For whom did Christ die? This is a question that I have been turning over again in my mind. For many believers, the answer is seemingly straightforward - he died for all men. The Calvinist perspective that Christ died for the elect is often viewed as a strangely perverted view of Scripture. Passages such as 1 Tim. 2:4-6 and John 3:16 are often quoted as settling the issue firmly on the side of those who embrace the view that Christ died for all mankind.
The issue under consideration here is that of the extent of the atonement. Those who embrace an Arminian position advocate universal atonement whereas Calvinists advocate for what has become known (unfortunately, I think) as limited atonement. I say this is an unfortunate category because everyone who embraces the death of Christ as an atoning work limits the atonement in some way. Those who believe in universal atonement limit its efficacy (after all, in this view, many for whom Christ died will be lost, which means that his atonement failed to save them), whereas those who embrace the Calvinist position limit its scope.
Yet even among Calvinists, there is a divergence of opinion. Tom Nettles, in his introduction to the Works of Andrew Fuller explains:
Historically, Calvinists have defended limited atonement from two standpoints. Some contend that the atonement is limited to the elect only by the covenantal design of the Triune God. Others see its limitation, not merely in its covenantal design, but in its very nature as a just propitiatory sacrifice. [Andrew] Fuller falls under the first category and is joined there by such esteemed company as the canons of the Synod of Dort, John Owen, and J. P. Boyce. Abraham Booth, and English Baptist, and John L. Dagg, a Southern Baptist, defend the second category.One reason why Fuller defended the first view is that he saw it as a basis for a universal call to faith in Christ. However, Dagg, writing in his Manual of Theology, makes a good argument that the proper basis for such a call is not the idea that the atonement is "sufficient for all, efficient only for the elect," but rather should be grounded in the Lordship of Christ:
God declares that there is no salvation, except through Christ; and every sinner is bound to believe this truth. If it were revealed from heaven, that but one sinner, of all our fallen race, shall be saved by Christ, the obligation to believe that there is no salvation out of Christ, would remain the same. Every sinner, to whom the revelation would be made, would be bound to look to Christ as his only possible hope, and commit himself to that sovereign mercy by which some one of the justly condemned race would be saved. . . . The gospel brings every sinner prostrate at the feet of the Great Sovereign, hoping for mercy at his will, and in his way: and the gospel is perverted when any terms short of this are offered to the offender. With this universal call to the absolute and unconditional surrender to God's sovereignty, the doctrine of particular redemption exactly harmonizes.Personally, I embrace Dagg's view, and defend the atonement as limited in its very nature as a vicarious sacrifice. However, both approaches defend the essential idea: that the Triune God is not divided - that all those whom the Father chose are those for whom Christ died, and that all for whom Christ died will be called and brought to faith in Jesus Christ.
That begs the question, however: what do you do with those passages such 1 Tim. 2:4-6 and John 3:16 that are appealed to as teaching a universal atonement?
These passages do not teach a universal atonement. However, when John wrote that "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...." it is often assumed without any further thought that the word kosmos must mean everybody who ever lived or ever shall live on this planet. But, as D. A. Carson has pointed out in his commentary on John's gospel, the point is not that the world is so big but that the world is so bad (compare the use of "world" in John 1:10). John's point has little to do with the extent of the atonement; rather, he is pointing us to grace of God in giving his Son to the totally undeserving.
The passage in 1 Timothy 2:1-6 seems to me to be an even greater blunder, if one wants to go there to make the case for a universal atonement. Here is the passage in the ESV:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.What is Paul doing in this passage? He is exhorting us to pray for "all people" (vs 1), and giving the theological basis for such a command. The question is, however: who is he referring to by "all people"? Does he mean every single human being on the face of the earth? Of course not. That would be one impossible prayer list! The apostle is not advocating the impossible proposition that we pray for all without exception. Rather, he is telling us to pray for all without distinction.
This is important, because Paul's use of "all" in the following passages is fixed by the context. Therefore, when Paul writes that God wills all to be saved and that Christ is a ransom for all, he does not mean all without exception, but all without distinction. In other words, though Jesus did not die for every single human being who ever lived, he did die for some out of every kindred, tongue, nation, and people (Rev. 5:9.10).
This use of the word all is unmistakably illustrated in a very different context in the same epistle. In 1 Tim. 6:10, Paul writes
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (ESV)Note the words "all kinds of." It is a single word in Greek, the same word for "all" in 1 Tim. 2:4-6. The point is clear: greed is certainly not behind every single evil that has ever been perpetrated in history. It is not the root of all sin without exception. But it is the root of all kinds of evil - that is, one would be hard-pressed to find some sin for which greed has not at some point been its root. Thus, to interpret "all" as "all without exception" - as Arminians do - is simply to fail to do proper exegesis.
In the end, however, I believe that the most important thing in terms of the atonement is to affirm the substitutionary nature of Christ's death - it is not just an example but the very real and only basis of our salvation from the wrath to come. Thus, though I disagree with my Arminian friends on the extent of the atonement, I very gladly stand with them in affirming the death of Christ as the sacrifice for sins, and that all who believe on him will be forgiven and justified and saved.