A Defense of Limited Atonement

 In Articles, Salvation, Theology

Since Limited Atonement is so controversial, I thought it might be helpful to discuss a few of the passages people use to deny the doctrine. Hopefully, this will help resolve any seeming conflicts with other Bible passages.

Evidence to the Contrary?

“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” – 2 Peter 3:8-10

Second Peter 3:9 is usually used by deniers of Limited Atonement because of the phrase, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” They reason, “If God truly does not want anyone to perish, how could he refrain from providing a sacrifice for their sins?” However, by reviewing the context of this verse, one will see that the group God does not want to perish is not every human being, but Christians. 

In 2 Peter 3:1-8, which establishes the context for verse 9, Peter the apostle encourages the recipients of his letter to believe that God is truly going to save them. Peter wants to reassure them that the scoffers, who declare that God’s judgment will never come, are wrong and that God will come for his people to bring Judgment Day to pass. Verse 9 begins with the assertion that God is not slow to fulfill his promise of salvation. God has made no such promise to the unbelieving scoffers being discussed here, but instead has made this promise of salvation to Christians. Peter wants the recipients of his letter to understand that God has not forgotten them, and that the blaspheming scoffers’ claims have no merit.

After this, Peter says that God is being patient toward “you.” Whatever patience God has is directed toward the “you,” which is the Christian people to whom he is writing. “You” does not refer to all humanity as some people argue. Peter is saying that God is waiting for all those who will comprise the “you” group (Christians) to come to repentance. God has made no such promise to non-Christians, and Judgment Day will follow soon after this promise is fulfilled (v. 10). It is a mistake to apply 2 Peter 3:9 to non-Christian people because it is an encouragement to Christians against lying unbelievers and not a declaration of God’s desire for everyone’s salvation.

To understand the next few passages, we need to understand how John uses the word “kosmos” or “world” in his writings. He sometimes uses it to mean the entire universe (John 17:5), the evil world system (1 John 5:19), unbelievers (John 15:18), Jews and Gentiles worldwide (John 6:33), the human realm (John 1:10), and even large crowds of people (John 12:19) among other uses. The term “world,” especially in John’s writings, must be interpreted in light of the context in which it is written. He does not use the term as most people would today. 

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2 

The second verse of 1 John 2 seems to deal a decisive blow against Limited Atonement. John calls Christ the propitiation for the sins of the “whole world.” Upon further examination, we will see that this verse cannot be denying Limited Atonement. 

To understand this verse, we need to understand what propitiation means. Propitiation means to appease an offended party. This verse states that Christ actually is the propitiation for the sins of the “whole world.” It does not say that he could be or that he aspires to be the propitiation, or appeasement, to God for the sins of the “whole world,” but that he actually is. If Christ has appeased the wrathful God on behalf of every single person (if that is indeed what “whole world” means here), then neither believers nor unbelievers would have to worry about God’s coming wrath. The whole of scripture is clear, however, that God is going to eventually pour out his righteous wrath on unbelieving sinners. Romans 2:5 says, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing  up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” 

Our solution lies in understanding how John uses the term “whole world.” It might be helpful to consider that in 1 John 5:19, a short three chapters later, John says, “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Here, John excludes Christians, who are “from God,” from the “whole world.” Clearly, “whole world” in this context does not mean everyone living, but only to the many people across the world who are under the power of the evil one. This necessarily excludes Christians because they are no longer under Satan’s power (Eph. 2:1-3, Col. 1:13).

We should view 1 John 2:2 similarly, and understand that “whole world” refers to all those across the whole world who can say Christ actually was a propitiation for their sins, and God no longer has any wrath reserved for them. It cannot mean every single person in the world, because that would mean there is no coming wrath for anyone, and the rest of scripture testifies against that idea. It should be noted that in 1 John 4:10, John refers to Jesus as a propitiation for sins once again, but says that he is a propitiation specifically for believers’ sins.

John 1:29 is another verse that is frequently cited to argue that Christ died for the sins of all people, even those who would never believe. Our understanding of the word “world” is important for understanding this verse too. Referring to Jesus, John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Many people who read this exclaim, “Look! This says he took away the world’s sins. This can only mean that Christ died for all people.” However, if we look carefully at the statement, we will see that John is not speaking of any potential Christ has to take away sins, but that whoever constitutes “the world” actually has their sins taken away. Like I said in my explanation of 1 John 2:2, taking “the world” to include even those who never believe would mean that all people would have their sins taken away and thus be saved. Scripture makes clear that some people will not be saved, and God will pour out his wrath on those who do not turn from their sins (Prov. 28:13). We should also understand the word “world” here to mean Jews and Gentiles across the world rather than every person in the world. 

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

This verse is often used to argue that Christ died for all. The word “world” here likely means sinners generally as it does in other places in John’s writings. Regardless of who or what “world” refers to, the verse itself says nothing of the atonement’s extent. All we can deduce from this verse is that God gave his Son so that all the believing people would be saved. To use this verse as a rebuttal to Limited Atonement is to assign a meaning to the verse that is not there. We have to be careful to draw the meaning of a passage from passages and not impose our own ideas on the text. 

Further Study

Because I could not address every argument that opponents of Limited Atonement use in this article, I would like to give some general advice for looking at any scriptures concerning the extent of Christ’s atonement. First, we need to be certain that the passages we are examining are actually talking about what Christ desired to accomplish or did accomplish by his sacrifice. Verses about Christ welcoming all who come to him, and verses concerning Christ’s care for unbelievers do not necessarily tell us for whom he died. Secondly, we must be mindful of the consequences of our conclusions. Would your understanding of the verse you are reading contradict the rest of Scripture’s clear teaching? If so, there is an error in the interpretation. We must always be mindful to interpret less clear scriptures in light of clearer.

Rather than railing against this biblical doctrine as some do, we should happily embrace its truth. Everyone who turns from their sins and asks for God to forgive them in Christ can be certain that Christ suffered and died to secure a relationship with them and to make them holy and blameless before God (1 Peter 3:18, Eph. 1:4). That is where he ransomed you. If you have not yet come to Christ, please understand that he is commanding you to repent from your evil works and to find forgiveness in him by faith alone (Acts 17:30). The relationship with him to which he is calling you is greater than anything you could even fathom (Ephesians 3:14-19).

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