The Ghastly Gospel of Limited Atonement

To be a consistent five-point Calvinist, a person must believe the Bible teaches that the benefit of Christ’s death is limited to actually having paid for the sins of only the unconditionally elect.[1] This means that the non-elect are condemned for rejecting what does not exist. To begin with, it is important to distinguish between the intent of the atonement (why), extent (for whom) and application (when) while maintaining the relationship of these distinct features of the atonement.[2]

Intent answers the question, for what purpose did Christ die? Did God send Christ to salvifically and efficaciously die for the sins of the world so that all can believe unto salvation (unlimited atonement), or did God send Christ to die efficaciously only for the unconditionally elect (limited atonement or particularism) in order to secure their salvation? Verses like 2 Corinthians 5:19 and Hebrews 2:9 are interpreted by unlimited atonement adherents to mean everyone, while limited atonement adherents (L in the TULIP) says that God’s intent was to efficaciously pay for the sins of the unconditionally elect only thereby securing their redemption. Resultantly, the word “world” ultimately means elect.

Accordingly, limited atonement entails that God does not meaningfully desire the salvation of everyone, which is evident in that He did not purpose for Christ’s death to actually atone for everyone’s sin. Unlimited atonement believes that God intended to pay sufficiently for the sins of all lost humanity so that the possibility of salvation exists for every person and can actually be realized by believing the gospel as well as secure the elect’s salvation. The Calvinist concern that unlimited atonement potentiates Christ’s atonement being wasted since there are no certain beneficiaries is without warrant since God is capable of knowing the free decisions of man; further, if the purpose, in whole or in part, was to afford an actual opportunity for any and all to be saved (as unlimited contends) then Christ’s death fulfilled its intended purpose.

A.A. Hodge asks a series of questions which highlight God’s purpose according to Calvinism. “The simple question is, had the death of Christ a reference to the elect which it had not to other men? Did He come into the world to secure the salvation of those given to Him by the Father, so that the other effects of his work are merely incidental to what was done for the attainment of that object? ….That these questions must be answered in the affirmative, is evident.” [3]

When particularists speak of Christ’s death being sufficient for the sins of the world, they are referring to its intrinsic value, which means that if God’s purpose would have been to have Christ pay for the sins of the world, His death would be valuable enough to fulfill that purpose—no other or more sacrifice would have been necessary. But that was not God’s purpose in sending Christ.

With regard to the value of Christ’s death, A.A. Hodge says, “That Augustinians admit [it] to be infinite. Its value depends on the dignity of the sacrifice….So no limit can be assigned to the meritorious value of his work….What was sufficient for one was sufficient for all.”[4] Thus, it is hypothetically sufficient but not actually sufficient, equally as true is that the death of Christ is not salvifically efficacious for the non-elect. Hodge again comments, “Christ died…sufficiently for all, efficaciously only for the elect.”[5]

Extent of the atonement answers the question for whom did Christ die? Did Christ die to pay for the sins of every sinner or for the elect only? While there are various nuances within the perspective of limited atonement, the reality is that Christ did not pay for the sins of the non-elect so that they may actually be saved by the sacrifice of Christ’s death; therefore, they cannot receive the benefits of Christ’s death because they do not exist for them.[6] In contrast, unlimited atonement maintains that Christ died to pay for the sins of every person so that anyone and everyone can and should receive the benefits by faith.

Louis Berkhof said, “But the Calvinist teaches that the atonement meritoriously secured the application of the work of redemption to those for whom it was intended and thus rendered their complete salvation certain.”[7] John Owen, in reference to John 3:16 says, “It cannot be maintained that by the world here is meant all and every one of mankind, but only men in common scattered throughout the world, which are the elect.”[8] Again Berkhof says, “The Reformed position is that Christ died for the purpose of actually and certainly saving the elect, and the elect only. This is equivalent to saying that He died for the purpose of saving only those to whom He actually applies the benefits of His redemptive work.”[9]

Therefore, regardless how voluminous their nuanced writings (sometimes such seem to obscure the essence of limited atonement or at least make it more biblically palatable), limited atonement does not allow for forgiveness and salvation of anyone other than the elect because Christ was not punished for the sins of the non-elect so that they may be saved, nor was that ever God’s desire.

Christ did not satisfy the just demands of a holy God against them; for that reason, none of them can be saved and receive forgiveness from God because Christ did not die to pay for their sins. Extensivists believe that Christ’s atonement is not only intrinsically or hypothetically sufficient, but rather that it is purposefully and actually sufficient.[10] The demands of the Holy One have been met. We would say it has universal sufficiency; God’s Son died for all sins actually (2 Corinthians 5:19) as God was reconciling the world to Himself. So the debt is paid in full, and receiving the benefits of Christ’s death is conditioned upon grace-enabled faith, which is the “word of reconciliation” we tell the world.

Application answers the question, when is the benefit of the atonement applied to the sinner? While some Calvinists believe such happened at the eternal Decree of God or at the cross, most Calvinists and non-Calvinists believe it is applied when a sinner places his faith in Christ.[11] The point of disagreement is that Calvinists believe the atonement was limited in efficacy to paying for the sins of the of the unconditionally elected; accordingly, it is ultimately applied because of that unconditional election, whereas, Extensivists believe it is applied because God’s salvation plan provided unconditional atonement for all, and the reception of such benefits are conditioned upon grace-enabled faith. Additionally, Calvinists believe the elect are regenerated in order to exercise faith, and Extensivists believe faith is exercised in order to experience regeneration.[12]

The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, He does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same.”[13] Thus Christ’s death paid for the sins of the elect, who are the only ones to which redemption is applied. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the exclusive process by saying, “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.”[14]

In order to facilitate understanding, I propose the following question to provide a path through all of the extraneous verbiage (such as, intrinsic or hypothetical sufficiency, limited efficiency and unlimited sufficiency, equal and unequal desire of salvation for mankind) regarding the eternally significant meaning of limited or particular atonement. Does limited atonement mean that God intended, and did in fact provide sufficiently in Christ’s atonement for the sins of everyone so that there is no legal or limited efficacy of the atonement precluding anyone from coming by faith; did such atonement include all provisions necessary for that actuality? Succinctly, did Christ pay for the sins of the non-elect and elect in the same sense. The Calvinist answer is no.

Permit me for the sake of clarity to be redundant. Hypothetically speaking, if a non-elect person was regenerated, could exercise faith, and did so one million times upon hearing the gospel, he still cannot be saved because his sin debt is unpaid, and therefore, when he hears the gospel, the news is not good. This truth is not ameliorated one whit even if Calvinists develop enough nuances to baffle the Trinity (I say such with reverence) and write enough books to fill the Louvre in Paris. This is the truth.

So here is the disquieting reality of Calvinism, the Bible commands everyone (elect and non-elect) to believe the gospel (good news that their sins are paid for and God desires to forgive them, which they can experience by faith in Christ), but according to Calvinism, their sins are not paid for; therefore, they are being commanded to believe in and receive the nonexistent. Christ preached “repent and believe the good news” Mark 1:15, but the news is not good for all who hear because their sins were not atoned for. There is truly no offer, good or otherwise. They are told to believe the good news of forgiveness in Christ but that forgiveness is not even hypothetically existent much less actually existent and accessible.

Paul said, “Dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). This includes and ultimately refers exclusively to the non-elect. Retribution is upon those who “do not obey the gospel,” but what good news are they not obeying since their sins are not paid for? There seems to be no good news to obey.

Any possibility of believing in Christ for the forgiveness of sins must be predicated upon the fact that He did in truth die to pay for the sins to be forgiven, which He did not do. Peter said the same, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17). How can the non-elect obey what does not exist? More importantly, how can a good God demand such when He purposed not to provide it for them? Paul said, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). Where is the kindness in telling people to repent, warning against disobedience to the truth (vs. 8), and yet the greatest truth of the gospel does not exist for most people—non-elect.

The Spirit of God said again, “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared” (Titus 3:4). “The NT uses this word group only in Acts 27:3; 28:2; Titus 3:4.”[15] In the other two instances, actions were taken that benefited the recipients—Paul and the shipwreck victims. That is precisely what one sees here except instead of being man-to-man, it is God to man. This comports perfectly with God’s declarations of love and desire for “all men to be saved” (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). It reemphasizes the grace of God, of which Paul had already spoken. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11), i.e. made salvation accessible. God “Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35).

What genre of kindness and love for mankind would this be that purposed to appear as Savior without providing precisely what mankind needs to call on Him as Savior? If God did not include the sins of all mankind in the atonement, which could have been done without any more sacrifice since Christ’s death was intrinsically sufficient to atone for all sins, then the limiting of the atonement was intentional indeed. To wit, His death would by its very nature have atoned for all sin if God would not have specifically chosen to limit its effect; accordingly, in what salvifically meaningful sense can it be said that He is kind, Savior, or His love appeared to mankind—humanity—if limited atonement was His purpose?

Jesus said to the apostles, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15–16). Luke says, “That repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Peter proclaimed to the Gentiles, “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).

These instances and many more give every appearance that the gospel is good news to all and therefore belief in it brings salvation and disbelief brings condemnation. Surely these are more than a mere recitation of the predetermined fact regarding the eternal destiny of elect (sins atoned for) and the non-elect (sins not atoned for). Certainly, they are more than just trivially true (of course any who believe can receive forgiveness including the non-elect if they were the elect).

Forgiveness and salvation not only require faith, they require someone who made sufficient payment for their sins of which they need forgiveness, which according to limited atonement does not exist. How does God, with integrity, offer to all directly or through His representatives what He has in reality withheld? I for one do not think He does. Why would God so misrepresent His plan and purpose to the masses when, being God, He could have easily declared the limited gospel of Calvinism.

Paul preached, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30). According to Calvinism, this command can neither be obeyed, nor even understood because, when all the facts are known, it is unintelligible. Even if for argument’s sake it could be obeyed by repentance and faith, it would result in the same eternity in hell they are headed for without repentance since their sins were never atoned for.

My precise point is not to argue about the theoretical possibility of the non-elect to repent and believe without the actual provision of the atonement for their sins. Rather, it is to emphasize the unqualified vacuousness of such preaching that calls people to turn to God if their sins are unatoned for as demanded by particularism.

To wit, for arguments sake, so what if they repent and believe. Having done so, there is nothing in the Christ’s atonement for sin that makes their eternal state one whit different than if they committed the unpardonable sin every day, all of their life. I for one think that the so-called “good faith offer” lacks both goodness and an offer because it is an offer of the non-existent, which seems to be anything but good since it offers nothingness as the greatest something. Does not some reality of the thing offered need to exist before the offer can be called good?

The undeniable truth of limited atonement, which is unassuaged by concepts such as two wills, or hypothetical sufficiency, is that God did not actually desire the non-elect to repent and be forgiven because the atonement was intrinsically sufficient for all or one; therefore, no more sacrifice was needed if that is what He desired. Therefore, God did not desire for them to have an opportunity, and that is bad news. That God is just in condemning sinners is not the point, but rather the picture is that the proclamation of the gospel and concomitant warnings seem inextricably related to influencing people to repent and avoid the terrible plight of their own doing.

Additionally, but no less important, does this not taint the goodness of God? God appears to be warning people for the explicit reason of avoiding judgment, while His salvific purpose, according to Calvinism, is clearly that they (non-elect) cannot avoid judgment; a fact that is incontrovertibly demonstrated in that He denied atonement for their sins. At least it calls in to question His communicative ability. He commands what is impossible to obey in such a way that gives every indication that everyone can and should obey, thereby fleeing the wrath to come. The idea that an ability to respond to such commands is not necessary (as Calvinists argue) is surely not self-evident nor even remotely present in these passages, but quite the opposite is true. It appears to me to be another disappointing attempt to explain the inexplicable.

Orville Dewey wrote, “It would follow that men are commanded, on peril and pain of all future woes, to love a holiness and a moral perfection of God, which they are not merely unable to love, but of which, according to the supposition, they have no conception.”[16] Now, what kind of God commands people to repent and believe the gospel when the good news of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), does not include the sins of everyone? I contend that it is not the God of Kindness (Romans 2:4), God who is love (1 John 4:8), the source of love (1 John 4:7), merciful (John 6:36), forgiving (Luke 12:10), or Savior who is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Calvinist Lorain Boettner, arguing for a new birth as prerequisite to any genuine spiritual sensitivity, says, “The teaching of the Scriptures is such that we must say that man in his natural state is radically corrupt, and that he can never become holy and happy through any power of his own. He is spiritually dead, and must be saved by Christ if at all. Common reason tells us that if a man is so fallen so to be at enmity with God, that enmity must be removed before he can have any desire to do God’s will. If a sinner is to desire redemption through Christ, he must receive a new disposition. He must be born again, and from above (John 3:3).”[17]

Extensivism does not argue that man is not radically corrupt, nor that he can become “holy…through any power of his own.” Where the disagreement lies is in the Calvinist understanding of the way man is brought to a place of exercising faith, which is as the result of selective regeneration rather than the biblical order of regeneration being the result of grace-enabled faith (John 3:1-16).

I do believe that man is dead in his sins (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13), and that the fall of man corrupted every aspect of man, making him utterly incapable of turning to God in saving faith or relating to God in any eternally meaningful way without God initiating and enabling him to do so. To wit, fallen man cannot initiate a spiritually restorative move toward God apart from God’s prior and sufficient work of non-determinative redemptive grace.

I further believe the Scripture teaches that God provides such enabling through such means as the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8–11), drawing of the Father and Son (John 6:44, 12:32), the power of the gospel (Romans 1:16), and gracious providential workings that provide opportunities to hear and respond to the gospel. I affirm that the effects of the fall of man are extensive—affecting the whole being—and not intensive, destroying any and every sensibility to understand or respond to God without being regenerated first. Adam did respond to God in the Garden (Genesis 3:9–10), and he still understood some things (Genesis 3:7–8, 10, 11). This is not to say that he had the capacity to seek God or appropriate God’s grace or redemption on his own, but it does demonstrate that his sense of some spiritual realities was not completely obliterated. In addition, all people have by grace some capacity for some spiritual knowledge (Romans 1:19–20.).

We find similar situations in the New Testament, “Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12). I do believe God was working; therefore, their faith did not originate apart from God’s grace enablements, but the Scripture does attribute their believing to the teaching and confirmation of miracles rather than regeneration of the elect. The Bereans are an example as well, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).


[1] For an impressive list of Calvinists who did not teach limited atonement see Whosoever Will, chapter IV, The Atonement Limited or Universal by David L. Allen, 67–78.
[2] For an exhaustive treatment of these terms see, David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2016), ixx-xxviii.
[3] Charles Hodge, Anthropology, vol. II of Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1986), 546.
[4] Hodge, Anthropology, vol. II of Systematic Theology, 544.
[5] Hodge, Anthropology, vol. II of Systematic Theology, 546.
[6] For a fuller discussion regarding the various nuances of Limited Atonement, see Whosoever Will, chapter IV, The Atonement Limited or Universal David L. Allen, 61-108.
[7] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan, August 1, 1949), 434, http://books.biblicaltraining.org/Systematic%20Theology%20by%20Louis%20Berkhof.pdf accessed 7/31/14.
[8] John Owen, The Death of Death In the Death of Christ, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 196-197, accessed 8/4/14.
[9] Berkhof p 435.
[10] Extensivists used for those who are known negatively as non-Calvinists.
[11] Some Calvinists may say the time is at justification rather than salvation.
[12] Some Calvinists may not hold to this, but, particularly in SBC life, it seems that most do; additionally, this act is also referred to as quickening or renovation.
[13] Westminster Confession of Faith, VIII, 5.
[14] Westminster Confession of Faith, III, 6.
[15] Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 425.
[16] Orville Dewey, Discourses and Reviews Upon Questions in Controversial Theology and Practical Religion (New York: Charles S. Francis, 1873), Vol. III, 97, as cited by Steve Jones, Calvinism Critiqued by a Former Calvinist, http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/openhse/calvinism.html, accessed 7/25/14.
[17] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library 1932), 122.