This is a criticism of the doctrine of unlimited atonement – the belief that Jesus Christ died for all of mankind – and the basic premise of the complaint against it is this claim: according to this doctrine, whatever Christ accomplished on the cross, he accomplished for all alike: those who are finally saved as well as those who are finally lost. (Theopedia) If you take this as a given, then you run into a problem because you only have two possibilities:
1 – Jesus provided the offer of redemption, but does not atone for anyone's sin.
2 – Jesus procures atonement of sin for everyone. (So you have either universalism, or people being punished for sins that were already paid for)
The first claim seems pretty ridiculous, since everyone agrees that some people are actually saved and that there sins were atoned for by Christ! Calvinists do make this claim about the doctrine of unlimited atonement, though. “Universal (or unlimited) atonement is the view that Christ's work makes redemption possible for all but certain for none.”(Theopedia) However, the doctrine of unlimited atonement still holds that the sins of some people are atoned for, and that their salvation is made certain through Christ. Paul the Apostle, for instance, I think we can all agree that Christ atoned for his sins, that he is with the Lord now, and that his salvation had been made certain by Christ.
The second claim doesn't represent the position any better than the first. Those who hold to the doctrine of Unlimited Atonement and believe that Jesus died for all most certainly do not believe that everyone goes to heaven. Nor do they believe that the sins of non-believers were paid for. When a non-believer is lost for eternity, it is for their own sins, which have not been atoned for, that they suffer.
If neither possibility described the beliefs of those who hold to Unlimited Atonement, then the problem is clearly with the premise.
The claim was that “whatever Christ accomplished on the cross, he accomplished for all alike.” I'm going to blatantly deny this claim. This is not what Arminians believe. This is not an accurate portrayal of the position of Universal Atonement. I've tried many times to explain that Christ accomplished two goals on the cross. Not one. Two. He provided salvation for all, and procured salvation for those who would believe on him.
3 - Jesus provided the offer of redemption for all, and actually paid for the sins of believers.
I've written on the topic before and explained the importance of this concept, along with explaining the difference between providing and procuring salvation. Usually I use the analogy given in the book of John – the reference to the serpent raised up in the wilderness to provide healing for all who were bitten, and only to actually heal those who looked upon it.
Very likely, people get confused with the phrase “died for." When a Christian says “Jesus died for (provided salvation for) everyone,” someone is bound to hear “Jesus died for (paid for the sins of) everyone” and will object! Again, a Christian will say “Jesus died for (provided salvation for) everyone,” and someone else will complain, “What? You don't think that Christ actually procured salvation for anyone at all?” Standard American lingo is so imprecise, it's no longer everyone believes strawman positions about opposing views.
In any case, perhaps a more modern analogy would help to make the point clear and memorable. Before I begin describing the analogy, though, please bear in mind that this analogy only applies to describe the difference between providing and procuring a benefit for someone. It does not address the issues of natural ability or the lack thereof.
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The analogy involves money. Most of us probably use credit cards. We know how those word. Probably all of us have at some point used cash to pay for stuff. Some of us, at least, have also used personal checks. Now, giving someone a check is different from paying someone cash. If I hand you $10, you have the money. I no longer have the money. I have procured money for you. You have the benefit of having that money
If you hand me a check, though, there is first the question of whether the check will go though. Let us assume, though, that you are an honest person, you have enough money in your account, and if I cash the check, it will go through just fine. When you hand me the check, you have provided me with money. I don't have that money yet; I just have the opportunity to have that money. It isn't until I actually deposit or cash that check that I receive the benefit of having more money. If I burn the check instead, I will never receive the money that you provided for me. I had opportunity to have that money, but I never actually took advantage of that opportunity.
To recap: when you give me the check, money is provided (but not procured), and when I cash the check, the benefit is actually procured for me (given that the check goes through like you said it would).
So, to tie this back in with the initial thought, salvation is provided for all, but only procured for believers. The offer of salvation – like the offer of money when you hand someone a signed and valid check – is God's gracious gift to all. This offer is available because of the atonement of His Son. Actual redemption – like the actual benefit of having more money – is only procured for those who believe. (Reminder: This is not addressing the concept of total inability. This is JUST about the provide/procure comparison. Additionally, this analogy is NOT addressing the actions of the giver, but just the difference between experiencing provision and experiencing the actual benefit of something.) This redemption is accomplished through the atonement of the Son.
Provision of salvation for all: Jesus died for all.
Salvation procured for believers: Jesus died for the elect.
Both goals were accomplished. This is the doctrine of Unlimited Atonement.
The Society for Evangelical Armianism describes it this way:
“While God has provided for the salvation of all people by Christ's sacrificial and substitutionary death for all, the benefits of Christ's death are received by grace through faith and are only effective for those who believe.”
P.S. So please people, if you have a sudden urge to claim that those who hold to Unlimited Atonement believe either that Christ's death made no one's salvation certain or that everyone's sins were paid for, feel free to re-read this blog entry before making that claim. If you are going to argue against the doctrine at all, at least make a solid point about it.