Over the past few days, I’m challenged by a particular doctrine called “limited atonement” vs. “unlimited atonement.” In simple terms, did Christ die for everyone, or did He die only for those who believe?
I’m amazed that the controversy over this has gone on for centuries, but even more amazed that I can find biblical support for either view. Can they both be true? It seems not, yet proponents of either view pose very logical arguments using various Bible passages. In one of my resources, I found this statement: “The most extreme Calvinist (believes in limited atonement) may grant that there is room for all if they will come in; the most extreme Arminian (believes in unlimited atonement) must grant that redemption, in its full Scriptural meaning, is not the privilege of all men.”
My own view has flipped back and forth too, and today I realize that my puny mind is not going to solve this issue — after all, some of the most noted theologians in Christian have not settled it.
A professor of NT theology told me yesterday that the problem of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility must both be believed because they are both in the Bible. But he would not say the same thing about limited or unlimited atonement, even though scriptural support can be found for both. He said those doctrines were from man and both cannot be right.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way, “I had rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of man be joined with it.”
However, there is biblical support for both, and to my reasoning mind, that does not make sense. Two passages come to mind, both written to Christians. One speaks of God’s work to redeem and give eternal blessing. The other warns of falling away from that blessing. How can both be true?
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:3–10)
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’” (Hebrews 3:12–15)
If God keeps us, how can He warn us not to fall away? If Christ died for all, why are all not saved? If Christ died for only the saved, how does God select people for salvation?
One factor about reading the Bible might be helpful with these questions. God’s Word very often speaks to the need of the moment. When I am fill with pride, God usually speaks of humility and reminds me of my dependence on Him. When I am unsure of His love and care, He reassures me with words of grace and blessing. When my heart is burdened about my own sin, He tells me I am forgiven. When burdened about the evil that is in the world, He often says that those evil doers will get what they deserve. If I’m worried about needs, He reassures me that He will take care of my needs.
Perhaps the answer to this limited/unlimited problem is not about one or the other but about an Almighty God who thoughts and plans are beyond our thoughts and plans. He has this incredible way of knowing and speaking to the human heart and will do so according to what each person needs to hear. Since I am a creature of extremes, His Word has passages that speak to those extremes. They may seem opposite, but fit with what I need to hear. (I also note that Satan will twist Scriptures and do the same thing, only give me verses that support my doubt and fears, and thus bring more doubt and fear to my heart.)
I suppose some will say that is ridiculous, but today I do hear God saying to me to not bother trying to understand that which He has not made clear to me, or to anyone else for that matter. Some will take sides on these kinds of issues to satisfy their need for “rational” or “logical” or to fit with their idea of what God is like, but He is telling me to leave it with Him. Instead, my role is to tell others that Jesus Christ died for their sin according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures. In Him is forgiveness for sin and eternal life. He is the focal point of history and the need of every human heart. I cannot sort out the unsortable, but I can share the good news that redemption is ours through God the Son, the Savior and Lord.
Jesus, You have done a marvelous thing to redeem Your people. You apply what You have done to those who believe in You. Salvation is available. I do not know who will be saved and who will reject You, yet my job is to share the Gospel will everyone I can. You know who will be saved and who will not — and I cannot sort that out. Most certainly it is Your job to do the sorting and saving, and my job to do what I know You have told me to do!