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Shedd on unlimited atonement, limited application

January 31, 2007

G’day all,

As we come back to Shedd I wanted to turn our attention to this.

…In this use of the term, all parties who hold the atonement in any evangelical meaning would concede that the "extent" of the atonement is unlimited. Christ’s death is sufficient in value to satisfy eternal justice for the sins of all mankind. If this were the only meaning of "extent," we should not be called upon to discuss it any further. For all that has been said under the head of the nature and value of the atonement would answer the question, What is the extent of the atonement? Being an infinite atonement, it has an infinite value.

The word has an active signification. It denotes the act of extending. The "extent" of the atonement, in this sense, means its personal application to individuals by the Holy Spirit. The extent is now the intent. The question, What is the extent of the atonement? now means: To whom is the atonement effectually extended? The inquiry now is not, What is the value of the atonement? but, To whom does God purpose to apply its benefits?

Dogmatic Theology, vol 2, p., 464.

And this:

Accordingly, in answering the question as to the "extent" of Christ’s atonement, it must first be settled whether "extent" means its intended application, or its intrinsic value; whether the active or the passive signification of the word is in the mind of the inquirer. If the word means value, then the atonement is unlimited; if it means extending, that is, applying, then the atonement is limited.

Dogmatic Theology, vol 2, p., 466.

David: The first part of the first quotation there, Shedd speaks of the infinite value of the atonement which is sufficient for all the sins of all mankind. Now, recall, this is said by Shedd on the assumption of an unlimited imputation of "human sin" which necessarily expiates and cancels the sins of all mankind. This is not a hypothetical sufficiency. With that made explicit, the point I want to make today is that for Shedd, the limitation of the atonement is only in the application. If we include Shedd’s comments on the meaning of "for," the sense is still this: Shedd wants to say that the expiation in and of itself is for all sin, for the sins of all men, and he also wants to say that when we speak f the extent of the atonement is a statement about the application of the expiation or atonement, not about any limitation within the expiation itself.

If we use the metaphor of two lines, one horizontal to express the idea of unlimited expiation and imputation of sin, and one vertical, to express the idea of application. Where those two lines intersect that is where we have "limited" atonement.

If we come back to the metaphor of the lashes, its not that the substitute only suffered the penalty due to 4 of the 10 men, and so here is where the limitation of the atonement allegedly located, but rather, in the effectual application of the substitutes work for all 10 of the men, there and there alone is the limitation to be located. For Shedd, then, the limitation is in the sovereign divine determination to effectually apply the atonement to some.

There are certain benefits of this model of the atonement. Firstly, it is very biblical. Yet it is biblical in such a way that it does not have to illegitimately convert terms like ‘world’ and ‘all’ into "elect of all sorts," or cognate ideas. I would argue that all of the strategies that convert terms like ‘world’ and ‘all’ are theological and deductive, rather than exegetical.

The second benefit with adopting something like Shedd’s model is that one does not have to defend a negation, but only specificity. It may surprise many that Dort never defines the death of Christ by way of a negation. Recall that the Arminian thesis is that Christ died for all equally, with no intentional differentiation. To counter this, Dort’s strategy is simply to assert, ‘No, Christ died for some specifically, especially and effectually.’ What is surprising is that this is all one needs to refute the Arminian thesis.

Comments, challenges, questions are welcome.

Take care,


3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2016 10:33 am

    I know this is a very old post, but I would like to comment.

    I love Shedd. I just bought his “Dogmatic Theology,” ed. by Alan Gomes. I would have to ask, though, if we accept Shedd’s concept for the atonement that all the world’s sin was expiated by Christ, how then can anyone rightly suffer for their sin, seeing that it is actually expiated?

    Thank you!

  2. August 24, 2016 8:10 pm

    Greetings Taylor,

    Just to let you know, the main site is here at This site functions more as a back-up for that site. To answer your question, what you are referencing is the famous double-payment argument or the lesser alternative double jeopardy argument. Double Payment says God cannot demand a second “payment” for sin from the person of the sinner, if a payment has already been made for him in the person of the Son. Something like that. In this case, alledgely, once the payment has been made by the Son, the sinner cannot be helpd “liable” for a second payment. Double jeopardy is a little different inn that it’s unjust to punish the same person twice. Often when people argue for limited satisfaction, they use the term double jeopardy and not double payment. As to double jeopardy, Shedd rightly argues that this does not apply because it is not the case that the same person is being punished for (or made liable) the same crime 2ce. In fact, the Son is punished–so to speak–for the crimes of another person. You can see Shedd’s response here:

    Double payment does not apply either because that line of argument only works on the assumption that the satisfaction of Christ works exactly like a debt or fine payment (ie a pecuniary transaction). One of the best critiques of that idea in relation to double payment is by Charles Hodge, see here: Check out Dabney’s short but concise rebuttal of double payment here: You can see more links refuting the double payment argument here:

    The other way to answer your question is to point out that in the satisfaction of Christ, on the cross, it is only the case that Christ is treated as though he was a sinner, and that no sin was ever actually or literally transferred to Christ. So like this. At that point in time that Jesus was suffering on the cross, he was being treated as though he was a sinner, and afflicted by God as though he had sinned all our sins. Christ was never actually liable to punishment. However, at the same time this was happening, Smith–to use an example name–who at that time was an unbeliever, standing there in front of the cross, remained a sinner, remained liable to sin and guilt, and as such remained subject to the punishment of God in life. Until he believes, Smith remains an actual sinner, under actual wrath. Sin is never transferred, not even the guilt of sin, only that it is forgiven when a person believes. If the double payment argument were true it would entail justification for all believers on the cross, in that, insofar as all their sins have been “paid” they could not have been born “liable” to sin and condemnation, or actually subject to any condemnation in life, whether before justification or post-justification.

    It sounds pretty complex at first, but its relatively simple to grasp. What has made it confusing is the ideas of double payment, and ideas that see “imputation” as some sort of “transference” (even in terms of a commercial ledger where money is “transferred” from one column to the other) and “satisfaction” as having the same causal efficacy as a debt or fine payment. Rather, on the Cross, Christ was only treated as though he was as sinner, as though he had committed all our sins, as though he deserved punishment, all the while, in life as unbelievers from birth, we remain actual sinners, and actually subject to the wrath of God, until such a time as we believe (Eph 2:3, Roms 1:18 etc).

    Hope that helps,

  3. September 3, 2016 1:48 am

    Wow, thank you so much for such a timely, clear, and thorough response. This is something toward which I have not given much thought. However, now I need to pick up my “Dogmatic Theology” and read carefully what Shedd has to say.

    Thanks again, friend.

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