Is the atonement of Christ limited or unlimited in its scope? In other words, did Christ die for all people, as in every individual who comes into the world, or did He die for particular individuals, referred to in the Bible as “the elect?”
There are several verses in the Bible that use the words “all” or “every” or “world,” in regard to the atonement. Many Christians naturally assume that these scriptures mean, literally, that Christ shed His blood for every single person born into the world, and that salvation has no one particularly in view, but yet has everyone in view, that the blood of Christ is applied to whoever happens to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior.
To interpret those “all” verses to mean every single person born into the world, is understandable. However, interpreting those verses require a proper context. It’s that context that we’re going to talk about in this study. There are several passages that provide the key to what those verses are actually talking about. I’ll address four of those in this article. Context is everything. But first I’ll list the “go to” verses that Christians use to support unlimited atonement:
The “All” Verses
(1 Timothy 2:4-6) — 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. ESV
(1 Timothy 4:10) — 10 For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. NRSV
(2 Peter 3:9) — 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. ESV
(2 Corinthians 5:14-15) — 14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. NASB
(1 John 2:2) — 2 He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. CSB
(Titus 2:11) — 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. NET
(Hebrews 2:9) — 9 But we do see Jesus—made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace he might taste death for everyone—crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death. CSB
(John 12:32) — 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” NET
(Romans 5:18-19) — 18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. NIV
(John 1:29) — 29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! NKJV
(John 6:33) — 33 For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” NKJV
(John 3:16) — 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. KJV
These are the primary verses that Christians use as a basis for unlimited atonement, or atonement for “all.” However, as I previously pointed out, these verses need to be interpreted according to the proper context. The immediate context of each verse must, of course, be considered, but it’s the overall context of the New Testament that is most important, and that is what I will talk about in this article. It’s the key to understanding the “all” verses in general.
The Four Key Passages:
(Ephesians 2:11-13) — 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth 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 once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. ESV
(1 Peter 2:6-10) — 6 For it says in scripture, “Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.” 7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy. NET
(Romans 9:24-26,30) — 24 even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? 25 As he also says in Hosea: “I will call those who were not my people, ‘My people,’ and I will call her who was unloved, ‘My beloved.’” 26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” ……30 What shall we say then?—that the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness obtained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith, NET
(Romans 11:11-32) — Because of the length of this passage, I’m just giving the reference.
In all four of these passages, Paul and Peter refer to the lost condition of the Gentiles. They were apart from the people of God, which was the nation of Israel. The people of Israel were God’s chosen people. It was to them that He spoke and revealed Himself. It was to them that He gave the covenants and the commandments and the prophets and priests and the Old Testament Scriptures. It was to them that He gave the temple as the place of worship. It was to them that He gave the prophecies regarding the Messiah. It was through Israel that God brought His Son into the world, to be the Savior of the world. The place of truth and revelation dwelt among the Jews. While salvation was available to the Gentiles before Christ came, it was mostly localized. The Gentiles who lived near or among the Jews, and learned of the true God through them, had the opportunity to join them in common faith, among the other believing Jews.
However, the rest of the Gentile world were apart from the light that was given to Israel. Revelation from God was limited to His chosen people. The Gentiles had little or no knowledge of the truth that was given to them. It was in that sense that the Gentiles had “no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), and “were not my people” (Ro 9:25-26; 1 Pe 2:10). While there was a scattering of Jews outside the nation of Israel before Christ, knowledge about the true God was chiefly among the Jews living in that country and the surrounding territories.
Once Christ came and the New Covenant was established in Him, truth and light was sent out into “all” the world. It was no longer localized. It was no longer restricted to the nation of Israel and the physical temple of God in Jerusalem. From the early years of the Church, the gospel message has been spreading throughout the rest of the world.
Therefore, it’s primarily in that sense that we’re to understand the “all” and “everyone” and “world” passages in regard to salvation. Those verses that are used as a basis for unlimited atonement, must instead be understood in the general sense (the world in general), and not to be taken literally as referring to “every” individual who comes into the world. This is confirmed in the following passages of Revelation:
(Revelation 5:9-10) — 9 And they sing a new song, saying, Worthy art thou to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation, 10 and made them to be unto our God a kingdom and priests; and they reign upon the earth. ASV
(Revelation 7:9-10) — 9 After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; 10 and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb. ASV
Rather than the truth (and salvation that accompanies the truth) being confined to the nation of Israel, as it was before Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant, the gospel message has been going out to the entire world, people being saved “out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues,” via faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. These are the “all” and the “everyone” and the “world” that the above passages refer to. This is how they’re to be primarily and generally understood.
Many have a problem with limited atonement (particular redemption), because they believe such an idea is unfair, that it makes God unjust. However, what they don’t consider is the fact that before Christ came, the whole world was without the truth that Israel had. The truth and light that God gave, was confined to Israel (and the surrounding territories that were exposed to it). In other words, the revelation of God was limited to that one small area of the world. It was unknown to the rest of the world. Furthermore, it took hundreds of years for the gospel of Jesus Christ to spread throughout the world. In fact, even to this day, the gospel message has yet to reach every people group. There are still people groups who have never heard the message of Christ.
Those who reject limited atonement, must consider these facts regarding the gospel message and the lack of availability to certain nations and people groups since the beginning of the Church. How is that any more just or fair than God choosing particular individuals for salvation, chosen before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4)?
There are things about the whole salvation and election process that we simply don’t know or understand. We’re not God. Therefore, we don’t get to decide what is just or unjust. We’re not qualified. That honor belongs to God alone. We don’t see the whole picture as He does. God hasn’t revealed how He operates as a sovereign God. He hasn’t revealed how He moves all things together according to a grand plan for the world and His people. What’s important to know is that God is a God of love, that He is holy and just and merciful and gracious and compassionate. These are the things that we must trust in and rest in.
Limited atonement or particular redemption, is not something to be viewed as negative or to be rejected — for God is a just and merciful God, and so we know that no one will be judged beyond what they deserve. God will surely judge righteously and mercifully.
In light of the details discussed in this conclusion (and this article overall), I believe it makes the most sense that the atonement of Christ was intended for particular individuals, predestined for salvation before coming into the world (Eph 1:4-11; Ro 8:28-30). It’s reasonable that the work of Christ (upon the cross) left nothing to chance or to the “free will” decisions of unregenerate sinners, but that every drop of blood He shed was applied to the particular individuals it was intended for, and that no drop was left unused. These are the elect of the world whom Christ draws to Himself (Jn 12:32; Jn 10:3-4,11, 14-16, 26-29; Jn 6:37, 44-45, 63-65).