is free; and that without any condition. Nothing of this is true in the case of judicial satisfaction.” The double payment argument undermines grace because salvation is “owed” to the elect. The question must be asked how God can justly postpone the grant of faith (from a Calvinistic understanding of faith as a gift given only to the elect) to the people for whom Christ died, if Christ literally “purchased” faith for them.
Sixth, the double payment argument proves too much. The question must be asked, “Why are the elect not justified at the cross?”
Seventh, the argument undermines the role of faith by denying the need for any condition in salvation. Salvation was not purchased to be given to anyone absolutely, whether they believed or not, but only upon the exercise of faith. God has designed that salvation comes with a condition that must be fulfilled on the part of the one who receives salvation. It is no injustice if salvation is not given to anyone who fails to fulfill God’s condition, even though payment for their sins has been made. If payment for sins has been made and one may obtain forgiveness on condition of faith in Christ and one does not fulfill the condition, there is no injustice with God if He extracts payment in the form of eternal suffering on the part of the sinner.
The Intent of the Atonement and John 10
Raymond’s next section concerns the “intent” of the atonement. In answer to the question of the atonement’s intent, he quotes Steve Lawson: “The intent of the atonement is the extent of the atonement.” Raymond attempts to read John 10 as evidence in support of Lawson’s question-begging statement: “What was Jesus’s intention? What was his plan for the atonement? He tells us that he would lay his life down for his sheep—and his sheep alone.” Appealing to John 10:14–16; 26, Raymond reads the text as equating the intent of the atonement to be for Christ’s sheep only, and not for the Jewish leaders who do not believe because they are not of his sheep, hence—limited atonement.
Raymond errs here because what cannot be demonstrated is where the text states or logically demands that Christ died only for the sheep. According to standard logical protocol, all things must be established by good and necessary consequence. By what logic does one exclude Jesus’s critics from the scope of his death by the revelation that they are not his sheep? There is nothing in Jesus’s statement that limits the scope of his death. As long as the Pharisees and other unbelievers refuse what Jesus is saying, they are incapable of receiving the saving benefits of his death. Even if Jesus’s statement indicates that his critics are not now nor ever will be among his sheep, such does not affirm or entail limited atonement. To assert that the statement does teach or entail limited atonement is to succumb to the negative inference fallacy—The proof of a given proposition does not disprove its converse. One cannot infer a negative (e.g., “Christ did not die for Group A”) from a positive statement (e.g., “Christ did die for Group B”).
Raymond’s second error is taking what applies to believers and extrapolating the predication to all of the elect in the abstract. What are the exegetical grounds for reading “sheep” in John’s context as the abstract class of all the elect? There are none. In the context, Christ’s sheep “hear” and “follow” Him (John 10:27), and they “know” Him (John 10:14) . I might point out here that Scripture never refers to the elect as an abstract group including all the elect of all time (unborn elect, unbelieving elect, believing elect, glorified elect in heaven). Every reference to the “elect” in the New Testament is to living believers only.
Here is the argument limitarians desire to set out from John 10:
Christ died for his sheep.
Pharisees are not his sheep.
Therefore, Christ did not die for them.
Most defenders of limited atonement attempt to employ this kind of logical argument without explicitly stating it. But this logical argument is invalid.
Consider this parallel example from D. A. Carson (D. A. Carson, “Exegetical Fallacies,” 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996], 102):
All orthodox Jews believe in Moses.
Smith is not an orthodox Jew.
Therefore, Smith does not believe in Moses.
The conclusion does not follow, and the syllogism is logically fallacious. Analogies could be added ad infinitum.
John loves Mary.
Bill is not Mary.
Therefore, John does not love Bill.
No matter how you parse it, it is invalid logic, and no sound argument can be grounded in an invalid logical argument. It does not matter what interpretation of the sheep one takes in John 10, the argument is invalid. Either consciously or unconsciously, many Calvinist readers have converted “Christ lays down his life for the sheep” as being identical to or as entailing, “Christ lays down his life only for the sheep.” However, this is an invalid negative inference.
This problem is further exacerbated if after smuggling in the extra-textual negation, one then tries to sustain the case for limited atonement. This then becomes grounds for a circular argument.
Limitarians wrongly conclude from John 10 that Christ died only for those pre-temporally given to him. Jesus’s statements in John 10 in no way prove exclusivity. When we are told Jesus died for his “friends,” does that prove he died only for them? Did he not die for his enemies as well? The point here is that simple positive statements cannot logically be used to infer category negations (the negative inference fallacy in logic). Moreover, Christ’s “friends” are actually believers, not all of the elect as such. Some of them are still in a state of hostility toward Christ.
The point is not about the extent of Christ’s death at all, but the faithfulness, the loyalty of Christ to the sheep. The Pharisees are the hirelings who abandon the sheep. Jesus is saying to them something like this, “I am not like you, who run away, rather I will lay my life down for the sheep, defending them to the end….” And by implication, we, the sheep, can truly know that Christ has effectually saved us, and will remain faithful to us to the end .
There is no limited atonement in John 10:14–16, 26…or in John 10 at all.
Limited Atonement and John 17
Moving on from John 10, Raymond attempts to find limited atonement in John 17. The basic argument is: Jesus intercedes only for the elect (John 17:9–10); therefore, the atonement is limited to the elect only. Since Jesus did not intercede for the world, He did not die for the sins of the world. This argument has been addressed and answered many times, even by a number of Calvinists.
John 17 does not state that Jesus died only for those for whom He prays. Laying aside for the moment the possibility that, in context, this is most likely a reference to the disciples, and even taking it as extending to the believing elect at the time—even then, the conclusion is not warranted that the text means that Jesus did not die for the sins of all people, elect and non-elect (again, the negative inference fallacy).
The argument falls prey to the logical fallacy of generalizing that election entails limited atonement. If Jesus prays only for the elect, then He must have died only for the elect. The mistake here is a collapsing of the intercession of Christ into His expiation for sins. This merely begs the question.
Harold Dekker, formerly professor and academic dean at Calvin Theological Seminary, offered a better interpretation of John 17. I summarize his argument:
- Does John 17:9 indicate that Jesus died for the elect only? The context beginning with verse 4 makes clear that those to whom Jesus referred in verse 9 are those who had come to believe in Him up to that point in time. Verse 20 supports this, since there Jesus says He prays also for those who will (future) believe in Him.
- When Jesus says that He does not pray for the world (v. 9), what does He mean? Jesus prayed a specific prayer for those who had believed and would believe in Him. There would have been no point in Jesus praying these specific things for the unconverted, because they could never be true for the unconverted until they were converted. The fact that He did not do so proves nothing about His disposition toward the world or the extent of His atonement for the world.
- This is made even clearer in John 17:21–23. Here Jesus does indeed pray for the world—namely, that the world might believe. Here the word “world” cannot be limited to the elect and means nothing less than the world of all unbelieving people.
Calvinist David Ponter points out how, when it comes to John 17, the following are alleged, asserted, and assumed without any support from confirming evidence:
- That this is a specific and effectual high priestly prayer on the part of Jesus.
- That the “world” of verse 9 represents the world of the reprobate.
- That those “given” in verse 9 represent the totality of the elect.
- That the extent of the high priestly intercession delimits the scope of the satisfaction.
- That the two parallel clauses in verses 21 and 23 are systemically overlooked or misread.
Ponter focuses on number 5—John 17:21 and 23: “[T]hat they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe [Gk. pisteuē] that You sent Me. . . . I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know [Gk. ginōskē] that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”
Note the use of “world,” “believe,” and “know.” The words “believe” and “know” in John’s Gospel convey the notion of saving faith, as in John 6:69; 16:27, 30; 17:8, 25, and 27. The same point made by Jesus in John 17:8 with respect to the apostles is now repeated in John 17:21 and 23 and applied to the “world.”
However, once the meaning of kosmos throughout the chapter is allowed to assume its normal meaning, and once the meanings of the verbs believe and know are allowed to be read consistently (as defined by context and usage rather than atextual interpolations), then according [to] the standard rules of hermeneutics, the strict particularist [limited atonement] reading of this passage really has no footing in this chapter.
Jesus’s prayer is for the world’s salvation, as evidenced by the use of the subjunctives (the mood of potentiality) in Greek: “That the world may believe,” and “that the world may know.” Jesus prays that future believers be unified for a major purpose: that the world may believe and know that Jesus has been sent from the Father. This exegesis of John 17 supports an unlimited atonement.
One final point: Those who assert limited atonement insist that if Christ dies for a particular person, then He prays for that particular person. But this argument can be inverted. All would have to agree that if Christ prays for a particular person, He must have died for that person. John 17:21 and 23 clearly assert that Christ prays for the world; therefore, He must have died for the world.
Do Hebrews 2:9, John 3:16, and 1 John 2:2 Support Limited Atonement?
Raymond turns to the three passages he mentioned at the beginning of his article: Hebrews 2:9, John 3:16, and 1 John 2:2. These three passages are often used to support unlimited atonement, but Raymond tries to explain to us why they, in fact, support limited atonement.
“But we do see him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
After informing the reader that “Context is important,” Raymond proceeds to identify the “everyone” of v. 9 as the restricted groups of the “many sons” in v. 10, the “brethren” in v. 11, and “the children” in v. 14. But Raymond fails to note the preceding context which governs the meaning of “everyone” in v. 9. Hebrews 2:6 –8 is a quotation of Psalm 8 which clearly refers to all humanity. Verse 9 is connected with vv. 6–8 by a coordinating conjunction and completes the point of the quotation in vv. 6–8: the incarnation was necessary so that Jesus could die for the sins of all humanity. Verses 10 and following are introduced by a subordinating conjunction and speak of the purpose of his death for the sins of all people—namely, that he might bring “many sons to glory.” (See my commentary on Hebrews on this text in Allen, Hebrews, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010.) Raymond has to engage in strained exegesis to squeeze limited atonement out of this text which so obviously supports unlimited atonement.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Raymond completely misses the point of this verse when he says, “But while the Son came into the world, the verse doesn’t say that the entire world will be saved. It limits the scope of salvation to those who would believe, ‘that whoever believes in him shall not perish.’” Of course the verse limits the scope of salvation to those who believe. That is simply good New Testament truth stated a hundred times over. The point of the verse is the connection of the love of God for the “world” such that anyone in that world who believes will be saved. Notice how D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John. PNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 205) rightly understands “world” in this verse to be a reference to all unbelieving humanity over against the faulty interpretation of John Owen who understood “world” in this verse to refer to “the elect.” One must ask the question: “On what grounds can anyone who believes be saved?” The answer is God’s love for the world that caused him to give his only Son Jesus with the obvious contextual implication that Jesus came to die for the sins of the “world.” I would recommend checking out Calvinist Robert Dabney’s nineteenth century comments on this verse in his essay “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy” (in Discussions: Theological and Evangelical [Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1982], 312–13) for an excellent treatment of why John 3:16 does, and indeed must, teach unlimited atonement.
1 John 2:2
“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Raymond feels the pinch of this verse on his system: “I think there is a good reason for the debate about this passage.” Raymond seeks to enlist the differing uses of “world” to support limited atonement. But his reasoning founders because John uses the phrase “whole world,” a phrase occurring only one other time in the New Testament—1 John 5:19. Here John says: “We are of God, and the whole world lies in the wicked one.” John identifies two groups of people who exist at any given time on the planet: 1) Christians, and 2) all non-Christians, whom John identifies as “the whole world.” For John here, “world” means “all living unbelievers” at the time of his writing. This is the same meaning of “world” throughout John’s Gospel as well when people are in view, according to D. A. Carson. Contextually, this makes it clear that John’s meaning of “whole world” in 1 John 2:2 is the same: Christ is the propitiation for our sins (believers) and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the “whole world” (all living unbelievers whether Jew or gentile). This is one of the clearest statements of universal atonement in all the New Testament.
Consider Raymond’s roundabout reasoning process to find limited atonement in 1 John 2:2. He hops, skips, and jumps from one text to another (nine texts in all from Gen 12:1–3 to Rev 5) in an attempt to connect the dots to support limited atonement. It’s like playing the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” where movie aficionados challenge each other to find the shortest path between an arbitrary actor and Kevin Bacon by linking actors to Bacon within six steps. This is poor theological method and even poorer exegetical method.
Raymond asks how are we to understand the meaning of John’s word “propitiation” in 1 John 2:2?
It is important to note that John uses the noun form of the word and states that Christ is the propitiation for our sins and for the sins of the whole world. Advocates of limited atonement often make a serious mistake when they make an invalid noun-to-verb conversion of the noun “propitiation.” Nouns and verbs are distinct for a reason. Nouns speak to what a thing is or what it does. Verbs speak to what a thing is doing or has done or shall do. Unlike verbs, nouns do not have tense. The result is to read “propitiation” as if it is speaking about atonement as both accomplished and applied—or accomplished with intent to apply effectually only to the elect. Christ is viewed as actually propitiating and forgiving, and reconciling those for whom the propitiation was made.
But this is emphatically not what the verse says. Once the illegitimate noun-to-verb transfer is made, then syllogistic arguments follow. For example, the limitarian argues, if “world” means all people, this would entail that all humanity’s sin has been propitiated (as an accomplished action with resulting salvation, according to limitarians); but given that it is not the case and that the sins of all humanity have been expiated, “world,” therefore, cannot denote all humanity. In other words, the limited atonement argument proceeds logically as follows:
- If Christ has propitiated the wrath of God for a man (hypothetically named “Smith”), then that man cannot fail to be saved.
- Christ has propitiated the wrath of God for Smith.
- Therefore, Smith cannot fail to be saved.
Or, to rephrase the syllogism into a Modus Tollens argument:
If Christ died for the whole world, then the whole world will necessarily be saved.
It is not the case that the whole world is saved;
Therefore, it is not the case that Christ died for the whole world.
The syllogisms are formally valid but not logically sound because the first premise works only on the noun-to-verb conversion. However, the noun hilasmos (“propitiation”), does not refer to an accomplished past-tense action but to function—i.e., how something is accomplished. “Propitiation” points back to Christ’s sacrifice for sin as a means for sinners to find forgiveness. The cross is the means whereby one may find forgiveness—via an accomplished propitiation/expiation (noun) for sin, not to an already accomplished application of the benefits of the atonement as a subjective effect already completed.
Consider 1 John 2:1 as a parallel example and comparable in structure to 1 John 2:2. John says, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate.” Here, Advocate (Gk. paraklēton) is a noun, and the sense is, if anyone seeks pardon for his sins, there is an advocate for them. The sense is not that Christ has already advocated (past tense verb indicating accomplished action) for them, but that He is their “Advocate” or the Counselor to whom they may go to find help and comfort. That is, if they confess their sin, He will advocate on their behalf. John is describing Christ’s office and function as Advocate—what He will accomplish with regard to those who confess their sins.
John’s point in 1 John 2:2 is that there is an accomplished, objective atonement that provides an ongoing means for subjective reconciliation to occur between a sinner and God when the sinner comes to God through Christ by faith. Propitiation accomplished does not, and cannot, ipso facto mean propitiation applied. Without repentance there can be no advocacy applied (1 John 2:1), and without faith in Christ there can be no propitiation applied. Christ’s death on the cross has made propitiation for the sins of all people and is objectively available—conditionally as to its efficacy to all who will come to God through Christ by faith. If any person confesses his sin, he will find in Christ an Advocate, because Christ is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
David Ponter summarizes the issue well at the conclusion of his excellent essay on the meaning of 1 John 2:2, from which I have drawn heavily:
Once one truly understands the import of John’s ‘world’ in his first letter, the wheels of the limited satisfaction wagon . . . truly fall off. For there is no credible way to admit, on the one hand, that the language of 1 John 2:2 regards all the sins of believers and ‘the whole world,’ and yet, on the other hand, deny that the same language actually references all the sins of the whole world.
The propitiation concerns the sins of all believers and “the world;” thus, the atonement can only be unlimited in nature and extent.
John Owen’s Triple Choice Argument
Raymond’s final point is to invoke John Owen’s “Triple Choice” argument in support of limited atonement.
John Owen famously propounded what has come to be called the “Triple Choice” dilemma against unlimited atonement: Christ died for either (1) all the sins of all men, (2) all the sins of some men, or (3) some sins of all men. Owen concluded that options 1 and 3 are problematic. If option 1 is true, Owen queried whether unbelief was a sin atoned for by Christ’s death. If so, how can one suffer in hell for a sin already atoned for? But this raises a number of questions that Owen did not answer: Is substitution conceived quantitatively in Scripture? If unbelief is atoned for, why are the elect not saved at the cross? What is the relationship of unbelief to the unforgivable sin?
Owen’s trilemma argument faces many of the same kinds of problems as the double payment argument, two of which appear to be insurmountable.
The first is the problem of the issue of original sin. Notice it is not original “sins” but original “sin.” If Christ died for original sin, then He died for at least one of the sins of all people, including the non-elect. If this is the case, then the argument is defeated as it would have to be admitted that Christ died for some of the sins (original sin) of all people.
The second problem concerns the issue of how imputation of sin works. Thinking of the imputation of sin to Christ as a transference of the guilt of specific transgressions is problematic in that it operates on a commercialistic mechanism. The trilemma argument undermines the true meaning of imputation and operates on the assumption of the transference of specific, quantifiable sins.
Owen’s argument defeats itself by proving too much, as Calvinist Neil Chambers argues. In the next few paragraphs, I am heavily indebted to Chambers’s assessment of Owen’s trilemma argument. If Christ died for all the sins of some people (the elect), then he must also have died for their unbelief. If this is the case, then why are the elect not saved at the cross?
If Owen replies that it is because the benefits of Christ’s death are not yet applied to them, then they remain in an unbelieving state and therefore cannot be spoken of as saved in any way. Paul confirms this in Eph 2:1–3, when he states that even the unbelieving elect remain under the wrath of God in their unbelieving state. But, according to Owen, since their penalty has been paid, they cannot be punished for that unbelief, as he has already stated that God will not exact a second payment for the one offense (double payment argument).
Owen has engaged in polemical reductionism in his consideration of “unbelief” because unbelief is not just an offense like any other; it is also a state, which must be dealt with not only by forgiveness but by regeneration. Chambers notes that Owen recognized this in relating the cross to the causal removal of unbelief as a state, but unbelief regarded as a sin and unbelief regarded as a state bear a different relation to the cross. Sin bears a direct relation to the cross, which is the enduring of the penalty for sin; the change of state from unregenerate to regenerate (from being lost to being saved) bears an indirect relation to the cross and is dependent upon preaching and regeneration by the Spirit. Chambers then points out that for Owen to acknowledge that reality he would have to say that Christ died for all the sin, including the unbelief, of those who believe, and for none of the sins of those who do not believe. But for the polemical force of his argument, Owen ignored the distinction that would place too much weight on human response and expose his argument to criticism.
The second tension is Owen’s refusal to acknowledge “savability” as an intentional outcome of the cross. If the elect are not saved at the cross, then they at least must be regarded as savable in historical temporal terms because they are in a state of being able to be saved by the direct intention of God and the atonement of Christ on the cross for their sins. Thus, historically it must be true that there are some people for whom Christ died that they might be saved, even if, from a Calvinist perspective, eternal election, the covenant of redemption, and Christ’s purchase of faith makes their salvation inevitable.
Owen faces another problem in his attempt to accommodate the historical salvation of individuals who believe in Christ to the perspective of eternal intention/causality. The language of Scripture does not dwell in pre-temporal explanations of salvation. Rather, the language of the sufficiency of the atonement to save all people is the language that accommodates well to the historical realities of coming to faith through gospel preaching and the work of the Spirit. This language consistently speaks of the universal, inclusive, indefiniteness of the gospel offer and promises, including statements in atonement contexts that speak of God’s intent of coming into the world and dying for all sinners. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that Christ came to die only for “elect” sinners.
For these reasons, Chambers concludes that Owen’s trilemma argument ultimately fails because it proves too much. Owen’s argument entails that the elect are spared from God’s wrath whether they believe or do not believe. All that remains is to bring them into the subjective realization of their blessing through the preaching of the cross. Owen has committed himself to three unbiblical assumptions: (1) that the cross necessitates the salvation of the elect, (2) denial of the savability of some people, and (3) subjugation of the temporal to eternal causality.
Owen’s trilemma necessarily operates on the assumption that there was a quantitative imputation of sins to Christ. The biblical idea of imputation does not work that way. Just as believers are not imputed with something like so many particular acts of Christ’s righteousness but rather with righteousness categorically, so also Christ was not imputed with all the particular sinful acts of some people, like so many “sin-bits,” but rather with sin in a comprehensive way. He was treated as though He were sinful or categorically guilty of the sin of the whole human race.
The truth is that Christ died one death, which all sinners deserve under the law. In paying the penalty of what one sinner deserves, He paid the penalty of what every sinner deserves. He suffered the curse of the law as defined by the law. Owen’s double payment and trilemma arguments undermine the true meaning of imputation and operate on the assumption of the transference of specific sins. Charles Hodge, in contrast, has retained the proper understanding of imputation:
What was suitable for one was suitable for all. The righteousness of Christ, the merit of his obedience and death, is needed for justification by each individual of our race, and therefore is needed by all. It is no more appropriate to one man than to another. Christ fulfilled the conditions of the covenant under which all men were placed. He rendered the obedience required of all, and suffered the penalty which all had incurred; and therefore his work is equally suited to all.
Raymond concludes his article with a healthy reminder to us all that we should proceed with humility, gentleness, patience, and precision in the conversation over the extent of the atonement. Agreed. But whereas it appears Raymond succeeds in the first three virtues, his article fails on the precision issue. Imprecise thinking and imprecise articulation abound with respect to his stated desire to think through the issue “biblically, theologically, and logically.” His arguments are flawed in all three categories and do not sustain the limited atonement position.
Limited atonement remains a doctrine in search of a text.
D. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); D. Allen, The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019). See also D. Allen, “The Extent of the Atonement: Limited or Universal?,” in D. Allen and S. Lemke, eds, Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five Point Calvinism(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 61–108. All of Raymond’s arguments are addressed in these works, and that from the writings of Calvinists who affirm unlimited atonement. I will not footnote every point in this article. The reader should consult the indexes and footnotes in these three volumes.
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 2:557.
Neil Andrew Chambers, “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ’” (Th.M. thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998), 233–39. See also my full discussion and dependence upon Chambers in Allen, The Extent of the Atonement, 204–23.
As Calvinist M. Lynch rightly notes: “Reformed theologians have insisted on an infallibility of the application of Christ’s satisfaction to the elect, but this infallibility is not to be found in or grounded on the nature of satisfaction. To rest infallibility of application on the nature of Christ’s atoning work assumes not only a crass pecuniary logic regarding the satisfaction, but also collapses the distinction between election and the work of Christ” (See M. Lynch, “Quid Pro Quo Satisfaction? An Analysis and Response to Garry Williams on Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Definite Atonement,” EQ 89, no. 1 : 51–70 [emphasis original]).
C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 2:557.