Does Arminian Theology Limit the Atonement?

“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

There is an abiding discussion in the Church concerning the atonement. Is it limited, or unlimited?

Did Christ secure the salvation of His people from their sins in a definite atonement, or did Christ die for the sins of the whole world, without exception?

There have been champions in the Church, greatly used of God, on both sides of this inquiry. John Calvin, George Whitefield, and R. C. Sproul believed in definite redemption, while Jacobus Arminius, John Wesley, Charles Finney, and most Fundamentalist Baptist do not. 

It is not uncommon to hear those who believe in the Arminian position argue, often with animation, as if shouting is the solution to communicating understanding, that Christ is the propitiation for “the sins of the WHOLE WORLD! It is stated as plainly as possible in Scripture!”

The practical problem is that the Arminian position is not as straightforward as it seems. Consider this common conversation between an Arminian and someone who believes in the Doctrines of Grace, summarized as belief in the Total Inability of Man to Save Himself, the Unconditional Election of those who are the heirs of salvation, a Definite Redemption, the Irresistible Urge, or desire, to believe when the grace of the Spirit of God moves on the heart, and the Perseverance of the Redeemed, based on their preservation by God who has promised to finish the good work HE has begun in the soul.

Consider this Very Real, and Often-Repeated Conversation Between a Calvinist and an Arminian

Calvinist: “Do you believe that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world without exception.

Arminian: “I do.”

Calvinist: “Do you believe that Christ paid for all sins of all men?”

Arminian: “I do.”

Calvinist: “If Christ died for the sins of all men, the sins of the WHOLE world, then why is everyone not saved? Why did Judas Iscariot go to his own place? Why is the rich man of the story Jesus told in hell?” That is what those who believe in Universal Salvation believe and teach. “Are you a Universalist?”

Arminian: I am definitely not a Universalist. I believe in heaven, and I believe in hell. Those people who are in hell are there because of the sin of unbelief, which is the unpardonable sin.

Calvinist: I understand what you are saying. But again, I have to ask, “If Christ died for all sins of all people, if Christ is the propitiation, the satisfaction, for the sins of the WHOLE world, then, is not unbelieve a sin for which he has died?”

Arminian: No, unbelief is the unpardonable sin.

Calvinist: Then, my friend, you too, as an Arminian limit the atonement because what you really believe, and teach, is that Christ died for the sins of the whole world except the sin of unbelief, and in that belief, you too have just limited the atonement, something which you decry. There is a second way you, as an Arminian, limit the atonement of Christ.

Arminian: How?

Calvinist: You limit the atonement by saying that Jesus died to make salvation possible.  

Arminian: Salvation is possible, for all who believe. “Whosever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13). What do you believe?”

Calvinist: I believe the Scriptures teach that, in the atonement, Christ saves His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). “Christ has redeemed us,” says Paul (Gal. 3:13). I believe that Jesus died to make salvation actual, not hypothetical, or potential. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  

Listen to these quotes by Charles Spurgeon on this point.

“We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it, we do not.

The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.”

We ask them the next question-Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular?

They say, “No.” They are obliged to admit this if they are consistent. They say, “No; Christ has died so that any man may be saved if”-and then follow certain conditions of salvation.

We say then, we will just go back to the old statement-Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did He?

You must say “No;” you are obliged to say so, for you believe that even after a man has been pardoned, he may yet fall from grace and perish. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ?

Why you… We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.

You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.” (Sermon 181, New York Street Pulpit, IV, p. 135)

“I would rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of men be added to it.” (Sermons, Vol. 4, p. 70)

Again, Spurgeon comments.

“Some persons love the doctrine of universal atonement because they say, ‘It is so beautiful. It is a lovely idea that Christ should have died for all men; it commends itself,’ they say, ‘to the instincts of humanity; there is something in it full of joy and beauty.’

I admit there is, but beauty may be often associated with falsehood. There is much which I might admire in the theory of universal redemption, but I will just show what the supposition necessarily involves.

If Christ on His cross intended to save every man, then He intended to save those who were lost before He died. If the doctrine be true, that He died for all men, then He died for some who were in hell before He came into this world, for doubtless there were even then myriads there who had been cast away because of their sins.

Once again, if it was Christ’s intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own testimony that there is a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit of woe have been cast some of the very persons who, according to the theory of universal redemption, were bought with His blood.

That seems to me a conception a thousand times more repulsive than any of those consequences which are said to be associated with the Calvinistic and Christian doctrine of special and particular redemption. To think that my Savior died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain.

To imagine for a moment that He was the Substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of divine justice.

That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards some of those very men should be punished for the sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous iniquity that could ever have been imputed to Saturn, to Janus, to the goddess of the Thugs, or to the most diabolical heathen deities. God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise and good!”

There is something else. “Why do you call unbelief the unpardonable sin, meaning the one sin Christ did NOT die for in his atoning work?”

Arminian: I say that unbelief is the unpardonable sin because it is just that! The unpardonable sin, the unforgivable sin is the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” mentioned in Mark 3:22–30 and Matthew 12:22– 32.

Did Jesus not say, “Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter” (Mark 3:28), but then He gives one exception: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin” (verse 29).

Calvinist: I do understand what you are saying. I too believe the Bible clearly defines the unpardonable sin, but it is not unbelief, or no one would ever be saved for all people are in a state of unbelief by their natural birth and must be forgiven of that in order to be saved.

C. S. Lewis was a confirmed unbeliever. For many years he was an avowed atheist. Then, the resurrected Lord confronted Him and he believed. No, the unpardonable sin is not unbelief. Notice the language of Scripture in its context.

 “And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils… 28 Verily I say unto you, All        sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: 29 But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: 30 Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:22, 28-29).

 Matthew tells the same story.

“Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David? 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. 25 And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: 26 And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? 27 And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges. 28 But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.

29 Or else how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. 30 He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. 31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. 32 And who soever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but who soever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matt. 12:22-32)

To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to ascribe to Satan the works of God.

Arminian: I have to go now, but I still believe that Christ died for the sins of the whole world without exception, salvation is potential, and unbelief is the unpardonable sin. And, goodbye!

Calvinist: I understand. “A man persuaded against his will, is of the same opinion still.” Thank you for the conversation. 

Never Be Ashamed of the Gospel

Christian, never be ashamed of being a Calvinist. “There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer—I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views.

Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley.

The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one ‘of whom the world was not worthy.’ I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Savior, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of heaven.” ~Charles Spurgeon

Leave a Reply