The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Steve McKinion's Christian Theology II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Topic: Did Jesus atone for the sins of every person, or just those who becom Christians?
The extent of the atonement is one of the most debated topics in the history of the church for centuries. Whether Jesus Christ’s death provided substition for the sins of all people or just some has been the cause of many dissensions and denominational splits in the Protestant world ever since the Reformation. Most famously, Arminius and his followers were expelled from the Calvinistic churches over this very issue and the way they worked out their stance in other areas of doctrine.
For the most part, though, what is at issue is not whether Jesus’ death was of sufficient merit to save all people. Jesus the incarnate Son of God provided a sacrifice of infinite worth, undoubtedly of sufficient worth to cover all the sins of all mankind in all of history. Rather, the question is to whom the atonement is applied and how—or, to put it differently, to whom its benefits are available. Thus, the phrases of “limited atonement” and “unlimited atonement” are best understood as referring to the availability and effect of the atonement, not to its value.
Second, it must be recognized that all orthodox Christians affirm that the effects of the atonement are limited in at least one important sense: not all people are redeemed, and therefore not all people benefit from the atonement of Christ. To put it as many have before, all orthodox believers affirm that the atonement was “sufficient for all, but efficient for some,” for if it was “efficient” for all, then all would be saved. (To affirm any lesser effect is to diminish the atonement. This is not to say that there may not be other, broader effects of Christ’s death on the cross—e.g. the notion of prevenient grace enabling all to respond to the preached word—only that the atonement itself is not applied universally.) The question then is only who those “some” are and the terms under which the atonement is available to them.
The simplest answer is simply to say, “the elect!” and have done, leaving aside the tendentious question of who is elect—but this question is precisely where the rubber meets the road on the issue of the atonement. After all, everyone agrees that the only the sins of those who believe are actually removed in Christ, regardless of how election works out. Thus, when people speak of “limited” or “unlimited” atonement, they are usually speaking of the issue of general or specific election. Does the work of Christ mean that all are equally able to hear and respond to the gospel, or does it mean that only the elect are enabled to hear and respond?
I think the most faithful articulation of the matter is to speak of the atonement in three ways. First, we affirm that Jesus’ death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world—all the world. Second, we offer the atonement freely to everyone. Although the only the elect will be saved (however we understand that to play out), the Scriptures clearly enjoin us to proclaim Christ’s subtitutionary death and justifying resurrection to sinners everywhere and to urge everyone to repent and trust in him. Third, we affirm that the saving work of the atonement is applied to the sins of those who confess Christ as Savior and Lord and obey him. We need not perfectly understand or agree upon the means by which people come to confess Christ as Lord to affirm that it is only in that affirmation and obedience that one’s sins are covered in the atonement.
It is thus most appropriate to speak of Jesus’ atonement as unlimited in extent but limited in effect.