The Intent of the Atonement: Clarifying the Question

Christians have understood the divine intention in the cross in different ways.  Traditionally, in answer to the question, “For whom did Christ die?” proponents of so-called “Limited Atonement” have answered, “Christ died for the elect; that is, he died to save those who were chosen by God from eternity to be saved.”  Proponents of so-called “Unlimited Atonement” have answered, “Christ died for all people; that is, he died to make the salvation of every single person who has ever lived a possibility if that person will exercise faith in him.”  I think this way of framing the question is problematic and needs to be nuanced a bit more.

The question, “For whom did Christ die?” seems simple enough, but it is really not a simple question.  It could be interpreted in multiple ways.  I think it is not only possible, but quite biblical to say that Christ died for his sheep (that is, his elect) in a certain sense that he did not die for everybody.  But then there is a sense in which, I believe, it is biblical to say that Christ died for all people everywhere.  So the question needs to be revised.

I submit that the best way to frame the question is in this form: “What did God intend to accomplish through the atoning work of Christ?”  Putting the question in these terms opens up a possibility to give more than a simple, polarizing answer that is bound to offend one group or another.  Those who adhere to so-called “Unlimited Atonement” would say that God intended to accomplish the precondition by which any person, if he or she will only believe, might be saved from the wrath of God.  Many proponents of this view would go so far as to say that Christ has already paid the judicial penalty for all sins of all people.  Yet in order to benefit from what he has already accomplished, each individual person must believe in him.  Proponents of so-called “Limited Atonement” would say that God intended to secure the salvation of his elect in the death of Christ.  Christ paid the judicial penalty for their sins, but he did not suffer as a substitute for those who are not elect.

It should be fairly clear at this point that the words “Limited” and “Unlimited” are not all that helpful, for both sides place some limits on the effects of Christ’s atoning work.  The “Limited Atonement” view limits the scope of God’s saving intention to the elect.  The “Unlimited Atonement” view limits the effectiveness of the atonement and makes its completion dependent on the faith response of every individual.  For this reason, I much prefer the terminology of “Particular Redemption” and “General Redemption.”

Now that the question has been clarified, I will give my answer in the next post and explain why answering that question matters.

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.
This entry was posted in The Cross of Christ. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Intent of the Atonement: Clarifying the Question

  1. MC Hendrick says:

    I think the question you ask is very simple. Christ died for everyone. For one to believe different would paint Christ in an elitist picture. How could hope in Christ progress and spread if we taught that Christ died for a few.

    Now, to whom his death will be applied is another matter entirely.

  2. Hi MC,

    As I said in the post, I don’t think the question is as simple as that. But rather than respond to your concern here, I’ll invite you to read my upcoming posts. I should get the next one up sometime today (Tuesday).

  3. MC Hendrick says:

    Thanks for the reply, Aaron. I look forward to the followup. I just feel that a lot of Christians miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes the nuances or turn of phrases should also be considered against the obvious overall theme of Jesus and “the Good News.” The two should coexist.

    Act 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins

    Rom 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

  4. p160 says:

    Catholics and some Protestants & “Bible only” Christians believe in the universal or unlimited atonement of Christ, i.e. that He died on the cross for all men, the Elect (those predestined to heaven) and the Reprobate (those predestined to hell).

    The scriptural support that Christ died on the cross for everyone is overwhelming, among which:

    And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)

    And they sang a new song, saying: ”Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,” (Revelation 5:9)

    Other verses like John 4:42 refers Christ as the Saviour of the world; 1 Timothy 4:10 calls God as the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe; Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every one and 1 John 2:2 states that Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

    In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: ‘So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.’

    He affirms that he came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us.

    The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 605.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s