The Unlimited Atonement of Christ

Dan Lenington on October 25, 2017

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            When one begins to examine the evidence for the position of the Unlimited Atonement of Christ, he will find a generally clear example in I John 2:2. However, what seems to be clear can be viewed in a few different ways depending on one’s point of view or theological background. The three main positions on the verse include the Universalist, the Unlimited Atonement, and the Limited Atonement view. Each of these views will be examined as they pertain to this text primarily with the addition of some cross referenced material.

            The Universalist view is simply that because Christ died for all men with no exceptions, and God’s wrath on them was satisfied (propitiated) in Christ’s sacrifice, then all will be saved in the future. The strength of this view is that it can rely on the simply understanding of the term propitiation which means to provide expiation or atonement for someone. However, this view is inadequate when compared with the unified evidence of Scripture. The passages, which clearly state that Gehenna or the Lake of Fire is eternal, are numerous. Some include Mark 9:43-48; 2 Peter 2:17; Jude 1:11-13; Rev. 14:10-11; 20:10-15. Therefore, the Universalist position cannot be maintained and other interpretations must be considered.

            The Limited Atonement position views the propitiation of I John 2:2 as being the satisfaction of God’s wrath with no qualifications. However, they qualify who the propitiation is extended to. They would interpret the pronoun “our” as referring to the Jews and the phrase “whole world” as referring to the gentile believers. In order for this interpretation to work, the audience of John’s first epistle must be a Jewish audience. Therefore, Christ’s death provided the satisfaction of God’s wrath for Jewish Christians and for Gentile Christians. John 11:51-52 is sometimes quoted as a parallel passage where Christ is said to have died for the Jewish nation and Gentile nations providing salvation to all groups of people. It is argued that the author is the same and the thought of I John arrives from the previous context in John 11. While this seems to be possible, the assumption that John writes to a Jewish audience is unfounded. First, the common consensus among commentators presents I John as being written from Ephesus and sent to the gentile churches of Asia Minor. Secondly, there is no contextual evidence that the book’s audience is Jewish Christians. The burden of proof lies with those demanding a restricted audience. Thirdly, John 11:51-52 presents the truth that Christ died for both Jews and Gentiles but there are no contextual reasons in I John 2:2 that link the two passages. Also, no evidence is forthcoming as to the proper identity of “the children of God” found in John 11:52. Are they Jewish proselytes, scattered Jewish believers, or future Gentile converts? Fourthly, there is compelling contextual evidence that John’s audience is both Gentile and Jewish Christians. Since I John 2:1 declares that Christ is “our advocate.” If “our” refers only to Jewish Christians as demanded in verse 2, then the logical outcome is that Christ is the propitiation for Jewish and Gentile Christians but advocate for only Jewish Christians. This is theologically unacceptable. Also, the term “world” in I John always refers to unbelievers, the pagan world system or the physical realm all men live in, never gentile believers. More significantly, the only other place where the phrase “whole world” is found, it refers to the fact that the “whole world lies in wickedness” (I John 5:19), clearly a reference to the unbelieving world since no one can deny that all men are wicked (Rom. 3:23). “Whole world” cannot be restricted to Gentile believers based on the immediate context, and the use of John’s term world. A final problem with the Limited Atonement position is that it fails to escape the trap of the Universalist. This is true because “whole world” cannot be restricted to Gentile Christians by reason of the comprehensiveness of the term and its use elsewhere (Matt. 26:13; Mark 8:36; Rom. 1:8; I John 5:19; Rev. 12:9; 16:14). Therefore, the Limited Atonement position is inadequate.

            Finally, the Unlimited Atonement position must be considered to determine if it can answer the challenge presented by the term propitiation. Does the Unlimited Atonement view have to tweak the basic meaning of propitiation as the satisfaction of God’s wrath due to Christ’s sacrifice as it is presented for all men without condition? The common source of issue is taken with this views choice to place the condition of faith upon the actual reception of God’s propitiation. In other words, Christ provided propitiation for all men, but it is only obtained by those exercising faith. Some ask if this is compatible with the common use of the term propitiation. To answer this challenge, one must examine the wider use of the idea in the Old Testament. The term is found only three times in Scripture, Rom. 3:25; I John 2:2; I John 4:10. In John’s letter, the Greek noun   (ilasmo/j is used but an alternate form (ilaste/rion is found in Romans 3:25. Significantly, the term is also used in reference to the mercy seat found on the ark of the covenant used by the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Heb. 9:5) (Thayer, Strong v.s. (ilasterion). On the Day of Atonement the high priest offered one sacrifice for the sin of the entire nation (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26-30). However, not every Israelite had a relationship with God (Rom. 9:6). What then did the Day of Atonement sacrifice accomplish for the unbeliever? It stayed God’s temporal wrath for sin on the entire nation for that year (Lev. 16:29-34). Something else was required, however, from each individual for God’s wrath to be satisfied individually and eternally. That requirement was faith (Gal. 3:6-9; Rom. 4:1-5). In the New Testament, Christ’s sacrifice provided the satisfaction of God’s wrath temporally since God does not judge nations as openly and quickly as He did in the Old Testament (Gen. 19; 2 Peter 3:3-9). This is the age of grace. However, God’s wrath can only be satisfied individually and eternally by the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice personally through faith.

            While no position on the propitiation stated in I John 2:2 is without difficulty, the Unlimited Atonement view answers the challenges with the smallest amount of contradiction. Other passages which uphold this view include I John 4:14; I Tim. 2:5-6; Isa. 53:6; John 3:17; I Tim. 4:10; Heb. 2:9. The author is also unsure of the existence of any clear passages which uphold the Limited Atonement view and understands it as merely a logical addition to other points of TULIP. The Universalist position is also untenable due to clear contradictory passages referring to the eternality of punishment for unbelievers (Mark 9:43-48; 2 Peter 2:17; Jude 1:11-13; Rev. 14:10-11; 20:10-15). Based upon the evidence and character of God who justly must provide the opportunity for salvation to all since all became sinners through one man’s disobedience (Rom. 5:12-21), the Unlimited Atonement view is the Biblical view.

           Joseph Dillow presents a third view in his book The Reign of the Servant Kings pp. 540-543. He believes that the atonement was limited in intent but not in extent. In other words the atonement actually satisfied God’s wrath for sin for all mankind, but God is free to choose who He will extend its benefits to. He has chosen to extend its benefits only to those who believe. This helps answer the question why a believer still dies a physical death when supposedly the penalty of death has been paid for. The reason in this line of thought would be that God has chosen that the penalty of sin removed by grace through faith extends to the penalty of hell but not to the penalty of physical death. So the atonement is limited in intent but not in the extent of whom it can apply to. The atonement is actual and provisional at the same time.