By Matthew J. Mouser
The extent of the atonement is somewhat of a complex issue because there are often other theological conclusions that are tied to it. The question being asked when discussing the atonement is this: “When Christ died on the cross, did he pay for the sins of the entire human race or only for the sins of those who he knew would ultimately be saved?” For some in the Calvinist background, to take on a view of universal atonement (also referred to as general redemption) is concerning because of the “wasted” sacrifice that has been made on the cross for those who are not elect. Wayne Grudem states this in a much better way: “For God could not condemn to eternal punishment anyone whose sins are already paid for: that would be demanding double payment, and it would therefore be unjust.”
Another argument raised is that if Christ’s death on the cross did atone for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world would be saved because that is what the atonement does.
When studying such a matter, I find the only place to start to be with God’s holy inspired word. Without scriptural backing, a theological determination is without merit. Let’s look first at the evidence given by advocates of limited atonement.
Scriptural Support for Limited Atonement
John 10:11 | “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
John 10:15 | “…just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Acts 20:28 | “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
Romans 8:32-34 | “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
Ephesians 5:25 | “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,”
Romans 5:8-10 | “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
In observing each of these passages, no one would disagree with the main point found in each of them that the blood of Christ has covered the sins of the elect. However, none of these scriptures explicitly support the claim that the sins of those who will not come to saving faith have not been paid for.
John 17:9 | I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
In observing this final passage, I want to provide an explanation for it because without context, it would seem that this passage provides adequate emphasis that Jesus’ death only covers the sins of the elect if He was only praying for them. What is missing, however, is the fact that this verse is found within the High Priestly prayer. Thus, it makes sense that the great high priest would be praying for those who have been and will be saved. This conclusion, though, does not exclude the sins of the reprobate from the atonement of Christ.
When placing each of these passages within the context of God’s plan for redemption, it seems clear that Jesus’ death on the cross has certainly come from a place of His love for the elect. However, as stated above, none of these passages explicitly rule out the fact that the atonement has covered not only the sins of the elect but also those of the ones that God has seen in His sovereignty will perish.
In the same way that passages for support of limited atonement have been listed, the below scriptures provide adequate support for universal atonement.
Scriptural Support for Universal Atonement
John 1:29 | “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!””
John 3:16-18 | “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
John 6:51 | “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
2 Corinthians 5:18-19 | “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
1 John 2:2 | “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
It is necessary to comment on this group of passages as a whole because they each make mention of Christ’s death on the cross in relation to the sins of the world. The primary interpretation of these mentions of ‘the world’ by those who hold a limited atonement stance doctrinally is that “the world” is an inclusion of all types of people rather than all of humanity.
In examining John 3, it is helpful to see the connection between atonement of sins being available to all people, yet only acquired by those who believe. Verse 17 of that passage includes the understanding that while the sins of all of humanity have been atoned for, their salvation is not guaranteed. Rather, they “might be saved through him.” The word ‘might’ is key here.
Notice now additional passages in support of general atonement.
1 Timothy 2:5-6 | “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
Hebrews 2:9 | “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
2 Peter 2:1 | “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
Isaiah 53:6 | “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The above passages have been included because those that include “the world” tend to be the proof text for universal atonement. While those passages are vital to this doctrine, they do not stand alone in support of Christ’s death having atoned for the sins of all. Paul, the author of Hebrews, Peter, and Isaiah each provide additional evidence for the covering of sins for all of humanity.
The Power of the Cross
To claim that Jesus’ death does not cover the sins of all of humanity but instead, only that of the elect, is to lessen the power of Jesus’ death. In understanding the weight of what took place on the cross, the follower of Jesus confesses that something significant took place on that day. Yet, stating that it only took place for those that would someday follow our Lord is to lessen that power.
Ultimately, general atonement reflects the love that God has for all of humanity, both the elect and the reprobate. J. Matthew Pinson adequately summarizes this view: “Instead of limited atonement, Arminians believe that Christ died for everyone and genuinely desires everyone’s salvation.” To confess that Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for the sins of all of humanity is both in line with the word of God as well as a logical statement when a person understands the need for redemption. If all men are sinful, it would make sense that salvation would be possible for every sinner.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 594.
 J. Matthew Pinson. 40 Questions about Arminianism (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022), 37.