The Extent of the Atonement

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).

- Matthew 1:18–21

Substitution is a key principle in any theology of the atonement, for Scripture plainly teaches that Christ offered Himself in the place of others (Isa. 53). In other words, Jesus substituted Himself for sinners, paying the debt of sin to God that fallen people cannot pay. However, to say Jesus died for sinners raises the question as to whether Jesus died for every sinner who would ever live. Did God intend for Jesus’ death to atone for all people or only for some?

How we answer this question reflects what we believe Jesus actually accomplished on the cross. If Jesus died only for some, the efficacy of the atonement is limited by God’s intent. In this view, Jesus died for the elect only, with the consequence that the atonement actually saves the elect. The atonement guarantees the salvation of those for whom it was offered, ensuring that they will trust Christ. On the other hand, if Jesus died to atone for the sins of all people, yet not all are saved, then the efficacy of the atonement is limited by our decision. In this view, Jesus paid for the sins of all people, but salvation is a mere possibility. The atonement makes it possible for all people to be saved, but it does not ensure that anyone will come to faith in Christ.

So, who “limits” the effect of the atonement, us or God? Biblically speaking, it is hard to embrace the notion of an atonement that is merely potential and does not guarantee that those for whom it is offered will come to faith. After all, Scripture tells us that faith is the irresistible gift of God, not something that we may or may not work up in ourselves and then use to make the atonement effective (Eph. 2:8–10). We know that God has predestined a particular people for salvation and gives faith only to them (1:3–10). An atonement whose extent is limited by God is more consistent with the doctrine of predestination than an atonement whose extent is limited by our decision.

Another issue with an atonement made for all people without exception is that it does not actually cover every sin. Unbelief is a sin (Heb. 3:19), so if Christ died for every sin, He also atoned for unbelief. If Christ died to atone only for the sins of the elect, then unbelief is truly covered and the elect will certainly come to faith. None of them is punished for unbelief. But if Christ died for all the sins of all people and unbelief sends people to hell, then either Christ did not actually atone for unbelief or God is unjustly punishing the sin of unbelief for which Jesus died when He sends an unbeliever to hell. He is pouring out His wrath even though His wrath has been satisfied.

Coram Deo

The issue of the atonement’s extent has to do with the justice of God. If God is just, He cannot pour out His wrath again after it has been perfectly satisfied. If Jesus’ work saves only His people from their sins, as Matthew 1:18–21 indicates, then God does not unjustly pour out His wrath a second time. He truly and completely pays for sin in Christ. We affirm the doctrine of limited atonement because we believe in the justice of God.

Passages for Further Study

Jeremiah 31:10–14
John 6:35–40; 10:1–16
Hebrews 10:18

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.