Is God’s Love Limited to the Elect?
Rebutting a Calvinist Challenge to the Gospel
The doctrine of limited atonement is probably the most hotly debated of the five points of Calvinism among evangelicals. It is also Calvinism’s Achilles’ heel; without it the other points fall.
By Roger E. Olson
The recent renaissance of Calvinism among evangelicals has brought to the fore the issue of the scope of Christ’s atoning death on the Cross. Many evangelical Christians simply assume that Christ died for all — that He bore the sins and suffered the punishment for every sinner. For the last four centuries, however, there has been a minority report among Protestants. Most Calvinists, followers of the French Reformer of Switzerland John Calvin (1509–64), have taught that Christ only bore the punishment for the sins of the elect — those unconditionally predestined by God for salvation. Contemporary Calvinists (they often prefer we call them Reformed Christians) call this doctrine “particular redemption” or “definite atonement.”
Among the contemporary evangelical defenders of limited atonement are, most notably, R.C. Sproul and John Piper. Sproul (b. 1939) has been an influential evangelical apologist and Reformed theologian for much of the last half of the 20th century. From his base in his Ligonier Ministries he has spoken on the radio, traveled to speak at numerous apologetics and theology conferences, and written many books — most of them dealing with God’s sovereignty from a strongly Reformed perspective.
Piper (b. 1946), pastor of Minneapolis’ Bethlehem Baptist Church, and founder of Desiring God Ministries, also travels widely and speaks at large gatherings of evangelical Christians — including the Passion conferences attended by thousands of mostly Southern Baptist teens and twenties. He is a prolific author whose books, including Desiring God: Confessions of a Christian Hedonist (1986), have sold millions of copies. Like Sproul, Piper is a passionate promoter of five-point Calvinism.
Five-point Calvinism is belief in the doctrines symbolized by the TULIP acrostic: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Calvinists created the acrostic about 1913, but the “doctrines of grace” it represents date back to Calvin’s successor — Theodore Beza (1519–1605) — principal of the Genevan Academy (a Reformed seminary in Geneva, Switzerland, founded by Calvin). Limited atonement stands at the center of this theological system. Sproul, Piper, and many other contemporary, influential evangelical theologians tenaciously hold and defend this position.
What does limited atonement or particular redemption mean? According to Sproul, who prefers to call this doctrine “purposeful atonement,” it means that God intended Christ’s death on the Cross to secure the salvation of a definite number of fallen human persons — those unconditionally chosen by God. Like other Calvinists, Sproul argues that Christ’s substitutionary death (i.e., God inflicted on Christ the punishment for sins deserved by sinners) was of sufficient value to save everyone, but God only intended it to save the elect. In the most important sense, Christ only died for the elect and not for everyone.
For Sproul (and others like him), this doctrine is not dispensable; it is part and parcel of the TULIP system that they believe alone does justice to the sovereignty of God and the gift nature of salvation. One argument Sproul uses, following the Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–83), is that, if Christ died for everyone alike, then everyone is saved. After all, so the argument goes, it would be unjust of God to punish the same sins twice — once by laying the punishment on Christ and another time by sending the sinner to hell.
Piper is equally passionate about limited atonement. Like Sproul, he does not consider it a minor point of theology. In an article entitled, “For Whom Did Christ Die? And What Did Christ Actually Achieve on the Cross for Those for Whom He Died?”1 Piper argues that it is not the Calvinist who limits the Atonement but the non-Calvinist who believes in universal atonement. The reason: Those who believe in universal atonement must say Christ’s death did not actually save anyone but only gave people opportunity to save themselves. Or they must embrace universalism.
Piper continues by arguing that Christ did actually die for all people but not in the same way. All people benefit from Christ’s death by, for example, receiving certain blessings in this life they would otherwise not have — but only the elect receive the benefit of salvation from it.
This doctrine of limited atonement is probably the most hotly debated of the five points of Calvinism among evangelicals. Evangelical theologian Vernon Grounds, former president of Denver Seminary, lashed out against the doctrine. Pointing to John 1:29; Romans 5:17–21; 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:6; Hebrews 2:9; and 1 John 2:2 he wrote, “It takes an exegetical ingenuity which is something other than a learned virtuosity to evacuate these texts of their obvious meaning: it takes an exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry to deny their explicit universality.”2 Needless to say, many evangelicals, including some Calvinists, find this doctrine repugnant.
Basis for limited atonement
Before explaining why this doctrine is repulsive, it will be beneficial to look at the reasons why many Calvinists think so highly of it and promote it so passionately. Once again, what is this doctrine? It is that God intended Jesus’ death on the Cross to be a propitiation (substitutionary, atoning sacrifice) only for the sins of the elect — those God has selected to save apart from anything He sees in them or about them (other than His choice of them for His glory and good pleasure).
Why would anyone believe this?
Proponents of limited atonement point to several Scriptures: John 10:15; 17:6, and similar verses in John 10–17; Romans 8:32; Ephesians 5:25–27; Titus 2:14.
Calvinists use John 10:15 to support their teaching: “The Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Many other verses in John say much the same — that Christ laid down His life for His sheep (i.e., His disciples and all who would come after them).
Calvinists also point to Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” They assume “us all” refers to the elect.
Ephesians 5:25–27 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Calvinists believe this passage, like many others, refers only to the church as the object of Christ’s cleansing sacrifice.
Titus 2:14 reads: “Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Calvinists believe that Paul, the author of Titus, seems to restrict the saving benefits of Christ’s death to “his people” which they equate with the elect.
Calvinists assume these verses and others like them teach that Christ died only for those chosen by God for salvation. But these verses do not teach Calvinistic beliefs. Nowhere does the Bible explicitly teach this Calvinist doctrine.
Calvinists read into these passages their belief that Christ only died for the church, for His people, for His sheep. These verses do not say Christ did not also die for others. And, as we will see, there are many passages that clearly teach Christ did die for everyone.
There is another reason Calvinists believe in limited atonement. If Christ died equally for everyone, they aver, then everyone is saved. They argue that those who believe in universal atonement face two unavoidable but biblically untenable options: either Christ’s death saved everyone or it saved no one. This argument is, however, fallacious. Universal atonement does not require universal salvation; it only requires the possibility of universal salvation.
It is possible for the same sins to be punished twice and that is what makes hell so absolutely tragic — it is totally unnecessary. God punishes those with hell who reject His Son’s substitution. An analogy will help make this clear. After the Vietnam War, President Jimmy Carter gave a blanket amnesty to all draft dodgers who fled to Canada and elsewhere. By presidential decree they were free to come home. Some did and some did not. Their crime was no longer punishable; but some refused to take advantage of the amnesty and punished themselves by staying away from home and family. Believers in universal atonement believe God allows sinners who refuse the benefit of Christ’s cross to suffer the punishment of hell in spite of the fact it is totally unnecessary.
Perhaps the most rhetorically powerful reason given for limited atonement is that offered by John Piper (and other Calvinists before him) who says in For Whom Did Christ Die? that those who believe in universal atonement “must say” that Christ’s death did not really save anyone but only gave people an opportunity to save themselves. This is totally fallacious reasoning.
Arminians (those who follow Jacob Arminius in rejecting unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace) believe Christ’s death on the Cross saves all who receive it by faith. Christ’s death secures their salvation — just as much as it secures the salvation of the elect in Calvinism. It guarantees that anyone who comes to Christ in faith will be saved by His death. This does not imply they save themselves. It simply means they accept the work of Christ on their behalf.
Responding to Calvinism
It’s difficult to resist the impression that Calvinists who believe in limited atonement do so not for clear biblical reasons but because they think Scripture allows it and reason requires it. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but at least some Calvinists such as Piper have criticized others for doing the same.3 Piper criticizes others for allegedly embracing doctrines only because Scripture allows them and logic requires them. It seems to many non-Calvinists, however, that believers in limited atonement do exactly that. Lacking any clear, unequivocal biblical support for this doctrine, they embrace it because they think Scripture allows it and their TULIP system logically requires it. After all, if election is unconditional and grace is irresistible, then it would seem that the atonement would be only for the elect.
Scripture contradicts limited atonement in John 3:16,17; Romans 14:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18,19; Colossians 1:19,20; 1 Timothy 2:5,6; 1 John 2:2. Everyone knows John 3:16,17: “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Typically, Calvinists respond that in these verses “world” refers to all kinds of people and not everyone. However, that would make it possible to interpret all the places where the New Testament reports that the “world” is sinful and fallen as meaning only some people — all kinds — are sinful and fallen. The Calvinist interpretation of John 3:16,17, seems to fit Vernon Grounds’ description of the faulty exegesis used to defend limited atonement.
First John 2:2 is another passage we cannot reconcile with limited atonement: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” This passage completely undermines the Calvinist interpretation of “world” in John 3:16,17 because it explicitly states that Christ died an atoning death not only for believers, but also for everyone. Here “world” must include nonbelievers because “ours” refers to believers. This verse makes it impossible to say that Christ’s death benefits everyone, only not in the same way. (Piper says Christ’s death benefits the nonelected by giving them temporal blessings only.) John says clearly and unequivocally that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was for the sins of everyone — including those who are not believers.
What about 2 Corinthians 5:18,19? “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 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.” Calvinists sometimes argue that this passage supports limited atonement. After all, if God was in Christ not counting everyone’s sins against them, then everyone is saved. Therefore, they say, “everyone” must mean only the elect. But that’s not true. When Paul says that God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them, He means if they repent and believe. In other words, the Atonement did reconcile God with the world so He could forgive; it satisfied the demands of justice so reconciliation is possible from God’s side. But it remains for sinners to accept that by faith. Then full reconciliation takes place.
Colossians 1:19,20 says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” It is impossible to interpret “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” as referring only to the elect. This passage refutes limited atonement. So does 1 Timothy 2:5,6: “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.” The only way a believer in limited atonement can escape the force of this passage is to interpret the Greek translated “all people” as somehow meaning “all kinds of people,” but that is not an interpretation allowed by the common use of the phrase in Greek literature outside the New Testament (or elsewhere in it).
Many Scriptures clearly indicate that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice was meant for everyone; that His substitutionary punishment was for all people. But there are two seldom discussed New Testament passages that absolutely undercut limited atonement: Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11. In these verses, Paul sternly warns Christians against causing people to be destroyed for whom Christ died. The Greek translation of the words “destroy” and “destroyed” in these verses cannot mean merely harmed or injured. Clearly Paul is warning people that it is possible to cause people for whom Christ died to go to hell (by causing them to stumble and fall by showing off one’s own liberty to eat meat sacrificed to idols). If TULIP Calvinism is correct, this warning is useless because this cannot happen. According to Calvinism, the elect, for whom Christ died, cannot be lost.
The weight of Scripture is clearly set against limited atonement. Calvinist interpretations of these and similar passages remind one of the sign outside a blacksmith’s shop referring to its artistic work with metals: “All kinds of fancy twisting and turning done here.” However, the problem with limited atonement goes beyond a few verses that Calvinists cannot explain without distorting their clear meanings. The greatest problem goes to the heart of the doctrine of God. Who is God and what is God like?
Limited Atonement and the Nature of God
If God is love (1 John 4:7) but intended Christ’s atoning death to be the propitiation for only certain people so only they have any chance of being saved, then “love” has no intelligible meaning when referring to God. All Christians agree that God is love. But believers in limited atonement must interpret God’s love as somehow compatible with God unconditionally selecting some people to eternal torment in hell when He could save them (because election to salvation and thus salvation itself is unconditional). There is no analogy in human existence to this kind of behavior that is regarded as loving. We would never consider someone who could rescue drowning people, for example, but refuses to do it and rescues only some as loving. We would consider such a person evil, even if the rescued people appreciated what the person did for them.
Calvinists typically handle this in one of two ways. Some say that God’s love is different from our love. But if it is that different, it is meaningless. If God’s “love” has no similarity to anything we would call love, if it resembles hate more than love, then it loses all sense of meaning. Then when a person says God is love he might as well be using a nonsense word like “creech” — God is creech. Also, where did God better demonstrate His love than in Jesus Christ? But is Jesus Christ’s love for people arbitrary and hateful to some? Or does Jesus Christ in His love for all people reveal the heart of God? Calvinism ends up having to posit a hidden God very much unlike Jesus Christ.
Another way Calvinists handle the love of God and try to reconcile it with limited atonement and double predestination (the two are really inseparable) is to say that God loves all people in some way but only some people (the elect) in all ways. Piper, for example, exalts the love of God for everyone — even the nonelect.4 He says that God bestows temporal blessings on the nonelect — meaning as they move toward their predestined eternal torment in hell. John Wesley, responding to a similar claim by Calvinists in his time, quipped that this is such a love as to make the blood run cold. Another response is that this simply means God gives the nonelect a little bit of heaven to take with them on their journey to hell. What kind of love is this — that gives temporal blessings and happiness to people chosen by God for eternal suffering in hell? After all, if Calvinism is correct, there is nothing blocking God from choosing all people for heaven, except, some say, His own glory. Some Calvinists say that God must manifest all His attributes and one attribute is justice that makes hell necessary. Again, however, that won’t work because the Cross was a sufficient manifestation of God’s justice.
Limited atonement makes indiscriminate evangelism impossible. A believer in limited atonement can never say to any random stranger or group: “God loves you and Christ died for your sins and mine; you can be saved.” And yet this is the very life blood of evangelism — telling the good news to all and inviting all to come to Jesus Christ with repentance and faith. Many Calvinists are evangelistic and missions minded, but in their evangelism and missions they cannot tell everyone within the sound of their voices that God loves them, Jesus died for them, and He wants them to be saved. They can proclaim the gospel (as they interpret it), but they cannot solicit faith by promising salvation through Christ to everyone they meet or to whom they preach.
Limited atonement is the Achilles’ heel of TULIP Calvinism; without it the other points of TULIP fall. If God is truly love, then Christ died for everyone that all may be saved.
2. Vernon C. Grounds, “God’s Universal Salvific Grace” in Grace Unlimited, ed., Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1975), 27.
3. John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Portland: Multnomah, 2000). See the lengthy footnote about Pinnock’s allegedly faulty hermeneutics, 70–74.
4. Ibid., 48ff.