Ambassador of Reconciliation
11/5/15 at 09:38 AM 8 Comments

Conversation about the Atonement: Is It Limited or Unlimited? Part 6

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Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine

Part 5 of our ongoing dialog about the atonement was a response to W.G.T. Shedd’s discussion of the extent of the atonement in his Dogmatic Theology (first published in 1894). Here in Part 6 we look at Wayne Grudem’s treatment of the same subject in his Systematic Theology, published 100 years after Shedd’s book. Some of the same observations apply to both, but Grudem takes a little different approach.

Grudem frames the question about the extent of the atonement this way: “When Christ died on the cross, did he pay for the sins of the entire human race or only for the sins of those who he knew would ultimately be saved?” (p. 594)

Grudem explains that non-Reformed people argue that in Scripture the gospel is repeatedly offered to all people, and in order for the gospel offer to be genuine, the payment for sins must actually be available for all people. And “if the people whose sins Christ paid for are limited, then … the offer of the gospel cannot be made to all mankind without exception.”

Reformed people, on the other hand, argue that if the atonement actually paid for the sins of all people, then God could not condemn anyone to eternal punishment because that would be demanding double payment for the same sins, which is unjust. We do not know who will come to Christ, so we have to offer the gospel to all. Furthermore, all God’s purposes are certainly fulfilled; therefore, what is actually accomplished is exactly what God intended to accomplish.

Then Grudem cites Scripture passages used to support the Reformed view1 and others used to support the non-Reformed view. Like Shedd, he notes that the Scriptures speak of Christ dying for “his people”—“the sheep” (Jn. 10:15), “the church of God” (Acts 20:28), “God’s elect” (Rom. 8:33, 34), and “her,” i.e., “the church” (Eph. 5:25). Christ spoke of those whom the Father gave Him (Jn. 6:37-39; Jn. 17:9, 20)—a group of people whom He specifically prayed for and who would be raised up at the last day, not one of whom would be cast out or lost. When the Bible talks about what Christ did for “us” or for “our sake” through His death, it is referring specifically to those who would believe (e.g., Rom. 5:8, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:3-4).

For each of the five doctrinal points of Calvinism, Grudem “attempts to point out the arguments in favor of an opposing position and to provide an appropriate bibliography representing both views,” which I appreciate. In this case, he mentions some of the Scripture passages used to support “general redemption” or “unlimited atonement,” noting that they indicate “that in some sense Christ died for the whole world” or that they “appear to speak of Christ dying for those who will not be saved.” Then he goes on to explain why the Calvinist position is more true to Scripture.

But first he mentions some points of agreement between the Reformed and non-Reformed views. First on the list is that both sides agree that “not all will be saved.” Since Calvinists and Arminians agree on this point, he doesn’t even consider the possibility that all might be saved. He simply assumes that not all are saved and builds his argument on that basic assumption.

Here, I believe, is a serious problem with his argument. His logic may be sound (and I believe that it is), but if he starts with a premise that is not true, then his conclusion may not be true. And if he considers only two possibilities, he may be missing a third position that even better explains all that has been revealed in Scripture. And it seems to me that he is working backward to arrive at limited atonement. Let me explain.

Grudem’s arguments in favor of the Reformed view of particular atonement2 assume that not all people are saved. Since he also believes in the sovereignty of God (that God will surely accomplish all that He purposes to do), Grudem logically has to conclude that God did not purpose to save all through Christ’s death. The logic might be stated as follows:

If God intended to save all, He will certainly accomplish the salvation of all.
Not all are saved.
Therefore, God did not intend to save all.

P → Q
~Q → ~P

In Grudem’s words, “Reformed people argue that God’s purposes in redemption are agreed upon within the Trinity and they are certainly accomplished. Those whom God planned to save are the same people for whom Christ also came to die, and to those same people the Holy Spirit will certainly apply the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work…. What God the Father purposed, God the Son and the Holy Spirit agreed to and surely carried out.” The implication is that since some people are not saved, then God did not plan to save them and the Son did not die for them. The logic itself is sound, but if the premise is not true, then we cannot have confidence in the conclusion. To me it seems backwards to start with the belief that not all are saved; I think we should start by determining what Scripture says about Jesus’ work on the cross and from there determine whether or not all are saved.

From another angle, Grudem believes that if Jesus actually paid for everyone’s sins, then everyone’s sins would be forgiven and everyone would be saved. Since not everyone is saved, Jesus did not pay for everyone’s sins:

If Jesus paid for everyone’s sins, then everyone will be saved.
Not all are saved.
Therefore, Jesus did not pay for everyone’s sins.

In Grudem’s words, “Reformed people argue that if Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of every person who ever lived, then there is no penalty left for anyone to pay, and it necessarily follows that all people will be saved, without exception.”3 His logic is fine, but since he believes that not all people are saved, he has to conclude that Christ’s death did not actually pay for the sins of every person who ever lived. However, notice carefully what he is saying: If the atonement is unlimited, then all people will be saved (i.e., universalism is true).4 I wish he would explore this possibility!

Grudem’s other points supporting limited atonement also assume that not all people are saved. Like Shedd, he takes verses that seem to teach unlimited atonement and interprets them in light of his belief that eternal punishment is true.5 Here are some examples of how he interprets such verses (pp. 596-600):

The fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19) does not mean that every single person in the world was reconciled to God, but that sinners generally were reconciled to God.

The fact that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) does not mean (on anybody’s interpretation) that Christ actually removes the sins of every single person in the world, for both sides agree that not all are saved.

In reality, some people do believe that all will be saved and that Christ actually does remove the sins of every single person in the world!

When Jesus says, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51), it is in the context of speaking of himself as the Bread that came down from heaven, which is offered to people and which they may, if they are willing, receive for themselves.

Jesus said that “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). This may be understood in the sense of bringing redeeming life into the world but not meaning that every single person in the world will have that redeeming life.

When John says that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, author’s translation), he may simply be understood to mean that Christ is the atoning sacrifice that the gospel now makes available for the sins of everyone in the world.

When Paul says that Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6), we are to understand this to mean a ransom available for all people, without exception.

When Paul says that God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10),… surely Paul does not mean that every single person will be saved. [My note: Or maybe that is, in fact, precisely what Paul means!]

When the author of Hebrews says that Christ was made lower than the angels “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one” (Heb. 2:9), the passage is best understood to refer to every one of Christ’s people, every one who is redeemed…. The Greek word pas, here translated “every one,” is also used in a similar sense to mean “all God’s people” in Hebrews 8:11 and 12:8.

So Grudem, like Shedd, goes to great lengths to interpret verses in such a way as to support limited atonement. If only he would give a hearing to the idea of unlimited atonement coupled with the sovereignty of God! I do agree with him that the Arminian concept of unlimited atonement is in error.6 The following analogy occurred to me:

Suppose a little girl is drowning and a man jumps in to save her. If in the process he himself drowns, we can truly say that “he died for her.” But if she drowns too, then his saving effort was ineffective. Arminianism says something similar: Christ died for all; He gave His life in an attempt to rescue all. But the sad fact is that many perish anyway.

However, if the man died for her and succeeded in rescuing her, then truly he gave his life for her and his sacrifice was completely effective. Similarly, if Christ died for all and succeeds in saving all, then the atonement is “for” all in every sense, God’s purpose is fully accomplished, and every human being for whom Christ died (i.e., the whole world) will be saved.

One thing I do appreciate about Grudem is that he takes a pastoral approach when presenting his position (which is not always the case with Calvinists). In a section entitled “Points of Clarification and Caution Regarding This Doctrine,” he acknowledges that “we can rightly object to the way in which some advocates of particular redemption have expressed their arguments.” He also looks at “the pastoral implications for this teaching.”

For example, it is easy for non-Reformed people to hear the sentence “Christ died for his people only” and see it as a threat to the free offer of the gospel to every person. Therefore, Reformed people should be cautious about making that statement:

Reformed people who hold to particular redemption should recognize the potential for misunderstanding that arises with the sentence “Christ died for his people only,” and, out of concern for the truth and out of pastoral concern to affirm the free offer of the gospel and to avoid misunderstanding in the body of Christ, they should be more precise in saying exactly what they mean. The simple sentence, “Christ died for his people only,” while true in the sense explained above [“Christ died to actually pay the penalty for all the sins of his people only”], is seldom understood in that way when people unfamiliar with Reformed doctrine hear it, and it therefore is better not to use such an ambiguous sentence at all (p. 601).

As I have noted before, it is problematic to use semantics to try to get around the implications of a particular doctrine.

Grudem also says that Reformed people should not object to the statement “Christ died for all people,” because Scripture uses that kind of language and because it can be consistent with the Reformed belief that “Christ died to make salvation available to all people.” He says, “It really seems to be only nit-picking that creates controversies and useless disputes when Reformed people insist on being such purists in their speech that they object any time someone says that ‘Christ died for all people.’”

Grudem also tries to bring together those who hold to particular redemption and those who hold to general redemption by noting the key points where they agree (p. 597):

  • “Both sincerely want to avoid implying that people will be saved whether they believe in Christ or not…. It is always precarious to criticize people for a position that they do not say they hold, just because you think that they should hold that position if they were consistent with their other views.”
  • “Both sides want to avoid implying that there might be some people who come to Christ for salvation but are turned away because Christ did not die for them.”
  • “Both sides want to avoid implying that God is hypocritical or insincere when he makes the free offer of the gospel.”

I would add that Universalists also agree on these key points.

Finally, Grudem cautions that Reformed people should not make belief in particular redemption “a test of doctrinal orthodoxy,” and it should not become a matter of divisiveness:

It would be healthy to realize that Scripture itself never singles this out as a doctrine of major importance, nor does it once make it the subject of any explicit theological discussion. Our knowledge of the issue comes only from incidental references to it in passages whose concern is with other doctrinal or practical matters…. A balanced pastoral perspective would seem to be to say that this teaching of particular redemption seems to us to be true, that it gives logical consistency to our theological system, and that it can be helpful in assuring people of Christ’s love for them individually and of the completeness of his redemptive work for them; but that it also is a subject that almost inevitably leads to some confusion, some misunderstanding, and often some wrongful argumentativeness and divisiveness among God’s people—all of which are negative pastoral considerations (p. 603).

Grudem’s pastoral emphasis is a welcome relief from some of the more strident Calvinists. But I can’t help thinking that, no matter what you call it or how you define it or how you explain it, limited atonement is just an awful doctrine. Worst of all, it diminishes Christ’s magnificent work on the cross, limiting its efficacy to only a fraction of humanity. How could we ever say that the efficacy of His work is anything less than perfect and complete? And if we really allow ourselves to think about it using the sense of reason, compassion, and justice that God has given us, we find it unreasonable, unloving, and unjust that God would bring people into the world in total bondage to sin and then leave many (if not most) with no real possibility of escaping from that bondage. The natural aversion that many feel to that idea is not because they are bleeding-heart liberals who have no concept of God’s holiness; rather, they are using their God-given mind, heart, and conscience. Let the words of the Westminster Confession really sink in, and ask God if they really express His gracious and loving and sovereign purposes:

VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

The rest of mankind God was pleased to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. Are these statements consistent with what you know about the God who redeemed you? Does “passing by” His creatures bring praise to “His glorious justice” or to His loving character?

And while it does give logical consistency to the Reformed theological system, the fact that God specifically chooses some does not, in my opinion, assure people of Christ’s love for them individually. How can we be certain of God’s love for us if He does not in the same way love those whom we love? Is love really part of His essential character, or is it a selective love that chooses to love some enough to save them and others not? For a look at this question from a more devotional angle, see “Being the Chosen Child.”

Not long ago I read some words from John Piper that truly grieved me. His sons are now grown, but when they were little he wrote:

I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.

But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.

God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. Piper said that he himself would give his life for their salvation, but he could not be sure that Jesus had died for them! How utterly tragic!

Looking back at Grudem’s original question—“When Christ died on the cross, did he pay for the sins of the entire human race or only for the sins of those who he knew would ultimately be saved?”—I think the answer is that those two groups are one and the same! Jesus gave His life for the entire human race, and ultimately all will be saved.7

I do take seriously Grudem’s caution not to nit-pick about the finer points of doctrine. But I think we must recognize and proclaim the full power of the work of Christ on the cross. And I do believe there is a way to harmonize the most important doctrines of both Calvinism and Arminianism—if they both let go of one doctrine they agree on: that not all will be saved. Then we can maintain with the Arminians that God is infinitely loving and with the Calvinists that God is absolutely sovereign—and therefore that He both desires to redeem all of humanity and He will accomplish the redemption of all humanity.


1Grudem mentions that what he calls the “Reformed view” is often referred to as “limited atonement,” but the preferred term is particular redemption, which means that Christ died for particular people and foreknew each of them individually.

2Grudem’s arguments can be summarized as follows (pp. 597-599):

  • “People who are eternally condemned to hell suffer the penalty for all of their own sins, and therefore their penalty could not have been fully taken by Christ.”
  • Through particular redemption, Christ “completely earned our salvation, paying the penalty for all our sins. He did not just redeem us potentially, but actually redeemed us as individuals whom he loved.”
  • “There is eternal unity in the counsels and plans of God and in the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in accomplishing their plans.”
  • “Several passages that speak about ‘the world’ simply mean that sinners generally will be saved, without implying that every single individual in the world will be saved.”
  • “The passages that speak about Christ dying ‘for’ the whole world are best understood to refer to the free offer of the gospel that is made to all people.”
  • “To say that Jesus came to offer eternal life to the world (a point on which both sides agree) is not to say that he actually paid the penalty for the sins of everyone who would ever live.”
  • 1 John 2:2 “may simply be understood to mean that Christ is the atoning sacrifice that the gospel now makes available for the sins of everyone in the world.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:6 means that “a ransom [is] available for all people, without exception.”
  • Verses that speak about what Christ has done for all (e.g., Heb. 2:9) “refer to every one of Christ’s people, every one who is redeemed.”

3Joe makes a similar argument: “Does [1 Jn. 2:2] mean that Jesus died for the sins of everyone who ever lived? If He did then He cancelled their sin debt also Col 2:14. If the sin debt was cancelled and nailed to the cross, how would anyone suffer eternal punishment Matt 25:46?”

4Arminians would not agree with the statement “If the atonement is unlimited, then all people will be saved.” They contend that a person can choose to reject the sacrifice that was made for him.

5As Grudem says about “the narrow point of the question of the extent of the atonement,… the specific scriptural texts on that point are too few and can hardly be said to be conclusive on either side. One’s decisions on these passages will tend to be determined by one’s view of the larger question as to what Scripture as a whole teaches about the nature of the atonement and about the broader issues of God’s providence, sovereignty, and the doctrine of election. Whatever decisions are made on those larger topics will apply specifically to this point, and people will come to their conclusions accordingly" (p. 601). Here we are in agreement that all of us come to our conclusions about the meaning of specific passages by interpreting them in light of our view of the big picture.

6Grudem says, “Reformed people argue that it is the other view [non-Reformed, or Arminianism] that really limits the power of the atonement because on that view the atonement does not actually guarantee salvation for God’s people but only makes salvation possible for all people. In other words, if the atonement is not limited with respect to the number of people to which it applies, then it must be limited with respect to what it actually accomplishes.”

7As to how it is that all people could ultimately be saved and what to do about verses that seem to teach otherwise, those topics are addressed in other posts.

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