James A. Gunn

We are examining the Doctrines of Grace or, the “Five Points of Calvinism” 
{T U L I P}:
Total Depravity;
Unconditional Election;
Limited Atonement;
Irresistible Grace;
Perseverance of the Saints.

The "point" we are discussing today is “Limited Atonement.”  A preferable term is Particular Redemption.  Seeing no other volunteers for “Limited Atonement,” I assayed to leap into the fray.  I am unashamedly a proponent of Particular Redemption, or so-called Limited Atonement.

Most of you have probably read the same books that I have on this subject and so what I will say will not be new to you.  However, there may be those who hold a contrary position, i.e., the General or Universal View of the Atonement.

The question may be asked in many ways, but the clearest way to put it is:
"Does God offer a possible or an actual salvation?  To be consistent, those who hold to General or Universal Atonement must allow the possibility that even though Christ made atonement for sin, that no one would be saved!

“For whom did Christ make atonement?”  Rather, what was the intent of the atonement?  When Christ made atonement, was it the intent of God to make salvation possible for everyone and sure for no one; or was the intent of the atonement to make certain the salvation of God’s elect?

This matter of the intent of the atonement is at the heart of the definition of the Gospel.

Let me say that everyone in this room believes in “limited atonement.”  We may not agree on who limits the atonement, man or God, but unless you believe in universalism, i.e., that there is no hell, then someone "limits" the atonement of Christ.  The question then becomes:
"Who has the power to limit the atonement - man or God?"

An example of the view that man is in control:

“Strong-willed Strategies,” Cynthia Tobias, The Alabama Baptist, October 4, 2001.

“God is the only one who can force you to obey against your free will, but He never has. You have the final say whether you give the control to God or whether you keep it and perish.”

It is my belief that the root of the General Atonement view is sinful pride.

An antidote that I heard many years ago:

“Let God save you or He will send you to hell!”
“No He won’t!”  “If I have the power to let God save me,
then I have the power to keep Him from sending me to hell.”

The Intent of the Atonement:

As to the intent of the atonement, the extent of the atonement defines the intent.  Will there be souls in hell that God intended to redeem?  Is God, after all, to be frustrated? 
“He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.”  {Isaiah 53:11}

Was the intent of the shed blood of Christ to make atonement for the human race, i.e., all men without exception?  Was the propitiatory sacrifice of the Son of God intended to make salvation possible for all men, their individual justification to be determined based on their acceptance of a proposition or offer?

Recently, I listened to a sermon by a well-known preacher from the Birmingham area in which he made the statement, “Christ died for people in hell, there I’ve said it!”  Obviously his view of the intent of the atonement is that it is general or universal, intended for all men without exception, including Judas Iscariot, and that Christ had no one in particular in view when He came into the world to save sinners and when He went to the cross.  I think that preacher is not only in error, but is very close to blasphemy and insulting the Lord.

Someone said, “Everyone has the right to hear the Gospel at least once.”  I say that no one has the “right” to hear the Gospel at all.  If everyone or anyone has a “right” to hear the Gospel, then salvation is no more of grace.

Was it the intent of the death of Christ to make atonement for the elect of God, who are known only to God from before the foundation of the world?


The following is a classic argument from Dr. John Owen:


The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for either:

1.All the sins of all men.

2.All the sins of some men.

3.Some of the sins of all men.

In which case it may be said:

a.That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so none               are saved.

b.That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins                 of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.

c.But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due                their sins?

You answer, Because of unbelief.  I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not?  If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not.  If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died?  If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!


Charles Spurgeon asked:
"Will God punish the same sin twice? Once in the Lamb and again in the sinner in hell?"

The Four-Point Calvinist:

Some people say they are Calvinists, but compromise on “Limited Atonement.”
They say they are a “Four-Point Calvinist,” Limited Atonement being the point on which they choke.  To my understanding, that is like being a "little bit pregnant."  You are either a Calvinist or you are not a Calvinist.  Limited Atonement {as well as the other points of Calvinism} is not an isolated doctrine.  You cannot adopt a subset of the five points and be consistent.  A person who adopts the universal view of the atonement cannot correctly understand the other points. 

T   If man is “dead in trespasses and sins,” that is, totally depraved,
then he is unable to accept the offer of the atonement.
Why does the Bible use a term like "dead?"
Only New Age can suspend contradictory ideas and believe both to be true.

U    If God has chosen out a people from the mass of fallen mankind, He                            necessarily intends to provide atonement for their sin.  Sovereign election                     evaporates if it is to be based on God “electing” those whom He foreknew                     would choose Him.  An utter contradiction!

L    The subject of this article.

I     If the Holy Spirit irresistibly woos the sinner while they are yet “dead in                 trespasses and sins,” and the Holy Spirit’s work is a sovereign mystery
{John 3:8}, and no man can {has the ability} to come to Christ unless drawn               by the Father {John 6:44, 65}, how then does the Holy Spirit know whom to               regenerate?   The sinner is "dead," but has the ability to give God the power to             regenerate him?  Another contradiction!

P    The Perseverance of the Saints has a companion, called the Preservation of the              Saints: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present                   you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,” Jude 24
The choosing, calling, redeeming, and keeping are all of grace.

Not a "Test of Fellowship:

It should be said that good men of Christian faith have debated this doctrine for centuries. John Wesley and George Whitefield were on opposite sides of how God saves sinners.  Wesley, in a letter to Whitefield, said that if election were true, God is the devil.  When Whitefield was asked if he thought he would see Wesley in heaven, he said, No.  Then he said that Wesley would be so near the throne and he would be so far away that he would not be able to see him.  

You may have firmly made up your mind as to your position on this doctrine.  All I can do in these few minutes is to give you a distillation of over thirty years of Bible study.  I have read and tried to understand both sides of this issue and I believe that God has given me His truth on the matter.  It was Henry Kissinger who said of Jimmy Carter: "It is not that he doesn't understand foreign policy, it is that he does not understand that he does not understand foreign policy."  If I were not convinced, based on extensive study, that I have some understanding of this question, I would gladly let someone else deal with the topic of “limited atonement.”  I long ago matured to the point that I am not interested in “winning” an argument.  But I am very concerned that the truth be taught.


Perhaps it is the misunderstanding of sufficiency that stands in the way of many people who hold to the universal atonement position.  We who believe in Particular Redemption, believe that the death of Christ was sufficient for the human race.  Because He is God, the death of Christ has infinite value.  So the death of Christ is sufficient for all men; but it is obviously not efficient for all men, unless you deny that there is a hell.

Words have meaning. What does atonement mean?  Propitiation? The wrath of God is propitiated.  But when?  A careful exegesis of Romans 3:21-26 will show that propitiation was an event in time.  Was the wrath of God propitiated for no one in particular?  God’s wrath was as surely propitiated for those for whom it was intended who will live after the event as it did for those who had already died in faith.

Perhaps the most persuasive apologetics for Limited Atonement is the comparison of Scripture with Scripture.  A basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture does not and cannot contradict itself.  The Holy Spirit inspired all of Scripture and so there are no contradictions.  If one passage seems to contradict another passage, then we have misunderstood one or both of them.  There are no seeming contradictions that cannot be intelligently and honestly reconciled.

That is why interpretation is the key to understanding the intent of the atonement.  There are passages of Scripture that seem to teach a general or universal intent.  But there are verses that teach limited or particular intent. Is this a contradiction?  Not if you are committed to the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

Verses that seem to support Universal Atonement:

Following the above basic principle of interpretation, look at all the verses in Scripture that seem to support a universal view of the atonement.   Then honestly see if those verses, which seem to support a universal atonement, can be understood in a limited sense.  If so, then these verses do not necessarily teach universal atonement.  Then see if the verses that support particular redemption can be correctly understood in a universal sense.

The Scriptures cited to support "Universal Atonement" usually include the phrase,
“the world,” “the whole world,”  “for all,” or “for every man.”  I do not intend to give an exhaustive treatment of all of these verses.  The references listed at the end of this article will do a more than adequate job to answer each such verse.  If, however, I can give you a few examples, then you will have the key for understanding all of them.

The term “the world,” “the whole world.”

John 1:29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward 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 everlasting life.

John 4:42 Then they said to the woman, "Now we believe, not because of what                            you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is                             indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world."

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

John 12:47     And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge                             him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.

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

The Jews divided all the peoples of the earth into Jews and non-Jews {Gentiles}.  So to the Jew, “the world,” included people from all nations, and not the Jews only.  The Christ then, is not only for the Jews, He is the Savior of the World, the only Savior for Gentiles and for Jews, but not the Savior to make atonement for the human race.

John 3:16 "FOR GOD ...SO LOVED... THE WORLD... "Which “World?”

The Greek word cosmos (makeup; arrangement) is used in at least six ways by John:

    1.   The order of the universe, John 17:5; the planet earth, John 21:25.
    2.   The human inhabitants, mankind, the human race, John 16:21.
    3.   The general public, John 7:4; 14:22.
    4.   In an ethical sense, mankind alienated from the life of God, sin-
         laden, exposed to judgment, in need of salvation, John 3:19.
    5.   Again, in an ethical sense, with the added distinction that there is no                           difference between races and nationalities, i.e. not only Jews, but non-Jews
         (Gentiles), John 1:29; 3:16; 3:17; 4:42; 6:33, 51; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46.
    6.   Once again, in an ethical sense: The realm of evil, with the added idea of                      open hostility to God, His Christ, and His people,
John 7:7; 8:23; 12:31; 14:30; 15:18; 17:9, 14.

The debate is over the object of “SO LOVED,” the human race, or His chosen people out of humanity?  In either case, they were all “dead in trespasses and sins,” and unless they savingly believe in Him they remain in their lost condition! When did God “SO LOVE?”

“Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” 

When were the names for whom the Lamb was slain written down?

"All who dwell on the earth will worship him {Satan}, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." Revelation 13: 8

"And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, ...."   Revelation 17: 8

To argue that God knew who would believe and so "elected" those is an Arminian perversion of the doctrine of election.  There are a fixed number of people, known to God from before the foundation of the world, they are chosen in Christ, Christ made atonement for them, and the Holy Spirit calls them.

"But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, 14 to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. 16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work."    2 Thessalonians 2: 13-17

The term “all.”

We must understand these terms in the context of the passage in which we find them.

"Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, 7 for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle--I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying--a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth." 1 Timothy 2: 1

All kinds of men without distinction

"For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; 15 and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. 16 Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." 2 Corinthians 5: 14

All for whom Christ died, died with Him when He died - in a covenant relationship - “all.”

The term “... for every man.”

"But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.

10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren,
12 saying: "I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You."
13 And again: "I will put My trust in Him."  And again: "Here am I and the children whom God has given Me." 
14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,
15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham.
17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted."  Hebrews 2: 9-18

The word “man” is not in the Greek text and should read “for every one.”

The context, "Here am I and the children whom God has given Me." {13}, should answer the question as to who are intended in the “every one.”

And then a passage that on the surface seems to say that our Lord died for the unregenerate.

"But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.”    2 Peter 2:1

Peter, a Jewish Christian, is writing primarily to Jewish believers and he uses an Old Testament illustration.  Peter was taking these false prophets on there own profession of faith as belonging to the covenant people of God, not as actually redeemed.

Cf. Deuteronomy 32:5-6
5  "They have corrupted themselves;
They are not His children,
Because of their blemish:
A perverse and crooked generation.
6  Do you thus deal with the LORD,
O foolish and unwise people?
Is He not your Father, who bought you?
Has He not made you and established you?

Verses for particular redemption.

It is possible, I suppose, that someone may find a way to make these passages seem universal in their intent, but it will take a vivid imagination to do so.

"Then they said to Him, "Lord, give us this bread always." 35 And Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 40 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." John 6:34-40

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13 The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15 As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep." John 10: 11-15

"Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, 2 as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him." John 17:1-2

“... praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved."  Acts 2: 47

"Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul." Acts 16: 14

If there were no other verse in the Bible to support particular redemption, this next one should be conclusive:

"Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." Acts 13: 48

As mentioned previously, a careful exegesis of Romans 5:12-21 {Cf. Ephesians 1:3-12} demands that Adam and Christ are representative persons.  All who were in Adam {the human race}, and all who were "in Christ," {God's elect}.  The human race was not "in Christ"!

"12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned--
13(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man's offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.
16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification.
17 For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
18 Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.
19 For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous.
20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more,
21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

At the beginning of this article the following statement was made:

The question may be asked in many ways, but the clearest way to put it is:
"Does God offer a possible or an actual salvation?  To be consistent, those who hold to General or Universal Atonement must allow the possibility that even though Christ made atonement for sin that no one would be saved!

Considering Romans 5:12-21, which demands representation in Adam or "in Christ," and in the context of Romans - going back to Romans 3:21-26:

"21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,
26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."

An actual atonement was made for a particular people, namely the Old Testament saints who died in faith, that God "might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."  The phrase "that He might be just," refers to those people who died in unbelief who were already in hell and who had a legitimate claim that God was not just because Abraham and others were not in hell and their atonement had not been made.  If then, the atonement was universal in intent, those very people who were already in hell, would also have had their sins atoned for and they would have been correct in their charge that God was not just.  It must be then that the atonement was particular in regard to the Old Testament saints.  Is the nature of the atonement different for the New Testament saints?  There is one God and one sacrifice for sin and the intent of the atonement is to redeem God's elect chosen "in Christ," from before the foundation of the world, called and set apart by the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel.

Does it matter how you view the intent of the atonement?

The atonement is at the very heart of the definition of the Gospel.  Your view of the atonement will define how you present the Gospel.  Your message will either be Christ-centered and man is the beggar, or your message will be man-centered and Christ is made the beggar.

The Universal view of the Atonement leads to the protracted “altar call” where men and women who are yet dead in trespasses and sins are begged to respond to a proposition.  They are exhorted:  “Christ died for you, won’t you let God save you!”  The fruits of this manipulation of emotions are church membership lists full of lost people.  They made a “decision” and many are deceived.  After a time many of them “quit church” and live lives that are indifferent to Jesus Christ.  If God saves a man you had better build a pew for him.  And God saves his pocketbook too!  We should be compassionate and gentle and yet realize that many of our members are deceived, trusting in something they did "in order to be saved."

One More Example of Error:

The following is an example of how a person's view of the atonement will affect his message:

"In one divine moment when a person embraces Christ, the Holy Spirit transforms his heart from the inside out.  Jesus tried to explain what happens when a person is regenerated when in  John 3:   5 Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8 "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."  When a person gives his heart to Christ the winds of change blow over his soul."

You can easily see that the person who wrote this has cause and effect turned around.  To this writer, the cause is man's decision, and the effect is the operation of the Holy Spirit, "when a person....” But the clear teaching of the passage the writer quoted is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the new birth.  The cause is God and the effect is regeneration.

It is one thing to tell someone that Christ died for sinners and that He died for people just like you.  It is quite a different matter to tell someone “Christ died for you,” unless you happen to be the Holy Spirit!

The question is not so much the intent of the atonement as it is man's "free will," or God's eternal purpose.  Because we know that God has a people chosen before the foundation of the world, and that He calls them through the Gospel, we can preach with confidence that God will give the increase. We are not dependent on man who is "without strength."

Recommended reading on the Atonement:

Introductory Essay,An Introduction to John Owens’ The Death of Death
     in the Death of Christ, by J.I. Packer

The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination,  by Loraine Boettner

The Sovereignty of God, Arthur Pink

The Five Points of Calvinism,  by Edwin H. Palmer

Calvin's Doctrine of the Atonement,  by Robert A. Peterson

The Cause of God and Truth, by John Gill

Abstracts of Systematic Theology, J. P. Boyce

Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689,
Chapter 7, Of God’s Covenant;
Chapter 8, Of Christ the Mediator.

Lectures on Calvinism and Arminianism,   Dr. W.R. Downing

Particular Redemption,  Charles Spurgeon Especially Part V.

The Bible.  This is not intended to be facetious.  Read the Bible from cover to                 cover, over and over, and the truth of God's sovereignty in all things will be seen.

© Copyright James A. Gunn
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All Writings and Expositions by James A. Gunn are used by permission.
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