Is Christ’s Atonement for Sins Limited?

The gospel message could be preached these three ways:

1) Christ died for some of the sins of all people.

2) Christ died for all of the sins of all people.

3) Christ died for all of the sins of some people

Which of these is faithful to scripture? The one that is faithful to scripture is the one we have been commanded to preach and teach.

Number 1 is not scriptural. In fact no matter if you are “reformed” or not, you would not agree with number 1. The reason being is that if number 1 is true, then no one is saved. God’s holiness and justice demand that all of a person’s sins are punished if they are to be free from condemnation. If Jesus only died for some of my sin, then I still face the wrath of God because of the sin that is left over as unpunished. No one should agree with number 1 as being faithful to scripture. If this is the message that is faithful to scripture then nobody is going to be saved.

I would say that number 2 is not scriptural as well. Someone who is not reformed would say that number 2 is scriptural, to which my response would be, “Then why doesn’t everyone go to heaven?” Of course the biblical answer to the question is that not everyone believes. I absolutely agree that the reason everyone is not going to heaven is because not everyone believes. However, isn’t unbelief a sin? Biblically speaking – unbelief is a sin. So then I would ask someone who agrees with number 2 if the sin that Jesus died for included the sin of unbelief. There are only two answers to that. One answer is – “Yes. Jesus death on the cross atoned for the sin of unbelief.” If you say that, then you must believe that all people everywhere are saved because you agree that the Bible says Jesus died for all the sins of all people. That is universalism and the Bible clearly denies it. The other answer is – “No. Jesus death on the cross did not atone for the sin of unbelief.” Then you must be saying that Jesus did NOT die for all the sins of all people because you just said that he did NOT die for the sin of unbelief.

If someone says that Christ died for all of the sins of all people then this means that God punished all sin for all time on the cross. However, the clear implication of the reality of hell and the judgment to come in Christ’s return is that there is still punishment to be dealt out for sin. If all sin has been punished on the cross of Christ then a hell and a final judgment are belittling to the cross and Christ’s atoning work. This implies that Christ’s work on the cross was not really sufficient to save anyone much less everyone. Do you see that this really limits the nature of Christ’s atoning work? His death on the cross is really limited to what I do with it. Maybe “limited atonement” is really a better description of the non-reformed position. Christ’s atoning work is limited to what we do with it? Is that really faithful to what scripture has to say about Christ’s death on the cross? That would be a works based salvation. And if salvation is possible through works, then some will have grounds for boasting in the presence of the Lord. This is not faithful to scripture.

That leaves us with number 3. Here is what “limited atonement” really means: the atonement for sins that Christ’s death accomplished is limited by God to those who believe. For those who believe, who are His sheep, who are the church – God definitely atones for their sins through the shed blood of Christ. I believe most people hear the words “limited atonement” and they say God’s forgiveness has no limits so then they look upon those who hold to this doctrine with disdain, when really they have misunderstood what is meant by the phrase “limited atonement”. Does everyone go to heaven? If you believe statement 2 is scriptural then you would teach that. Does no one go to heaven? If you believe statement 1 is scriptural then you would teach that. Or do some people go to heaven? This is what scripture says and this is what we must preach and we do that by being faithful to a scriptural view of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. That view says that Christ died for all of the sins of some people – those who believe. So then the question is, “Are you one of those people?”

8 comments so far

  1. blbarber on

    Thanks David for the resources. I wouldn’t regard Owen’s thinking on this as fallacy. I appreciate the opposing views, but I’m with John Owen on this, his arguments are much more thorough. I enjoyed reading the resources. Thanks.

  2. David on

    Hey there,

    Thanks for approving the post.

    I am not sure how the trilemma can be more thorough if its properly invalid.

    For example, Dabney says the unbelieving living elect are objects of divine punishment–even as the rest are. There is one example the same sin being punished twice.

    Can you see the problem?

    C Hodge’s point that it confuses pecuniary with penal categories. If a man gets a speeding ticket, anyone can pay it, and at no point after can the judge demand a payment from the speeder himself. Make sense?

    If you ever want to read sources on classic Calvinism, feel free to scope out the index page. If you want to converse over any of these, feel free to leave a comment.

    Thanks and take care,

  3. blbarber on

    Ultimately however, the unbelieving elect will be believing elect or else they are not elect. There is no such thing as an elect person who is unbelieving (ultimately) just as there is no such thing as a believer who is not elect. So really Dabney has the invalid argument. The question comes back to the very nature of the atonement. I have and will continue to look over the index at your blog. Thanks again.

  4. David on

    Hey there,

    Thanks for the reply. To be honest, I am not sure what your argument establishes. I am not trying to be rude at all in saying. I am just not sure what it leads to.

    For example, the living unbelieving elect are not justified before faith. I am assuming you dont believe that they are. 🙂 And so not being justified, they are in a state of hostility toward God, and he displays his wrath against them, even as the does the rest. Does that make sense?

    Its a counter-factual to Owen’s argument. That argument works like this.

    God cannot punish sin twice.

    If God punished all sin in Christ, God cannot punish any sinner in their own person.

    The conclusion has to follow if the premise is true.

    But now if the premise is not true, the conclusion does not necessarily follow. Dabney, for example, responds to the trilemma by positing that there is a case where God does punish some sins twice. That being so, the premise is false. No sound conclusion can be derived from a false premise. Does that make sense?

    C Hodge tackles the argument different, and Shedd again.

    Anyway, thanks for your patience. I really didnt mean to give the impression that I came to debate you on your own blog, but just to invite you see some other ways some Calvinists have responded to the trilemma.

    God Bless and take care,

  5. David on

    Sorry I should clarify a remark: I am not saying that I think you think I am here to bug you. I should have worded that better before sending. My intention is not to come here to challenge you on your own blog.


  6. blbarber on


    Your discussion is absolutely welcome here. So you would say that Jesus died for all the sins of all people? I suppose that as a “classic” calvinist, then you would say that Calvin believed that Jesus died for all the sins of all people? Just wondering…

  7. David on

    Hey there,

    It is like this. A given sinner, say Bob, is under the condemnation of the law. The punishment is of a certain kind. If we add another given sinner, say Sally, she too is under the condemnation of the same law. She too is subject same condemnation. And so on.

    A man steps in and with the agreement of the judge, he bears the punishment due to Bob. It is also the same punishment due to Sally, and so on.

    Classic Calvinism says that Christ self-consciously stepped in and bore the condemnation due to all men, for as he suffered what was due to one, he suffered what was due to all.

    But with this, Christ self-consciously suffered with an especial intention to sustain the exact means of deliverance of the elect.

    As Dabney therefore says, the limitation is never in the nature of the expiation but in the decree and design to effectually save the elect by it.

    As Dabney says, it is not the case that for only a specific set of sins, from a limited set of sinners which Christ was ‘charged,’ but the sin due to all of us.

    Does that help?

    If you want to talk further, let me know.

    Take care,

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