The Extent of the Atonement

The Atonement and the “Well-Meant” Gospel Offer

It isn’t uncommon in discussions on the atonement to find those who hold to definite atonement appeal to an internal consistency of Scripture; to consider the logical implications of the evidence. This appeal comes with a kind of tacit acknowledgment that many verses of Scripture that speak of atonement do, on the face of it, seem to support an unlimited atonement. The editors of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, state it this way.

“We suggest that articulating definite atonement is similar to articulating doctrines like the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. The approach needs to be biblical, but not biblicist. No one text ‘proves’ definite atonement. any more than one text ‘proves’ the Trinity or the communion of attributes in christology. In the case of those doctrines, numerous texts are studied and their implications synthesized and their key terms explored in their biblical contexts and historical usage so that, taken as a whole, the doctrines of the Trinity or the two natures describe ‘a pattern of judgment present in the texts.’”[1]

I concur with this, but it is doubtless the case that just as those on the side of definite atonement synthesize texts, and consider their implications, so those on the other side of the question do so, and can argue their position from just such a synthesis and its implications. Acts 17 and the appeal of the gospel is a text that affords this sort of synthesis.

When the apostle Paul speaks to the Greeks at the Areopagus, he provides some insight into the extent of the atonement. Paul does not follow the usual methods he employs with the Jews, reasoning with them from the Hebrew Scriptures. (Acts 13 is such an example, where he and Barnabas are in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch.) The Greeks have no knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, so he takes a different approach in Acts 17. Paul begins with creation. God “himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” 17:25.

Moreover, “he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.” God created all mankind. None would doubt this, but is there any relation between the extent of this creation, and the provision of atonement? Paul goes on to say God has arranged things so that mankind “should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” 17:27.

What we don’t find here is any sort of limitation in Paul’s language, as if those who should seek God is a smaller subset of those whom he created. This becomes even more explicit when Paul makes his appeal. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” 17:30. The scope of Paul’s language is broad indeed. God commands all people everywhere.

Some will answer that it makes sense for Paul to speak this way, because we don’t know who the elect are—only God knows. But this argument fails on two points. Is it the case that the gospel appeals recorded in Scripture are the work of the Holy Spirit, or no? They are, indeed, and God the Holy Spirit has knowledge of who the elect are. In other words, a claim that Paul didn’t know who the elect are fails to account for the fact that God is the author of Scripture. Related to this, the message of the gospel is not man’s message, not Paul’s, but it is God’s own message, God’s own appeal. Paul has said in 2 Cor 5:20 that he is but a vessel, a conduit, but the appeal of the gospel comes from God Himself.

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Cor 5:20.

Paul’s message also includes an appeal to repent, to turn to God. Does Scripture contemplate a situation where God commands repentance, but withholds any ability to do so? If only the elect are capable of belief, that would perhaps be the case, but Paul does not countenance such a thing. He affirms that God commands all people everywhere to repent. Here, too, we find no limitation.

I submit that if the position of definite atonement is the scriptural one, then Paul’s words do not make sense. And this is where I, like those who hold to limited atonement, argue that the theological implications of the text are something to consider.

His appeal assumes that it is possible for every one of his hearers to do as he implores: turn to God in repentance. That repentance includes faith is clear from the surrounding verses. He has spoken of finding God (verse 27) and of the resurrection providing assurance for all he says. The facts Paul puts forth form the basis for belief. Though there were mockers, “some men joined him and believed.” (verse 34)

The appeal in Acts 17 is in harmony with what Paul says elsewhere. “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Tim 2:3-4.  Also, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” Titus 2:11. I’m aware that advocates for definite atonement synthesize these verses to say that they refer to all sorts of people—to both Jews and Gentiles—since ethnic exclusivity had been part of Jewish expectation. However, that explanation has always been strained, requiring us to read something additional into the text. An alternative is to see Paul saying what is consistent with his preaching in Acts 17: An invitation that is as wide as the need, as wide as sin has permeated humanity.

Some have been sensitive to the criticism of this—that a free offer of the gospel to all is not consistent with the claims of definite atonement. John Piper has written

“The basis of the validity of this offer, therefore, is (1) that Christ is the one we offer, (2) that he really did accomplish and secure all the benefits we offer including himself as the supreme treasure, and (3) that the promise is true that whoever receives him will have him and all his blood-bought benefits.”[2]

Most of what Piper says is not relevant to the discussion on the extent of the atonement. That is, all sides affirm that only in Christ is there salvation, and that what he did on the cross was entirely sufficient to atone for sin.  Moreover, to any who believe, the promised benefits will accrue.  But it illustrates what usually happens. In the preaching of the gospel, advocates for definite atonement adopt, in practice, the stance of unlimited atonement. Christ is offered freely to all. They affirm there can, in some way, be an unlimited application of the atonement, even as the extent of the atonement (as to sinners) remains hidden, limited, and unknown. But they sometimes also nuance their language such that “Christ died for your sins” is not part of the proclamation; rather, “If you believe, Christ will save you.” The first statement is of course part of what Paul delivered to the Corinthians. He was able to tell them all without exception that Christ died for them.

Moreover, what Piper affirms is again not the same as what Paul says in Acts 17. Paul affirms it to be not just an offer, but a command of God that all people repent. Piper’s statements acknowledge that our human knowledge is incomplete – since we don’t know who, truly, Christ atoned for, he is offered to all. But God knows—and God has not limited the scope at all in Acts 17 (nor elsewhere.) This is quite different than the assertion of definite atonement. God cannot actually be “not far from each one of us” if there is no provision of atonement for some. Indeed, for such a one, God could not be further away, since there is no hope of ever having a saving relationship with him.

The 19C American preacher Erskine Mason summarized the difficulty that preachers face if they hold that Christ atoned only for some.

“If the entire population of the globe were before me, and there should be one in the mighty assembly for whom there was no provision, I could not preach the gospel; for how could I say in sincerity and honesty to all and to each, come and take of the waters of life freely?”[3]

My contention in all of this is that to offer the gospel freely to all is a de facto embrace of a universal extent. Those making this offer, despite claims of limitation, are actually treating the extent of the atonement as unlimited. I find no problem with this—for I hold that Christ died for all—but it may trouble some advocates of limited atonement that it represents an inconsistency in their position.

[1] David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, “Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 38.

[2] John Piper, “My Glory I Will Not Give to Another” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 660.

[3] cited in David L. Allen,The Extent of the Atonement (Nashville,B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition), 542.

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