The Extent of the Atonement

Today we are going to embark on a short study of the extent of the atonement.  I know that I have done this in the past here on the blog, but I have revamped some notes on the  subject that I would like to share.  Plus, it is a topic that I get a lot of questions about.  As we seek to determine what the bible says about the extent of the atonement I think that it is important that we let the bible speak for itself.  This means that we are going to have to comfortable with some tension in our position.  Specifically, there will be tension between the fact that Jesus died as a part of God’s plan (which began for the foundations of the world) to save the elect, and at the same time the offer of salvation is to everyone (i.e. the “all” passage).  This is a tension that I can live with because it is not contradictory; it simply looks at things from divine perspective as well as a human perspective.  With this in mind let’s overview some of the main issues involved in this debate.  Today we will begin by introducing the discussion.

An Overview of the Doctrine of Definite Atonement


There are various doctrines taught in the bible that are difficult for us as finite human beings to fully understand.  By this I do not mean to imply that God has not revealed what we need to understand these doctrines, I simply mean that because of our human limitation we can not understand things completely as God does from His perspective.  Commenting on this J. I. Packer put it this way:

We ought not in any case to be surprised when we find mysteries of this sort in God’s Word.  For the Creator is incomprehensible to His creatures.  A God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of Himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image, and therefore an imaginary God, not the God of the Bible at all.  (Evangelism and The Sovereignty of God, 24)

The perfect example of what Packer is talking about is the doctrine of the Trinity.  There are simply things that we cannot fully know from God’s perspective.  The Lord Himself put it this way in Isaiah 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways, declares the Lord.”  For this reason it is necessary that we look to scripture to be the ultimate guide for our theology.

The way that we frame up our theology should be as close to how scripture frames it up as possible.  This is especially important when talking about the intention and extent of the atonement.  Much ink has been spilled over this issue throughout the years, and many unnecessary rifts have developed because both sides have been guilty of speaking past each other rather than letting scripture speak for them.  With this in mind we are going to overview this very difficult issue, and do our best to let the bible speak for us.

At the outset I need to make a few introductory comments.  First, as someone recently pointed out to me, in some ways this is a secondary secondary issue.  By that he meant that someone could be saved without accepting any of the points of Calvinism, additionally they can be saved without accepting all five of the now famous points of Calvinism.   With this is mind we must view this as an in house debate.  A debate that is important because it gets to the heart of the Gospel message, but a debate that should not create rifts.  Again, J.I. Packer’s comments are helpful,

The fact is that the New Testament never calls on any man to repent on the ground that Christ died specifically and particularly for him.  The basis on which the New Testament invites sinners to put faith in Christ is simply that they need Him, and that He offers Himself to them, and that those who receive Him are promised all the benefits that His death Secured for His people.  What is universal and all-inclusive in the New Testament is the invitation to faith, and the promise of salvation to all who believe.  (Evangelism and The Sovereignty of God, 68)

A second presupposition that is important to set forth at the outset is that universal salvation is not acceptable to orthodox Christianity.  By universal salvation I mean that view held by some that Jesus died for all and effectively saved every single human that would ever live.  Scripture clearly contradicts this view.  Thus, if we are being honest we must admit at the outset that all orthodox views of the atonement are limited in some sense.  Either in they are limited in scope, or they are limited in effect.  What I mean by this will become a bit more clear as we look more closely at both views.

Tomorrow we will briefly overview each side of the debate…