Monday, May 21, 2012

Unlimited Atonement

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)


drwayman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
drwayman said...

Skarlet - I appreciate that you use the word "election" in regard to Arminianism. I'm hopeful that by the use of such language you will clear up some misconceptions and bridge some gaps between the two. Keep at it :-)

Luis said...

Skarlet, thanks for such an awesome post. Im actually runnin a blog in spanish regardin arminianism. My question is: can i translate some parts of your post And put them in My blog? Your brother in Christ

Skarlet said...

Luis, you are welcome to translate as much of my blog posts as you want and re-post them. If you are interested in more of the blog posts I've written specifically about Arminianism, most of them are in my archives, under August and September of 2009.

drwayman said...

Luis - You will find a bunch of Arminian resources at this website too:

Luis said...

Thanks skarlet! Thanks Dr. Wayman! Im already a member of SEA hehe

Anonymous said...

You answer a bunch of logical objections to the atonement. But John Owen has made an argument based on Heb 7:24-25 that proves limited atonement based on Christ's role as priest and mediator.

"24 But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.

25 Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them."

Basically it is this: Christ as priest intercedes for those for whom he made the sacrifice. If he made his sacrifice for every individual who ever lived, then he would have to intercede for all of them. But we know from scripture that some will be in hell, so this intercession will fail for some. But is it plausible that Christ will forever be interceding on behalf of the individuals in Hell, and God the Father will be forever rejecting that intercession? That there will be eternal disagreement within the Godhead?

But if this is unacceptable, the premise that leads to it is that Christ died for every individual.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I think to call this the "Arminian" position is incorrect. It should better be known as the Biblical position. I do not identify myself as an Arminian - and I also identify myself as a non-Calvinist. I see Arminianism as much, much closer to Scripture than Calvinism.

Skarlet said...

Hello Anonymous, :)

Fundamentally, I agree with you that Christ makes intercession for the elect/believers. Also, I agree that IF Christ died only for those He makes intercession for, it would logically follow that Christ only died for the elect/believers.

However, I've read the verse, and I simply do not see (perhaps you can assist me) where it says that Christ makes intercession for all He died for.

I read: “he ever liveth to make intercession for them." And who is “them?” “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him...” So in this case, “them... that come unto God” seems to be the “them” that is referred to later in the verse. Therefore, we can write it this way:

Wherefore he is able also to save (to the uttermost ) them that come unto God by him,
seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for [them that come unto God].

So, I look at it, and I think, “Okay, so Christ makes intercession for those who come to God through Him.” I do not see where it says that Christ makes intercession for all He died for.

Skarlet said...


I also used to simply call myself a NCC (Non-Calvinist Christian) when debating with Calvinists. Later, when inquiring into the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA), I found that I did not disagree with anything Arminius is said to have taught. The only point of disagreement is that Arminius did not specific whether a person could lose their salvation or not. I believe that people cannot lose their salvation, but that does not contradict Arminius, who left the question open.

I think that labels are only helpful insofar as they act as a short-cut, to allow other people to understand (mentally summarize) which certain set of views I hold, in a short period of time. Beyond that, labels can become unhelpful. For example, I have found people to say “oh yeh, Arminians believe X and such.” And then I say “But no one in SEA believes that, and I don't believe that, and my parents don't believe that, and Arminius never wrote that.” They reply, “well, sure, but lots of people who think they are Arminian believe that. You are more like 'Classical Arminian.'”

So, once there is confusion, the short-cut label is no longer helpful. If it's divisive, it's also no longer helpful. “Christian” is a good label, and when it's meant to define a set of beliefs in opposition to the Calvinist interpretation of Scripture, Non-Calvinist Christian is a fine label that has always worked for me (except in the cases when the Calvinists want to start arguing about whether I also fit the definition of an Arminian).

Dale Wayman said...

Skarlet - You wrote, "I think that labels are only helpful insofar as they act as a short-cut, to allow other people to understand (mentally summarize) which certain set of views I hold, in a short period of time."

I like what you say here, this shorthand, IMHO, can be helpful. For example, like actual fences, theological fences can make for good neighbors. In other words, if I attend a Reformed Church, I'm not going to go in and spout Arminianism. I'm going to respect the fences that church has placed around their beliefs and I've got a general idea of some of the finer points of their theology. It would be divisive and unChristlike for me to go into a Reformed Church and try to "straighten out" their theology. Hence, fences can actually enhance Christian unity.

The problem with fences, labels, and denominations is when we use certain pet theologies as litmus tests to pass judgment on each other regarding intellectual ability, spiritual sincerity, being special, doubting another's salvation, etc.


Skarlet said...

Hello Dale,

Well, I do agree with you about the problems that follow when labeling is used to judge others, and to judge them unjustly (ie “you believe X, therefore you must not love God as much as I do”). So that's certainly something we should watch out for.

On the other hand, I come at the denomination issue from a different angle. I don't think that spouting Arminianism in a Calvinist church is wrong. When the New Testament believers are recorded to have gathered together in Acts, they looked into and studied the teaching of the Apostles. I'm sure that disagreement about interpretation was allowed in this study. People who disagreed were not kicked out or told to shut up. I think that it would be a divisive practice to only allow people who hold to every creed of a certain denomination to meet with those christians – that would allow further division. A denomination is just another short-cut label so that before going into a church, you are aware of what the majority of the people and leadership believe about this or that. It's not an exclusionary principle where you cannot come in, cannot fellowship, cannot study together, if you do not hold to the same interpretation.

But it can make a person who disagrees with the majority feel uncomfortable and alone, so there is that. That is one problem that results from people trying only to gather with those who agree with them, therefore creating a majority. Why don't people just meet with “other believers?”

Dale Wayman said...

Skarlet - I did use the term "spouting" intentionally. That sort of behavior seems, to me, to be divisive. I envision an Arminian, who, when confronted with Calvinism in a Reformed Church, would just say, "that's a bunch of bologna, we all know that Calvinism isn't true." That's what I mean by "spouting."

Now, if that church would accept thoughtful discourse in areas of disagreement with the intention of building relationships with each other and worshiping God together with those who may think differently and earnestly desire to seek a true understanding of God's Word, then I would hope an Arminian would be welcome and may be even comfortable in such a setting.

Otherwise, it is denominationalism, which IMHO is not what Jesus meant when He envisioned the Church, His Body. In that event, like you state, denominationalism would lead to an exclusionary principle. This would lead to Steve Taylor's "everybody must get cloned" term which speaks of the modern church, a church where everyone must speak, act, look and think alike.

In essence, I think we are saying the same thing. True?

Skarlet said...


You write: “... an Arminian, who, when confronted with Calvinism in a Reformed Church, would just say, 'that's a bunch of bologna, we all know that Calvinism isn't true.' That's what I mean by 'spouting.'”

Oh, well then I agree that spouting in an opposing church is a bad thing. Thank you for your clarification between spouting and thoughtful discourse. I'm only supportive of thoughtful discourse between disagreeing theological parties in that case.

“In essence, I think we are saying the same thing. True?”

Yes, yes. Quite so. :)

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Anonymous said...

The author of the blog wrote:
"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."

This is certainly not arminianism (nor lutheranism nor roman catholicism). This is pure calvinism and is false teaching. Christ's death cannot be said to cover the sins of believers alone or have procured the salvation of believers alone. The sins of unbelievers were covered at Christ's atonement as much as the sins of believers, the atonement makes no difference between believer and unbeliever. It takes away the sins of both in likewise manner. Just like the sacrifices on the day of atonement , Leviticus 16 took away the sins of all israelites, including those that would go to hell because they did not purify themselves Leviticus 16:29-31 . Christ took away at his death the sins of Peter and Judas, the salvation of both was procured by Jesus. That Judas went to hell and Peter to heaven has nothing to do with Christ's death on the cross, when Christ said it is finished, his work on the cross was finished for every single man ever born without discrimination between believer and unbeliever. The lamb of god that takes away the sin of the world, took away the sins of everybody, saying that Christ only took away the sins of believers limits the atonement and it is calvinism. Even though, to be fair to Calvin, he taught limited atonement, it was the Canons of Dort and Westminster Confession that teach that Christ procured the salvation of believers. Arminians flat out reject this, not sure why you claim that arminians teach that Christ procured salvation solely for the elect, this is teaching is limited atonement, that as I said even Calvin rejected, much more Arminius.

Anonymous said...

in my post above a few minutes ago I wrote:

" to be fair to Calvin, he taught limited atonement"

I meant to write instead :

" to be fair to Calvin, he taught unlimited atonement "

The point I wanted to make is that what you teach is a form of limited atonement that even Calvin rejected. To say that Christ died for believers in a special away and covered their sins only is to teach limited atonement, which you do, and it is utterly unbiblical and incompatible with the doctrines of universal grace espoused by Arminius.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


You seem to misunderstand. While Christ died for the sins of the world, it is only efficacious for those who accept Jesus' work, and are the only ones who are saved from their sins. This was planned from the beginning, so that "His covering of our (us Christians) sins was actual before we believed." This is not Calvinism, this is God preparing the way of salvation from eternity past.

The atonement was not limited as Calvinists say, in that it was for the entire world. It is "limited" in that there is a condition to access it - faith in Christ.

This article expresses the biblical truth and not Calvinism.

Anonymous said...

Glenn, you are saying "the covering of our (us christians) sins was actual before we believed."

i wholeheartedly agree with it. But what about the covering of the sins of the unbeliever ? Are you saying Christ's atonement does not cover the sins of unbelievers ?

Romans 5:8
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

1 corinthians 5:18-19
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation."

So I do agree that sinners have had their sins pardoned or paid for or covered before they believed. But you are saying this only applies to christians, and calvinists are the only ones that affirm this. Romans 5:8 and 1 Corinthians 5:18-19 has been interpreted by arminians, lutherans, roman cathlics to include all sinners regardless whether they will become believers and go to heaven or whether they will remain in unbelief and go to hell. Only calvinists teach that the sins of christians only were covered by the death of Christ as you state.

My point is this, I am not going to say who is right and who is wrong, I am not saying it is unbiblical to teach that only the sins of christians were covered by Christ, but all I want to point out is that this is the teaching of calvinists only.


Anonymous said...

And Glenn, nobody disputes here that only believers go to heaven. But unlimited atonement states that this does not depend on Christ's work on the cross, Christ's work on the cross covered or paid the sins of all sinners, not just the elect. Passages like Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 5:18-19 point out to a full satisfaction and payment for all sin. Calvinists assert the payment was for believers, arminians, lutherans, and roman catholics assert the payment was for everyone and covered the sins of everyone. Salvation does not depend on whether Christ made payment for my sin or not, it depends on whether the payment already made is received by faith. But unlimited atonement does not state that full satisfaction, coverage, and payment for sin was made for christians only. This is the calvinist position. And again I am not saying calvinism is wrong, all I am saying is that any time we say that Christ atoned for the sins of believers (the elect) and not for the sins of all people (those that will become believers and those that will remain in unbelief) we are stating the calvinist position.


Anonymous said...

Also, the atonement was unconditional. Christ did not make full satisfaction for sin conditional on faith. Romans 5:8 and 1 Corinthians 5:18-19 that I quoted do not mention faith at all. Also when Christ said at the cross it is finished, it was finished whether we believe it or not. The work of Christ does not depend on our faith, when Christ said at the cross Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing, there was no condition of faith either. The atoning work of Christ is complete and not dependent on our faith. It actually precedes faith, but what Christ accomplished on the cross for sinners does not depend on the sinner's faith. Certainly faith is a required for salvation, the atonement needs to be received by faith, nonetheless the effectiveness of the Christ's work does not depend on human faith. Christ made full satisfaction to the father as Romans 5:8 and 1 Corinthians 5:18-19 that I quoted prove, and this satisfaction does not depend on faith. Now the atonement needs to be applied to sinners in order to be saved, and this application certainly happens by grace through faith. But the sufficiency of the atonement for all sinners and the application of the atonement are two separate things, the sufficiency relates to Christ work on the cross, but the atonement and what Christ accomplished on the cross does not depend in any way on its application by faith. This was clearly stated by Hugo Grotius and the governmental view of the atonement and is standard arminian doctrine.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


What I’m saying is that God is outside of time — He created time. Therefore, before we existed He already had the plan of salvation, and He knew who would accept said salvation. Not that we were saved before we believed, rather God saw it already as if it happened; He sees the end and the beginning at the same time.

The atonement covers all sin, but it is not efficacious for those who do not accept it. Since they refuse to acknowledge that Christ paid for their sins, then they are still responsible for them and will pay for their sin with eternal spiritual death. Although Christ died for the sins of all mankind, his atonement is only effective for believers. That is what the Bible says.

While the atonement is unconditional, there is a condition to have it personally applied, and that is faith in Christ and his work on the cross.

And I DO say Calvinism is wrong. Arminianism is also wrong. Man’s religious ideologies are all wrong. It is the teachings of Christ, the “apostles’ doctrine” and what the Bible says, not the traditions of men, which I follow.

Anonymous said...

Glenn, I get what you are saying. Usually the atonement has been looked at as complete. Christ said it is finished at the cross, and He was referring to his atoning work. For Calvinists Christ took away the sins of the elect at Calvary, for arminians, lutherans, and roman catholics Christ died for all sinners and took away their sin. The lamb of God that takes a away the sin of the world, for calvinists the world means the elect, for arminians, roman catholics, and lutherans the elect means all sinners without distinction and regardless whether they come to faith or not. Your position, which I have never heard before, just like Skarlet's appears to be a form of limited atonement with the difference that God foreknows who will come to faith or not (instead of unconditionally electing as calvinists teach) and the sins of those people alone were atoned (i.e. covered and fully paid for). It is an interesting position, it combines the foreknowledge of faith of the arminian position while limiting the number of people that had their sins paid for like calvinism does. I am going to say something, this view of the atonement will run into the same challenges as the calvinist view of limited atonement. You cannot tell an unbeliever Christ died for you, he fully atoned for your sin, your sins have been forgiven because you don't know if this unbeliever will come to faith or not. So you make the atonement depend on whether somebody is elect (will become a believer before diying) or not. This is the teaching of limited atonement in calvinism (even though you believe in conditional election instead of unconditional election), again I am not saying it is false teaching, just saying it is the calvinistic teaching of limited atonement that Christ death covered the sins of believers only. Under unlimitied atonement all sinners had their sins atoned for at Calvary, not everyone goes to heaven because the benefits of the atonement needs to be received by faith, but this receiving by faith is unrelated to the scope of Christ's atoning work. In a nutshell Christ atoned fully for the sins of all sinners, this is the object of faith, what all sinners are commanded to believe, some believe it and some do not. Those that believe go to heaven those that do not go to hell. But the sins of all men have been forgiven, atoned for at Calvary, you have forgiven sinners in heaven and forgiven sinners in hell, the difference is that those in heaven received the forgiveness of sins and those in hell rejected the forgiveness of sins. This is what unlimited atonement teaches, which is very different from what you and Skarlet teach. Both of you agree with calvinism that the atonement is limited, and the disagreement seems to be on unconditional election which you teach is conditional on faith.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


You totally read into our beliefs that which is not there. We have no hint of any “limited atonement.”

My point is that while the atonement covers all sins, only those who actually accept that give benefit from it. This is indeed the biblical position. There is a condition to have the atonement personally applied and that is faith in the work of Christ in the atonement. Without faith in Christ, one’s sins will not be atoned for and they will spend eternity away from God.

There is NO commonality, no resemblance of this to Calvinism. The fact that God KNOWS the outcome is not the same as God CAUSING the outcome as Calvinists say. If you believe God can’t KNOW the outcome, then you are believing heresy, since there is nothing God doesn’t know, which is why we as Christians say He is omniscient.

With Calvinism you can’t tell someone they are saved or that God loves them, etc, because you can’t know if they are one who is selected by God. With the biblical teaching, we can’t know if he person himself will choose and we can tell him God loves him and that he CAN be saved by his choice. Calvinism says the person CAN’T choose.

We do NOT say the atonement is conditional — Jesus died for all without any conditions. What we say IS conditional is the application of if. If there is no condition, then why throughout the entire Old and New testaments are we told there is one condition for salvation - faith!  Abraham was saved through his faith, and all Christians are saved through their faith.  Bible verse after Bible verse says that one must “believe” to be saved.  Belief - i.e. faith - is a condition!  God in His grace offers salvation to “everyone who believes.” If there is no condition of believing or of faith, then how does anyone know they are saved?  The person who does not accept the atonement doe NOT have his sin forgiven.

Again, the atonement is available to all; there was no conditions for the act of atonement. But n not all will accept the atonement, because they refuse the condition necessary for it to be applied to them PERSONALLY.

You bear false witness against us when you say we agree with Calvinism.

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