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Bible Study - Limited vs. General Atonement

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Who's Who - Limited Atonement



From Concise Theology by J. I. Packer

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep.
JOHN 10:14-15

Definite redemption, sometimes called "particular redemption," "effective atonement," and "limited atonement," is an historic Reformed doctrine about the intention of the triune God in the death of Jesus Christ. Without doubting the infinite worth of Christ's sacrifice or the genuineness of God's "whoever will" invitation to all who hear the gospel (Rev. 22:17), the doctrine states that the death of Christ actually put away the sins of all God's elect and ensured that they would be brought to faith through regeneration and kept in faith for glory, and that this is what it was intended to achieve. From this definiteness and effectiveness follows its limitedness: Christ did not die in this efficacious sense for everyone. The proof of that, as Scripture and experience unite to teach us, is that not all are saved.

The only possible alternatives are (a) actual universalism, holding that Christ's death guaranteed salvation for every member of the human race, past, present, and future, or (b) hypothetical universalism, holding that Christ's death made salvation possible for everyone but actual only for those who add to it a response of faith and repentance that was not secured by it. The choices are, therefore, an atonement of unlimited efficacy but limited extent (Reformed particularism), one of unlimited extent but limited efficacy (hypothetical universalism), or one of unlimited efficacy and unlimited extent (actual universalism). Scripture must be the guide in choosing between these possibilities.

Scripture speaks of God as having chosen for salvation a great number of our fallen race and having sent Christ into the world to save them (JOHN 6:37-40, 10:27-29, 11:51-52; Rom. 8:28-39; Eph. 1:3-14; 1 Pet. 1:20). Christ is regularly said to have died for particular groups or persons, with the clear implication that his death secured their salvation (JOHN 10:15-18,27-29; Rom. 5:8-10, 8:32; Gal. 2:20, 3:13-14, 4:4-5; 1 John 4:9-10; Rev. 1:4-6, 5:9-10). Facing his passion, he prayed only for those the Father had given him, not for the "world" (i.e., the rest of mankind, JOHN 17:9,20). Is it conceivable that he would decline to pray for any whom he intended to die for? Definite redemption is the only one of the three views that harmonizes with this data.

There is no inconsistency or incoherence in the teaching of the New Testament about, on the one hand, the offer of Christ in the gospel, which Christians are told to make known everywhere, and, on the other hand, the fact that Christ achieved a totally efficacious redemption for God's elect on the cross. It is a certain truth that all who come to Christ in faith will find mercy (JOHN 6:35,47-51,54-57; Rom. 1:16, 10:8-13). The elect hear Christ's offer, and through hearing it are effectually called by the Holy Spirit. Both the invitation and the effectual calling flow from Christ's sin-bearing death. Those who reject the offer of Christ do so of their own free will (i.e., because they choose to, Matt. 22:1-7; JOHN 3:18), so that their final perishing is their own fault. Those who receive Christ learn to thank him for the cross as the centerpiece of God's plan of sovereign saving grace.

Excerpts from Particular Redemption

A Sermon Delivered February 28, 1858

by Charles Spurgeon

"Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."
- Matthew 20:28

I begin this morning with the doctrine of Redemption. "He gave his life a ransom for many." The doctrine of redemption is one of the most important doctrines of the system of faith. A mistake on this point will inevitably lead to a mistake through the entire system of our belief.

. . .

We hold-we are not afraid to say that we believe-that Christ came into this world with the intention of saving "a multitude which no man can number;" and we believe that as the result of this, every person for whom He died must, beyond the shadow of a doubt, be cleansed from sin, and stand, washed in blood, before the Father's throne. We do not believe that Christ made any effectual atonement for those who are for ever damned; we dare not think that the blood of Christ was ever shed with the intention of saving those whom God foreknew never could be saved, and some of whom were even in Hell when Christ, according to some men's account, died to save them.

. . .

But, mark, we can never understand the fullness of the atonement till we have first grasped the Scriptural truth of God's immense justice. There was never an ill word spoken, nor an ill thought conceived, nor an evil deed done, for which God will not have punishment from some one or another. He will either have satisfaction from you, or else from Christ. If you have no atonement to bring through Christ, you must for ever lie paying the debt which you never can pay, in eternal misery; for as surely as God is God, He will sooner lose His Godhead than suffer one sin to go unpunished, or one particle of rebellion unrevenged.

. . .

We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, "No, certainly not." We ask them the next question-Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer "No." They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, "No; Christ has died that any man may be saved if"-and then follow certain conditions of salvation.

. . .

I am told it is my duty to say that all men have been redeemed, and I am told that there is a Scriptural warrant for it-"Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time." Now, that looks like a very, very great argument indeed on the other side of the question. For instance, look here. "The whole world is gone after him." Did all the world go after Christ? "Then went all Judea, and were baptized of him in Jordan." Was all Judea, or all Jerusalem baptized in Jordan? "Ye are of God, little children," and "the whole world lieth in the wicked one." Does "the whole world" there mean everybody? If so, how was it, then, that there were some who were "of God?" The words "world" and "all" are used in seven or eight senses in Scripture; and it is very rarely that "all" means all persons, taken individually The words are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts-some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted His redemption to either Jew or Gentile.

Excerpt from A Defence of Calvinism

by Charles Spurgeon

The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox's gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.

Some persons love the doctrine of universal atonement because they say, "It is so beautiful. It is a lovely idea that Christ should have died for all men; it commends itself," they say, "to the instincts of humanity; there is something in it full of joy and beauty." I admit there is, but beauty may be often associated with falsehood. There is much which I might admire in the theory of universal redemption, but I will just show what the supposition necessarily involves. If Christ on His cross intended to save every man, then He intended to save those who were lost before He died. If the doctrine be true, that He died for all men, then He died for some who were in hell before He came into this world, for doubtless there were even then myriads there who had been cast away because of their sins. Once again, if it was Christ's intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own testimony that there is a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit of woe have been cast some of the very persons who, according to the theory of universal redemption, were bought with His blood. That seems to me a conception a thousand times more repulsive than any of those consequences which are said to be associated with the Calvinistic and Christian doctrine of special and particular redemption. To think that my Saviour died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the Substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine justice. That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards some of those very men should be punished for the sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous iniquity that could ever have been imputed to Saturn, to Janus, to the goddess of the Thugs, or to the most diabolical heathen deities. God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise and good!

Who's Who - General Atonement


From Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie


Limited atonement or particular redemption can scarcely be termed a cornerstone doctrine. Nevertheless, it obviously is sometimes a hotly debated one. Berkhof is typical of those who hold the view and who express the issue this way: "Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that only is the question" (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941], p. 394). If indeed the question is properly expressed this way, then the answer is clear: the Atonement was limited, for Christ did not come into the world to save all men. Our understanding of election makes that answer certain.

But is Berkhof's question the correct question? The answer is no. It is false to say that "that is the question, and that only is the question." Rather, the actual question is: did Christ purpose by coming into the world to make provision for the salvation of all people, realizing that the Father would mysteriously draw the elect to Himself and allow others to reject the provision made? Because some reject does not invalidate the provision or mean that the provision was not made for them. If we say that a father provides sufficient food for his family, we do not exclude the possibility that some members of that family may refuse to eat what has been provided. Rut their refusal does not mean that the provision was made only for those who actually do eat the food. Likewise, the death of Christ provided the payment for the sins of all people-those who accept that payment and those who do not. Refusal to accept does not limit the provision made. Providing and possessing are not the same.


Arminians accept universal redemption or unlimited atonement (along with the idea that sufficient grace is supplied to all so that they may believe). Among Calvinists there are some who hold to universal redemption (so-called four-point Calvinists or Amyraldians, after Moses Amyraldus, 1596-1664), and some who teach particular redemption (so-called ultra or five-point Calvinists). The latter group holds that Christ died to secure salvation for the elect; thus His death was limited in its extent to the elect. Moderate Calvinists see the purpose of Christ's death as providing a substitution for all; therefore, it was unlimited in its extent.

'These views relate to the question of the order of the decrees of God. This discussion concerns logic more than revelation, and it only serves to highlight the different perspectives by attempting to place an order on the parts of the single decree of God, especially focusing on the relation of election to the Fall (lapse-fall). Supralapsarianism places election first (supra-above) followed by the decrees to create, allow the Fall, and then provide for the salvation of the elect. Infralapsarianism (infra-later) lists Creation, Fall, election, and then provision for the salvation of the elect. Sublapsarianism (sub-beneath) sees this order: Creation, Fall, provision of salvation for all, election of some to be saved. Some theologians do not recognize the distinction between infra and sub, and I must say that none of these schemes really confirms anything. The issue under discussion concerns the extent of the Atonement, and it will not be settled or even enlightened much by deciding the supposed order of the decrees.


When discussing this question, it is essential to keep certain truths clearly in mind.

  1. Unlimited redemptionists are not universalists. They do not believe that all will ultimately be saved. Nor does their view require or logically lead to such a heretical conclusion. To assert this is to create a straw man.
  2. All people are lost, including the elect. The fact that an individual is elect does not in some way make him less lost than a nonelect person.
  3. Anyone who will be saved must believe. The Father will draw the person, yet he must come (JOHN 6:37,44).
  4. Some Scriptures do relate the Atonement particularly to the elect. See JOHN 10:15 and Ephesians 5:25 for clear examples. Unlimited people readily acknowledge this. But this is not the issue. The question is: are there Scriptures which broaden the extent of the Atonement beyond the elect? Limited advocates say no, and attempt to explain those passages which seem to broaden the Atonement in ways that do not broaden it. In other words, unlimited advocates acknowledge that the Atonement is both limited and unlimited; limited advocates insist that it is strictly limited and do not recognize any unlimited passages as teaching unlimited atonement.


A. 2 Peter 2:1

It is generally acknowledged that the verse most difficult to harmonize with the limited atonement view is 2 Peter 2:1. Apparently it says that the false teachers (who are not among the elect) had the price of redemption paid for them by the Lord, for in their teaching they deny the Lord who bought (agorazo) them. In other words, Peter seems to be saying that the Lord in His sacrifice paid the price of redemption for these nonelect people.

Some particular redemptionists say that Peter is only recording what the false teachers claimed. They said that the Lord bought them, but in reality He did not because He died only for the elect. Thus Peter simply acknowledged what they were saying without affirming the truth of it, and indeed, it is not a true statement from the limited viewpoint. Rut, of course, even if this is an expression of what the false teachers were saying, it still can be a true statement, so it cannot be assumed to be false simply because it comes from their mouths. But more likely Peter is emphasizing the depth of their defection by pointing out that they denied the Lord who bought them. This is sometimes called the "Christian Charity" view.

Others understand this to mean that the Lord (as Creator) "purchased" these nonelect people in the sense that He as Creator possessed them. Thus agorazo (buy, redeem) comes to mean ktizo (create). The Lord possessed them as He did Israel when He effected a temporal deliverance from Egypt (Deut. 32:6).

In attempting to reinforce this interpretation, particular redemptionists cite three lines of alleged support.

  1. The word for Lord (despotes) when used in the New Testament refers to God, not Christ, and it should refer to Christ if this verse teaches a soteriological ransom (see, for example, Acts 4:24; Rev. 6:10). While the word does usually refer to the Father when it refers to Deity, does not use it in reference to Christ It seems so, and if so there, then there is no reason why it does not also refer to Christ in 2 Peter 2:1.
  2. They also point out that in other occurrences of agorazo where it refers to soteriological redemption in the New Testament, the price paid is mentioned in the context. Therefore, since no price is mentioned in 2 Peter 2:1, this must not refer to an actual soteriological redemption, but rather a Creator-creature "possession." However, in Revelation 14:4 no price is mentioned in the context of relating the soteriological redemption of the 144,000. Likewise, 2 Peter 2:1 could also refer to a soteriological redemption without mentioning the specific price.
  3. Further it is alleged that agorazo is always used in contexts where there is a real, take-possession kind of buying. Because the false teachers in 2 Peter 2:1 were not actually saved, agorazo cannot refer to a salvation purchase since no real possession took place. But notice Luke 14:18-19 where a real, actual purchase was made of a piece of property and yet the purchaser had not even seen it. Likewise, the unlimited redemptionist argues, the false teachers were actually purchased (that is, Christ did die for them) even though they were never possessed (that is, they were not saved ). (See John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959], pp. 250-2); and Gary Long, Definite Atonement [Nutley, N. J., Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976], pp. 67-82).

B. 1 John 2:2

This verse also seems to say rather clearly that the death of Christ was for the whole world. since He is the propitiation not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world. "Our" seems to refer to those who are (or will be) saved while "the whole world" includes those who are not saved. How do limited redemptionists explain this verse so as to be compatible with their viewpoint?

Actually three suggestions are made. In all three, "ours" and "the whole world" add up to the sum total of all the elect; therefore, "ours" refers to some of the elect and "the whole world" to others of the elect.

  1. Some understand "ours" to mean the elect living in Asia Minor where the Apostle John was; "the whole world" then refers to the elect living outside Asia Minor. This is a geographical distinction.
  2. Others see a racial distinction; that is, "ours" means the elect from among Jewish people, and "the whole world" designates the elect from among Gentiles.
  3. Still others make a chronological distinction. "Ours" designates the elect living in the first century, while "the whole world" focuses on the elect in subsequent centuries.

In other words, limited atonement sees the Atonement from this verse as geographically, ethnically, or chronologically universal, but only in relation to the elect, not an people (see John Murray, Redemption-Accomplished and Applied [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961], pp. 82-5).

To be sure, the word "world" does not always mean all people (see JOHN 12:19), but no dictionary gives it the meaning of only the elect. And limited atonement advocates are assigning it the meaning of only part of the elect in this verse.

Furthermore, the only other occurrence of the phrase "the whole world" in John's writings is in 1 John 5:19. and there it undebatably includes everybody. So the presumption is that it also means everyone in 1 John 2:2. And this means that Christ died for all people even though all are not ultimately saved.

C. 1 Timothy 2:4-6, 4:10

Generally, limited redemptionists understand the "all" in 1 Timothy 2 to refer to all kinds of people. That is, Christ died for all kinds of sinners (among the elect), and God wishes all kinds of people (among the elect) to be saved. In 1 Timothy 4:10, however, some understand Savior to mean that Christ provides the general benefits of providence to all and especially to believers. "Savior" then has no soteriological connotation, according to this interpretation. The logic behind these interpretations is that if Christ is the Savior of all people absolutely, then all must be saved, and since all are not saved, then He cannot be the Savior of all in any soteriological sense. But is not God the Father of all people absolutely (Acts 17:29) and yet not all people are in the redeemed family! (Gal. 3:26) Similarly, Christ can be said to be the Savior of all without all being saved (see Owen, p. 235).

D. Hebrews 2:9

Again it seems clear that the Atonement was universal. How else could the writer say that He tasted death for every man. Notice that the preceding verses use the word "man" also and the meaning is clearly all people, not just the elect.

E. JOHN 3:16

Limited redemptionists are forced to say that this verse means God loved only the world of the elect. One advocate of limited redemption understands the verse to emphasize the intensity of God's love; that is, God loved the world of sinners. But it is still restricted to the elect sinners. Now if JOHN 3:16 is so restricted, then no limited redemptionist could tell his young children, for example, that God loves them, since he could not know at that age whether or not they belonged to the elect. The Lord, however, expressed His love for an unsaved (and evidently a nonelect) man (Mark 10:21).

F. Acts 17:30

This verse states the matter as broadly as it could be said. God commands all men everywhere to repent. To read it to say all men without distinction of race or rank everywhere in the earth but only among the elect (which is the way it would have to be understood to support limited atonement) does not appear to be the most secure exegesis!

Exegesis clearly supports the unlimited position.


A. Universal Gospel Preaching

Unlimited advocates claim that in order for one to preach the Gospel to all, Christ had to die for all. It does seem to make more sense to say that unlimited redemption is more compatible with universal Gospel preaching. However, it must be recognized that believing in limited atonement does not necessarily dampen one's evangelistic efforts. Some great evangelists, like Spurgeon. held to limited atonement. And some who hold to unlimited atonement fail in their responsibility to witness.

B. The Value of Christ's Death

Is some of the value of Christ's death lost if all for whom He died are not actually saved! The limited person says yes; therefore, he concludes, Christ only died for the elect. But if God designed that there be value in a universal sacrifice in that it made the whole world savable, in addition to the saving value for those who do believe, then all the value is realized though in different ways.

C. Do the Nonelect Have Their Sins Paid for Twice?

Some limited advocates argue that if Christ died for all, then the sins of the nonelect were paid for at the cross by the death of Christ, and will be paid for again at the judgment by the condemnation of the nonelect to the lake of fire. So in effect their sins are paid for twice. Logically, then, either the death of Christ should not include the nonelect, or the nonelect should not be condemned to the lake of fire.

An analogous question might be asked, Did the Israelite who refused to apply the Passover blood to the door of his house have his sins paid for twice! When the Passover Lamb was killed, his sins were covered. But if he did not put the blood on the door, he died. Was this a second payment for his sins? Of course not. The first and sufficient payment was simply not applied to that particular house. Death after failure to apply the blood was just retribution for not appropriating the sufficient sacrifice. The Atonement of Christ paid for the sins of the whole world, but the individual must appropriate that payment through faith. The world was reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:19), but those reconciled people need to be reconciled to God (v. 20).

An illustration: In one school where I have taught, the student aid was handled in this way. People make gifts to the student aid fund. Needy students apply for help from that fund. A committee decides who will receive aid and how much. But when the actual money is distributed, it is done by issuing a check to the student who then is expected to endorse it back to the school which will then place the credit on his account. The money was not moved directly from the aid fund to the individual student's account. The student had to receive it personally and place it on his account. Let us suppose you gave a gift to cover one student's tuition for one year. You could properly say that his tuition was fully paid. But until the selection is made by the committee, and until the student receives the gift and places it on his account, his tuition is not paid. If he fails to endorse the check, it will never be paid even though it has been paid! The death of Christ pays for all the sins of all people. But not one individual has his own account settled until he believes. If he never believes, then even though the price has been fully paid, his sins will not be forgiven. The death of Christ is like some benefactor paying the tuitions of all students in all schools everywhere. If that could be true, what should we be telling students? The good news chat their tuitions are paid.

Christ died for all. What should we be telling the world?

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