The Atonement Question: Extent or Intent?

What did Christ achieve on the cross?  That question has been the subject of debate for centuries, particularly between those who espouse the doctrine of Particular Redemption (also known less helpfully as “Limited Atonement”) and those who espouse General Redemption (also known less helpfully “Unlimited Atonement”).  The question at issue between these two camps is usually posed this way: for whom did Christ die?  Or, what is the extent of the atonement?  Does the atonement cover all people, or only the elect?

I submit that this way of framing the question needs to be refined.  Theologian Robert Letham first pointed me in this direction when he argued (in an appendix to one of his books) that the real issue of debate is not the extent of the atonement, but rather the intent of the atonement.  That is, we should not ask, “How far does the atonement reach?” but rather, “What did God the Father and Christ his obedient Son intend to accomplish through his death?”  Did God intend to render propitiation for all sins of all people, thereby removing his wrath from all?  Did he intend to render propitiation for all sins of all people contingent on their own faith response, thereby potentially removing his wrath from all?  Or did he intend to secure the salvation of his elect by securing not only the propitiation for their sins but also the certainty of their faith response as itself a benefit of the atonement?  Or is it even more nuanced than I have represented here?  I will take up the question in the next post.

But for now, let’s keep one thing in mind: the debate over Particular Redemption and General Redemption is not so much about extent as it is about intent.

About Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.
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