Limited Atonement versus Provisional Atonement
Dr. Leighton Flowers
I. Our Agreement:
a. The gospel appeal is for all: The gospel is for every man, woman, boy and girl. We should all agree (unless you affirm Hyper-Calvinism) that all are to be the recipients of the gospel offer.
b. The atonement is sufficient to save all: Christ’s death is sufficient for all. Everyone should agree that the value of Christ’s atoning work is sufficient to cover the sins of every man, woman, boy and girl.
c. The atonement only benefits those who believe: Christ’s death is only efficacious for those who believe. Every Christian should agree that the saving benefit (efficacy) of the atoning work of Christ is limited to those who believe (regardless of how you think the lost come to believe).
II. Our Disagreement: What is God’s intention in the atoning sacrifice of His Son?
a. God’s intention is to certainly save people by His Son’s death.
i. Held to by 5-Point Calvinists who conclude His intention is only to effectually save the elect, therefore God’s intention for the atonement was limited. (Limited Atonement)
ii. Held to by Universalists who conclude His intention is to effectually save all, therefore God’s intention for the atonement was unlimited and universal. (not for the purpose of this outline)
b. God’s intention is to provide a payment for all people which is only effective when the individual savingly believes.
i. Held to by Arminians, Southern Baptist Traditionalists and all other non-Calvinistic believers. (Provisional Atonement)
ii. Held to by Amyraldians (4-point Calvinists, such as Bruce Ware.* — Not for the purpose of this outline.)
III. Two Positions On The Atonement With Key Biblical Arguments:
a. Limited Atonement (5-Point Calvinism): Christ died for the purpose of actually and certainly saving people from their sin, but since not all are in fact saved, it requires then that he only died for and saved a certain people (i.e. “the elect”).
i. John 6:37-40 – All the Father gives the Son will come and he will not lose any but will raise them up on the last day
[Rebuttal: Those being “given to the son” while he is “down from heaven” is only said in reference to the apostles as reflected in John 17.]
ii. John 10:11, 15 – Christ laid down his life for his own sheep
iii. Acts 20:28 – the church of God which Christ purchased with his own blood
iv. Romans 8:31-39 – Christ was delivered up for “us all”, which clearly is the elect
v. 2 Cor. 5:15 – He died for “all” that they who live, likely indicating that the “all” for whom he died is the same group as those who believe
vi. Eph. 5:25 – Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her
vii. Titus 2:14 – Christ gave himself for us, to redeem us from every lawless deed
[Rebuttal: The 5-Pointer must invoke “the negative inference fallacy” in order to appeal to these last 6 passages as proof of their position. “The proof of a position does not prove its converse.” One cannot prove that Christ did not die for the whole by showing that he did die for a part of that whole. For instance, in Gal. 2:20 Paul says that Christ died for him, but no one would infer from that statement that Christ only died for Paul. Yes, some passages say Christ died for His own, His sheep, His church, but no passage says He died only for these. His atonement can be provided for all people while only those who believe are actually saved by His atonement. His death for His own, then, is part of the larger whole in which He died also for the world.]
b. Provisional Atonement (Traditionalism, Arminianism, Non-Calvinism): Christ died for the purpose of providing payment for the sin of all people making it possible for any and all to be saved. God loves all and wants all to be saved. In His love for all, he sent Christ to provide payment for the sin of all. Belief in Christ is necessary, however, to receive the benefits of Christ’s death and be saved. The gospel should be preached to all, and, upon hearing the gospel, any can come because Christ died for the sins of all people in the world.
i. 1 Tim. 4:10 – God is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. So, there is a sense in which Christ is savior of unbelievers (i.e., he died for their sin, though they reject His payment on their behalf), yet a special sense in which he is savior of believers (by faith, they receive Christ’s payment for their own sin).
ii. 2 Peter 2:1 – refers clearly to unregenerate people as “denying the Master who bought (aor. act. prtc. of agoradzo, “to redeem”) them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.”
iii. 1 John 2:2; 4:14 – Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but also for the “whole world;” and he is “savior of the world.” Notice that “world” occurs 28 times in 1 John, 26 of which are used either in a comprehensive sense (e.g., 2:17; 3:17; 4:1, 9) or more narrowly as the world of the unsaved (e.g., 2:15-16; 3:1, 13; 5:19). This makes doubtful that 2:2 and 4:14 refer to a world of the elect.
iv. 1 Tim. 2:6 – Christ gave himself a ransom (antilutron, “a payment” or “ransom”) for all.
v. 2 Cor. 5:14-15, 19 – One died for all. He died for all that they who live . . . . This indicates that while Christ died for all, only some will live through him. In some sense, the whole world is reconciled through Christ.
vi. John 3:16; Romans 5:6-8 – indicate God’s love for the entire world and that Christ came to save sinners generally.
vii. 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9 and Ezk. 18:30-31 show that God wants all to be saved.
viii. Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-47; John 6:35, 40; Rom. 10:13 – texts which stress the necessity of the proclamation of the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection on behalf of the world.
ix. John 3:18; 12:48 – texts which indicate that rejecting Christ is a further basis for judgment. They can only rightly be held accountable for rejecting what was offered them if a real offer had been made to them.
x. Romans 8:20-23; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:9-10; Phil. 3:21; Col. 1:19-20 – texts which indicate a far broader cosmic extent of the atoning work of Christ.
IV. Two Positions On The Atonement With Key Theological Arguments:
a. Limited Atonement (5-Point Calvinism)
i. Efficacy Argument: Scripture teaches Christ came to save His own (Eph. 5:25; Tit. 2:14), not merely provide a payment that may or may not succeed in saving people. Therefore, Christ died to actually save, not potentially save.
[Rebuttal: See the actual point of disagreement under point II. We disagree over what God’s intention was in sending Christ. If God’s intent was to actually save people (apart from any condition – like faith) then this argument would be valid. As it is however, we know that only believers (regardless of the effectuality of the means by which they come to faith) will actually be saved. Therefore, we too can claim that Christ died to actually save those who believe.]
ii. Sovereignty Argument: If Christ died for all, and by this paid for the sins of all, then, because God is sovereign and His will cannot be thwarted, all would be saved. Since all are not saved, it must be the case that Christ died for those who are saved (i.e. the elect).
[Rebuttal: Calvinists wrongly define the concept of divine sovereignty as meaning “meticulous deterministic control over ever thing, including the evil intentions of creatures.” The scriptures simply never teach this concept. Instead, divine sovereignty is reflected as God’s ability to do whatever He is pleased to do (Ps. 115:3) even if that may include giving the world over to creature’s free dominion (Ps. 115:16). God sovereignly decreed not which choice man would make, but that he would be free to make it. A God less than sovereign would be afraid to bestow genuine freedom to His creatures (see AW Tozer*).]
iii. Double-Jeopardy Argument: It would be ethically wrong for God to hold people accountable for paying for their own sin through their eternal punishment if Christ has already paid fully for their sin.
[Rebuttal: See the actual point of contention under point II. This is not a problem for those who hold to the provisional nature of the atonement. Just as the serpent lifted on the pole in the desert was provided for all, it only benefitted the ones who look to it for healing. No one would argue the serpent did not sufficiently provide the means for healing to all simply because some may have refused to look to the provision for healing. This argument requires its adherents to hold to a relatively obscure view called “equivalentism.” The argument is goes like this: “if Christ’s death was substitutionary then He died for particular sins of particular people. And if He died for particular sins then He didn’t die for other sins than those.” The adherents of equivalentism seem to see a one for one equivalence between our sins and the price of their atonement which ultimately denies the sufficiency of the atonement to save anyone except those for whom it was designed to save. This notion that Christ suffered just so much, a finite amount, in relation to the sins of the elect is a position that stands in opposition to the Synod of Dordt and to most of mainstream historic Calvinism (see Phil Johnson and Charles Hodge.*]
iv. Comprehensive Payment Argument: If Christ paid for all the sin of all people, then He paid for their sin of unbelief (among other sins). If their sin of unbelief is paid for, then God cannot hold them accountable for their unbelief. But He does, so only the sin of the elect is paid for in Christ’s death.
[Rebuttal: Again, this is not a problem for those who hold to the provisional view of the atonement. The provision of payment is made for all but the benefit is not applied until one believes. This argument would be like saying, “If the serpent lifted on the pole provided the means of healing for all, then it provided healing for those who refuse to look at the serpent for healing,” which would not make any sense given the conditional nature of the provision. The same is true of Christ’s provision on Calvary. Whoever looks to the provision in faith will be healed because the means of healing is provided for all through those given means.]
b. Provisional Atonement (Traditionalism, Arminianism, Non-Calvinism)
i. Universal Divine Love Argument: If God truly loves all equally and impartially, and if He truly wants all to be saved, then it is inconceivable and impossible that He would offer Christ to pay for the sin of only some. Universal love of God requires a universal payment. God must love because He is love (see HERE). Further, if Christ did not self-sacrifically love all His enemies, as the Law demands, then He would not meet the requirements as the perfect sacrificial lamb (see HERE).
ii. Universal Gospel Offer Argument: Since the offer of salvation is clearly to go to all people (e.g., Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8), there must be a payment made on behalf of those to whom the gospel offer is extended, otherwise the offer is disingenuous. If no payment has been made for everyone, then we cannot sincerely say that God offers salvation to everyone. Since we are commanded to preach the gospel to all people as “Christ’s ambassadors” (i.e. 2 Cor. 5:20; Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8), the unlimited atoning sacrifice of Christ renders this offer of salvation fully and uncompromisingly genuine (e.g., John 6:35, 40; Rom 10:13).
iii. Limitless Scope Argument: Christ died for the purpose of providing payment for the penalty of all sinners making it possible for all who believe to be saved (e.g., 1 Tim 4:10; 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:14-15). Belief in Christ is necessary, however, to receive the benefits of Christ’s death and be saved. The limited atonement position appears to strain the natural and intended meaning of texts.
iv. Just Condemnation Argument: Those who hear and reject the gospel that has been genuinely provided and then offered to them are justly condemned for their rejection of that offer. Christ’s death for the sins of those who reject him and are condemned (e.g., 2 Pet 2:1) insures that their judgment for rejecting Christ (which is only part of the full basis for their judgment) is just, because they reject a real gift that is really, freely and graciously provided and offered to them (John 3:18b).
v. Cosmic Triumph Argument: Christ died for the purpose of reconciling all things to the Father. Were Christ to die for the sin of the elect only (or for any partial amount of the totality of sin), this would leave sin that stands outside of His atoning work and hence outside of His victorious triumph over sin. Since sin is not only a penalty that must be paid (which payment is only efficacious by faith) but also a power that rebels against God’s rightful authority and reign, sin’s penalty must be paid (so that believers may be saved) but its power must be defeated that all might be conquered and laid at the feet of the Father (Romans 8:20-23; 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Col. 1:19-20). Colossians 1:20 is especially important because it shows two things clearly: 1) the universal scope of the reconciliation wrought by Christ (“all things,” “things in earth and things in heaven”), and 2) that this reconciliation is accomplished by the atoning death of Christ (“through the blood of his cross”). That this does not entail universalism is clear because in the very context Paul warns that these believers will one day be holy and blameless only if they continue in the faith (1:23). So, the reconciliation of Col. 1:20 is one in which the rebellion is over, yet God’s conquered foes do not share in His glory.
vi. Part-To-Whole Argument: Yes, some passages say Christ died for his own, his sheep, his church, but no passage says he died only for the elect, while many others do explicitly say He died for all. His death can be for all people while only those who believe are actually saved by his death. His death for those who believe, then, is part of the larger whole in which he died also for the world.
vii. Necessity of Saving Faith Argument: If, as limited atonement proponents say, Christ died actually and certainly to save people (i.e., the elect) and not merely provide the means for their salvation, then it follows that nothing else is needed for the elect to be saved. They are saved because of the full, perfect and finished work of Christ which actually and certainly saved the elect. But is it not true that the elect are born into this world under the condemnation of God, dead in their sin, and facing the impending wrath of God (e.g., Eph. 2:1-3)? Is not saving faith required for the elect to be saved? If so, how can it be said of the death of Christ in itself that by His death alone He saved those for whom He died? As long as one believes that all people (including the elect) are born into this world with the sin of Adam so that until anyone savingly believes in Christ he or she remains unsaved and under God’s wrath, then we cannot speak correctly of Christ’s death as actually and certainly saving the elect. No, even here, the payment made by His death on behalf of whosoever believes renders their salvation possible while that salvation becomes actual only upon their exercising saving faith. If Christ’s death, then, is a payment for sin that makes possible the salvation of people, which salvation actually occurs only when they savingly believe, then there is no problem saying Christ’s death provided payment for the penalty of all the people in the whole world, because until any believes, he or she is not saved.
*Portions adapted from “Extent of the Atonement: Outline of The Issue, Positions, Key Texts, and the Key Theological Arguments” by Bruce A. Ware: accessed here: http://www.epm.org/static/uploads/downloads/Extent_of_the_Atonement_by_Bruce_Ware.pdf
*AW Tozer, “God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.” – A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God
*Phil Johnson, “The Nature of the Atonement,” accessed here: http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/SC03-1027.htm
* Charles Hodge taught, “It is a gross misrepresentation of the Augustinian doctrine to say that it teaches that Christ suffered so much for so many; that He would have suffered more had more been included in the purpose of salvation. This is not the doctrine of any Church on earth, and never has been.” Accessed here: http://www.apuritansmind.com/tulip/for-whom-did-christ-die-by-dr-charles-hodge/