VI. The Purpose and Extent of the Atonement


The atonement was destined to affect the relation of God to the sinner, the state and condition of Christ as the Mediatorial author of salvation, and the state and condition of the sinner.

1. ITS EFFECT WITH REFERENCE TO GOD. It should be emphasized first of all that the atonement effected no change in the inner being of God, which is unchangeable. The only change that was brought about was a change in the relation of God to the objects of His atoning love. He was reconciled to those who were the objects of His judicial wrath. This means that His wrath was warded off by the sacrificial covering of their sin. The atonement should not be represented as the moving cause of the love of God, for it was already an expression of His love. It is often represented as if, on the satisfaction theory, God could not love the sinner until His just demands were met. But then the fact is overlooked that Christ is already the gift of God’s love, John 3:16. At the same time it is perfectly true that the atonement did remove obstacles to the manifestation of God’s redeeming love in the pardoning of sinners and in their sanctification, by satisfying the justice of God and the demands of the law, both in its federal and penal aspects.

2. ITS EFFECT WITH RESPECT TO CHRIST. The atonement secured a manifold reward for Christ as Mediator. He was constituted the life-giving Spirit, the inexhaustible source of all the blessings of salvation for sinners. He received:

a. All that belonged to His glorification, including His present Messianic glory. Hence He prayed, when in His high priestly prayer He by anticipation already thought of His work as completed, “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was,” John 17:5.

b. The fulness of those gifts and graces which He imparts to His people. Thus we read in Ps. 68:18: “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive; thou hast received gifts for men; yea for the rebellious also, that the Lord might dwell among them.” Paul applies this to Christ in Eph. 4:8.

c. The gift of the Holy Spirit for the formation of His mystical body and the subjective application of the fruits of His atoning work. This is evident from the words of Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He hath shed forth this which ye now see and hear,” Acts 2:33.

d. The ends of the earth for His possession and the world for His dominion. This was one of the promises made unto Him: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession,” Ps. 2:8. That this promise was fulfilled is quite evident from Heb. 2:6-9.


a. The atonement not only made salvation possible for the sinner, but actually secured it. On this point Calvinists join issue with the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Arminians, and all those who teach a universal atonement. These hold that the atonement of Christ merely made salvation possible, and not certain, for those for whom it was offered. But the Calvinist teaches that the atonement meritoriously secured the application of the work of redemption to those for whom it was intended and thus rendered their complete salvation certain.

b. It secured for those for whom it was made: (1) A proper judicial standing through justification. This includes the forgiveness of sin, the adoption of children, and the right to an eternal inheritance. (2) The mystical union of believers with Christ through regeneration and sanctification. This comprises the gradual mortification of the old man, and the gradual putting on of the new man created in Christ Jesus. (3) Their final bliss in communion with God through Jesus Christ, in subjective glorification, and in the enjoyment of eternal life in a new and perfect creation. All this clearly obviates the objection so often raised against the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement, namely, that it has no ethical bearings and offers no basis for the ethical life of the redeemed. It may even be said that it is the only doctrine of the atonement that offers a secure basis for a real ethical life, a life that is rooted in the heart through the operation of the Holy Spirit. Justification leads right on to sanctification.


1. THE EXACT POINT AT ISSUE. The question with which we are concerned at this point is not (a) whether the satisfaction rendered by Christ was in itself sufficient for the salvation of all men, since this is admitted by all; (b) whether the saving benefits are actually applied to every man, for the great majority of those who teach a universal atonement do not believe that all are actually saved; (c) whether the bona fide offer of salvation is made to all that hear the gospel, on the condition of repentance and faith, since the Reformed Churches do not call this in question; nor (d) whether any of the fruits of the death of Christ accrue to the benefit of the non-elect in virtue of their close association with the people of God, since this is explicitly taught by many Reformed scholars. On the other hand, the question does relate to the design of the atonement. Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that only is the question.

2. STATEMENT OF THE REFORMED POSITION. The Reformed position is that Christ died for the purpose of actually and certainly saving the elect, and the elect only. This is equivalent to saying that He died for the purpose of saving only those to whom He actually applies the benefits of His redemptive work. Various attempts have been made in circles that claimed to be Reformed to modify this position. The Dutch Arminians maintained that Christ died for the purpose of making salvation possible for all men without exception, though they will not all be saved. Salvation is offered to them on lower terms than it was to Adam, namely on condition of faith and evangelical obedience, a condition which they can meet in virtue of God’s gift of common or sufficient grace to all men. The Calvinistic Universalists sought to mediate between the Reformed position and that of the Arminians. They distinguished a twofold decree of God: (a) A decree to send Christ into the world to save all men by His atoning death on condition of faith in Him. However, because God saw that this purpose would fail, since no one would accept Christ by faith, He followed up the first by a second decree. (b) A decree to give a certain elect number special grace, in order to engender faith in their hearts and to secure their salvation. This dubious and very unsatisfactory view was held by the school of Saumur (Cameron, Amyraldus, and Testardus), and also by such English scholars as Wardlaw, John Brown, and James Richards. Some New England theologians, such as Emmons, Taylor, Park, and Beman held a somewhat similar view. The Marrow-men of Scotland were perfectly orthodox in maintaining that Christ died for the purpose of saving only the elect, though some of them used expressions which also pointed to a more general reference of the atonement. They said that Christ did not die for all men, but that He is dead, that is, available, for all. God’s giving love, which is universal, led Him to make a deed of gift and grant to all men; and this is the foundation for the universal offer of salvation. His electing love, however, which is special, results in the salvation of the elect only. The most important of the Marrowmen were Hog, Boston, and the two Erskines.

3. PROOF FOR THE DOCTRINE OF A LIMITED ATONEMENT. The following proofs may be given for the doctrine of particular atonement:

a. It may be laid down, first of all, as a general principle, that the designs of God are always surely efficacious and cannot be frustrated by the actions of man. This applies also to the purpose of saving men through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. If it had been His intention to save all men, this purpose could not have been frustrated by the unbelief of man. It is admitted on all hands that only a limited number is saved. Consequently, they are the only ones whom God has determined to save.

b. Scripture repeatedly qualifies those for whom Christ laid down His life in such a way as to point to a very definite limitation. Those for whom He suffered and died are variously called “His sheep,” John 10:11,15, “His Church,” Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25-27, “His people,” Matt. 1:21, and “the elect,” Rom. 8:32-35.

c. The sacrificial work of Christ and His intercessory work are simply two different aspects of His atoning work, and therefore the scope of the one can be no wider than that of the other. Now Christ very definitely limits His intercessory work, when He says: “I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me.” John 17:9. Why should He limit His intercessory prayer, if He had actually paid the price for all?

d. It should also be noted that the doctrine that Christ died for the purpose of saving all men, logically leads to absolute universalism, that is, to the doctrine that all men are actually saved. It is impossible that they for whom Christ paid the price, whose guilt He removed, should be lost on account of that guilt. The Arminians cannot stop at their half-way station, but must go all the way.

e. If it be said, as some do say, that the atonement was universal, but that the application of it is particular; that He made salvation possible for all, but actually saves only a limited number, — it should be pointed out that there is an inseparable connection between the purchase and the actual bestowal of salvation. The Bible clearly teaches that the design and effect of the atoning work of Christ is not merely to make salvation possible, but to reconcile God and man, and to put men in actual possession of eternal salvation, a salvation which many fail to obtain, Matt. 18:11; Rom. 5:10; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13; Eph. 1:7.

f. And if the assertion be made that the design of God and of Christ was evidently conditional, contingent on the faith and obedience of man, attention should be called to the fact that the Bible clearly teaches that Christ by His death purchased faith, repentance, and all the other effects of the work of the Holy Spirit, for His people. Consequently these are no conditions of which the fulfilment is simply dependent on the will of man. The atonement also secures the fulfilment of the conditions that must be met, in order to obtain salvation, Rom. 2:4; Gal. 3:13,14; Eph. 1:3,4; 2:8; Phil. 1:29; II Tim. 3:5,6.

4. OBJECTIONS TO THE DOCTRINE OF A LIMITED ATONEMENT. These may be classified as follows:

a. There are passages which teach that Christ died for the world, John 1:29; 3:16; 6:33,51; Rom. 11:12,15; II Cor. 5:19; I John 2:2. The objection based on these passages proceeds on the unwarranted assumption that the word “world” as used in them means “all the individuals that constitute the human race.” If this were not so, the objection based on them would have no point. But it is perfectly evident from Scripture that the term “world” has a variety of meanings, as a mere reading of the following passages will prove conclusively, Luke 2:1; John 1:10; Acts 11:28; 19:27; 24:5; Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:6. It also appears that, when it is used of men, it does not always include all men, John 7:4; 12:19; 14:22; 18:20; Rom. 11:12,15; in some of these passages it cannot possibly denote all men. If it had that meaning in John 6:33,51, it would follow that Christ actually gives life to all men, that is, saves them all. This is more than the opponents themselves believe. In Rom. 11:12, 15 the word “world” cannot be all-inclusive, since the context clearly excludes Israel; and because on that supposition these passages too would prove more than is intended, namely, that the fruits of the atoning work of Christ are actually applied to all. We do find in these passages, however, an indication of the fact that the word “world” is sometimes used to indicate that the Old Testament particularism belongs to the past, and made way for New Testament universalism. The blessings of the gospel were extended to all nations, Matt. 24:14; Mark 16:16; Rom. 1:5; 10:18. This is probably the key to the interpretation of the word “world” in such passages as John 1:29; 6:33,51; II Cor. 5:19; I John 2:2. Dr. Shedd assumes that the word means “all nations” in such passages as Matt. 26:13; John 3:16; I Cor. 1:21; II Cor. 5:19; and I John 2:2; but holds that in other passages it denotes the world of believers, or the Church, John 6:33,51; Rom. 4:13; 11:12,15. Kuyper and Van Andel also assume that this is the meaning of the word in some passages.

b. Closely related to the passages to which we referred in the preceding, are those in which it is said that Christ died for all men, Rom. 5:18; I Cor. 15:22; II Cor. 5:14; I Tim. 2:4,6; Tit. 2:11; Heb. 2:9; II Pet. 3:9. Naturally, each of these passages must be considered in the connection in which it is found. For instance, the context clearly shows that the “all” or “all men” of Rom. 5:18, and I Cor. 15:22 includes only those who are in Christ, as contrasted with all who are in Adam. If the word “all” in these passages is not interpreted in a limited sense, they would teach, not merely that Christ made salvation possible for all men, but that He actually saves all without exception. Thus the Arminian would again be forced into the camp of the absolute Universalist, where he does not want to be. A similar limitation must be applied in the interpretation of II Cor. 5:14, and Heb. 2:9, cf. verse 10. Otherwise they would prove too much, and therefore prove nothing. In all these passages the “all” are simply all those who are in Christ. In the case of Tit. 2:11, which speaks of the appearance of the grace of God, “bringing salvation to all men,” the context clearly shows that “all men” really means all classes of men. If the “all” is not restricted, this passage too would teach universal salvation. The passages in I Tim. 2:4-6, Heb. 2:9; II Pet. 3:9 refer to the revealed will of God that both Jews and Gentiles should be saved, but imply nothing as to the universal intent of the atonement. Even Moses Stuart, who believes in universal atonement, admits that in these cases the word “all” cannot be taken in a universal sense.

c. A third class of passages which seem to militate against the idea of a limited atonement consists of those which are said to imply the possibility that those for whom Christ died fail to obtain salvation. Rom. 14:15 and the parallel passage in I Cor. 8:11 may be mentioned first of all. Some commentators are of the opinion that these passages do not refer to eternal destruction, but it is more likely that they do. The apostle simply wants to bring the uncharitable conduct of some of the stronger brethren in the Church into strong relief. They were likely to offend the weaker brethren, to cause them to stumble, to override their conscience, and thus to enter upon the downward path, the natural result of which, if continued, would be destruction. While Christ paid the price of His life to save such persons, they by their conduct tended to destroy them. That this destruction will not actually follow, is evident from Rom. 14:4; by the grace of God they will be upheld. We have here then, as Dr. Shedd expresses it, “a supposition, for the sake of argument, of something that does not and cannot happen,” just as in I Cor. 13:1-3; Gal. 1:8. Another, somewhat similar, passage is found in II Pet. 2:1, with which Heb. 10:29 may also be classed. The most plausible explanation of these passages is that given by Smeaton, as the interpretation of Piscator and of the Dutch annotations, namely, “that these false teachers are described according to their own profession and the judgment of charity. They gave themselves out as redeemed men, and were so accounted in the judgment of the Church while they abode in her communion.”[The Doctrine of the Atonement as Taught by the Apostles, p. 447.]

d. Finally, there is an objection derived from the bona fide offer of salvation. We believe that God “unfeignedly,” that is, sincerely or in good faith, calls all those who are living under the gospel to believe, and offers them salvation in the way of faith and repentance. Now the Arminians maintain that such an offer of salvation cannot be made by those who believe that Christ died only for the elect. This objection was already raised at the time of the Synod of Dort, but its validity was not granted. The following remarks may be made in reply: (a) The offer of salvation in the way of faith and repentance does not pretend to be a revelation of the secret counsel of God, more specifically, of His design in giving Christ as an atonement for sin. It is simply the promise of salvation to all those who accept Christ by faith. (2) This offer, in so far as it is universal, is always conditioned by faith and conversion. Moreover, it is contingent on a faith and repentance such as can only be wrought in the heart of man by the operation of the Holy Spirit. (3) The universal offer of salvation does not consist in the declaration that Christ made atonement for every man that hears the gospel, and that God really intends to save each one. It consists in (a) an exposition of the atoning work of Christ as in itself sufficient for the redemption of all men; (b) a description of the real nature of the repentance and faith that are required in coming to Christ; and (c) a declaration that each one who comes to Christ with true repentance and faith will obtain the blessings of salvation. (4) It is not the duty of the preacher to harmonize the secret counsel of God respecting the redemption of sinners with His declarative will as expressed in the universal offer of salvation. He is simply an official ambassador, whose duty it is to carry out the will of the Lord in preaching the gospel to all men indiscriminately. (5) Dr. Shedd says: “The universal offer of the benefits of Christ’s atonement springs out of God’s will of complacency, Ezek. 33:11.... God may properly call upon the non-elect to do a thing that God delights in, simply because He does delight in it. The divine desire is not altered by the divine decree of preterition.”[Dogm. Theol. II, p. 484.] He also quotes a very similar statement from Turretin. (6) The universal offer of salvation serves the purpose of disclosing the aversion and obstinacy of man in his opposition to the gospel, and of removing every vestige of excuse. If it were not made, sinners might say that they would gladly have accepted the gift of God, if it only had been offered to them.

5. THE WIDER BEARING OF THE ATONEMENT. The question may be raised, whether the atonement wrought by Christ for the salvation of the elect, and of the elect only, has any wider bearing. The question is often discussed in Scottish theology, whether Christ did not die, in some other than a saving sense, also for the non-elect. It was discussed by several of the older theologians, such as Rutherford, Brown, Durham, and Dickson, but was answered by them in the negative. “They held, indeed,” says Walker, “the intrinsic sufficiency of Christ’s death to save the world, or worlds; but that was altogether irrespective of Christ’s purpose, or Christ’s accomplishment. The phrase that Christ died sufficiently for all was not approved, because the ‘for’ seemed to imply some reality of actual substitution.”[Scottish Theology and Theologians, p. 80.] Durham denied that any mercy bestowed upon the reprobate, and enjoyed by them, could be said to be the proper fruit of, or the purchase of, Christ’s death; but at the same time maintained that certain consequences of Christ’s death of an advantageous kind must reach wicked men, though it is doubtful whether these can be regarded as a blessing for them. This was also the position taken by Rutherford and Gillespie. The Marrow-men of Scotland, while holding that Christ died for the purpose of saving only the elect, concluded from the universal offer of salvation that the work of Christ also had a wider bearing, and that, to use their own words, “God the Father, moved by nothing but His free love to mankind lost, hath made a deed of gift and grant unto all men of His Son Jesus Christ.” According to them all sinners are legatees under Christ’s testament, not indeed in the essence but in the administration of the covenant of grace, but the testament becomes effectual only in the case of the elect. Their position was condemned by the Church of Scotland. Several Reformed theologians hold that, though Christ suffered and died only for the purpose of saving the elect, many benefits of the cross of Christ do actually — and that also according to the plan of God — accrue to the benefit of those who do not accept Christ by faith. They believe that the blessings of common grace also result from the atoning work of Christ.[Cf. Witsius, De Verbonden II, 9.4; Turretin, Loc. XIV, Q. 14, Sec. 11; Cunningham, Hist. Theol. II, p. 332; Hodge, The Atonement, 358 and elsewhere; Grosheide in the Evangelical Quarterly, April, 1940, p. 127. Cf. also Strong, Syst. Theol., p. 772.]

That the atoning work of Christ also had significance for the angelic world would seem to follow from Eph. 1:10, and Col. 1:20. Things on earth and things in heaven are summed up in Christ as a Head (anakephalaiosasthai), Eph. 1:10, and are reconciled to God through the blood of the cross, Col. 1:20. Kuyper holds that the angelic world, which lost its head when Satan fell away, is reorganized under Christ as Head. This would reconcile or bring together the angelic world and the world of humanity under a single Head. Naturally, Christ is not the Head of the angels in the organic sense in which He is the Head of the Church. Finally, the atoning work of Christ will also result in a new heaven and a new earth in which dwelleth righteousness, a fit dwellingplace for the new and glorified humanity, and in the glorious liberty in which the lower creation will also share, Rom. 8:19-22.