The atonement of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of Christianity. Everything about Christianity either moves toward it or comes from it. It is the atonement which binds the entire body of Scripture together and explains every part. Truly, he who understands the cross understands God, for at the cross we come face to face with God in all His awesome attributes. We also come face to face with ourselves - our sin - and it is there at the place of the revelation of our sin and of God's justice and love that we find the salvation of our souls.
But though the atonement of Jesus Christ holds the primary place in all of Christianity, and though all true Christians believe the same basic truths about the atonement, not all Christians are in full agreement regarding the atonement's finer details. In particular, one important disagreement among Christians regards whether the atonement is "limited" or "unlimited". While providing an explanation as to what these terms mean, my aim, in this article, is to address a serious flaw in the doctrine of limited atonement and thereby shed much needed light upon this often bewildering debate. I want to make it clear at the onset, however, that though this issue of limited and unlimited atonement is of supreme importance, I do not press that it is salvational, or a basis for separation. There are precious brothers and sisters on either side of the spectrum, and what one believes in respect to this question does not exclude them from being Christians, nor from the blessed unity that we share in Christ.
When we talk about limited atonement things are often confused. Strictly speaking, limited atonement is the belief that Jesus did not die on the cross for the sins of every person in the world but that He died for the sins of the elect only. Sometimes the doctrine is said to mean that Christ's atonement is only effective for the elect, but this is superfluous, for every Biblical Christian already believes this whether they hold to limited or unlimited atonement. Only by believing on Christ is the atonement made effective in a person's life, and since the elect are the only ones who believe, the atonement is effective only for the elect. Unlimited atonement also holds that the atonement is effective only in the elect, but it maintains that Christ died for the sins of all the world. Unlimited atonement is totally distinct from universal salvation, which holds that every person in the world will be saved. No, unlimited atonement holds that although Christ died for the whole world, the atonement is not effective until a person believes in Christ. In this sense, all Christians believe the atonement is limited. Therefore, limited atonement is not to be defined as the belief that the atonement is effective only in the elect (for unlimited atonement also holds this), but rather that Christ actually died for the sins of the elect only and not for the sins of the whole world. As has already been stated, unlimited atonement is the belief that Jesus died for the sins of every person in the whole world, though it is effective only in the elect.
But why do people believe in limited atonement? While it may not be admitted by adherents of limited atonement, in actual fact the doctrine of limited atonement is not primarily based upon Scripture. The exegetical case for limited atonement is far weaker than that which can be made for unlimited atonement, and this is quickly discerned by any impartial observer. However, it is not my intent to discuss the exegetical case for and against limited atonement, for that has been done many times over, and there are plenty of resources a person can refer to for a full examination of all the relevant verses in question. Rather, my intent is to highlight the major theological idea which surrounds the doctrine of limited atonement and address the matter at this root.
Limited atonement is in reality driven by an important theological rationale which governs the adherent's interpretation of Scripture. What exactly is this rationale? It is the firm belief that only the doctrine of limited atonement upholds the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement without running into the serious problem of double jeopardy. For this I commend the effort, though it is erroneous. I love the man's heart who is jealous for the truth of penal substitution, for this is indeed the glory of the cross and all of our salvation. But the doctrine of limited atonement is not the true nor Biblical way of maintaining this glorious truth of the cross, and it in fact robs the cross of another glory it is trying to preserve: namely, the love of God.
Limited atonement adherents rightly see that salvation is found only in the truth that Christ suffered the punishment for our sins on the cross and that this salvation reveals the amazing love of God for sinners. But in saying that Christ died for the elect only it in fact robs the glory of God's love for sinners. No longer is God's love inevitably emanating out from His loving character to the world, but His love is being extended in only an utilitarian sort of way to the elect exclusively because of the plan and not because of His character of love. You see, when you love because you are loving, then there is no longer any significance to quantities, categories or plans. If a compassionate person sees someone injured in a car accident, no matter who the injured person is, he will feel compassion because he himself is compassionate and his compassion is not determined by the injured person but by his own character. The injured person gives him the opportunity for compassion but not the impulse for compassion. But if a person is not compassionate he will not feel compassion unless the person who is injured is someone significant to him, like a family member. In that case he is compassionate, not because of his own character, but because of who the injured one is to him. If God is love, then He loves because of who He is and not because of who or what men are, no matter whether they end up in hell or not. His love is not dependent on the plan, or the outcome, or the significance of someone being elect or not - His love is from Himself as a God of love and therefore it inevitably emanates unto all. As long as we are talking about quantities we are not talking about love. In this way the doctrine of limited atonement destroys the glory of the love of God. For if God did not die for all men then that means that God does not love all men (for "God demonstrates His love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us", Romans 5:8). And if God does not love all men, then God is really not a God of love but of utility. Oh, banish the thought forever!
But what about the issue of double jeopardy? The argument goes as follows: If Christ died for our sins on the cross and paid the penalty that we deserve, then it would be totally unjust for God to punish us again for the sins that Christ already paid for. If the whole world's punishment was borne by Christ, then it would be unjust for God to send anyone in the world to hell for their sins, since that would mean their sins are being punished twice-over. Therefore, if the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement is to be maintained, we must believe that Christ died for the sins of only those who will be saved: the elect. In this way their sins are truly paid for once for all, and the non-elect will be punished in hell for their own sins without it being double jeopardy (a punishment twice inflicted). Makes sense, right?
Actually there is a critical flaw that many believers in limited atonement fail to see. Though they think that they are avoiding double jeopardy, the truth is that no one ever avoids having to deal with double jeopardy. For even if we were to accept the view that Christ died for the sins of the elect only, according to this reasoning it would then follow that the elect would be forgiven even before they exercised any faith at all, since Christ already dealt with their sins on the cross! Faith in Christ would be totally unnecessary and nothing more than a pleasant recognition of one's status, not an effector of one's status. Thus, the elect would be justified even before they had faith, simply because Christ died for their sins 2000 years ago and paid the penalty that can never be inflicted upon them again! This unBiblical idea is called "eternal justification" and runs entirely contrary to the doctrine of justification by faith in the Scriptures. Nowhere does the Bible ever teach that a person is justified before they believe in Christ, and it everywhere teaches that it is only through faith in Christ that the atonement is made effective in a person's life. This is indisputable. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him." (John 3:36) It is absolutely plain that before a person believes on Christ they are under the wrath and condemnation of God, and this is true for even the elect. "We all were by nature children of wrath, even as others." (Ephesians 2:3) Paul acknowledged his lost condition which he had before he came to be justified through faith. This then makes us ask: If Christ died for the sins of the elect, then why are the elect still lost, guilty and condemned before they believe in Jesus? Aren't their sins gone? Evidently they are not. Thus, even with the doctrine of limited atonement there is the issue of double jeopardy: although Christ died for the elect's sins, they are still under the impending wrath of God until they come to faith. The judgment of God is still threatening to punish them until they believe. Therefore double jeopardy is not an argument in favor of limited atonement, nor is it an argument against unlimited atonement, for it poses no unique challenge to the doctrine of unlimited atonement. Both limited and unlimited atonement adherents have to deal with it.
How then are we to explain double jeopardy? Is it true? Is it just? The answer is very simple. Nowhere do the Scriptures say that sins are forgiven by the death of Christ apart from the instrumentality of faith. Justification is by of the death of Christ, but it comes to the sinner only through the instrument of faith. The Scriptures do indeed set forth Christ's death as a penal substitution (Isaiah 53:6, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13, etc.). Christ actually suffered for our sins. The punishment that we deserve was borne by Him, but still the effect of this sacrifice - the removal of our sins - hangs upon our acceptance of that substitution by faith. God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, the One who is the Good Shepherd, is also the One who will judge the world in righteousness - and He has set the terms. Christ died, but the judge must await our acceptance of His substitution. Justice is perfectly satisfied and God, who is well-pleased with the sacrifice, wants to set us free, but we must be satisfied with the provision that God has supplied for us in Christ Jesus. If we accept the substitution that has already taken place on our behalf, then we go free. But if we refuse the provision of the substitute we must therefore suffer for our sins, and Christ indeed suffered for us in vain. What a horrible thought! See how it is put in Scripture: "Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?" (Hebrews 10:29) "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction." (2 Peter 2:1) To reject the sacrifice of God's love that He has provided in order that you might escape His own righteous judgment is incomprehensibly tragic.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty to understanding this is due to the element of chronological order. Consider, by way of analogy, a boy that is brought to the principal's office for misbehaving. He knows the punishment for what he has done is a whipping. When he gets to the office he discovers that his father is there. His father takes him aside and says to him, "Son, I know that you have been misbehaving and that a whipping is being called for, but I have spoken with the principal and he has agreed that I may take your whipping if you so choose." Of course the boy would cry out, "No, daddy!", and refuse the offer, but nonetheless would feel the love that his father has for him. But if we can understand this scenario, what is so difficult about understanding the very same scenario if only we re-order it? Consider what would happen if the boy gets to the office and discovers that his father is there, only this time his father takes him aside and says to him, "Son, I know that you have been misbehaving and that a whipping has been called for. But I have spoken with the principal and he agreed that I could take your whipping for you if you so choose. Son," he says with tears in his eyes, "I have already been whipped for you. This doesn't mean that you are automatically free from a whipping, but if you tell the principal that you accept what I have done for you, then he will let you go free." The boy cries out, "Oh, daddy!" and throws his arms around his father. In tears he turns to the principal. "How can I refuse what my father has already done for me? I accept it! I accept it!"
Though the whipping of the father pales in comparison to the magnitude of the death of Christ, the analogy illustrates the point perfectly. Because Christ has already died on the cross for our sins, we can do nothing to change or reverse the amazing sacrifice of love that has been done for us - we can only accept it or reject it. To refuse Christ's sacrifice is not a noble act of piety but a terrible disregard for God's selfless act of love. Sadly, many people will reject it. Yes it is heart-wrenching, but Christ desired to suffer for all, even though many would reject Him. This reveals how much God loves mankind (Titus 3:4). It is not a disgrace to Christ but a glorious crown upon His head, and a fearful shame and judgment upon all who reject His gracious sacrifice. Justice is upheld and double jeopardy is avoided because the sentence ultimately falls upon only one. If we accept Christ then it is accounted that the sentence fell upon Him. If we do not accept Christ then the sentence will fall upon us. The judge's gavel is only brought down either once we believe or once we die in unbelief. Thus the message of the gospel is this: Jesus Christ has died upon the cross for our sins, and justice is satisfied by this sacrifice yet awaits our acceptance of it. God wants to set us free, but He awaits our acceptance of the substitution that was made on our behalf - though He doesn't wait passively. He so wants to release you on the basis of the substitution of Christ that He beseeches you to accept such now. What an amazing God we have! Unlike the analogy above, God Himself is both the principal and the father - He is both the righteous Judge and the loving Savior. Will you accept what He has provided for you, or reject it? This is the essence of gospel preaching: "We beseech you in Christ's stead: be ye reconciled to God: for He has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Corinthians 5:20-21)
Which brings us to a final point in this discussion of the atonement. One of the strongest arguments in favor of unlimited atonement is the free offer of the gospel found all throughout the Scriptures: for the Scriptures are filled with statements that the good news of Jesus Christ is to be preached to every creature under heaven; but there would be no good news to tell every person unless Jesus Christ had actually died for the sins of each and every person. You cannot promise hope to people for whom there is no hope. You cannot tell people God loves them if in fact He does not. But since God commands us to call each and every person to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 16:15, Acts 13:38, 17:30, Romans 10:12-18, Colossians 1:23, 28, 1 Timothy 2:4, Titus 2:11, Hebrews 2:1-4, 4:2, Revelation 22:17, etc.) there must be a real hope corresponding to the call, and there must be a real love for all mankind inevitably emanating from the heart of God. "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else." (Isaiah 45:22) How could God call all the ends of the earth to be saved if in fact it was impossible since Christ died for none but the elect? No, we do not believe in a God who pulls our leg and makes promises that are meaningless and empty. The very fact that salvation is offered freely to all men necessarily requires that Christ died for the sins of all men, just as the Scriptures plainly show us. Let all the world know that God is not a God of utility but a God of love! One of the most unbecoming things I have ever seen is when adherents of limited atonement evangelize the lost, for they do not sound like the Bible. They do not freely offer hope and eternal life through Jesus Christ to the lost. They can never tell the lost that God loves them and that Christ died for them because He may not have. They say: "Christ died for sins" instead of "Christ died for our sins". They say: "If you are elect you are reconciled to God" instead of "we beseech you in Christ's stead: be ye reconciled to God." Thus the sinner is not directed to look unto God's loving all-sufficient sacrifice in Christ Jesus and to God's desire to save them but unto wondering whether they are elect or not. God forbid that this be our evangelism! May our message rather be the blessed good tidings of Christ for every creature!
Thus we see that double jeopardy is not an argument in favor of limited atonement, nor an argument against unlimited atonement. Far from precluding unlimited atonement, the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement, which is so clearly revealed to us in the Scriptures, is entirely consistent with the beautiful truth that "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son" to die for the sins of the whole world. Thus two clear Scriptural truths concerning the atonement are upheld: Christ bore our sins in His body on the tree as our substitute, and He did this for the whole world. The atonement of Jesus Christ is the key of Christianity because it gloriously reveals to us the truth about who God is: a loving God who is perfect in righteousness and a righteous God who is perfect in love. It is in this revelation that we find the salvation of our souls.
"Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10)
"And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2)