For No One in Particular?- Arguing the Extent of the Atonement

November 19, 2008

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” -1 John 4.10

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” -1 John 2.2

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” -Romans 3.23-25

For any of you familiar with the debate over the extent of the atonement you will be all too familiar with the constant back and forth about whether ‘all’ means ‘all’ and if ‘the world’ means ‘the whole world’ or ‘not just the Jews.’ However, the more and more I look at it, the less fruitful I find this line of argument. At the end of the day, it always seems that our view on the extent of the atonement informs our interpretation of these words and not the other way around like it should be.

That said, I don’t believe this is a lost cause (at least for arguments sake). Instead, I believe that we need to take a different approach to the atonement if we are ever to come to a solid conclusion about what the Word of God teaches. The way I propose doing this is by examining the nature of the atonement and what it means to you and I as sinners and see if this gives us a better insight into how limited or unlimited atonement may be.

So, what is “the atonement”? Atonement for a Christian is the act by which sins are forgiven and reconciliation is made with God. It contains two parts: propitiation, the act of satisfying God’s wrath; and expiation, the act of removing the burden of guilt from the sinner. Thus, it is through the atonement that justification and reconciliation, or in short salvation, can occur.

Then, what are we told of the need for atonement? As Romans 3.23 says above, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All people have sinned and, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6.23), we all have fallen short of or been separated from God. Thus, if anybody is to be justified then atonement is necessary, and without atonement we are condemned to the ultimate result of our sin, that being eternal torment and separation from the love of God (Psalm 5.4-6, Revelation 20.11-15).

What is needed to make atonement? Leviticus 17.11 sets for the OT believers that “it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” and this work of atonement was symbolized through the sacrifice of bulls and goats (Leviticus 16). Yet, Hebrews 10.4 tells us that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Therefore, it is not by animals, but by the perfect blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ that atonement is made (Hebrews 9.11-15).

Now that we have laid the groundwork, we get to where the real question lies. If Christ made atonement through his death, then who did he make atonement for and how is it that that atonement is applied? There are three main competing views here. Either Christ made atonement for all and the atonement is applied to all (which is universalism), or Christ made atonement for all and the atonement is applied to those who accept it (which is unlimited atonement), or Christ made atonement for some and the atonement is applied to those some (which is limited atonement). We must automatically deny universalism as unscriptural, and therefore the real debate is between limited and unlimited atonement.

It is at this point that I want to move outside the box, which I will try to begin tomorrow.