Did Jesus’s death on the cross atone for everyone’s sins or did it just atone for the elect? This research paper is designed to answer that very question. Today in the church there is a negative divide between how Christians view the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Two conflicting beliefs have emerged which are “limited atonement,” from the theological concept of Arminianism and “limited atonement,” from classical Calvinism. Though the debate is popular today the early church authors never fought about it. Dr. Allen notes, “The first person in church history who explicitly held belief in limited atonement was Gottschalk of Orbais (AD 804–869)… contrary to what some Calvinists think, Augustine did not hold the view of limited atonement.” Therefore, it wasn’t until after the Reformation (1500’s) that universal atonement was debated and eventually distorted.
The thesis of this paper is, “unlimited atonement is biblically established by the loving nature of God.” As a result, the data established in this theory is structured as follows; first I will emphasize an understanding of the loving nature of God through biblical evidence. Second, the research will present the accurate understanding of Jesus’ atonement as seen through church history. Lastly, the project will likewise conclude with giving practical implementation of unlimited atonement from biblical examples and global evangelism.
Therefore, the goal of this paper, from beginning to end, is to emphasize and establish the loving nature of God in the doctrine of unlimited atonement. Through this research the reader will better acknowledge what the Bible means when it states that, “God is love” and “God so loved the world He sent His one and only Son.” So let’s undertake and commence the journey into the loving nature of God as taught by the authors of the Bible.
THE LOVING NATURE OF GOD IN THE BIBLE
The loving nature of God is a dominate concept in the Bible. One does not have to search far before it is ultimately seen that God is a loving Creator and is the very basis for all love in human nature. Genesis 1:27-28 explicitly states, “27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
First, we conclude from these verses that mankind was made in the image of God and that whatever is good and perfect (love included) only proceeds from Him, James 1:17. Second, God created two persons in His image to love and compliment each other, Adam and Eve. Consequently, the very nature of relational love proceeds from God’s loving nature. Gaebelein states in his commentary that the phrase, “Let us make man in our image,” expresses “the human plurality of the man and woman, thus casting the human relationship between man and woman in the role of reflecting God’s own personal relationship with himself.” In other words, since God’s framework is three separate persons in one loving relationship both men and women were both needed to reflect His perfect likeness. Third, God blessed mankind with the ability to be fruitful and increase in number because enjoyable and loving sexual relationships were in His plan to fully obey the command to be fruitful.
Next consider the last verse in the last chapter of the Bible found in Revelation 22:21, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” We explicitly see that after God’s judgments He comes to dwell with His people to be their light and personal provider. John is writing to the universal church that until that day comes we should anticipate that the grace of Jesus will always be with us. The word used for grace in this chapter is the same one used throughout the New Testament, which is “charis,” and it means, “the absolutely free expression of the loving kindness of God to men.” So from beginning to end the entire Bible establishes the loving nature of God.
Likewise, one of the most popular verses that needs consideration in this discussion is, 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” John the apostle wrote his letter to the churches to compel them to love God by obeying His commands (1 John 2:4). The word love/agape is used almost 30x in this short book which is more than any other book in the entire New Testament. John doesn’t merely assert God has love but rather that God is in His very nature love. He uses this example of God’s love to inspire the people to love others and lay down their lives in service as Jesus did for them (1 John 3:16).
Another straightforward verse on the concept of God’s loving nature in the most popular verse in the entire world, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This simple yet profound text gives the universal theme of God’s love in salvation from creation to consumption. God is the one loving the world and the Son is coming in that love. Whoever believes in the Son will receive eternal life and the one who remains in unbelief will perish. As we will see further in this discussion the term “world” is never used by John to mean the elect. Furthermore Dr. Allen comments concerning this text, “No linguistic, exegetical, or theological grounds exist for reducing the meaning of “world” to “the elect.” In fact, in John 17:6, the elect are defined over against the world… to make the meaning of “world” here “the elect” is to commit a logical and linguistic mistake of confusing categories.” Therefore, who does God love and send Jesus to die for according to John 3:16? The entire world.
Is God just a God of love in the New Testament? Certainly not. David wrote many psalms to and about God in the OT proclaiming His great love. King Solomon even wrote the book, “Song of Songs” describing the love between a man and woman, which many scholars cite as a metaphor for God and His people (Ezekiel 16:8). For example, Psalm 100:5 can be used to best show the loving concept of God as emphasized in the Old Testament, “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” In this powerful psalm the concept is clear, “the Lord is good and His love endures forever!” The goodness of God does not need expert definition or evidence, for if words having meaning than ultimately “good” has meaning found only in God as its foundation because without God how could humans ever know perfect goodness? Likewise, the same is true with the word “love.” Experts could spend countless hours trying to define it, whereas, all who know the love of a parent, spouse, or child can accurately understand love’s framework even without explicit professional mental definitions. Therefore, whatever it means to be good and loving in life is grounded and exceeded in a God who is love and good. In conclusion, we have clearly established that from beginning to end that the Bible emphasizes the loving nature of God.
HISTORY OF UNLIMITED & LIMITED ATONEMENT
Now let’s examine the history of the debate surrounding Christ’s atoning work on the cross. The definition usually given to limited atonement by experts holding to classic Calvinism specified by “T.U.L.I.P,” (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) “is the claim that Christ died only for the elect persons whom God has chosen unconditionally to save, rather than for all persons alike.” According to Dr. Allen, “The trend of restricting the atonement to the elect in every respect began with Beza. It is of great importance to acknowledge that this trend did not begin until 1588, twenty-four years after Calvin had died.” Therefore, Augustine, Martin Luther, and not even John Calvin believed in limited atonement. Eventually Calvin even concluded in his last will and testament that Jesus shed his blood for the whole human race. He wrote, “I testify and declare that as a suppliant I humbly implore of him to grant me to be so washed and purified by the blood of that sovereign Redeemer, shed for the sins of the human race.”
The definition of unlimited atonement is the exact opposite of limited atonement because it states that Jesus’ death on the cross was for all of humanity- not just some. This doctrine of universal or unlimited was so widely accepted that it was not even debated until the Synod of Dort (1618). Once again not even Calvin or Luther taught limited atonement. The doctrines named after Calvin (Calvinism/T.U.L.I.P) were more a reflection of Beza than Calvin in regards to Jesus’ work on the cross. Likewise, it was not until the second and third generation of Reformers that limited atonement even began to have preeminence. After its acceptance it gave way to “hyper-Calvinism.” Hyper-Calvinism goes so far as to even deny the need for missions and a general gospel call. It is good to note that it was such leaders like Jonathan Edwards in the First Great Awakening that opposed this thinking based on his acceptance of unlimited atonement.
Also, take for example how the Reformer Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism answered the question regarding the reach of Christ’s atonement, “If Christ made a satisfaction for all, then all ought to be saved. But all are not saved. Therefore he did not make a perfect satisfaction.” His clear answer was, “Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he hath made, but not as it respects the application thereof.” Therefore, Ursinus, along with the the early Reformers, were convinced that Jesus death on the cross was “for all,” however, the reason all people were not saved was because it was not applied.
On one hand, the classical Reformers shared the concept with Augustine that it was God who sovereignly chose to save some and overlook others. But on the other hand, they did not do so based on a limited view of Christ’s atonement but rather on what many conclude was an exaggerated and over simplified framework of God’s sovereignty. I believe it could be established from church history that it was this unbiblical and unhistorical concept of God’s control that led many of the Reformers to limit the extant of Jesus’ atonement. Looking back into the church father’s writings two things become clear, (1) They believed in libertarian free will and (2) They taught the universal application of Jesus’ death on the cross. Norman Sellers cited that, “Augustine differed from the fathers who preceded him in that he taught the absolute sovereignty of God.” Even Calvin himself acknowledged in his Institutes that Augustine went array from the early fathers in regards to free will, “…even though the Greeks above the rest—and Chrysostom especially among them—extol the ability of the human will, yet all the ancients, save Augustine, so differ…”
Therefore, the concept of limited atonement is not established in the Word of God nor the orthodox history of the church. Rather, it is the direct negative outcome from leaving the established reading of the Bible handed down by the fathers. Once Augustine abandoned the Jewish and early Christian concept of God’s sovereignty and moved more towards determinism and fatalism the Reformers began to bend the Bible to fit their framework. Even Calvin and Luther were not inclined to take their system as far as those in the Synod of Dort with Beza regarding atonement. However, I believe their narrow-minded framework of scripture and free will lead to such terrible outcomes. Consider what might have happened in church history if the Reformers would have followed the Remonstrants, who based their teachings on the classical concept and framework of God’s sovereignty, instead of determinism.
Inevitably the Great Awakening and the modern missions movement would have been able to start hundreds of years earlier. Instead the church inherited years of endless division and hyper Calvinism. Therefore, it is the educated opinion of this writer that the phenomenon of Calvinism in its early stages explains its negative fruit in the years that followed. Furthermore, it was the four-point version (minus the “L” of T.U.L.I.P) that really allowed it to gain traction and effectiveness with such people as Edwards. But this was not because of their belief in God’s micromanaging sovereignty, but despite of it. In conclusion, unlimited atonement based in a biblical view of God’s sovereignty and libertarian free will is the best reading of church history.
UNLIMITED ATONEMENT IN THE BIBLE
If the Bible is clear about one concept in regards to salvation it is this, “Jesus died for the sins of the world.” Where should we start to establish this doctrine? Let’s start with the most popular text in the whole world, John 3:16. However, some Calvinists like John Owen (1616-1683) have unsuccessfully tried to make John 3:16 read, “God so loved the elect that He sent His begotten Son for only the elect that when the elect are irresistibly drawn to believe the elect will not perish but have everlasting life.” To this kind of distorted concept Dr. Allen writes, “Calvinists who follow Owen on John 3:16 distort John’s purpose and thus sever “one’s own participation in the continuation of the task of Jesus to save the world in the mission of the apostles from a conviction of love for the lost per se, a conviction grounded in God’s love for them.” This distortion has immense repercussions for evangelism and preaching!”
Consider another text by John in 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” What other words could John have used to establish the concept of unlimited atonement? If John didn’t mean to say in this verse that Jesus died both for the elect and the non-elect than what does “ours” and “whole world” contrast? The “our” of this text refers to those who are believers and are forgiven and the term, “whole world” means those who have not accepted forgiveness. Some people who believe in limited atonement have concluded this text to mean what John Piper states, “The whole world refers to the children of God scattered throughout the whole world.” However, the nature of the passage is not referring to those who are elect and do not yet believe but rather those currently who do not believe and are in a place of sin and rebellion, the non-elect.
So what in the world does “world” really mean? In John’s gospel the world can have various concepts (none meaning “elect”) however, in 1 John the word “world” (cosmos) has two usages, (a) “sinful state of affairs” or (b) “sinful people.” Consider the other texts in this book, 1 John 1:15, “Do not love the world (sinful state of affairs)…” 1 John 3:1, “The reason the world (sinful people) does not know us is that it did not know him…” 1 John 4:9, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world (sinful state of affairs) that we might live through him.” Therefore, someone doesn’t have to be an expert in Greek to understand that the word, “world” is never used to mean, “elect or God’s children.” As a result, 1 John 2:2 powerfully and clearly establishes the concept that Jesus died not only for the sins of the elect but for the non-elect (the world).
John Calvin himself even used texts to emphasize unlimited atonement like that of Romans 5:15 (KJV), “But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” Calvin wrote concerning this text, “To bear the sins means to free those who have sinned from their guilt by his satisfaction. He says many meaning all, as in Rom. 5:15. It is of course certain that not all enjoy the fruits of Christ’s death, but this happens because their unbelief hinders them. That question is not dealt with here because the apostle is not discussing how few or how many benefit from the death of Christ, but means simply that He died for others, not for Himself. He therefore contrasts the many to the one.” Plus, Calvin supported universal atonement with other texts like Isaiah 53:6 when he wrote, “he [Isaiah] adds this word ‘all’ to exclude all exceptions . . . even to the last individual . . . all men are included, without any exception.” In conclusion, the classical concept of unlimited atonement has been explicitly established and emphasized as a biblical doctrine proceeding from the framework of God’s love.
The applications of unlimited atonement are threefold, (1) Love people as God loves them, (2) Preach the gospel with the love of God, and (3) Preach the justice of God established in God’s love. First, when we establish that God created all mankind in His image by making us male and female capable of loving each other as God loves perfectly in the Trinity we then can understand that God loves all humanity and desires for all to be saved and brought back into fellowship with Him. For it was this heart of love that the biblical authors wrote such things as, “[God] wants all people to be saved…” (1 Timothy 2:4) and, “he [God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 2:9).
Second, preaching the gospel would not be good news if Jesus was only the Savior of some. However, if Jesus is as John wrote in 1 John 4:14, “sent… to be the Savior of the world” than this is the greatest concept the world has ever known and should be preached to all the nations. Lastly, if Jesus died for the sins of the world then His divine eternal justice is clearly established. People are sent to hell not because God didn’t atone for their sins, but because their sins were paid for and they didn’t receive the free gift of salvation!
In closing, let us seriously consider what John Bunyan said in regards to unlimited atonement, “Christ died for all . . . [and] if [people] perish… their damnation [shall be] because they have neglected and refused to receive the gospel.”
- Allen, David Lewis. Whosoever Will: A Biblical-theological Critique of Five-point Calvinism. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010.
- Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1976.
- Hunt, Dave. What Love Is This?: Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God. Sisters, OR: Loyal Pub., 2002.
- Hunt, Dave, and James R. White. Debating Calvinism. Sisters, Or.: Multnomah Publishers, 2004.
- Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.
- Thorsen, Donald A. D. Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice.
- Vance, Laurence M. The Other Side of Calvinism. Rev. ed. Pensacola, FL: Vance Publications, 1999.
- Walls, Jerry L., and Joseph Dongell. Why I Am Not a Calvinist. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
- Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Rev. ed. Chattanooga, TN, U.S.A.: AMG Publishers, 1993.
 Allen, David Lewis. Whosoever Will: A Biblical-theological Critique of Five-point Calvinism. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010. Kindle Edition, p. 68.
 Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1976. Olive Tree Version.
 Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Rev. ed. Chattanooga, TN, U.S.A.: AMG Publishers, 1993. Olive Tree Version.
 Allen, p. 80.
 Walls, Jerry L., and Joseph Dongell. Why I Am Not a Calvinist. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004. 11.
 Allen, 71.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 72.
 Vance, Laurence M. The Other Side of Calvinism. Rev. ed. Pensacola, FL: Vance Publications, 1999. 42.
 Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion quoted here, http://orthodoxbridge.com/calvin-dissing-the-fathers/. Accessed October 2, 2014.
 Note the Moravians and their outstanding mission movement founded in 1457.
 Many like Dr. Allen cite that four-point Calvinism, missing the limited atonement aspect makes a more productive Calvinism.
 Allen, 80.
 Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle Edition Location, 2714.
 Allen, 70.
 Allen, 74.