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Did Jesus come to earth to die only the sins of those who would trust in Him? Or did Jesus come to die for the sins of the whole world? Did Jesus die for everyone? Or only for the Elect? Alas, the questions that arise in theological discussions between Calvinism and Arminianism.

Those who hold that Jesus came to the world with the intention of dying only for the Elect espouse what is called “limited atonement” or “particular redemption.” Those who believe that Jesus’ intent was to die for the sins of all humanity hold to “unlimited atonement.” Both positions seem to have biblical support. But I believe that Scripture’s seemingly contradictory evidence for these views should alert us to the fact that we are probably asking the wrong question.

The debates regarding the extent of the atonement place a foreign paradigm on the biblical text and thus inevitably bring forth answers that are skewed by our presupposed theological framework. Both the limited and unlimited views of the atonement are misplaced, because they are putting emphasis on only one portion of God’s salvific work, instead of taking in the vast, universal scope of redemption described by Scripture.

First, the question of the atonement’s extent comes up when we seek to express the meaning of Christ’s atoning death apart from his triumphant resurrection. Indeed the Apostle Paul commands us to hold these two truths together when he writes that “if Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)

Secondly, the question of limited or unlimited atonement arises when we overemphasize God’s work in saving individual human beings to the exclusion of the Scriptural teaching of God’s restoration of the entire cosmos. (Romans 8:18-25, 2 Corinthians 5:19)

Christ’s death on the cross in the place of sinners is substitutionary. (1 Corinthians 5:7, Ephesians 5:2, Colossians 1:20, Romans 5:8-9) He, the innocent, righteous One drank the cup of God’s wrath in order that guilty sinners might not have to. (Mark 10:45) But in addition to this, Jesus died to “reconcile the world” to God (2 Corinthians 5:19) and to defeat the powers of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:25-26) that hold the creation in bondage and decay (Romans 8). Ultimately, the main point of Christ’s death and resurrection is not simply the salvation of individual human beings, but the restoration of the universe to its original shalom, which has as its ultimate end the glorification of God, that He may be “all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28)

Instead of taking the question of the atonement’s extent by beginning with our personal salvation in the center, I suggest we begin with the grand picture of God as “all in all,” and begin to work backwards from there to the question of limited or unlimited atonement.

The Gospel is first and foremost an announcement about Jesus. (Ephesians 1:16-23) Jesus is the King, the world’s True Lord. Christ’s atoning death is the obedience and sacrifice required by God in order to save and vindicate his people. Their vindication will be the evidenced in the resurrection of the physical body and participation in God’s new creation. Jesus is the firstfruits of this new creation. (1 Cor. 15:20-21) In the resurrection of Jesus, we see that God has declared him to be both “Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)

Therefore, Scripture can speak of the atonement using both limited and unlimited terminology. The atonement is limited in its application because Jesus’ blood covers only those who put their trust in him. In this sense, Jesus is the Lord over his church, a particular group of people who have been “called out” from among all tribes and tongues and nations. They have pledged allegiance to their King, confessing him as Lord and believing in his resurrection. (Romans 10:9-13) The called-out chosen ones of God are the only ones who will experience God’s new creation and avoid the wrath to come.

In another sense, the atonement is unlimited, because Jesus did not come only to die for the sins of his elect (the limited position), nor even for the sins of all people (the unlimited position), but in order that the entire universe might be brought back into the shalom for which it was originally created. In this sense, Scripture can speak of Jesus’ atonement being universal in scope (though not in the universalistic sense that guarantees salvation for all).

1 Timothy 4:10 speaks of Jesus as the Savior of all. How can this be? Obviously not everyone confesses Jesus as personal Lord and Savior! This verse teaches us that Jesus is Lord and Savior, whether people believe in him or not. 

People can claim that George W. Bush is not the U.S. president and even refuse to submit to his authority. That does not change the fact of his presidency. In the same way, Jesus’ lordship and his identity as the Savior “of the world” (1 John 2:2) does not depend on my confession of him as such. He is the Savior of all and He is the Lord of all, even though he goes unrecognized by the majority of the world’s population. His lordship is objective reality, not dependent on my subjective experience. Scripture affirms that the day of his “appearing,” will come, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess his lordship (Philippians 2:11).

Jesus is Savior of all, and “especially of those who believe”. (1 Tim. 4:10) In one sense, the entire world benefits from Christ’s death on the cross through common grace, the blessings of living under Christ’s rule, the influence of the Church, and the beginning of new creation. In a more specific sense, however, only the elect benefit personally and eternally from Christ’s death through participation in the eternal state, the forgiveness of sins, and membership among God’s chosen people.

When God’s work of new creation is at the center of our thinking and not our own personal salvation, the question of “limited” or “unlimited” atonement is shown to be too narrow. Wondering about the atonement’s extent misses the point and fails to understand the meaning of Jesus’ blood within the larger picture of cosmic redemption brought through the cross of Christ.

written by Trevin Wax. © 2007 Kingdom People Blog

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41 thoughts on “Why "Limited" and "Unlimited" Atonement Debates Miss the Point”

  1. Wow. Excellent post. I will be linking to this one.

  2. trevinwax says:

    Thanks for the link. I’m glad you found the article helpful.

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  4. Ted Gossard says:

    Trevin, I like your thoughts here on this. We’re not framing the issue the way Scripture does, consequently whatever picture we put up, isn’t right- perhaps.

  5. If I recall correctly Jesus ministered to the dregs of society, prostitutes, beggars, and lepers. His concern was for the poor and the hungry, in spirit and body.

    Got your hands dirty lately?

  6. I always seem to find mssuicidebomber and she always seems to miss the point of a post. Interesting outline of the two extreme atonements.

  7. No I did not miss the point of the post Mr Sidoro. I simply refuse to engage in the intellectual debate. I chose instead to offer a more practical approach.

    Theologians have taken a simple man, with a simple message, and built layer upon layer of dogma,continue to debate this dogma, thereby divorcing themselves from their humanity.

    A person can intellectualize any subject and not have to confront life, death, the poor, the hungry.These were the subjects Christ concerned himself with. He encouraged action, not thought. It is my understanding that according to the Bible a man cannot think himself into atonement, he must act. The final answer will be revealed upon the death of the body. Until then all is faith and speculation.

  8. trevinwax says:

    Thank you for the feedback. Let’s try to keep the comments on-subject. There are other posts where we can discuss Christian actions (or lack of). This is one where we are discussing Christian belief. Jesus encouraged both action AND thought. (What else does “Love the Lord your God with all your MIND” mean?)

  9. My apologies. I admit to having issues with Christian belief.

  10. Ish says:

    Good article, and I like where you took it. My question is this, who are the elect? Rather, does God choose who will be covered by “limited atonement” (as suggested by Romans 9), or do we have a choice to make (as suggested by Deuteronomy 30)?

    Just curious as to your thoughts. Thanks

  11. trevinwax says:

    I believe God chooses, and as a result of God’s choice, we then choose Him.

  12. revish says:

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  13. Jonathan Brooks says:

    I think it is a stretch to say the debate misses the point. Instead, it seems that this article misses the point of the debate. The point of the debate between particular atonement and unlimited atonement is concerned with the relationship between the work of Christ on the cross and humanity. The word “atonement” itself locks us into this. The physical world was not atoned for. Yes, the world will be restored, but the physical world had no sins for which atonement was necessary. So, it seems that we have to accept the limited confines of the debate, which is about humanity and the cross, and not the rest of the physical world.
    I do appreciate, however, the healthy reminder that the work of Christ does indeed have cosmic implications.

  14. Manuel says:

    Interesting point of view. Unfortunately, it is clear that “God sent His Son” and “Jesus died on the cross” for humans. We are the ones that need atonement. The earth was only cursed after the Fall.

  15. Will says:

    Well said, Jonathan Brooks. I appreciate the post and the reminders it brings, however it still fails to answer the questions so wrapped up in the atonement debate. It is probably not accurate to say that the debate is missing the point. That, of course, would depend on what “the point” is. Your post correctly reminds us of the universal effects of Christ’s cross-work, however, it does not answer the question of what eternal effects Christ’s work has on those who do not believe. Nor does it answer the question of what God’s intention was, as it relates to us humans, in sending his Son to die. Those are the issues the particular/universal debate addresses.

  16. trevinwax says:

    The reason my article doesn’t answer the questions you have posed is because I believe the questions themselves are misplaced. God’s intention is that He be all-in-all. The story of the world is about His glory, first and foremost. When we place our personal salvation in the center of the picture, our questions get skewed. That’s why the “limited” and “unlimited” positions seem to both have biblical support. The NT writers were not addressing that issue, because they saw their own salvation within the overarching plan of God for redeeming all of creation (humanity, of course, included – which is why an atonement is necessary to begin with).

  17. holmegm says:

    >No I did not miss the point of the post
    >Mr Sidoro. I simply refuse to engage in the
    >intellectual debate. I chose instead to
    >offer a more practical approach.

    The ironic thing is that it is what you
    wrote that is in fact Phariseeism.

    “Obey Jesus’ radical commands of action, but
    you’ll have to do it all under your own power;
    no supernatural help for you” is pure works of
    the flesh. Destined to fail in the long run;
    nothing but filthy rags before God.

  18. One thing about the atonement is that it is the satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Not all will be redeemed but all have been purchased. In the universal purchase, all have been bought. That means that you have a new owner. The new owner still expects to be paid. You simply now have a new owner to pay. The advantage of having Christ as the new owner of humanity is that He agrees to cover your debt, in its entirety, simply by trusting in Him. That’s His special offer. You didn’t get that offer with the old owner, but you do with the new owner. However, if you do not take His offer, then your debt remains, which will be paid in Hell until every last cent is paid up. That is the distinction between the universal purchase, and individual redemption.

    Richard Coords
    Editor of

    1. Eliot Drake says:

      If we had the capacity to choose, why was the atonement needed at all. How is “following Christ” and following the law any different.? If we couldn’t follow 10 commandments because we were dead in our trespasses, how can we be expected to follow Christ.If its because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, why were we not given that from the very beginning?

      If there is a Hell, then throw out any notions of Gods love or Glory.

      I believe Jesus paid it all for all. Anything less is a monstrous failure. Where sin abounds grace does much more abound? I don’t know…you do the math within your dogma

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  20. Chris Tan says:

    One must remember that the Scripture is complete in its entirety. The Will of God is revealed and hence, whoever is to expound or comment on the Scripture must do it in full and not just what you want people to hear. As this subject is about the “atonement”, make up your mind whether it’s limited or unlimited.

    The Scripture clearly defines that “Christ shall save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).” And Jesus even says, “and he calleth his own sheep by name… I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. (John 10:3,14)” In these verses alone, it clearly demonstrate that the Atonement by Jesus Christ is indeed “limited”. Yes, there is a particular group of sinful people, whom the Scripture calls, the “elect” that will receive mercy from God. “For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)”

    So then, are you able to go to Christ of your own will (the Scripture does not preach such a gospel) or because God has drawn you to Christ (in John 6:44, Christ proclaim “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him…”).

    And finally, when was the “elect” chosen? When he was on earth and he chose Christ? Far be from this gospel of confusion, Paul in Ephesians 1:4 says “According as he hath chosen us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world…” The doctrine of sovereign election is established. And in the lives of Jacob and Esau, Paul says in Romans 9:11, “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth…”

    Praise and glory to God. Amen.

  21. David Turner says:

    The best view I’ve read to bring the apparent clash between Limited and Unlimited passages together into a good systematic understanding is “God’s Wrath Postponed” by D Michael Turner. It can be previewed in Google Books.
    Your views are close, but slightly different.

  22. trevinwax says:

    Thanks David for the tip. I’ll look it up on Google.

  23. Jeff Medders says:

    Thanks Trevin, this is a very helpful post. We do need to have broader view of all of Christ’s purposes in his work. Romans 8 with creation/shalom and his giving of the Holy Spirit, christus victor etc…

    Wonderful post!

  24. Casey Hough says:

    I think that Trevin had a lot of good things to say that will be missed because he chose to say them in the wrong forum.

    But for what it is worth, I felt like this post was a bit reductionistic, which is ironic since the purpose of it was to expand the question of the atonement past the camps of Calvinism and Arminianism.

    Also, maybe I am wrong, but the context of 2 Corinthians 5:19 still appears to be dealing with people being reconciled to God. The phrase, “not counting their trespasses against them,” suggest that Paul is speaking of “the world” not as a cosmic body but as a collective sum of people from all the world. Similar to his “all people language in 1 Timothy 2 which would represent collective language.

    As for 1 Timothy 4:10, though predominately translated as “especially those who believe,” it is most likely that this phrase is providing a further definition or identification of that which precedes it and thus should be rendered by such words as “that is.” Thus, it is better to understand that the “all people,” for whom God is Savior, are those who believe in him. For more details on this, see Knight in the NIGTC (See also Skeats).

    Just fallible and errant thoughts to consider as one brother in Christ to another. But for the record, I did enjoy the post ;)

  25. Why in the world did Jesus say to the woman of Canaan, “”I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?”(Mt.15:24) After all, she was not a Jew, and His statement makes it sound like she is not even in the vicinity of his work, His atoning work, if you like. Her response was to fall down before him in worship. Then He says, “it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”(Mt.15:26) Could it be that the preaching of particular redemption and of human depravity, inability, and even repulsiveness are all needed to produe the humility, the awe, the reverence,the wonder that He should have mercy on any, and then to be overwhelmed with the reality of His having chose to show grace to the sinner who suddenly grasps the reality that God has chosen to show mercy and grace to a criminal undeserving of such? John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace confounds the whole “God is a good buddy that owes every one a chance even though they have done terrible evils and have a madness within them that is of the very nature of Hell itself!” Why particlar redemption/limited atonement is an invitation of the most intensely evangelistic and invitational kind; it is the paradox designed to win a whole world of sinners and every soul in that world for a thousand generations, whereas general atonement is not of the same nature as that in which the power is in the blood. The old theology is that which produces shock and awe, profound wonder and reverence; it is spine- and soul-tingling, electrifying, dynamic, gripping, attractive, winsome, appealing, the truth of infinite charms. O yes, the woman took what jesus offered and ran with it, finding in the dog, the little dogs, that is, the idea of crumbs which no one would even want the children to touch after they had fallen to the floor, the infinitesimally small crumbs would mre than meet her needs, the highest compliment and honor to Christ and His power. Her reward? What Jesus never said to any of His Apostles, “Great is your faith.” He gave her a carte blanche, “whatever you will.”(Mt.15:28). The thoughts of the words inspired by omniscience are so deep that even when you think the stream is only 2-3 feet deep, because you can see the grains of san rolling along the bottom, you are in over your head due to the problems of clarity, of seeing depth in another medium, the realm of the Spirit.

  26. Keith Farmer says:

    John 17:6-25 gives us a clear insight to how Jesus viewed His own mission.

    The glaring question that must be asked and must not be ignored is if Jesus indeed died to satisfy the wrath of God for the entire world then why do we read passages such as: Rev 14:19, Rev 14:20, Rev 19:15, and Rev 19:21?

    I submit that a Limited/Definite Atonement view is the only view that allows for Jesus to fully and satisfactorily appease the wrath of God for the elect (the ones Jesus referenced in John 17) and still not be contradictory with such passages as I referenced in Revelation where God indeed will pour out His wrath on the earth and humanity.

  27. Jonathan says:

    I have some questions for anyone willing to answer:

    How do I synthesize the idea that Jesus died instead of me, and the idea that through union to him I died and was raised with him? How can he die for me if I die with him?

    As for the atonement, is the sacrifice effective immediately upon his death, or do I only enjoy the benefits upon union with him?

    Lastly, if the atonement was effective immediately, what should we think about Hebrew’s view where Christ dies and then enters the heavenly temple (presence of God) to cleanse it with his own blood just like the old tabernacle was cleansed with blood under the old covenant? Would it change the way we discuss atonement language if our overlying motif was the New Covenant?

    Just things I’ve been thinking about recently and was wanting some feedback on. Thanks!


  28. Jonathan says:

    Whoops, didn’t realize this was such an old post. My bad. I just saw someone had recently commented on it and thought it was recent.

  29. If we look at 2 Peter 2:1, we show that Christ died for the false teachers who were denying the Master who bought them. We show that there are heretics doomed to destruction, yet Scripture teaches us “the Master bought them”. Limited atonement is also not based on the exegesis of the text of Scripture, but rather on the logical premise that if Christ died for everyone and everyone is not saved, then God’s plan is thwarted.



  30. Gordon says:

    I think i see what you are saying. But Calvinism is a Soteriological idea. Therefore Even if the whole creation is in focus the issue has to deal with the extent of the Atonement regarding individual salvation. The whole cannot be understood aside from its parts.

    Therefore it is important to see the coherence and flow of All the Doctrines of Grace. Unconditional Election is geared to individuals and so particular redemption is an automatic outflow from it.

  31. Fenn M Allen says:

    Wow! What a blessing! So well said. If Christ did not deal with ALL sins then, 1. He cannot restore all things and 2. We are left to deal with the pain, loss and suffering of the sins of the so called non-elect against God and us on our own and that is IMPOSSIBLE. God deals with Sin and Sins through the Cross of Christ alone. And when we respond to His grace through repentance and faith then we are hidden in Christ. Therefore, anything that touches us or His creation has already been dealt with by Christ. Thanks so much for the insights. I’ve been blessed.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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