This is a common question regarding Reformed Theology and is known as limited atonement. Reformed theology, also known as Calvinism, teaches that Jesus only bore the sins of the elect and that He did not die for the sins of everyone who ever lived. This teaching is held by the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches as well as some Baptist ones. It is controversial in that there is debate regarding its validity from scripture. Nevertheless, we must understand that believing or not believing in limited atonement has no bearing on whether or not someone is a Christian or not. The issue is denominational; that is, it is a perspective held by some Christian churches but not others.
Nevertheless, is limited atonement biblical? The reader will have to decide. To help in making that decision, the following arguments for and against it are offered.
For Limited Atonement
If Jesus actually died for the sins of everyone who ever lived, then why does anyone go to hell? This argument holds that if Jesus actually did pay for everyone's sins, including unbelief, then no one should go to hell. The counter argument is that people must believe to be saved. The answer to this is that even disbelief is a sin that has been paid for; therefore, no one should go to hell. But, since people do go to hell, it is logical to believe that Jesus only bore the sins of the Christians. The Reformed theologians would say that though Jesus' sacrifice was sufficient for all, it was not intended for all.
Scriptures used to support limited atonement are as follows:
- Jesus died for 'many.'
- Matt. 26:28, "for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins."
- Jesus died for the sheep (not the goats, per Matt. 25:32-33);
- John 10:11,15 "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep...15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep."
- Matt. 25:32-33, "And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left."
- Jesus in prayer interceded for the ones given Him, not those of the entire world;
- John 17:9, "I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine;"
- The Church was purchased by Christ, not all people.
- Acts 20:28, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood."
- Eph. 5:25-27, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless."
- Prophecy of Jesus' crucifixion where he would bore the sins of many (not all).
- Isaiah 53:12, "Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors."
Against Limited Atonement
The Bible says that Jesus died for all; therefore, Jesus died for all. God so loved the world, not just the Christian, that He died for everyone and it is up to the person to accept or reject Jesus. If he rejects Jesus, then the atonement is not applied to the person and he will go to hell. But, Jesus' sacrifice was not only sufficient for all, but intended for all.
Scriptures used to support an unlimited atonement are as follows:
- Jesus died for everyone
- John 1:29, "The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'"
- John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
- John 4:42, "and they were saying to the woman, 'It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.'"
- 1 Tim. 4:10, "For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers."
- 1 John 2:2, "and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
- 1 John 4:14, "And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world."
There are points and counter-points related to this topic. Brilliant theologians reside on both sides of the issue. But, whether or not you believe in limited atonement, you must understand that those who do and those who don't are still Christians (provided they acknowledge and trust in the true God and Christ). We need to be tolerant of those with whom we disagree on doctrines that do not affect our salvation. So, whichever side you fall on as a Christian, be gracious to those who don't believe as you do. Remember, we have far more in common in Christ, than we have differences.