When I originally ran into Calvinism, limited atonement was the most frightening doctrine to me, and it almost sounded heretical. Even when I was a Calvinist, I originally and in the end found it awfully stretchy in relation to what Scripture actually says, and for that reason I was quite happy to abandon it when the time came. But for Calvinists I know, this repudiation seems strange. They can hardly see how a logical approach to the Bible can go without limited atonement. Yet I am convinced that to let Scripture say what it says entirely rules out the doctrine.
For this post, then, I would simply like to propose the basic outline of my approach to texts in Scripture which relate to the extent of the atonement. I believe that this approach is more faithful to what the Bible actually says and means than the Calvinistic one. I will try to present each in a strong and credible form for comparison, and I will then present a few verses which I think can serve as decent test cases for your own evaluation as readers.
First, the basic Calvinistic approach to atonement texts. In the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Christ only died to atone for the sins of the elect, at least in any full and strict sense. Jesus hung from the Cross as the penal substitute and representative of the elect alone. He paid the full legal price for their sins alone. Some Calvinists will also say that Jesus’ death at least brought some kinds of benefits to the rest of humanity, though this is a limited blessing (one which I tend to think is actually a curse, as I will explain in a later post someday).
Obviously, this view of the atonement creates tension with texts like 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 or Hebrews 2:9. So how do Calvinists address them? It depends both on the specific context and the particular interpreter, but there are usually three main approaches. The first looks for clues in the context that show the “all” should be understood as referring to all of the Church/elect/redeemed rather than every member of humanity. Another method is to view the “all” as a reference essentially to the universal generality and diversity involved rather than the total number of people, i.e. “all” means “all kinds of people” (cf. Rev. 5:9) or specifically “Jews and Gentiles together” (cf. 1 John 2:2) rather than “every person.” And a final method, historically not very common until recently, is to take it as a reference to the supposed general, non-saving benefits of Jesus’ death for all people, such as common grace.
On the other hand, Calvinists seem to have a prima facie stronger grasp of certain texts which specify Christ as dying for His Church or His people. They take these as straightforwardly saying that, when it comes to actual atonement for redemption, Jesus died simply and exclusively for the elect, His own people. These are the only people that Jesus was crucified in order to save.
So how is my own approach (one which, of course, has plenty of parallels outside of Calvinism) different? First, I take the “all” passages at face value. When 2 Corinthians 5:14 says, “one died for all,” I accept that as meaning Jesus died for all people indiscriminately. Same goes for a host of other passages. The “all” passages seem to be clear and explicit. Unlike in the Calvinistic reading, these mean exactly what you would think and exactly what they say. When Jesus suffered on Calvary, He suffered on behalf of the entire human race as a whole, on behalf of humanity as one race. This is because He, as the divine Word in whom all humanity is created, represents them all in His own human flesh. He organically stepped into the place and guilt of all people through His stance in several layers of covenant ultimately encompassing the whole race.
So what about the passages which speak of Christ’s death as specifically for His Church or His people, the many? I believe we should also fully affirm them, without diluting their force. I mean, on one hand, obviously “all people” includes the Church. But that’s not a convincing way to understand verses as strong as Eph. 5:25. In what way did Christ die specifically and especially for His Church? For this, I look to the way that the Church is not merely meant to be individuals who don’t have to go to Hell, but is instead a renewed Israel and through Israel also a renewed humanity. The Church is the humanity of the new creation. In Christ’s death the old humanity dies, and in His resurrection the new humanity is born. In this way we can say that Jesus died specifically to create His Church as a redeemed people for a redeemed world. This isn’t saying that Jesus only paid the penalty for the sins of people who actually end up saved, but says that the atonement was especially designed to form a new humanity, a new image-bearing people of God, out of the old one by union with Christ in His death and resurrection. So it truly makes sense to speak of Jesus giving Himself for His Church to save and sanctify Her, even while at the same time affirming that He died for the sins of the world unequivocally.
So, with these two approaches, a classical one and a more Evangelical Calvinist-style one, in mind, I offer a handful of texts related to the extent of the atonement, and you can judge which view makes more sense on your own:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired man and doesn’t care about the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me, as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father. I lay down My life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves Me, because I am laying down My life so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.”
For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised.
2 Corinthians 2:14-15
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body.
For He has not subjected to angels the world to come that we are talking about. But one has somewhere testified:
What is man that You remember him, or the son of man that You care for him? You made him lower than the angels for a short time; You crowned him with glory and honor and subjected everything under his feet.
For in subjecting everything to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him. But we do see Jesus — made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace He might taste death for everyone — crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering in death. For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God — all things exist for Him and through Him — should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the One who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying:
I will proclaim Your name to My brothers; I will sing hymns to You in the congregation.
Again, I will trust in Him. And again, Here I am with the children God gave Me.
Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that He does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested.
He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.
1 John 2:2
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.
This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, Himself human, who gave Himself — a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.
1 Timothy 2:3-6