A Key to the Extent of the Atonement and Why It’s Important to Know Why




Unlimited Atonement (Arminian position) — Christ died for every person who comes into the world and that salvation is available to every person who comes into the world, where each person decides to accept Christ as their Savior or to reject Him, according to their own will, apart from the will of God and His power in making their decision (Free Will Election). Even though it involves God’s drawing and opening a sinner’s eyes to the truth and the freeing of the sinner’s will, the decision is left completely to the will of the individual.


Limited Atonement (Calvinist position) — Christ died for particular individuals (Particular Redemption), and that salvation is available only to them and is absolutely certain for each of those individuals (the elect). God not only draws each elect sinner via the gospel message (opening their eyes to the truth via regeneration), but also provides the faith needed to receive Christ as their Savior. This drawing and provided faith is not forced (see note below on “irresistible grace”), but is as natural as a sheep hearing and following the voice of their Shepherd. The Shepherd knows His sheep and the sheep know their Shepherd (John 10:1-16).


Note: (Irresistible Grace) — Calvinists use this phrase to describe God’s drawing of sinners to faith in Christ. But I believe this phrase is misleading; it projects the wrong picture. As I explained above, it’s not so much that God’s grace is irresistible in the sense that it’s forced upon someone, but that it’s a grace given that results in a natural response—like a sheep recognizing the voice of their shepherd and naturally following him. They’re made aware of who they belong to. Therefore, I believe a more accurate phrase would be “Shepherd’s grace.” 


A proper understanding of the atonement of Christ is a key to understanding the doctrine of election. One points to the other. There is harmony between the two. While there’s so much more to talk about in regard to the atonement, this article focuses on the the extent or the scope of the atonement. More specifically, is the atonement limited (Calvinist position) or unlimited (Arminian position) in scope? In regard to election, here we will focus on the sovereignty of God and how it ties into the reach of (spreading of) the gospel message around the world.


Why is a proper understanding of these two doctrines so important? In part, the answer depends on which of the two positions one holds. The Arminian views the atonement as “unlimited” and the will of the sinner as “free to choose,” because they believe it exonerates God of any injustice. They believe their position reveals the justice of God, while claiming that limited atonement and Sovereign election makes God unjust. Therefore, they’re fighting for the good and just name of God.


For the Calvinist, it’s all about giving God the glory that is rightfully His. The Calvinist believes that “unlimited” atonement and a “free will to choose” Christ (or to reject Him), gives glory to sinners that doesn’t belong to them. It gives sinners a power that doesn’t belong to them. The Calvinist believes that the process of salvation (from knowing His own before the foundation of the world to the cross to a sinner’s receiving of Christ), is a total work of God.


But one might ask, “isn’t it enough just to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and leave the results to God and not be concerned about how He does it?” That’s a fair question and makes a good point. In one sense, this point of view is certainly true. In fact, I would say that faithfully preaching the gospel and leaving the results to God should be our main focus. However, in addition to the discussion above, the Bible talks a lot about the atonement and the doctrine of election. Therefore, so should we. If it’s important to God that we know about it, then we should also have an accurate understanding of it. We’re to grow in the knowledge of God, but there is no true knowledge of God apart from a proper understanding (Col 1:9). Some might say, we don’t have enough scriptures on either side of the debate to know for sure which side is correct. I would disagree with that. In this article I will make my case why.


At the very least, we should try to understand these two doctrines the best we can. Again, if it’s important to God, it should be important to us. I believe what’s presented in this article provides plenty enough to assure us that we can have and do have a true understanding—as presented here. I believe there’s a key that unlocks this understanding. Not that there aren’t other keys to consider, but there is one in particular that I will be focusing on here, because I believe it’s highly significant, and something no one can deny—no matter what position we hold.


Embracing The Truth:  We should seek the truth wherever it leads. It’s never something to be feared, but always to be embraced—even though we may not always be comfortable about what we discover at first. In time, the truth will always bring us peace in such cases. I’ve experienced this firsthand as someone who hated Calvinism most of my life and taught against it as passionately as anyone can. The truth often finds us in spite of how much we may rebel against it. For that to happen, we must drop our guard and preconceived notions, and desire to know the truth as it really is, and not what we want it to be.


The Key

(Romans 10:13-15) – 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?  (NET)


God is the sender of those who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, and He sends them to whomever He wills. That’s the key I referred to above. We’re actually going to save this discussion for the end of the article, because we need to develop this first where this passage is seen in its proper light and context.


No Such Thing As Unlimited Atonement

First, I believe Calvinists and Arminians can agree that, in the strict meaning of the term, there is no such thing as unlimited atonement—because the fact is, not everyone gets saved. Neither does every person even hear the gospel of Jesus Christ to have the opportunity to receive Him as Savior. Thus, in the true meaning of the word, if the atonement of Christ were truly unlimited, then every person who comes into the world would get saved. However, Scripture makes it 100% clear that apart from Christ, everyone will suffer for their sins, away from the presence of God forever and ever (2 Th 1:7-10). Both Calvinists and Arminians agree on this. 


Not Everyone Hears. Not Everyone Has Opportunity

When Christ died on the cross, as the eternal Son of God, He knew who His redeemed were; He knew who belonged to Him; He knew His own (Jn 10:14-15). Jesus has always known His own, even before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). He has always known every member of His Church, for whom He died (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:23,25).


To bring this into proper perspective, when Jesus died on the cross, there were already at least eight thousand years of people who had died before Him. While it’s true that people received salvation before Christ’s time within the context of the truth given to Israel, what about the rest of the world during those eight thousand years who sat in total darkness, who never sat under the light that was given to Israel? Did Jesus know those people as His own? Of course not. How then, can we say that Jesus died for every person who comes into the world, when all those people never even had the opportunity to hear the truth that God gave to Israel? Further still, how can we say that Jesus died for them when they had already died in their sins and paying the price for those sins? How can the Arminian Christian use John 12:32 to support their position (“when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”) when He obviously was not and is not drawing the unsaved dead (who died before Him) to Himself? Those people are dead and cannot be drawn to Jesus. Jesus does not draw people from their graves. Yes, those who believed in the true God of Israel before the cross, benefited from the cross and are thus saved. But that’s exactly the point. While Jesus was drawing the people of Israel to Himself before the cross, He was not drawing the rest of the world to Himself during that period. In fact, they were not only “without God,” they were “without hope” (Eph 2:12). He chose not to “send” the same light to the rest of the world that He gave to Israel.


Likewise, since God has chosen not to “send” (Ro 10:15) the gospel message to such a large part of the world’s population since the cross (just as before the cross), demonstrates that Jesus has not been drawing this unreached world’s population to Himself since that time. Therefore, the words of Jesus in John 12:32 could only refer to those who actually hear the gospel message, for it’s only through the gospel message that anyone is drawn to Christ and receives salvation in Him (Ro 10:13-17). Those whom Jesus is drawing to Himself are people from every people group of the world (Rev 5:9; Rev 7:9), whom all will eventually hear the gospel message and respond in faith. There are still many people groups around the world that haven’t been reached with the gospel. John 12:32, Rev 4:9 and Rev 7:9 will be fulfilled when Jesus returns. But we’re not there yet. It’s still in process. So in that sense, Jesus is in the process of drawing the whole world to Himself now, as more and more people are being reached with the salvation message.


In regard to the millions of people since the cross who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, who have never had the opportunity to hear and receive Him as their Savior, how can it be true that He died for them too? How can it be true that He is drawing them to Himself when He chooses that they not even hear the gospel message? Because again, it’s primarily through His message that He draws people to Himself. This is a glaring inconsistency of unlimited atonement.


At best, the atonement is limited to those who hear and have the opportunity to respond in faith. In reality, the atonement is limited to those who actually benefit from it—that is, to those who hear and actually respond to the gospel message in faith. The blood Jesus shed on the cross didn’t benefit anyone who has died or will die without hearing the message. How then, can the argument be made that the atonement of Christ was for them too? How can it be reasonably argued that Christ died for all and that salvation is “available” to all, when in fact, the gospel has not been made available to that group of people? In what way does the atonement of the cross benefit them when they’re completely isolated from the message of the cross? This is a serious inconsistency in the unlimited-atonement position, for which the Arminian has no reasonable answer for. If Jesus died for everyone and that salvation is available to everyone, then everyone must first hear the salvation message. The fact that so many people don’t hear (according to God’s sovereign will), should make it obvious that Jesus could not have died for them too. If He did, is it not completely reasonable that every person would at least have the opportunity to respond to the gospel message in faith? Again, this is a glaring inconsistency of the unlimited position of the atonement.


The facts presented here provide all the evidence we need to know that the atonement of Christ is limited in scope, limited to those who actually benefit from it. At the very least, it’s limited to those who hear the gospel and have the opportunity to respond in faith. This is where the unlimited view of the atonement breaks down. God is sovereign, and it’s clear that He has chosen a large percentage of the world not to hear the gospel message. If the atonement is truly unlimited, available to every person who comes into the world, again (this bears repeating), would He not make sure that every person hears the message and has the opportunity to receive Christ as their Savior?! I believe that’s a reasonable deduction. Based on the fact that He chooses not to do that, we must conclude that the atonement is limited in scope, that the blood Jesus shed on the cross was meant to benefit only those who would actually hear and respond in faith, “as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” (Acts 2:39).


For proponents of the unlimited position to insist that salvation is up to the will of each individual to receive Christ or to reject Him, that leaves a very large percentage of people out of the loop who never even hear the salvation message (which is true even in America), so that they can have the opportunity to exercise their will. For the Arminian to insist that it would be “unjust” for God to choose some for salvation while leaving the rest to pay for their sins (accusation against Calvinist position), they don’t consider all the millions of people who die without hearing the good news about Christ and what He accomplished on the cross. What’s the difference? No matter which side of the atonement fence we’re on, we must come to terms with the fact that God has chosen to keep a large chunk of the human race in the dark about His Son. Either God is sovereign or He’s not. We know He is. Therefore, we must acknowledge that God has chosen to isolate every individual in this large group of people from the message of Christ.


Again, all of this reveals a huge inconsistency in how Arminianism views the atonement of Christ. It’s a position that doesn’t make sense. It’s a position that refuses to acknowledge the implications of the lost who die without ever hearing the gospel message. It makes far more sense that Christ died for a particular people, which the Bible reveals to be the Church, His body (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:23,25), composed of individual members that Jesus Himself refers to as His “sheep” (John chapter 10). These are the only ones who actually benefit from the atonement. Therefore, we must conclude that the atonement is limited to them. These are the ones Jesus had in view when He hung on the cross. These are referred to as the “elect” (Ro 11:7; 2 Ti 2:10; Tit 1:1; 1 Pe 1:1) or the “chosen” (Eph 1:4; Col 3:12; 1 Pe 2:4; 2:9; Rev 17:14). Thus, Jesus died for His elect people—elect individuals who would actually benefit from the blood He shed.


In light of our discussion, limited atonement and Sovereign election are only positions that make sense. They answer the questions presented in this article that the Arminian view has no answer for.


God Sends To Whom He Wills

(Romans 10:13-15) – 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent?  (NET)


(Ephesians 2:12-13) – 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  (NET)


Also:  (Matt 9:37-38; John 13:20; John 20:21; Acts 22:21; 26:17; 1 Cor 1:17; Matt 10:16; Matt 11:10; Matt 23:34; Mark 3:14; Mark 6:7; Luke 10:3; Luke 20:13; Luke 24:49)


This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we tie everything together. This passage in Romans 10 explains that God must send His servants with the gospel message to those around the world who need to hear, who need Jesus. Missionaries  go to far away lands with the gospel of Jesus Christ because God sends them. It’s no accident or due to the will of humanity that people around the world hear the good news. God is sovereign and sends out His servants according to His own will. That fact reveals that since God does not send His servants to certain people groups — who never hear the good news — it points to both particular redemption (limited atonement) and Sovereign election. If God is sovereign and sends the gospel of Jesus Christ to whom He wills, and chooses not to send it to others, how can we come to any other conclusion? The facts are staring us in the face. I believe only a positional bias could lead to a different conclusion. 


Is God sovereign? We know He is. Is there a large group of people throughout history that God, in His sovereignty, has chosen to isolate from the light of the salvation message? We’re compelled to acknowledge that the answer must be yes. That being the case, how is this not a choice on God’s part about the outcome of their salvation? How is this not God “passing them over” (keeping them in the dark), while choosing to expose many others to the light of the salvation message? Is God not choosing between two groups of people? Again, we must acknowledge that it must be true.


If that can be accepted — and must be accepted — then why can’t it be accepted that God has also chosen specific individuals for salvation out of the group of people who are exposed to the light of Christ?


I must persist, what’s the difference between the Arminian position of “unlimited atonement”  — with the obvious implications — and the Calvinist position of limited atonement (particular redemption)? Is God’s sovereignty over who hears the message of salvation not a reality in both positions? Yes! Why then is it so hard to accept that God is also sovereign over who comes to faith in Christ? Has He not made that decision with those whom He has chosen to keep in the dark—never to be exposed to the light of the gospel message? The choice to keep this group of people in the dark, is that not also a choice to deny them salvation? Yes, we must acknowledge that to be true. God is consistent. Therefore, if He chooses not to provide salvation to this group of people, does it not follow that He chooses to save certain individuals within the other group, those who are exposed to the light of Christ? Is there not a pattern here? Choosing one group of humanity to be isolated from the salvation message, and choosing the other group of humanity to be exposed to the salvation message, is a matter of God’s sovereign will. To deny this is to deny the sovereignty of God. Why then is it so hard to believe that God would also choose between individuals within the group who are exposed to the salvation message? How is this choosing more “unjust” than the other? How is it any different?  God is consistent in all that He does.


Is God Unjust?

If Jesus died for all people, and if salvation is available to all people, and if, as Arminians argue, it would be unjust for God to choose certain people for salvation while “passing over” all the others, (I must continue to persist) does that not imply that God would make sure that every person heard the gospel message so they could make a decision about receiving Christ? Does that not make perfect sense? But the fact is, not every person hears the gospel. Is God not sovereign? Since we know He is, and since we know that millions of people die without ever hearing the gospel (throughout history), how is that any different from the accusation that God would be unjust to choose certain individuals for salvation while passing over the rest, in regard to election? Since God is sovereign, is that not what He’s doing, “passing over” people for salvation that He doesn’t “send” the salvation message to (Ro 10:14-15)? While choosing to “send” the salvation message to all others?


In the context of Arminianism, it’s like God saying to the group who hears the gospel message, “I’m willing to at least give you the opportunity to hear and receive Christ,” while “all you others I’m not going to give you that same opportunity.” How is that different from the common Arminian accusation (against Calvinism) that limited atonement and Sovereign election makes God unjust? Doesn’t it make better sense that when God “sends” missionaries around the world, He does so with specific persons in mind? That no missionary work is by chance, or hit and miss?


Arminians can accuse Calvinists of having a position that makes God unjust as loudly and forcefully as they want to. But what about the implications of their own position? Indeed, they find themselves shouting at themselves! The reality of the implications of their own position makes them unjust in their accusations against Calvinists!


Final Point: Arminian theology teaches that in the atonement of Christ, salvation is possible for all, but not certain for anyone.

Think about that, “certain for no one!” Christ died “for all,” but theoretically, if left up to humans to make a decision about Christ, then it’s not certain that anyone would come to Christ. Theoretically – the foreknowledge of God aside – when the sinful will of man is involved, then it’s possible that no one gets saved, that no one chooses to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. An atonement that is left up to sinful individuals to do the right thing, is not an atonement of certainty, and the Bible is certainly clear that the blood of Christ is an atonement of certainty, that God will accomplish His will to save many—but not because mankind is so able, but because God is able! An atonement of salvation that rests on the sinful will of human beings, is an atonement of uncertainty, one that is limited to the will of mankind. It’s an atonement that rests not in the power of Christ and His shed blood, but in the individual “power” of sinful human beings! If there’s something about that that doesn’t sound right to you, it shouldn’t—because it isn’t! Yet, these are the implications of Arminain theology regarding the atonement of Christ and the doctrine of election.



Do the facts presented in this article about the sovereignty of God (whether Calvinist or Arminian), make God unjust? As forcefully as I can possibly say it, the answer is no! (Ro 9:14). Our understanding of what is just or unjust in regard to how God accomplishes His will, is severely tainted and limited. Our finite minds cannot begin to understand how an all-knowing and all-powerful God accomplishes His purposes in the world and throughout the vast universe. I think it’s futile to try to understand things about God that can’t be understood—things which God has chosen not to reveal to us. These are matters we will not understand this side of Heaven. We must let go of our own ideas about what’s just and what’s not just as it relates to God—because in doing so we find ourselves making judgments about God’s character, which is something we must not do. Paul himself addresses this issue in Romans 9:14-21 (please read and consider carefully). Instead, we must rest in God’s character, which we know to be absolutely perfect, without flaw—completely pure and holy and good.


Having been in their shoes for most of my life, I know the Arminian view regarding the atonement of Christ and the doctrine of election is largely influenced by their concept of the justice and mercy of God. They cannot accept the idea that God would choose certain individuals for salvation, while passing over everyone else. But as we’ve seen, even in their own position on these two doctrines, they’re faced with the same reality. Therefore, the best thing we can do is simply believe the Scriptures, be honest about the facts, rest in God’s love, mercy, kindness, justice and grace—knowing that God always does what is right, even when we don’t understand….indeed, especially when we don’t understand. I’m confident that if we knew what God knows, we would be completely at peace regarding the sovereign choices he makes regarding the human race.



What About Natural Revelation?

(Romans 1:18-20) – 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. (NET)


In regard to those who die without ever hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ (particularly the unreached people of the world), there are many Christians who believe that those who recognize and acknowledge a Creator-God in natural revelation (creation), will be given more and more light as they respond to it, until finally it leads them to the light of the Scriptures—more specifically, to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, if someone looks at the creation around them and to the universe above them (for example, someone in the deep jungles of Africa or South America), and realizes there must be a Creator-God who did all this, and then they seek to worship this God the best they know how, then God will send them the ultimate light of Christ as found in the Scriptures. This is a position many Arminian Christians have, which they believe “lets God off the hook” in regard to those who never have the opportunity to hear the gospel. They reason that if the unreached people around the world respond (making a choice of their own free will) to the light given to them (creation), then they would be led to the light of Christ. Therefore, they readily embrace this interpretation. It puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the lost, and exonerates God of any “injustice.”


However, this viewpoint cannot be correct. This cannot be the true interpretation of Romans 1:19-20. Being “without excuse” does not mean that responding to the revelation of creation about God and “his eternal power and divine nature” (vs. 20), will necessarily lead a person to the hearing of the gospel message (opportunity). How do we know this? Because there are people in religions (as well as individuals who don’t claim a particular religion) who recognize that there must be a Creator-God and even worship Him (according to their own understanding), but still die in their sins without ever hearing the gospel of Christ. People who follow Islam, Sikhism, Krishnaism are good examples of those who believe in a Creator-God. Obviously, their understanding is very distorted, but they do believe in a Creator-God. They respond to the light given to them (via their religion), but still may never hear the gospel message. On the contrary, most remain in the confines of their false religion or belief system.


On the other hand, there are those who are given the greatest light of all in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who still die in their sins without ever coming to true faith in Him. My point is, if God continues to give more and more light, as they continue to respond (as Arminians assert), then it follows that everyone who is given this glorious light (as they respond to other light) will get saved, because no one can reject such a bright and life-changing light such as the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why do I make that claim? Let me answer with a question: Are we to believe that a person can continually respond to light given to them by God (which in creation, we all have), but then in the end reject it when the light is at its very brightest?! After responding to the much dimmer light that led up to it? What sense does that make? This is a major flaw in the Arminian position.


Furthermore, are we to believe that people around the world throughout history, who were never exposed to the same light that Israel was exposed to (under the OC), or never exposed to the same light of the gospel of Christ (under the NC) that many people in the world have been exposed to since the cross, that they never considered and acknowledged that there must be a Creator-God as they viewed the world and universe around them? From my perspective, such an idea is unreasonable and unrealistic.


It makes far more sense that God must intervene by not merely “sending” the gospel of Christ to sinners (Ro 10:15), but sending it to elect sinners whom He has specifically chosen to receive salvation in His Son, and for whom Christ specifically died—for whom He empowers the gospel message, while opening their spiritual eyes (via regeneration) to the truth via the Holy Spirit as He draws them to faith in Christ. Similarly, this applies to the revealing of truth to people chosen to receive it before the cross.


While it’s true that everyone is accountable for their sins and accountable for their rejection of Christ (upon hearing the gospel of Christ), there’s a Sovereign aspect to how all this works together that Arminians do not believe and will not accept. I don’t claim to understand it all myself (no one does), but given the facts and reality of everything discussed in this article, we must acknowledge that God is Sovereign and is somehow involved and moving everything in the world together according to a grand plan, and this includes the election of His people and how they come to faith in Christ.


In addition to natural revelation, God has also put within every human being – within our hearts/conscience (Ro 2:14-15) – to know right from wrong (in the general sense). Yet, this does not necessarily lead one to the truth of Christ either—because obviously, we all have been given this inner revelation (as with creation).


What natural revelation does, and what the law of God within our conscience does, it makes us guilty before God (or reveals our guilt before God). It serves as a testimony against those who die in their sins—so that “people are “without excuse.” This is especially true of those who are given the light of the Scriptures, who read or hear about Jesus and what He did for sinners, only to reject Him. This also applies to those who have and accept the Scriptures, but have a false understanding of what they teach (such as those in the cults of Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses). They have the truth, but they reject the truth that is found only in the true Jesus and the true doctrines of orthodox/historical Christianity. The truth of these Scriptures will testify against them when they stand before Jesus. The point is, they respond to the light given to them, but it does not necessarily lead them to a true understanding of what the Scriptures teach. They have the light of the Scriptures, but it doesn’t necessarily lead them to a true saving knowledge of Christ. Again, God must empower the gospel message (the Scriptures) for those whom He has chosen to receive it.


Therefore, in every case it’s not that light necessarily leads a person to Christ or even to the hearing of the gospel of Christ—and thus, have “no excuse” for not coming to faith in Christ (Arminian interpretation). But rather, they have “no excuse” in that they cannot claim they were not aware of their sins or of a Creator-God  (Calvinist position). They stand guilty before God.