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

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.

3 Responses to “For No One in Particular?- Arguing the Extent of the Atonement”

  1. jonathonwoodyard Says:

    Looking forward to following your outworking of this position. I find it interesting that so many people hold to 4-Point Calvinism! If you hold to unconditional election, that only the elect will come to Christ, why is it so hard to believe that Jesus only died for them?

    You can say that Jesus died for everyone. Great! Then, at the end of the day you lay your head down and also affirm that God has chosen NOT to save everyone because He did not elect them. It is at that point the argument seems to be a moot point. If He did not elect them why is it important to say that Jesus did die for them? And if Jesus did die for them, why are the unbelievers in hell? Because of their rejection you say? Fine. Then the work of the cross is insufficient….my belief must be added. And if it is added, and the cross covers my former unbelief, why does it not cover the present unbelief of the unbeliever? The logic is hard to follow.

    Jesus died for the church! Who are you, oh man, to answer back to God?–the apostle Paul.

    Looking forward to your detailed articulation of your position Todd.

  2. Greg Alford Says:


    Here is something that I think most people overlook in the discussion of the atonement.

    At the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, in Chapter 1 verse 21, we find an angel of the Lord proclaiming to Joseph both the immaculate conception of the long promised messiah and the predetermined purpose/intent of his coming.

    “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” And why was his name to be called Jesus? “for he will save his people from their sins.”

    1st – We note that it is expressly stated that he has a people… the text calls them “his people.” Jesus fully knew for whom he came to save… they were “his people”; those whose names have been written in the Lambs book of life before the foundation of the World.

    2nd – We note that here in the beginning of the account of the life of Jesus that the holy angel of the Lord limits the “intent” of the atonement to the sins of “his people”. Thus the atonement of Christ has been referred to as “Specific Atonement”.

    3rd – Some will ask, ‘well who are his people?’ That, is simple to answer; they are all those who have ever, or will ever, believe. In terms of understanding just who the Elect are we say that the Elect are all Believers, or all Believers are the Elect.

    4th – In terms of John 3:16 we can word it this way; “For God so loved man that he gave his only begotten son that the believers (his people) whosoever they are might not parish but have everlasting life”.

    Todd, I do not believe one can have a proper understanding of the “Intent” of the Atonement without taking into account what the holy angel said to Joseph in his announcement of the Birth of Jesus.

    Grace Always,

  3. Todd Burus Says:

    I, and let me emphasize that, I agree with you on Matthew 1.21. However, this is among the disputed verses which I am trying to argue for LA without appealing to (as well as the ‘all,’ ‘sheep,’ ‘church,’ ‘world,’ and ‘many’ verses scattered throughout the NT).

    You see, what a UA proponent would say about Matthew 1.21 is that, yes, it says “he will save his people from their sins,” but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t die for the sins of everyone. They would also say that “his people” is the “whosoever (chooses to) [believe] in him” from John 3.16. Of course, by the time they’ve done all this they have completely stripped away the glory of this proclamation, but at least they have avoided being a Calvinist, which is more important anyways, right?

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