Monday, August 31, 2009

An Argument For Unlimited Atonement

Jared Nelson, a brilliant theologian at this blog ( recently advanced his argument which was inspired by the Puritan Divine John Owen in this post in defense of the Reformed Dogma of Christ's Limited Atonement:

I respect him greatly, and true ecumenism must start in the spirit of love and an HONEST desire to find the truth.

I also respectfully disagree with him in this matter, and will try to provide a defense of unlimited atonement from Scripture.

1. The Will Of God & The Intention of God in Christ: To Offer Potential Salvation To All

"Calvinists contend that the Atonement was commissioned for the purpose of redeeming the number of the elect, and that it was actual in accomplishing and redeeming those people" - Jared

Catholics contend that God loves the world (John 3:16) and that Christ died for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn 2:2). In fact in the Bible St. Paul encourages Christians to pray for "everyone" (1 Tim 2:1), because God "desires everyone to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4). In the Areopagus, surrounded by Pagans, St. Paul describes the human race God created stating that "they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27). And so Christ has not yet returned as many are daily being saved, and St. Peter the first among the apostles describes Christ as, "not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance." (2 Pet 3:9)

2. The Limits of Election & The Rejection of the Will of God: God Does Allow Resistance To Grace

Christ's intercessory role is also described in Hebrews 7:25 as: "he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." But not all approach God, indeed God's will that all might be saved is not carried out. The prophet Isaiah describes the same phenomena, "Oh, rebellious children, says the Lord, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin" (Isaiah 30:1).

The fact that faith is a free act and resistible means that while there is a potentiality for the salvation of everyone, not all will hear. But luckily God had predestined some to receive efficacious grace and persevere to the end (Thomism), or possibly foreknew those who would choose him freely, and created the world in which they would be able to acheive salvation (Molinism).

3. The Unfinished Nature of Salvation & The Example of Ahab

Salvation likewise is not a singular thing, purely finished and in the past. As Hebrews 7:25 shows us, those who approach Christ are prayed for by Christ. They're prayers are heard by God. The writer of Hebrews also warns us however of those who turn away from Christ, profane the blood of the covenant, and outrage the Spirit (10:29), for such people there "no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (10:26). Redemption must be reapplied to them by Christ through repentance, though the specific means of this grace is contested by Reformed and Catholic theologians. Those whom persevere to the end are indeed saved, according to Jesus (Mt 10:22, 24:13). And St. Paul warns us "So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall." (1 Cor 10:12).

A great example of this is King Ahab. "Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him...he...went and served Baal, and worshipped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him." (1 Kings 16:30-33)

But after Elijah condemns him it says: "When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house". After this repentence, God's prophet Micaiah speaks to Ahab and Ahab says "Put this fellow in prison" (1 Kings 22:27), and Ahab is promptly killed in battle, dying in sin (1 Kings 22:34).

4. Conclusion & Why It Doesn't Matter

Thus in my interpretation, God's love is universal, he wills that all might be saved, but it is also specific for the Elect. Christ's sacrifice which potentially could be applied to them, is actually and effectually applied to them through faith, love and the sacraments.

I find it embarrassing that I've spent over an hour preparing this blog when ultimately the issue of limited and unlimited atonement results in no actual difference in God's plan of salvation. The elect are saved in both, and the unelect are not saved in both. Christ's sacrifice is made effectual for the elect, Christ's sacrifice is made uneffectual for the unelect.

This is exemplified for me in John Piper's comment to an Arminian at a Baptist convention. He said "Do you believe that Christ has died for every person that has a saving faith in Christ?" to which the man responded "yes". Piper then replied "so do I".

While this is the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism solved, which is different from Calvinism and Catholic Augustinianism, the correlation still remains.

May God's Spirit lead us into all truth, through the inerrant word of truth (Bible), and the pillar and bulwark of truth (The Church), to the one who is Truth itself (Jesus).


  1. Good argument Andrew. Thanks for being willing to think doctrine this out with Bible in hand and an awareness of church tradition in the background. Of course, I think your conclusions are wrong, but I also think you have understood the Roman Catholic and Arminian teachings on this issue.

  2. Thanks for the kind and respectful response Rev. Bennett.