John Owen argues for the view Reformed thinkers call limited atonement, basically the view that Christ's death was only for the sake of those who would be saved. Since those who never become saved never take advantage of the atonement, in what sense is it for them? Their sin is never atoned for. His argument is slightly for a more detailed, though it's very short and worth looking at.
I think Owen gives a good argument for limited atonement (or what more recent theologians have preferred to call particular atonement, which I think is just as obscure a term). But what about I Timothy 2:5, which says that Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all? What about John 3:16, which says that God's love is for the world that anyone who believe in him will have eternal life? Reformed thought has an easy answer to the second part. Those who do end up believing, i.e. those chosen by God to believe, will have eternal life. But what about God's love for the whole world? What about God's desire that no one die in Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 33:10? This essay is intended to sort out such issues.
Many Reformed thinkers will reduce what seems to me to be the obvious intent of these passages. They take them to include a much smaller group than they seem to include at face value. Thus the "all" in I Timothy 2:5 is merely all the elect. The "world" in John 3:16 is only those in the world who will be saved. The "none" in Ezekiel whom God doesn't want to die doesn't include those who persist in their rebellion against God, who are some whose death God delights in. This goes on for far more passages than these, but these are some of the most obvious examples. This approach seems to me to be too reductionistic. These passages seem to be saying something deeper about God's heart, and I hope what I have to say shows that. So I want to say that Christ on one level did die for those who aren't elect. I want to say that God's love does include those who will never repent. These statements aren't true on the same level as the statement that Christ's death is only for the elect. Both are true. Both may not be equally fundamental, but both are true. Scripture says both, and anyone who trusts what it says should affirm both whole-heartedly.
At the most fundamental level, Christ died on behalf of those who would respond to him in faith, namely those chosen from before the foundations of the world. That's what Owen has argued for, and that's what I agree with him on. However, it's also true that in some less fundamental but equally true and still important sense Christ died for the sake of all who would turn from sin and to him, and this is the message we must proclaim. If we go around telling people to repent if they're elect, they won't understand what we're talking about. If we tell them God loves them if they're elect, they won't see the beauty of God's love for those who don't deserve it, since he loved us in our unrighteousness and accomplished all that he did for us while we deserved nothing. The way to see that point is to proclaim that Christ died for sinners, that he died for those who would not be able to earn or deserve anything. So from a human level, the important message is: Believe, and you will be saved. Turn from your sin and follow Jesus, and you will be a child of God.
The emphasis in the gospel message is not on unconditional election, irresistible grace, or limited atonement, though these are true doctrines. It's on God's love in the face of it total depravity and Jesus' willingness to express his divine Sonly character of eternal submission to the Father by becoming a man and dying a shameful death, becoming sin so that we can become righteous. The five points of Calvinism are not the gospel. They're a human systematization of some of the truths in scripture, and they are correct when rightly understood (and you know how easy it is to misunderstand or misinterpret their wording), but they're not a balanced gospel presentation. They don't even get at the heart of the gospel anywhere near as well as Philippians 2:6-11 does, not that that's a complete picture either, since it has little about our response to it; it's just closer to the heart of it. So our context will affect which truths to stress.
In the context of evangelism, it's important to stress, as the apostles did, that anyone who truly repents will be saved. Look at the formulations in Peter and Stephen's sermons in Acts. They're not theologically profound, they're not extremely careful as if to ward off possible heretical misinterpretations, and they're not pastorally balanced, as if they consider all the points you would use to instruct a believer in their growing faith, which you do get in more developed theological reflections about the nature of salvation, as in Ephesians, Romans, or I John. (There are more extreme examples. Consider such ones as "believe and be baptized, and you'll be saved".)
This uncarefulness, imbalance, and lack of theological depth doesn't mean these are inappropriate statements. What they do is focus on the need to repent and the promise that anyone who does will be saved. This is a hypothetical statement -- a conditional. If you repent, you will be saved. So there's a potentiality -- anyone who turns out to fulfill the first part will have the second part true of them. This is how our language works for creatures in time who do not know the future and don't know people's hearts.
It's perfectly appropriate to use such conditional language, as long as we know that it's conditional, and as long as we're honest with people about its conditionality when the subject arises.
So when I say that Christ died in one important sense (though not the most fundamental sense) for the whole world, I mean that everyone in the world has the following conditional true of them: "If I turn from my sins and follow Jesus, I will be saved". That may be true only vacuously for lots of people, since the first part will never be true of them. On a fundamental level, God determines which people the sentence is true of. On the other hand, it's also true that their response to the gospel is something they do, and their rejection of the gospel is something they're responsible for.
That's why I stress things like the potentiality of the gospel for all. For one thing, I don't know who is elect, but even moreso it's clear in scripture that God doesn't delight in the death of the wicked. God has a desire that the wicked will turn and live (Ezekiel 33:10-11). This is accompanied by an urgent plea from God to these wicked that they turn and live. The language harks back to Ezekiel 18:23, where the same statement is made about what God takes pleasure in. This follows a conditional statement about those who repent not dying. But the crucial thing for me is how the chapter ends. "Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone ... so turn, and live." If God has no pleasure in the death of anyone, then that's making a strong claim about God's attitude toward those destined for hell. He asks why they will die, with urging speech. It can't be dismissed as merely rhetorical flourishes and that he's merely speaking to those who will end up repenting. They will die. He's pleading with them about why they refuse to turn and why they insist on ending up dying. The last statement shows that his desire on this matter extends to those who aren't elect, in Calvinist terms.
Of course, this needs to be balanced with the end of Revelation 19, where at the marriage supper of the Lamb we will eat the flesh of all who opposed God, meaning that we will end up rejoicing with God over the end of all evil, which happens to include the end of all evil beings, at least for the purposes of those in the eternal community with God (whether it implies annihilation or eternal exile in a conscious separation from God). Jonathan Edwards has been labeled a moral monster for agreeing with the author of Revelation that we will one day rejoice that evildoers are in hell, but what he's rejoicing at is the end of all opposition against God's good purposes, the final vindication of those who have persevered in following God (especially at the rough end), and the carrying out of justice with true finality and full severity on all those who haven't responded in trust to the one who was willing to take all injustice on himself and pay the penalty.
So rejoicing over the destruction of the evil is consistent with God's pleading that the evil repent. It's not as if God is rejoicing over the same exact thing as he is grieving. It's just that the same human action requires both. I don't know how this all works, but both seem to be affirmed in scripture. I hope I've suggested some key ways to begin thinking about this.
So how does this reconcile limited atonement with the idea that Jesus in some way did die for everyone? On a fundamental level, Jesus died for those who would end up believing in him. He didn't die for those whom he knew would not take advantage of the offer given to them. He didn't die for those who would end up rebelling to the end against the perfect restoration of all things that began with Jesus' coming. Yet in some way God intended his warnings to turn to apply to all people. His desire in some way applies to all sinners, since he has no desire that anyone die.
We should have no trouble, therefore, saying that his love extends to all people in some way, reading John 3:16 to include all the world as it seems at face value to intend. We should have no trouble saying that Jesus was given as a ransom for all, as I Tim 2:5 says, and mean it at its full face value. It was in some sense intended for all, and it was in some other sense intended only for the elect. I don't see a contradiction, as long as you realize that these are at two different levels.
The analytic philosopher in me wants to systematize this, and there is a helpful analytic philosophical way to show that there's no contradiction here, but I wouldn't want to insist that this is the right way to look at this. I think God's desire that no one perish is deeper than this model shows. However, it demonstrates the consistency of saying both things, which is my primary goal here.
Suppose I tell you that I wish for you to do really well on your exam. Do I wish that you do well even if you didn't do any of the work for the class? No! I wish that you do the work and then do well. But that's not what I said. Did I speak incorrectly? Perhaps not extremely carefully with strict language, but what I said was fine. It was conversationally appropriate, because my intended message was received. Ideally, I would want you to do well because I'd want you to do your work.
Now consider the case of God and the sinner. God wishes for each person that that person not die. Does that mean he wishes that they will be saved no matter what else is true? No! Ezekiel's message from God is that God wishes that they would turn and not die. It's specifically stated what the wish really is at the most fundamental level. Then when it's abbreviated in the passages like I Timothy 2:5, the most fundamental level is that Christ Jesus did give himself for a ransom for all -- but really the only ones of the "all" that he intended to be ransomed are those who would end up being saved and coming to knowledge of the truth (v.4). That doesn't mean he doesn't in some way desire for all to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. It just means that at a fundamental level God has hand-picked which people would be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. On a fundamental level of speaking, these are the people covered by the Jesus' death.
Somehow God's desires are that the others would be saved. I don't know how that works with God's selecting the others and not them. I suspect it has something to do with certain priorities of desires in God's mind and heart. God's love is one of them. This is as fundamental as anything else about God, since John tells us God is love (I John 4:16). Somehow other things come into the picture and prevent this desire of God's from being actualized. Does it mean God's desire is frustrated? I wouldn't presume to put it in those terms. Is it better to describe it as God's desire being outweighed by a more important desire?
This is becoming the realm of speculation at this point, and it's dangerous to speculate on what God hasn't specifically revealed, especially when such speculations can easily lead to heresy. The point should be clear here, however. If there's a contradiction, it's not in affirming limited atonement while saying that in another sense Christ's death, God's love, etc. apply to all. There's no contradiction between saying God desires all to be saved but only chose some to be saved. Both are affirmed by the scriptures, and anyone with a high view of the scriptures should believe both.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.