Was Christ’s death and thereby His atonement unlimited or limited in its scope? Was it general or particular? The question of “For whom did Christ die” is a difficult question to answer, not necessarily because the Bible is unclear on the matter, but rather because our thought processes are often times mired in our religious backgrounds or religious feelings on the issue, rather than on what the Bible actually teaches. This is not a derogatory statement, but rather a conclusion based upon an analysis of the discussions of this issue that I have witnessed throughout the years. Beyond this fact, is the further realization that often times the discussion rages on unanswered and unexplained because our thoughts on the atonement tend to be stereotypical or narrow. For example, when we hear the word “atonement” our immediate thought process is to think of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to provide eternal salvation. However, eternal salvation was not the only fruit that was accomplished by His death. A failure to recognize this reality will lead to a failure to properly answer the question of the extent of the atonement. In order to facilitate greater understanding on the question, two extended excerpts from two messages which were preached at Berean Bible Baptist Church with additional information are reproduced here. The Messages are entitled The Good Minister’s Private Life (1 Timothy 4:6-10) and The Father Has Chosen Us in Christ (Ephesians 1:4-6) (Part A). Obviously this brief paper is not meant to exhaust the issue, but hopefully to provide the biblical foundation to arriving at God’s explanation of His actions in the atonement.
In referring to the living God in 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul describes him as, “who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” This statement is Paul’s final demonstration regarding Timothy’s private life as a teacher of the Word, discussed in 4:6-10. This God who rewards and judges, is the same God who is accomplishing a special work in the life of His people. Will Timothy be an effective part of God’s work or will he not? The description of God found in this clause has caused various and conflicting interpretations. First let us state what we do know the clause to be saying. First, God the Father is “the Savior.” This phraseology should not surprise us since Paul has used it before to describe God the Father (1:1; 2:3). The Son and the Father can be both described as the Savior. Second, He is the actual Savior of all men. It does not say that He is the potential Savior of all men, but the actual Savior of all men. Third, how He is the Savior of all men and how He is the Savior of believers differ from each other. With these facts in mind, let us try to properly interpret this verse. First, there are those who disagree with us that man must receive Christ to be welcomed into heaven. They appeal to this passage to prove universalism, that is that all human beings will be saved. “This emphatically proves it,” so they claim. There are two erroneous elements to this interpretation. First, Paul makes a distinction between the “all men” and “believers” in this verse. Second, such would contradict the entirety of the Scriptures which indicate that not all people will be saved and go to heaven (Dan. 12:2-3; Rev. 20:11-15). Only those who receive Christ in this life will be saved (Mt. :13-23; 25:31-46; Rom. 6:23).
A second interpretation often offered is that God is potentially the Savior of all men, since Christ’s sacrifice was unlimited in its scope, but He is actually the Savior of only believers. While Christ’s sacrifice, since He was an infinite being, could have saved all human beings if that was God’s intent, this verse makes no such claim. Notice the word “especially” or “specially” in your Bible. Paul’s claim in this text is not one of potentiality, but of specificity and extent. God “is” the Savior of all men, but not in the same way and to the same extent as He “is” of believers.
So if neither of these can properly satisfy the meaning of this text, what is Paul’s point. In what sense can Paul say that the Father “is” the Savior of all men. The first thing to realize is that the term Savior and the other terms that come from the Greek word sozo can be used in a wider spectrum of meaning than just salvation from sin. They mean not just salvation in the evangelical sense, but also to preserve or rescue from harm or keep alive. In the Old Testament the concept of saving or preserving could be used in reference to all creation, human and animal alike (Ps. 36:6). God’s compassion, which we have come to associate with salvation from sin, is even in the Old Testament said to extend towards animals (Jonah 4:11; cf. Ps. 104:14-15; 145:16).
Does that mean animals are saved evangelically? I think not! In the New Testament saving often referred to physically rescuing from danger or healing from sickness (Mt. 14:30; Mk. 5:23). God “is” the Savior of all men in that all men experience His gracious preservation, protection, and provision. Did not Jesus say, “for He, God, causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45–italics added)? Does Paul not say God “Himself gives to all life and breath and all things” (Ac. 17:25)? Does he not three verses later say, for in God “we live and move and exist?” In fact, Paul is so bold as to say of the unsaved, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks” (Rom. 1:21)? God expects that even the unsaved should be giving Him thanks for His goodness, even though they are not saved.
So many times we ask the wrong questions. When an earthquake hits and 40,000 die we ask why so many, why would God allow such to take place? The Biblical question ought to be why so few (cf. Lk. 13:1-5)? That it is not worse is God’s grace and mercy. In this sense, that of preserver, deliver, provider, God “is” the Savior of all men. Theologians refer to this as common grace or temporal salvation, which is provided for in the death of Christ. However, eternal salvation or efficacious grace is only for believers. So, in reference to these two things, “eternal salvation or efficacious grace,” God is only the Savior of believers, for He has wrought in them redemption. This is Paul’s point when he writes to the Roman Christians telling them, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) (emphasis added). That the “us” and “we” are a reference to believers is born out by Paul’s use of these pronouns in 5:9-11. God works a special work in the heart of believers, which Christ provided just for them.
In hearing that God died salvifically for believers there is a natural question that arises. What of those passages that seem to present the atonement as unlimited. Well, first off, in some sense it is unlimited as noted above, in a non-salvific sense, common grace. But even beyond this, before one can truly argue that the atonement is unlimited, it must be demonstrated within the context of the supposed passages. Sometimes those who fail to fully comprehend “particular” atonement or redemption try to disprove it by arguing that such words as “all, every, world, and whosoever” mandate against the belief that God has limited the eternal salvation aspects of the atonement to just those He has chosen, the elect, believers. Passages are brought forward to supposedly contradict this clearly biblical teaching. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life,” Romans 10:13, “for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved,’” and 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance,” are brought up to disprove the Biblical teaching regarding the matter of a particular atonement and its accompanying doctrine, the doctrine of unconditional election.
Let us examine these in reverse order. The term that appears in this third text is the word “all.” What does the word all mean? All means all, it means every single one. However, the context determines every single what. Let me illustrate. In 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul makes the following statement, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.” Now, are we to understand Paul to mean from this verse that every single human being in the world “all” shall be made alive in Christ? Absolutely not, that would contradict everything said in the New Testament about salvation and would thus teach universalism. In fact the context clearly identifies the “all” who are to be made alive as “those who are Christ’s.” So while all means every single one, the context must supply the ones to whom the verse is referring.
This helps us understand Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3:9. Throughout the context of 2 Peter 2:1-3:7 Peter has been discussing the destruction of the wicked and the protection of God’s people. 2:9 is key to understanding the force of what he is saying, “then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment.” In 3:3-7 Peter indicates that the destruction of the world is going to happen although delayed now, because it is being reserved by God for the destruction of the wicked. The Lord’s patience in this regard Peter calls patience “toward you.” Who is the you in this verse? Believers, those to whom Peter is writing. Note that the patience is not being extended towards the unsaved, but rather to the you out there, God’s people. Why? Because God is not “wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Are we to assume that the all in this verse skips over the you Peter has just mentioned and points all the way back to the ungodly mentioned in 2:7, whom God is reserving for future judgement? Is God sitting there wishing every person in the world to repent, when He is reserving the ungodly for judgement? This interpretation is impossible contextually.
Peter’s point is that God is patient towards “you,” that is His people, those whom He has chosen (2 Peter 1:10), and He is waiting until all those so chosen hear the gospel and believe it and then are born again. This is the consistent perspective of the Scripture. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:10, “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” Paul indicated that the reason that he suffered for the proclamation of the gospel was because he knew that there were still chosen ones of God who have yet to be saved in time. Therefore, he labored in getting the gospel out so that those so chosen would believe and be born again. This is the true impetus for evangelism, not so that you can put skins up on your wall and brag to others. This is the truth that stands behind Paul’s teaching that the next part of God’s plan is awaiting for the “fulness of the Gentiles” to come in (Rom. 11:25). No, 2 Peter 3:9 emphatically demonstrates that God has chosen those who will be saved through believing in the gospel and is working their salvation out in time, which required the delay of destruction until they were all brought to faith.
A similar misunderstanding plagues the interpretation of Romans 10:13 mentioned above. The basis of this misinterpretation is a failure to properly account for the context of this verse. The greatest tension in the early church was between Jews and Gentiles. This racial tension for the most part grew from the Jews failing to fully recognize the Gentiles as equal inheritors of Christ. Paul in Romans 9-11 is dealing with the Jewish problem. The Jews, God’s people, seem to have been passed over, how can this be if God has made promises to them. Paul starts in Romans 9 by delving into the issue of God’s election, which indicated that not all Israel was Israel, but rather only those of the nation chosen by God were actually Israel (Rom. 9:1-23). God’s purpose in election according to 9:23 is “He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” These vessels of mercy come from both the Jews and the Gentiles, which he demonstrates in 9:24-29. But this raises a problem in 9:30-32. You see, faith was the issue with the Jews. They rejected faith as the means to righteousness and substituted their owns means (10:1-4).
The Jews should have known this reality because even in the Old Testament, faith was the focus, which Paul proves through a series of quotes (10:5-8). This faith is the focus of the message of Christ (10:8-10) and this message is open to “whoever” 10:11 indicates. But be careful not to give “whoever” your own meaning. Paul tells us what he means by “whoever” when he writes, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him.” He is not saying all people can come, he is saying anybody can come (Gal. 3:28; Rev. 7:9). Those are two different things. The point is that it matters not whether you are rich or poor, male or female, bound or free, beautiful or plain, Jew or Gentile, whosoever will may come. God is in the saving business and He is going to save some from every tribe, nation, and tongue (cf. Rev. 5:9-10). That is the message of whoever. The whoever are further defined by the Scriptures as those who were chosen.
John 3:16, one of the most glorious texts in all the Bible, is also one of the most misunderstood. You know the context well so I am going to just mention it here. Jesus had been talking back and forth with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, who had come to see Him by night, to ashamed or afraid to come by day (3:1-2). Jesus talks with him about the new birth and what it was. He explains that going to heaven will be impossible with out it, that it is accomplished by the Spirit, who comes from the Father uncontrolled in anyway by man, and that it is analogous with physical birth (3:3-8). Jesus then, as He often did, slipped into a rather length discourse giving more explicit detail on what the new birth was and is.
It takes place through the Son, He makes clear, and it is accomplished through believing in the Son. It is here thatJohn 3:16 fits summarizing all that Jesus has said to this point. The Son sent to the earth out of God’s love for the world, as the means by which eternal life would be given when a person believed. The term “world,” cosmos in the Greek has over seven different uses in the New Testament. While it could mean every single human being on the earth, it could as well mean humanity, His creation, mankind as opposed to angels. Since both fit the language of the text, which best fits the New Testaments perspective on salvation. Given God’s rescuing of all types of people, nation, tribe, tongue, the emphasis in Scripture seems to be that of mankind and not every single human being. Notice the wording of the author of Hebrews regarding Christ’s sacrifice, the same focus of Jesus’ words in John 3:16,
14 Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. 16 For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham (Heb. 2:14-16).
The emphasis upon this passage is Christ’s death for humanity in particular, flesh and blood in contrast to angelic beings. But not just flesh and blood, in particular those who are “descendants of Abraham,” that is the elect of all time.
Also notice back in John 3 that Jesus, as did Paul, simply dealt with the immediate way one is saved, believing, He does not discuss the accompanying means by which such takes place. In fact, often we stop reading at 3:16 and don’t even realize that Jesus continues to talk. It is in Jesus’ words in 3:19-20 that He actually describes the nature of humanity that ultimately leads them to reject this free gift and chose judgment in stead. While the call goes out to many, they reject it (Mt. 22:14). They could be saved, but due to their nature, they would rather have darkness over light. This is why election was necessary. When God allowed for the fall, it meant that there had to be a way by which man might be saved. That way is through Christ’s atonement for those God choose based on divine election, the original cause of man’s salvation.
So was the atonement limited or unlimited? If considered from its salvific accomplishments, the usual way in which the New Testament speaks of Christ’s death, then it was limited or, even better, particular in its scope. If, however, considered from all that it made possible or all the fruit it produced, over and above the salvific element, then it was unlimited. I hope that this brief, summary discussion will advance our understanding of the extent of the atonement.