Skip to content

Universal Ineffectual Atonement vs Limited Effectual Atonement: An Argument for Limited Atonement

February 6, 2009

This essay is also hosted here.

One of the most common arguments for what is popularly called limited atonement is the argument that it is either the case that Christ died to merely make men savable, or to effectually save some (as opposed to all). However, we know that it is true that Christ so died as to effectually save his elect. Thus the first proposition has to be false.

But before we get too far into this, I need to be clear on something important. By “limited atonement” I mean by that, the idea that Christ sustained a penal relationship only with the elect, he bore the condemnation due only to their sins, etc. The issue is not the effectual intent of the expiation, but its intrinsic nature and extent. With that aside…

The standard form of the argument goes like this:

Its either A or B.
Not A.
Therefore B.

This form of syllogism can be a sound line of argument, if and only if, there are only two alternatives, ie, if there is no tertius quid.

Stated in conversational English, the argument works like this. Either Christ died for all merely and only to make it possible for God to save all, or he died with an effectual intention to save some only. The argument assumes that both cannot be true. First the proponent of this dilemma will cite Scripture which speaks to Christ intentionally and effectually saving some. This then establishes B. Next, the proponent will claim that A cannot be true.

Now this line of argument might work against some wings of Evangelical Christianity who may say that Christ died for all exactly equally, and in no way for any with a discriminating effectual intentionality.

However, in terms of responding to the classic and moderate Calvinist position, this “dilemma” is just a false dilemma. For us, it is simply a false either/or fallacy.

For the classic and moderate Calvinist, it is not a case of either/or but of both-and. The only thing we do need to do is remove from the first proposition the idea of “merely” or “only,” that, it is either that “Christ only died to make men savable.” With that qualification, I think Nathaneal Hardy’s following comments well explode the false dilemma fallacy:

In regard of Christ, the certain continuance of all the true members of the church depends upon the energy of his death, and the efficacy of his intercession.

[l.] Though the design of Christ’s death was in some respect general, namely, to purchase a possibility of salvation for all upon the conditions of faith and repentance, yet I doubt not to assert, that besides this there was a particular design of his death, which was to purchase a certainty of salvation by faith and repentance for some, to wit, the elect, this being the most rational way of reconciling those scriptures which do enlarge Christ’s death to the whole world, with those that restrain it to his church. Indeed, if there be not some who shall be actually saved by Christ’s death, his death will be in vain. If there be not some for whom Christ hath purchased more than a possibility of salvation upon condition, it is possible none should be actually saved by it, especially if (as those who deny this peculiar intention affirm) the performing of the condition depends so on the liberty of our will, that notwithstanding the influence of grace a man may choose or refuse to do it; for then it is as possible that every man may not believe as that he may, and consequently it is possible no man may be saved by Christ’s death, and so Christ’s death in vain, as to that which was its primary end, and consequently his intention frustrated. It remaineth, then, that as Christ intended his death to be sufficient for all, so that it might be efficient to some, in order to which it was necessary that for those persons he should purchase grace, yea, not only grace, but perseverance in grace till they come to glory.

Nathanael Hardy, The First General Epistle of St John the Apostle, Unfolded and Applied (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1865), 312.

Sometimes I see responses to the classic and moderate position which just remind me of the Bahnsen-Stein debate. Recall in this debate, Stein approached the debate with arguments that Bahnsen both himself would have repudiated and would have considered outmoded. It is as if Stein was not “up to date” in his counter-apologetic. The lesson was, he did not truly know his opponent, or his opponent’s position. Likewise, when folk table this argument against the classic-moderate position, it’s as if they are using outmoded and irrelevant arguments against an opponent, whose position they seem clueless about.

David

Advertisements
13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2009 2:00 pm

    It is interesting to me that you don’t seem to connect the varios glosses on the sufficient/efficacy of the atonement with Christology.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Flynn permalink*
    March 19, 2009 3:29 pm

    Hey Perry,

    I have been out of action for some time. If you are still around, would you care to explain what you mean?

    Thanks,
    David

  3. July 20, 2009 2:36 am

    If there be not some for whom Christ hath purchased more than a possibility of salvation upon condition, it is possible none should be actually saved by it, especially if (as those who deny this peculiar intention affirm) the performing of the condition depends so on the liberty of our will, that notwithstanding the influence of grace a man may choose or refuse to do it; for then it is as possible that every man may not believe as that he may, and consequently it is possible no man may be saved by Christ’s death, and so Christ’s death in vain, as to that which was its primary end, and consequently his intention frustrated.

    Excellent quote! If salvation is dependent on our free will, then that leaves the possibility open that no one would accept Christ, and Heaven would then be empty! And, as the quote says, Christ would have died in vain!

    Because man, in his unregenerate, lost state, would never choose to come under accountability to an Ultimate Authority, because he loves his sin too much, man is unable to accept Christ without the working of the Holy Spirit in that person’s heart. And, the Holy Spirit is God (the 3rd Person of the Trinity), so, since God is perfect and cannot fail, the Holy Spirit cannot fail in any endeavor He chooses to do. Yes, the Holy Spirit can be quenched or grieved, but that is talking about a born-again believer who already has the Holy Spirit dwelling within him/her, having to do with unforgiven sin blocking the filling of the Holy Spirit, not about unbelievers.

  4. Flynn permalink*
    July 20, 2009 9:39 am

    Hey Jeff,

    Welcome to Theology Online.

    The good thing about Hardy is that he can embrace both the particular and the universal aspects of Christ’s death. Christ died for all in one sense, but for the elect in another especial sense.

    And by ‘universal aspect’ he was not talking about common grace as an incidental side-effect either. If you want to read some more from Hardy, check out this file: Nathanael Hardy on the Death of Christ.

    Also see the main index page here and control-f for all references to Hardy: Meta-Links (Indexes)

    Thanks for dropping by,
    David

  5. Dan R permalink
    September 29, 2009 10:15 pm

    Hi everyone. Regarding this position which holds to a universal atonement, I think it hinges first of all of what does atonement really mean. It is definitely used to apply to those who are saved in the NT. The basic meaning meaning “a covering”. Now, wouldn’t it seem that if Christ atoned for somebody then He saved them???
    Otherwise, it is a failure. An atonement is specific to those whom it has been procured for. That’s why our Lord said on the cross “tetelstai” or translated, “it is finished.” Telos carries with it the meaning of purpose, reason for existence, goal, and like that. That is why those who hold to definite atonement say the atonement was “effectual.” In other words, it accomplished the exact purpose it intended to (telos).
    The 2nd thing I would like to bring up is that this argument for “unlimited atonement” also hinges upon a erroneous idea of how the world “world” should be translated.
    I had an article on the Calvin part of this website and David said it was more the online theology section. He said he would transfer over to the theology section but I haven’t seen it yet. But, if you would be so kind, please read this pdf article which I will give you the link to as it is says what I had put forward only in a much more satisfactory manner. Thanks, brothers. http://lbref.org/downloads/Jn3.pdf

  6. Dan R permalink
    September 29, 2009 10:18 pm

    By the way, David, I just wanted to let you know what an awesome website this is. I have never seen anything so comprehensive and edifying. God bless you, brother.

  7. Flynn permalink*
    September 30, 2009 9:18 am

    Hey Dan,

    Hi everyone. Regarding this position which holds to a universal atonement, I think it hinges first of all of what does atonement really mean. It is definitely used to apply to those who are saved in the NT. The basic meaning meaning “a covering”. Now, wouldn’t it seem that if Christ atoned for somebody then He saved them???

    David: Why should one think that, Dan? The expiation-satisfaction does not “save” anyone apart from from faith. The OT year sacrifices were made for all the people, and for all their sins. Yet not all were saved. Each individual had to offer his own personal sacrifices for sins. Expiation + faith = Salvation. No faith, no salvation, right?

    I believe you would have add a few more premises to make your line of thought here work for you.

    Dan: Otherwise, it is a failure.

    David": We would say Christ did not fail in anything he set out to accomplish. Christ accomplished a perfect satisfaction for sin, etc etc. But the question is: was the purpose of the expiation-satisfaction, in itself, to effect its own effectual application for all whom it was made?

    Dan: An atonement is specific to those whom it has been procured for.

    David: Sure. The satisfaction was not made for men on Mars, and so has no relevance for them. It cannot ground the offer of the Gospel. It did not remove the legal barriers between them and God. It cannot, therefore, be the basis of any pardon extended to them: In short, it is not sufficient for them at all.

    Dan: That’s why our Lord said on the cross “tetelstai” or translated, “it is finished.” Telos carries with it the meaning of purpose, reason for existence, goal, and like that. That is why those who hold to definite atonement say the atonement was “effectual.” In other words, it accomplished the exact purpose it intended to (telos).

    David: I don’t see how the “definite atonement” (as I assumed you define it) follows from that. “It is finished,” that is, his work in offering himself as the sacrificial lamb led to the slaughter, as prophesied in Isaiah and other places. I don’t see why we cannot totally agree with Christ here? You may need to unpack that argument a little more Dan for it to work I think.

    Dan: The 2nd thing I would like to bring up is that this argument for “unlimited atonement” also hinges upon a erroneous idea of how the world “world” should be translated.
    I had an article on the Calvin part of this website and David said it was more the online theology section. He said he would transfer over to the theology section but I haven’t seen it yet. But, if you would be so kind, please read this pdf article which I will give you the link to as it is says what I had put forward only in a much more satisfactory manner. Thanks, brothers. http://lbref.org/downloads/Jn3.pdf

    David: What I mean is, if you want to discuss Calvin in particular, or any of the names over at the C&C site, feel free to post there. What I would transfer would be any more comments from you to here: comments which were focused on what I believe etc.  However, for discussions, challenges, debates, regarding my personal position, I prefer to have that here. Hope that does not offend you. It’s just better for the respective sites. If you scope out the “This Site” page. You might want to scroll down the “Main Index” page too.

    If you want to bring over any arguments from your pdf and discuss them here, feel free.

    Last thing: Just to let you know, we here, and some of our readers, hold to what we call Classic and Moderate Calvinism. He believe that Christ died for all men in one sense, for the elect in another especial sense. Christ bore the sins of all men, and in so doing, did this with the special intention of securing the infallible salvation of the elect. However, the nature of the expiation and satisfaction is unlimited: all that Christ did for one man, objectively regarding the nature of the satisfaction, he did for every man.

    Two more considerations, this position, we can document, was the original majority Reformation doctrine, and secondly, many of us fully subscribe to Dort.

    Welcome and thanks for stopping by,

    David

  8. Flynn permalink*
    September 30, 2009 9:26 am

    Hey Dan,

    I had a quick read of the pdf. Lots of assumptions there. If one does not buy into them, one will not find the flyer’s arguments persuasive. The invitation to discuss is sincere and open.

    Take care,
    David

  9. Dan Rivaldo permalink
    September 30, 2009 8:06 pm

    David, I hope you didn’t my comment about not yet seeing my previous blog from the Calvin side as an affront. You said you were going to transfer everything over to the Theology side and that is fine with me. I just didn’t see it yet. I am not offended by your decision. No problem there.
    One quick question, where did you get this idea that an atonement is incomplete without something man does which you call “faith?”
    If you are a moderate Calvinist then I believe you should believe that faith is the response of a saved person (prior regeneration principle)and yes, faith is required but the “natural man” does not have it. It is a gift of God (Eph 2:8,9)
    So, once the atonement has been applied the natural response is to see the one who has been atoned for put His “faith” which has been given him/her by God in Christ. Repentance, faith, belief, etc. not one of these are man’s contributions. Man has NOTHING to contribute but what God has already done for him.
    There is nothing more that I would like than to say the God loves everybody and Jesus died for everybody but it just isn’t there in the Scriptures. The inability of man (ICor 2:14, etc) to simply “believe” or have “faith” is clearly taught in Scripture and yet the universal part of the Gospel is not a universal atonement BUT a universal preaching of the Gospel to “all men” (mankind)even though only the “elect” will believe and I do believe that you believe that only the “elect” will believe too. However, no one knows who these elect are so we are not seeking to preach the Gospel only to the elect because we have no idea who they are…but, God knows, doesn’t He?
    This idea of unlimited atonement seems to be using contrived theology rather than looking in the NT to see how the Gospel was ACTUALLY preached. All this theological stuff about the atonement and whether there was a definite people who were chosen (“you have not chosen me…, All that the Father has given me WILL COME to me, etc.)do not apply to preaching the Gospel. We preach the Gospel and some repent and believe (and the Gospel does not limit who they may be) and some DON’T. That’s that! Yes, the “whosoever” is there, Jew or Gentile and not just Jews only since the Gospel. The time to get into all these other ideas is after one is saved. The preaching of the Gospel that says only the elect will believe will cause serious problems to those it is being preached. Yes, they may be told that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy. He is not waiting for a “decision” to enable the atonement to be effective! Otherwise, the Gospel has become Christ’s death PLUS your decision. Or, in other words, Jesus died only to make it POSSIBLE for a sinner to believe! There will definitely be a decision but that will show whether the work of the atonement was applied or not. How in the world someone can believe that Jesus suffered horribly so that He was beat so badly he looked like a piece of meat and then nailed to a cross driving stakes through his hands and feet, etc. only to just make it “possible” to believe is a horrifying, terrible idea. I want no part of it and neither should anyone. That is why “it is finished” means just that. The work of atonement (salvation) was fully complete and nothing more needed to be added to it such as man’s contribution of his own “faith.” It is not reading anything into it to say this.
    Re: the article- “Lots of assumptions there.” Everyone has presuppositions. The question is whether they are true or not. There an awful lot presuppositions in your statements also. One is your idea of the word “world” and the other is your idea of what “atonement” means. Your idea of the atonement seems to be that Christ died to produce an atonement that is really for no one in particular and saves no one because it is up to the individual to have “faith.” So, Christ went through all that suffering and shed His precious blood for no one in particular and not really sure of any kind of design except its out there for whoever makes the right decision. The idea of His atonement “for the elect but sufficient for the whole world” is totally illogical and makes no sense. Its not a question of the atonement’s sufficiency but who was the atonement procured for?
    Well, I went on more than I expected to but we are talking serious ideas here. I have been on your side of the fence when I was first saved back in 1972 for about 5 or 6 years of which I studied and prayed profusely to know the truth as I did not like the idea of a definite people Christ died for but wanted to believe that Jesus loves and died for the whole “world” as I understood it then.

  10. Flynn permalink*
    September 30, 2009 9:53 pm

    hey Dan,

    Dan: David, I hope you didn’t my comment about not yet seeing my previous blog from the Calvin side as an affront. You said you were going to transfer everything over to the Theology side and that is fine with me. I just didn’t see it yet. I am not offended by your decision. No problem there.

    David: Not sure what you mean. My intention was to transfer any new comments–not pertaining to Calvin–over to here. I think weve had a little communication blip. I hope its sorted out now.

    Dan: One quick question, where did you get this idea that an atonement is incomplete without something man does which you call “faith?”
    If you are a moderate Calvinist then I believe you should believe that faith is the response of a saved person (prior regeneration principle)and yes, faith is required but the “natural man” does not have it. It is a gift of God (Eph 2:8,9)

    David: I dont recall saying the atonement is incomplete in that way. This is what I had said:

    The expiation-satisfaction does not “save” anyone apart from from faith. The OT year sacrifices were made for all the people, and for all their sins. Yet not all were saved. Each individual had to offer his own personal sacrifices for sins. Expiation + faith = Salvation. No faith, no salvation, right?

    Faith is a gift from God. Faith, however, is still the instrumental cause by which the benefit of the atonement is applied.  Your argument was, it seemed, that if the satisfaction of Christ was made for a given person, that person must be saved. I noted that the causal mechanism is a little more complex.  Like this, I think you would need to show that it is impossible that for anyone for whom the satisfaction was made, that it is impossible that that person is not given faith. Right?

    Dan: So, once the atonement has been applied the natural response is to see the one who has been atoned for put His “faith” which has been given him/her by God in Christ. Repentance, faith, belief, etc. not one of these are man’s contributions. Man has NOTHING to contribute but what God has already done for him.

    David: What do you mean applied? If we speak of the sacrifice itself, the shedding of the sacrificial blood, faith is still needed as the causa sine qua non by which the expiation is applied to the believer, etc.   Faith, repentance and so forth are granted to the elect, enabling them to believe: this is not denied, not the question at hand, as I see it.

    Dan: There is nothing more that I would like than to say the God loves everybody and Jesus died for everybody but it just isn’t there in the Scriptures.

    David: Well thats what is being discussed here. I wont jump the gun as I think its some of your assumptions about 1) the semantic meaning of Kosmos for John, 2) the nature of the expiation-satisfaction itself that should remain the focus here.

    Dan: The inability of man (ICor 2:14, etc) to simply “believe” or have “faith” is clearly taught in Scripture and yet the universal part of the Gospel is not a universal atonement BUT a universal preaching of the Gospel to “all men” (mankind)even though only the “elect” will believe and I do believe that you believe that only the “elect” will believe too. However, no one knows who these elect are so we are not seeking to preach the Gospel only to the elect because we have no idea who they are…but, God knows, doesn’t He?

    David: This all takes away from the key questions. I will pass on answering this if you dont mind.

    Dan: This idea of unlimited atonement seems to be using contrived theology rather than looking in the NT to see how the Gospel was ACTUALLY preached.

    David: being contrived is surely something in the eye of the beholder. One man sees convolution, another sees beauty and wonder. But your opening questions still remain.

    Dan: All this theological stuff about the atonement and whether there was a definite people who were chosen (”you have not chosen me…, All that the Father has given me WILL COME to me, etc.)do not apply to preaching the Gospel. We preach the Gospel and some repent and believe (and the Gospel does not limit who they may be) and some DON’T. That’s that! Yes, the “whosoever” is there, Jew or Gentile and not just Jews only since the Gospel.

    David: Well strictly speaking, and this to illustrate the point: if Kosmos for John meant the Gentiles, then it follows that the “whosoever” is a subset of the Gentiles. And so accordingly, whosoever does not believe is also another subset of the Gentiles, as the next verses go on, “whosoever does not believe…” Right?

    Dan: The time to get into all these other ideas is after one is saved. The preaching of the Gospel that says only the elect will believe will cause serious problems to those it is being preached. Yes, they may be told that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy. He is not waiting for a “decision” to enable the atonement to be effective! Otherwise, the Gospel has become Christ’s death PLUS your decision. Or, in other words, Jesus died only to make it POSSIBLE for a sinner to believe! There will definitely be a decision but that will show whether the work of the atonement was applied or not.

    David: This is still a long way from your original claims. Would you be willing to come back to those points?

    Dan: How in the world someone can believe that Jesus suffered horribly so that He was beat so badly he looked like a piece of meat and then nailed to a cross driving stakes through his hands and feet, etc. only to just make it “possible” to believe is a horrifying, terrible idea.

    David: Well all thats a little emotional. I can respect that a person may believe that all Christ accomplished was that it made it possible for someone to be saved. Personally, I don’t believe that’s all Christ did. I hold that Christ died so as to effectually secure the salvation of his sheep and people.

    Dan: I want no part of it and neither should anyone. That is why “it is finished” means just that. The work of atonement (salvation) was fully complete and nothing more needed to be added to it such as man’s contribution of his own “faith.” It is not reading anything into it to say this.

    David: Here I agree. Nothing was needed to supplement the work of expiation. To use a mathematical metaphor, its not like Christ has to suffer 99%, and we the balance. Or that Christ tried and tried, but we have to add some merit to the work. Christ accomplished all that was necessary. However, the application of that accomplishment to a given person is conditioned upon faith. So as I said before, no faith, no salvation. No faith, no application of the work of Christ.

    Dan: Re: the article- “Lots of assumptions there.” Everyone has presuppositions. The question is whether they are true or not.

    David: Assumptions and presuppositions are not quite the same. But anyway, I mean its like this. X holds good if you accept Y. I dont accept Y, so for me X is unpersuasive.

    Dan:; There an awful lot presuppositions in your statements also.

    David: Sure. Thats true. When I claim a truth, there are stated and unstated assumptions. All I am saying, in the arguments of the pdf, it was like that, lots of unstated assumptions. They need to be tabled and examined before I would find the stated claims convincing.

    Dan: One is your idea of the word “world” and the other is your idea of what “atonement” means. Your idea of the atonement seems to be that Christ died to produce an atonement that is really for no one in particular and saves no one because it is up to the individual to have “faith.”

    David: Where did you get that from? Can you point to something Ive said which entails that?

    Dan: So, Christ went through all that suffering and shed His precious blood for no one in particular and not really sure of any kind of design except its out there for whoever makes the right decision.

    David: Without any evidence that I said or entailed that, I would say thats a caricature of what I said.  You are creating a strawman, Dan.

    Dan: The idea of His atonement “for the elect but sufficient for the whole world” is totally illogical and makes no sense. Its not a question of the atonement’s sufficiency but who was the atonement procured for?

    David: You are confusing me a little. If the first part of your statement is true, then the sufficiency of the atonement has to be a question here.  Dort: And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.

    The doctrine of the sufficiency of Christ’s death, one way or the other, has always seen it as important.

    Dan: Well, I went on more than I expected to but we are talking serious ideas here. I have been on your side of the fence when I was first saved back in 1972 for about 5 or 6 years of which I studied and prayed profusely to know the truth as I did not like the idea of a definite people Christ died for but wanted to believe that Jesus loves and died for the whole “world” as I understood it then.

    David: There are a few propositions here Dan. 

    1) Christ died for all men equally (with no special intention to save anyone in particular)

    2) Christ died for all men in one sense, for the elect in another sense.

    3) Christ only died for the elect (in any direct sense and proper sense).

    I deny 1) and 3) but affirm 2). You seem to want to attribute 1) to me.

    4) Christ died definitely or effectually for the elect.

    I hold to 4) but not to the exclusion of 2).  Dort affirms 4), not 3).

    So, Dan, if you wish, can we discuss the meaning of Kosmos and the nature of the atonement (as suggested above)?

    Thanks for your willingness to converse in a godly manner.

    Take care,
    David

  11. Michael T. permalink
    November 4, 2010 7:12 pm

    Greetings,

    All attempts to promote and “prove” a case for the imaginative theories of “universal atonement” and “universal propitiation” are inevitably futile and doomed to failure because the Scriptures teach that (1) eternal salvation in Christ is always conditional upon (a) the sinner’s saving repentance and (b) his/her saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ [John 3:16], and (2) that these two pre-conditions are not natural human attributes but that they are both the gifs of God.

    Therefore it is clearly evident that it is the will of the LORD God that is causal in salvation and not the will of Man, since it is solely the prerogative of the LORD God as to whether or not He will bestow saving repentance and saving faith upon any person.

    It is also therefore plainly evident that in respect of all those who perish in their unbelief, that it never was the will of GOD that any of those unbelievers should be brought to eternal salvation in Christ, for it had been, the LORD God would surely have given them His gifts of saving repentance and saving faith whereby they would certainly have been saved.

    Michael T.

  12. Flynn permalink*
    November 9, 2010 11:57 am

    Hey Michael,

    What exactly do you think you are refuting?

    Thanks for stopping by,
    David

Trackbacks

  1. Universal Ineffectual Atonement vs Limited Effectual Atonement: An Argument for Limited Atonement « ResponsiveReiding

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: