What Is Your View on Limited Atonement?

A note from Randy:

I want to clarify from the beginning that the following is a response I wrote years ago because I was getting so many requests, mainly from five point Calvinists, for me to state whether or not I was a five point Calvinist. I mentioned names in my original email draft, and I have kept them in. I am not picking a fight on this issue, I am only responding to a question. The names I mention are those of men I love and respect, and with whom I would very much like to agree. Perhaps someday I will, as the Lord opens up to me in His Word what is hidden to me now. I pray that if I am wrong about this, He will graciously show me.

I have addressed this subject a bit differently when asked about my position on Reformed Theology. I make my case more cautiously in that statement, which probably makes it better.

Are there other Calvinists who disagree with or are not convinced about limited atonement? Absolutely. One of them is Bruce Ware, who has written an excellent paper on the subject, which I read long after writing this response. What Bruce writes is more carefully formulated than what I wrote below, so feel free to skip what I say and read his paper.

Question from a reader:

What is your view on limited atonement? Since many people you quote and respect hold to that position, why don’t you?

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

If logic were my authority, my belief in the other four points of Calvinism would compel me to believe in limited atonement. However, because Scripture is my authority, I find myself unable to get around what seems to be the clear meaning of 1 John 2:2 and 1 Timothy 2:6 and Isaiah 53:6 (I could also throw in John 1:29, John 3:16, and Hebrews 2:9). These passages seem to be sweeping in their inclusion of all men under the work of Christ. If it came down to just one passage, maybe I’d think it didn’t mean what it appeared to, but there are too many passages to explain away, and some of them are too clear.

Furthermore, 2 Peter 2:1 speaks of false teachers who bring swift destruction on themselves, and describes them as “denying the sovereign Lord who bought them.” Either Christ died for all men, including those who aren’t elect, or the false teachers who bring destruction on themselves are elect. I just don’t know how else to interpret this passage.

Whenever I hear these passages interpreted by those who advocate limited atonement, I have the distinct sense that rather than accepting what the passages are saying, they are trying to make them say something else which is foreign to the intent of the author and the natural understanding of the words and contexts. The passages that say Christ died for his sheep and his bride do not nullify this, for they don’t say he only died for his sheep and his bride. (Logically, it may make no sense to us for him to die for goats, and for those who won’t become his bride, but again, my logic is not the point. Scripture teaches many things that do not fit together with the western airtight consistency we try to demand of them.)

Whether we like it or not, there seem to be two components in salvation, first Christ’s provision of the gift and second our acceptance of the gift. Regardless of our profound failure to understand how those work, and what we may believe about the extent of free will or how He empowers us to choose salvation, Scripture itself does not demand that Christ’s death to offer us a gift automatically saves us, only that it offers us salvation that we may or may not accept. “Whosoever will may come”—well, if Christ didn’t die for him, can he come or not? (Of course, I believe that due to depravity and election and grace, we cannot accept it on our own, but only through a drawing, convicting, supernatural work of the Spirit.)

In my mind, the belief that Christ died for all, even for those who do not accept him, is not Arminianism, but a moderate viewpoint that is still distinctively Calvinistic. This is what I mean when I say I’m a four pointer. If someone says “then you’re really a closet Arminian, but you just won’t admit it” I disagree, but the bottom line is, my goal is not to be a Calvinist nor is it to avoid ever being accused of being an Arminian. My goal is to be biblical. It’s just that my understanding for the most part—but not entirely—lines up with Calvinism far more than Arminianism. That some Calvinists (“5 points or no points” logicians) would not be happy with my conclusion on limited atonement is not of primary concern to me. Some Calvinists say, on a logical basis but in my opinion not a biblical one, that to disbelieve in limited atonement is to be a universalist, a Pelagian, etc.

Some defend the 5 points, admitting 1 John 2:2 seems on the surface to demolish limited atonement, saying explicitly that Christ is the propitiation of the sins for the ‘whole world.’ Some think the 'whole world' is set in contrast with ‘our.’ What does ‘our’ mean here and what does ‘whole world’ mean here?

I am not so sure the meaning of “our” and “whole world” is really so debatable. I ask myself, if John wanted to affirm that Christ died for the whole world, including those who would be saved and unsaved, what more would I expect him to say to convince me than he says in this passage? I still believe that the passage actually says exactly what it appears to say “on the surface.” Sometimes our attempts to get beneath the surface, to depart from the obvious meaning, are motivated by trying to squeeze Scripture into the mold of our minds, rather than our minds into the mold of Scripture.

I’m willing to be labeled if that is the result of sticking with what the text says. (Interestingly there are other passages such as Isaiah 53:6 or 1 Tim 2:6 or 2 Pet. 2:1 that also seem to clearly teach that Christ died for all.)

In John MacArthur’s Study Bible, commenting on 1 John 2:2 he says, “Most of the world will be eternally condemned to hell to pay for their own sins, so they could not have been paid for by Christ.” However, he doesn’t cite a single passage to back up this argument. It seems to be based purely on logic. (But on the day of atonement didn’t the high priest offer sacrifice for the sins of all the people, including sinners who did not end up repenting?) Dr. MacArthur says nothing to persuade me that 2 Pet. 2:1 doesn’t mean what it appears to.

Wayne Grudem, whose systematic theology I deeply appreciate and with whom I usually agree, says of 2 Peter 2:1’s “denying the sovereign Lord who bought them”:

“The text means not that Christ had redeemed these false prophets, but simply that they were rebellious Jewish people (or church attenders in the same position as the rebellious Jews) who were rightly owned by God because they had been brought out of the land of Egypt.”

But I just don’t see that in the text or the context. If someone did not already believe in limited atonement, I don’t see how they could conclude that this text wasn’t saying Christ died for these false teachers he is said to have “bought.” It seems to me to say that though they are obviously not going to heaven, Christ died for them.

One theologian says, “If the doctrine of Particular Redemption is denied, salvation then rests ultimately upon the work of the man, and not upon the work of Christ. If Christ did the same work for men who perish in hell as He did for men who are brought to heaven, salvation then must rest upon a second merit and not upon the merit of Christ.” I follow the logic—I just don’t see the Scriptural evidence for it. And I am not going to reject what Scripture appears to teach on the basis that it could lead me to believe something else that is unscriptural. No, I will choose not to believe that other thing—whether it is works-righteousness or universalism or anything else—on the basis of what Scripture says about that thing.

I understand the logic of 5 point theologians. Indeed if I had to base it all on logic and ignore those pesky “Christ died for all” passages, I would reach their same conclusion. But neither their logic nor mine should be my authority. Whenever we reduce our theology to what we can readily grasp we exalt ourselves and lower God. And, frankly, for some people I think a lot of it is men-pleasing—we want to be popular with those in our theological circles who insist that if we believe one thing then we must believe another. (Who wants to be excluded from the club?)

Some Calvinists defend limited atonement on a logical basis. Their case gets noticeably weaker when they cite Scripture (or rather, cites some Scriptures while neglecting others). I believe that most theologians who affirm particular atonement do not base it on the clear indications of Scripture, but deduce it from other teachings of Scripture. If our logic was authoritative, this would work. But if I was depending on logic, I would not believe the doctrine of the trinity, because it does not fit inside of our small minds. Nonetheless, the fact that we can’t figure it out, that it does not stand up to our logic, doesn’t make it any less true. The fact that I can’t figure out how Christ could die for all people if not all people will be saved (and clearly they won’t) may not make sense to me. But I believe it doesn’t have to make sense to me or anyone else in order to be true. It comes down to the fact that, to paraphrase my old Greek professor Ed Goodrick, I’d rather be comfortable with what my Bible actually says and uncomfortable with the logic of my systematic theology than vice-versa.

I’m still open on the matter. I’ve prayed and asked God to open my mind to his Word. I deeply appreciate people such as John Piper (probably my favorite living author), John MacArthur, Wayne Grudem, R.C. Sproul and others. But when I’ve read what they’ve said on this subject I’ve been impressed with their logic, but not with the biblical support for that logic.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries