The Calvinist says that Jesus died only for some, the Arminian says that Jesus died for all. It's a very short summary of both positions, and such a short summary often leads to misunderstandings about the full meaning. Spelled out a little more clearly, the Arminian position can be summed up this way:
Every drop of Jesus' blood fully fulfilled both of Christ's atonement goals: to provide salvation for all, and to procure salvation for the elect.
This is very important, because it dispels many of myths believed about the doctrine of Unlimited Atonement. The statement above refers to a combination of three specific beliefs:
(1) Every drop of Jesus' blood fully fulfilled both of Christ's atonement goals:
(2) to provide salvation for all, and
(3) to procure salvation for the elect.
Whose sin was covered by Christ? Only the elect. Those to whom the blood of Christ is applied are those who are saved. Only the elect receive the salvific benefits of the atonement. In this manner, it can be said that Arminians also limit the extent of the atonement:
A - Christ limits the provision of salvation to only provide for those in the human race,
B - and He limits the application of salvation to only cover those who are the elect, those who believe.
In that sense, then, to sum up the doctrine as “unlimited atonement” is also a language shortcut that leads to misunderstandings.
Permit me to offer an analogy to make the Arminian concept of the atonement clear:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." John 3:14
The serpent, being lifted up, provided a way of healing for all who were bitten. It was sufficient for the healing of all of them. However, not all of them received the benefit of that offer. Only those who looked upon the serpent were healed. The serpent was sufficient for the healing of all, but only efficacious for the healing of those who looking upon it. The serpent was lifted up for all those who were suffering from snake bites, but only those who looked on it were granted the healing offered by the Lord.
To summarize, this is the difference between the Calvinist and Arminian understanding of the intent and scope of the atonement:
Calvinist: The atonement procures salvation only for the elect.
Arminian: The atonement procures salvation only for the elect, and also provides salvation for everyone.
So now that I've laid out a clear statement of the Arminian position, let's look at some of the misunderstandings that I have heard about this view:
The Claim: #1 Arminians limit the power of the atonement
Now, obviously, a mere moral cannot limit God's power. What the Calvinist means by this statement is that the Arminian view paints the atonement as less powerful than it actually is.
I will give two reasons why this idea is false. The first reason is that the Arminian claims not that the atonement did less, but that the atonement did more. As you may recall, the Arminian believes that Jesus' death accomplished both (A) the provision of salvation to all and (B) the application of salvation to the elect (believers). The Calvinist only belives that Christ's death accomplished (A) and not (B).
The second reason is that only God can limit Himself; there are no external limitations. Any limitations on salvation are placed by God Himself. The Arminian claims that the atonement accomplished the intent of the atonement. Christ wanted to provide salvation for all, and He achieved that. Christ wanted to procure salvation for the elect, and He accomplished that. Where is the limit of power? God demonstrated the power to achieve all of His objectives here.
The Claim: #2 In Arminianism, in fact, the atonement is potential, but made actual when one believes.
If you remember point (1) from the beginning of this blog, you will recall that the Arminian belief is that “Every drop of Jesus' blood fully fulfilled both of Christ's atonement goals.” There is nothing potential about “fully fulfilled.” When Christ died on the cross, His blood actually covered the sins of past, present, and future believers. His covering of our (us Christians) sins was actual before we believed.
Looking at point (2) next: Christ intended to provide salvation for all, and He DID actually provide salvation for all. Intent accomplished.
Look at (3) now: He intended to save the elect (those who believe) and He DID actually save the elect. Intent accomplished.
You might begin to see a pattern. The pattern is that every intent of Christ was accomplished. This is why Jesus cried out “It is finished!” Which means, it was accomplished.
There is nothing potential here. Both intents were ACTUALLY (and not potentially) fulfilled.
The Claim: #3 In Arminanism, the blood of Christ doesn't actually cover the sins of anyone.
This is an obviously false claim. All Arminians believe that they are going to heaven, they believe on Christ as Savior, and they believe that His blood actually covers their sin; that's how they believe they will avoid hell. See point (3), “to procure salvation for the elect.” The shed blood of Christ fully fulfilled this intention, and when Jesus died, His blood covered the sins of the elect.
So, given that we claim that Christ's blood actually covered the sins of the elect, it would be impossible for us to also believe that Christ's blood didn't actually cover the sin of anyone. This is the point of agreement between the Arminian and the Calvinist: That when Christ died, His atonement covered the sins of, and procured salvation for, the elect (believers).
The Claim: #4 If Jesus died for all, and it's not just potential, then you are left with universalism.
To say that “Jesus died for all,” in this case is confusing, because it does not specific whether the writer is speaking of Christ's providing salvation or procuring salvation. We will look at the statement using both possible meanings:
“If Jesus died to provide (but not procure) salvation for all, and it's not just potential, then you are left with universalism.”
You can see why this is false. If Jesus died to provide salvation for all, and it's not potential, then it means that all were actually provided for, not that all were saved. Salvation, in this case, was not procured for all.
“If Jesus died to procure salvation for all, and it's not just potential, then you are left with universalism.”
That would be true. But we don't believe that Jesus died to procure salvation for all. He wanted to procure salvation only for the elect. His atonement only covers the sins of the elect. Therefore, it's not universalism.
The Claim: #5 In Arminanism, some of Jesus' blood was wasted
A calvinist told me that according to my beliefs, " some blood is wasted because the blood that is provided for all, does not actually save all."
However, it's not like some blood was put toward providing salvation for all, and a different portion of blood was put toward procuring salvation for the elect. Each drop of blood (see point 1) was accomplishing both purposes. Every drop of blood actually covers the sin of the elect. How is that a waste? It's not. Every drop of blood, in addition to covering the sins of the elect, gives the provision of salvation to everyone in the world. Does accomplishing more make it a waste somehow? Certainly not.
Again, I would remind the reader, the Arminians believe that the atonement accomplished the same thing that the Calvinist believes: Namely, it accomplishes the salvation of the elect.
This is not a waste. The Arminian also believes that, in addition to that intent, the atonement provided salvation for all men:
“This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.” (John 1:7)
“For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves...” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time,” (1 Timothy 2:5-6)
“For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10)
“But we see Jesus, who... by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9)