Errors of Calvinism (4): Limited Atonment

The doctrine of Limited Atonement – that Christ only died for the elect – is, of all Calvinistic doctrines, the one that creates most offense among non-Calvinistic, evangelical Christians. This month we will show that Christ did actually die for all in order that all might be saved. However, at the same time, we will stress that Christ died instead of believers only. If Christ died instead of those (as a substitute) who die in their sins, God would be punishing their sins twice, since such unbelievers will suffer for their sins in hell.

Christ died for all

That Christ died for all is substantiated by John’s statement that “Jesus Christ the righteous … is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1John 2:1, 2). Propitiation is, of course, the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament atonement. In Old Testament times, the mercy seat was sprinkled with blood on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16), so that God could forgive the sins of the nation of Israel and continue with them for another year – the sprinkled blood being the righteous basis for God’s forgiveness. Thomas Newberry’s New Testament (Samuel Bagster, London, 1870, read online at invariably gives “mercy seat” as the marginal rendering of “propitiation.” So too, on the cross, the Lord Jesus shed His precious blood so that there could be a righteous basis for God to be able to forgive the sins of the whole world.

Paul stresses to Timothy the urgency of prayer, particularly for the gospel, because our Savior God “desires that all men should be saved” (1Tim 2:4 DBY). This is possible because “the man Christ Jesus … gave Himself a ransom for all” (1Tim 2:5, 6). Once again, Christ died for all, so that they could be saved.

The difference between “for” and “instead of”

We shall now look at three seminal treatments of this issue. First, in a supplementary note in his well-known Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine says, commenting on the Greek prepositions anti and huper, “Of special doctrinal importance are Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, ‘to give His life a ransom for (anti) many.’” Here the substitutionary significance “instead of,” is clear, as also with the compound antulutron in 1 Timothy 2:6, “Who gave Himself a ransom for (huper) all.” Here the use of huper, “on behalf of” is noticeable. Christ gave Himself as a ransom (of a substitutionary character), not instead of all men, but on behalf of all. The actual substitution, as in the passages in Matthew and Mark, is expressed by the anti (instead of) many. The unrepentant man should not be told that Christ is his substitute; for, in that case, the exchange would hold good for him and though unregenerate he would not be in the place of death, a condition in which, however, he exists while unconverted. Accordingly, the many are those who, through faith, are delivered from that condition.

David West of England also showed the importance of the Greek words huper and anti with respect to the doctrine of substitution. He comes to the same conclusion as W. E. Vine, that: “It is a blessed truth that ‘Christ Jesus … gave Himself a ransom for all’ (1Tim 2:5, 6); He died to open up the way to heaven for the ‘whosoever will.’” Christ’s death has provided a righteous basis upon which God may offer salvation to all. However, if we say that Christ bore the sins of all, we are overstepping the boundaries of Scripture. If Christ bore the sins of all in general, then for what will the lost be judged at the great white throne? Revelation 20:12 clearly teaches “the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.” The apostles never preached to the unsaved that “Your sins have been borne by Christ.” However, Peter, writing to fellow believers could say, “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” (1Peter 2:24). (See the chapter on substitution in the Glory of His Grace, published in 2006 by Assembly Testimony, Belfast, and downloadable from the Assembly Testimony website.)

Lastly, we note the comments of Jim Baker of Scotland in this magazine (see “Great Gospel Themes – Atonement,” Truth and Tidings, Nov 2000). “A failure to distinguish between these two important Scriptural truths has resulted in doctrinal misunderstanding of the atoning work of Christ. As we have considered, ‘propitiation’ is the sacrificial work of Christ Godward. There is no limitation whatever here. There was sufficient atoning value in the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary to meet the need of all, and also to meet every effect of the fall. Thus we read, ‘And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world’” (1John 2:2). It is therefore quite unscriptural to teach a limited atonement. Substitution is the sacrificial work of Christ inward. In strict accuracy, only the believer can say “He took my place” (1Cor 15:3-4). Substitution is a truth for the saint to enjoy, and propitiation is a truth for the saint to declare to the sinner.


If Christ had not died for all, then all could not be saved, for the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross is the only means of salvation. Of course, His work only becomes effective for the unsaved when they believe. So we can happily make the bona fide statement to all unbelievers that Christ died on their behalf, (2Cor 5:14), and that they can be saved. At the same time we, as believers, can enjoy the truth that Christ died instead of us, as our substitute on the cross.