There are many family groups in history and literature who fought against each other due to longstanding feuds. For instance, the well-known Hatfield and McCoy feud was a violent clash, which has since become legendary. Likewise, the fictional feuding families of the Montagues and Capulets in the tale of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare are infamous.
Their ongoing family feud caused the deaths of the lovers Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, members of the opposing families.
Such historic and literary feuds are legendary and well-known but were often based on shallow grounds. In contrast, there is a dispute among Christians regarding whom Christ died for on the cross.
There are those who believe that Jesus only died for the elect while the other side believes that Jesus died for all people. While such differences of opinion should not cause a feuding break in fellowship, the debate is very significant and deals with an important theological matter.
By outlining the beliefs of both sides fairly, this article will advocate for the position that Jesus died for all people, based on biblical evidence.
Limited Atonement — Jesus Died for the Elect
The belief that Jesus only died for the elect, a limited number of people, is known as limited atonement. Although a diverse number of people hold to this view, it is commonly associated with those of the Reformed position and with those who hold to a stronger form of Calvinism.
According to this view, when Jesus died on the cross, He shed His blood for those who had already been elected or chosen for salvation since the beginning of time. Within this view, Jesus only died for a select few people, not everyone. Therefore, this theological position is called “limited” or “particular” atonement.
In this view, Ephesians 5:25 would be a strong proof text, to show that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (NIV). Other common verses used in support of limited atonement are Matthew 1:21; 26:28; John 6:39; 10:14-15; 17:9; and Acts 20:28. A survey look at these verses shows an emphasis on Jesus giving His life for those who are the elect and belong to the Father.
Those who hold to limited atonement make it clear that they are not trying to place limits on who can be saved, but rather emphasize their belief that Jesus only died for those who were predestined to be saved by God.
As quoted by minister and theologian Anthony Hoekema, “God does not desire the salvation of all to whom the gospel comes; he desires the salvation only of the elect” (Saved by Grace). In the mind of those who hold this view, the opposing side of unlimited atonement would be the ones limiting God’s grace, not them.
Unlimited Atonement — Jesus Died for Everyone
In contrast to limited atonement, unlimited atonement is the view that Jesus’ sacrificial death was for everyone. This view of the atonement, or Jesus’ sacrificial death, should not be confused with the unbiblical position of universalism, which teaches that all people are universally saved because of Christ’s death.
As opposed to universalism, unlimited atonement holds that Christ’s death is for everyone, but individuals must place faith in Him to be saved.
As theologian Charles Ryrie stated in his book, “the death of Christ provided the payment for the sins of all people — those who accept that payment and those who do not” (Basic Theology). It is up to individuals to accept the payment that Jesus paid for all mankind.
Those who hold unlimited atonement do find support in the Bible for their view of the extent of Jesus’ sacrificial death. In support of this view, include verses such as John 1:29; 3:16; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:6; 4:10; Hebrews 2:9; 1 John 2:2; and 2 Peter 2:1.
Upon examination of these verse, one can see how all mankind is emphasized. Within the position of unlimited atonement, they would argue that such verses prove problematic for limited or particular atonement since all of Scripture taken together seems to argue more for unlimited atonement.
While unlimited atonement stems from a more Arminian view of salvation, this position is not incompatible with Calvinism. A person could not be a five-point Calvinist and hold to unlimited atonement because of the L (limited atonement) in TULIP.
However, a moderate Calvinist could still believe that Jesus died for all people and not compromise other main teachings such as unconditional election or total depravity.
Therefore, the distinct line between Arminianism and Calvinism is much more flexible for those who hold to unlimited as compared to limited atonement.
A Closer Look at Biblical Evidence
A few main verses should be examined to argue for unlimited atonement as the view, which is more consistent with Scripture. First, a major verse, which supports unlimited atonement is the well-known John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).
For those who believe in limited atonement, they would be forced to say that “world” in this verse does not refer to all people, but rather just the elect. In the Greek, however, the word refers to “the inhabitants of the earth” (Strong’s Concordance).
Also, such a view of “world” fits in context with the rest of the verse, in saying that “whoever believes” will be saved, referring to anyone who places faith in Jesus, not just a specific group of people.
Another significant verse is 1 Timothy 2:5-6, which reads “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time” (NIV).
While people who hold to limited atonement would have to change the meaning of “all,” the normal sense of the phrase, which the NIV carries over in their translation, would imply just what it says, “all people.”
Other translations favor this understanding of the text as well, such as Jesus being a ransom for “everyone” (NLT, ISV), “the whole human race” (GNT), and “every person” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English).
A final verse for examination will be one which limited atonement holders use in defense of their view. As was stated, Ephesians 5:25 is a verse used in favor of limited atonement, which states how Christ gave Himself up for the Church.
According to those who hold to limited atonement, this would seem to teach that Jesus only gave Himself up for the elect. However, one must keep in mind the immediate context of the verse, which is comparing Jesus’ relationship with the church with the relationship of husband and wife (Ephesians 5:21-33).
Paul is emphasizing the need for husbands to sacrificially love their wives, just as Jesus loves the church and died to save those who are in the church by His grace (Ephesians 5:25). This verse is not specifically discussing the extent of the atonement, but rather is part of Paul’s overall treatment of the analogy of Christ/church and husband/wife relations.
Therefore, when examining multiple verses, the Bible teaches that Jesus died as a ransom for all people. He paid the price for the sins of mankind, but each person must place faith in Him to receive this gift of salvation (Romans 10:9-11).
The claim that Jesus only died for a specific group of people ignores the teaching of many verses and seems to be based more on a presupposed theological position rather than Scripture.
For Whom Did He Die?
As has been advocated for in this article, Jesus died for all people so that all who place faith in Him may receive salvation.
Based on the biblical evidence, the theological position of unlimited atonement seems to be more consistent than limited atonement. Multiple verses indicate that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was for all mankind.
Although discussions between these two groups are often heated, one must remember that a break of fellowship over the extent of the atonement is not warranted.
There are believers in both the limited and unlimited atonement camps who are equally passionate about spreading the good news of Jesus.
Such differences in positions should not cause an outright feud but should lead to healthy and fruitful discussions, which seek to glorify God and uphold the truth of Scripture.
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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. Holding a Bachelor of Arts in Ministry and currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry, she is passionate about the Bible and her faith in Jesus. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.