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Toward Understanding the Atonement – Part I

Christ’s death on the cross is not a peripheral or secondary issue. It is THE crucial doctrine of the Christian faith. In fact, the English word crucial comes from the Latin word for cross (crux). The cross is crucial to Christianity because it is absolutely central to the Scriptures and to our faith.

Among the theological words related to the work of Christ on the cross is the word “atonement”. The Atonement embodies the work of Christ on the cross whereby reconciliation with God was accomplished, the righteous judgment of God was satisfied, and our redemption was achieved.

Christianity is Christ, and the crucial fact about Christ is His death upon the cross and our atonement. Of course, His example, teachings, and miracles must not be neglected. The fact of His resurrection must be celebrated and loudly proclaimed. These are essential doctrines to Biblical Christianity. Yet, in a most special way, Christ’s atoning death is absolutely crucial. It is so clearly taught in the Scriptures that all serious students of the Bible who are committed to the full inspiration, inerrancy and final authority of the Bible would agree regarding the necessity of Christ’s death.

But not all who agree regarding the necessity of Christ’s death would agree regarding the intent of Christ’s death. There is one question regarding the cross which sharply divides theologians and Bible students: For whom did Christ die? Or putting it another way, why did Christ die: for the sins of the elect only or for the sins of the entire world?

This question regarding the intent and purpose of Christ’s atonement has sparked heated debate for centuries. It has divided sincere Bible-believing Christians into two theological camps:

  • “Either Limited Atonement or Unlimited Atonement.”
  • “Either Particular Redemption or General Redemption.”
  • “Either Specific Atonement (for the elect only) or Unlimited Atonement (for the sins of the world).”

Theologian Walter Elwell summarized the debate over the intent of the Atonement this way: “Although there are variations as to the basic ways in which this subject can be addressed, the choices boil down to two… The first view is sometimes called ‘limited atonement’ because God limited the effect of Christ’s death to a specific number of elect persons, or ‘particular redemption’ because redemption was for a particular group of people. The second view is sometimes referred to as ‘unlimited atonement’ or ‘general redemption’ because God did not limit Christ’s redemptive death to the elect, but allowed it to be for mankind in general.” (W. A. Elwell, “Atonement, Extent of the” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001, p. 98)

Whenever confronted with a theological controversy, members of IFCA International have always sought to be true to the revelation of Scripture, allowing our theology to develop from the Scriptures rather than injecting our presupposed theological assumptions into Scripture. Therefore, we believe the crucial question in determining the intent of the Atonement is not, “Should I be a Calvinist or an Arminian?” or “What did the Reformers believe and teach?” nor is it even, “What is the historical view of the church?” But the crucial question must be, “What do the Scriptures teach?” The concern in every doctrinal discussion must always be to study the Scriptures carefully and interpret them accurately.

So what does the Bible say about the intent of the Atonement? What is the Scriptural evidence presented by both sides of the issue? In answering this question, it is my intention to present each side fairly. But I want to be clearly understood. I have a distinct position on the meaning of the following passages.


Isaiah 53:12 – Because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many.

Matthew 1: 21 – And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.

Matthew 26:28 – This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.

Mark 10:45 – For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

John 10:1115 – I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep … even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.

Romans 5:19 – For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

Acts 20:28 – Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

Ephesians 5:25 – Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.

Hebrews 2:10 – For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.

Hebrews 9:28 – So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.


Isaiah 53:6 – All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.

John 1:29 – The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

John 6:51 – I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.

Romans 5:18 – So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

2 Corinthians 5:14-15 – For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

2 Corinthians 5:19 – Namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

1 Timothy 2:5-6 – For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time.

Hebrews 2:9 – But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. 

2 Peter 2:1 – But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.

1 John 2:2 – And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

1 John 4:14 – And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.


1 Timothy 4:10 – For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.

In this verse, “God is clearly identified as the ‘Savior’ of ‘all men’ and of ‘ones who believe.’ No matter how one interprets this statement, he must not deny or grossly distort this apostolic affirmation.However, it is apparent that God is not necessarily the Savior of both groups in the same way or to the same degree … It seems at the bottom line of 1 Timothy 4:10 there is some sort of macrocosmic application of salvation and there is a special microcosmic application …it seems to suggest different levels of divine intentionality which lead to different applications of it. There is an efficient dimension to the death of Christ, and there is also a sufficient dimension. An exegetically based both/and position sees in the Scriptures more than a single purpose to the cross-work of Christ. Needless to say, a biblically balanced both/and view creates logical tensions, but the Scriptures must inform us, not we them.” (George Zemek, A Biblical Theology of the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace, Wipf & Stock, 2005, p. 142.)


An honest reading of the passages cited above presents a quandary. One commentary notes: “Some passages speak of Christ’s dying for ‘all’ men and of His death as saving the ‘world’, yet others speak of His death as being definite in design and of His dying for particular people and securing salvation for them.” (David Steele, Curtis Thomas, Romans, An Interpretive Outline, Presbyterian Reformed, 1967, p. 174.) It becomes even more interesting when both concepts are found in the same context, such as in Isaiah 53:6,121 Timothy 4:10Romans 5:18-19; andHebrews 2:9-10.

Dogmatic Theologians attempt to settle this theological dilemma by appealing to church councils, creeds and the views of important theologians in church history. Systematic Theologians attempt to settle this debate in the realm of Systematic Theology using selected Scriptural passages and further appeals to deduction and logic.

On the one hand, it is certainly appropriate to consider the historic teaching of various creeds and councils to gain the insight of the ages. It is foolish to ignore what the Holy Spirit has revealed in the past to wise and godly men from the pages of His Book. But this cannot be placed on the same level of authority as Scripture itself.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that Scripture interprets Scripture. Often a passage will cover a topic or subject addressed elsewhere in the Bible. It is important to interpret all of these passages consistently with one another. This is Systematic Theology and it is to be prized. But Systematic Theologians do not have the final answer to this theological quandary.

More in the next post

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  1. Daniel Fredericks says:

    This is the issue….to be biblical and let Scripture speak for Scripture….and our thinking and understanding thus refined

  2. This is the issue….to let Scripture speak for Scripture, and thus our thinking so refined.

  3. […] Ed. Note: This is the second of two posts on this subject.  The first one is here. […]

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