Arminianism vs. Calvinism – Limited/Unlimited Atonement

The third of the five points of TULIP (Calvinism theology) is limited atonement. This was a direct response to the Arminian view of unlimited atonement. I will say that I think limited atonement is the most difficult of the five points to understand. When a person first hears that term, it is almost like, “Whoa! Are you limited Christ’s atonement?” That is in fact not what we [Calvinists] are doing.

I would say that this term is better described as “particular atonement.” What we mean by limited atonement is that Christ died for the many, or for the elect. That is, it’s limited to those who believe and were chosen by God.

The Arminian view is that Christ died for the world. (“For God so loved the world…”) Unlimited atonement is the belief that Jesus died for all, but that His death is not effectual until a person receives Him by faith. Ask the Arminian, “Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men?” They would say no. Ask them if Christ died to secure the salvation of a particular man? They would again have to say no if they were to remain consistent. So in this sense, Arminians also hold a limited atonement view.

The Arminian view of the cross is that the intention was to simply make salvation possible for any person who would, of his or her own free will, repent and believe. The Arminian view of the atonement can be compared to a wide bridge that extends most of the way across the river; that the believer must take the last and final step. Calvinists, however, believe that the bridge, while narrow, did in fact extend all the way to the other side. The sinner does not and cannot take any steps. The regeneration of the sinner is the work of Christ alone.

Arminians use as proof texts those that include the words “all” “whole” and “world” interpreting it to mean every single person. For example,

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. [taxed]” – Luke 2:1

No it didn’t. You have to realize that it is figurative language. How much were the Chinese taxed? How many taxes did they pay to Caesar? The decree went out that all of the Roman world should be taxed. Or how about the more famous, John 3:16: “for God so loved the world…” In this sense, John was not referring to the whole world, but rather to ethnicities, Jews and Gentiles alike.

We all say “all” all of the time when we don’t mean it. No we don’t. We must distinguish between the figurative use of language. There are so many different figures of speech found in the Bible, and they are found in most any large novel or even newspapers. They’re everywhere. No they are not. They are not everywhere. But you see, we do that all the time even though we don’t realize we are doing it. No we don’t; we don’t do that all the time.

When we read scripture, we must not forget who it was written to, when it was written, historical context, and the Jewish mindset.

Study verses for this section: Isaiah 53:11, Matthew 20:16, 28, Revelation 5:9, John 10:11, John 10:25-26, John 17:1-9

– Adam Smith

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7 thoughts on “Arminianism vs. Calvinism – Limited/Unlimited Atonement

  1. Some thoughts here from an Arminian view. :)

    Regarding the atonement, we see two aspects – a universal aspect (Jesus died for all) and a particular aspect (his death benefits those who believe). So Jesus died for all, but his sacrifice is only of benefit to believers.

    Regarding the bridge analogy, let me present a variation. I realize this breaks down at a point, but all analogies eventually do. :)

    The bridge goes all the way across. Jesus is in fact pushing the individual across the bridge in a wheelbarrow. Yet the individual does have the capability to get out of the wheelbarrow and jump off the bridge – to his own detriment of course. So the individual does nothing to earn his salvation other than not jump out of the wheelbarrow. That is the Arminian view.

    Regarding the “all” and “world” verses. There are certainly contexts where all doesn’t mean everything (like the examples you gave), however, there are other cases where this doesn’t make the best sense in the context of the passages. Some examples:

    Romans 8:32 For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

    All men are disobedient, God has mercy on all. If the Calvinist view is correct (all doesn’t mean all), then it also follows that not all men have been bound to disobedience. In other words, the Calvinist is forced to translate the verse inconsistently like this:

    Romans 11:32 For God has bound all [every single person] over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all [only the elect].

    The Calvinist view cannot read this verse in its natural context. It’s also worth pointing out that Romans 11:32 is Paul’s closing point for chapters 9-11.

    A parallel passage to Romans 11:32 is Romans 5:18-19:
    “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

    Adam brought sin to all, Jesus brings life to all.

    Another good verse that deals with universality of the atonement:

    1 John 2:2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

    The Arminian view reads this verse in context. “Whole world” really means “whole world”, and it is contrasted with the smaller group of believers.

    But the Calvinist view seems to translate the verse like this:

    He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the elect, and not only for the sins of the elect, but also for the sins of the elect.

    Again, this verse makes not sense out of its natural context. Whole world means whole world. In fact there isn’t a way where the author could have made the context more clear.

    As a final point, it’s worth noting that while there are many verses that state Jesus died for all, everyone, the world, the whole world, etc…there are no verses that state he only died for the elect. The reformed view discounts all of the universal verses, and it has none to replace them with. There is no explicit scriptural support for the concept of “limited atonement”. Rather, it is a logical conclusion that comes from the other 4 points.

    God bless,

  2. a helmet says:

    How do you interpret 1 Timothy 4:10?

  3. David says:

    I would invite you to reexamine your twofold categorization there. If you want, click on my name and you will see files documenting the other Calvinist tradition on the atonement. Check out Musculus, Bullinger, Gualther, and Calvin. Also, if you know who who Richard Muller is, scroll down for entries on his name.


  4. Chris says:

    I’m more towards the Calvinistic view because the Arminian view doesn’t make sense to me.

    If a person can only be saved by his or her own freewill, why do we even pray to God for the salvation of any person in particular?

    God cannot touch that individual, because in the end, it’s all up to his/her freewill. Why do we even pray to a God who doesn’t have control over EVERYTHING. (God cannot save a person, because a person can only save him/her self by his/her freewill.) Surely this God isn’t a very effective God isn’t it?

    I can’t quote exactly from the Bible, but I remember Jesus saying this about the Pharisees.
    “They do not believe in me because they are not MY sheep.”

    I think it’s safe to say that Jesus is already indicating that those He does not CHOOSE, will not believe in him, not because they rejected him by their freewill.

    Also, if you think about it, if we have the freewill to choose God, how can there be grace? By choosing God, we can boast to others that we CHOSE GOD, and that they are foolish and stupid people by not choosing God.

    Then where does grace come in? It’s only when God chooses us, we will be so humble and repentant that God has GRACE and MERCY for us by choosing us.

    Just my thoughts.

    • a helmet says:

      why do we even pray to God for the salvation of any person in particular?

      See 1 Tim. 2:4. Christians shall pray for all men and that is good.

      See also 1 Tim 4:10 — we shall strive and labor (or at least pastors shall do so) for all men.

    • Hi Chris, let me address your questions.

      Regarding prayer, Arminians believe that God works through the obedience of his followers (Romans 10:13-15). Our prayers genuinely influence the ways that God moves. As James puts it: the prayer of a righteous man avails much. It does not logically follow that we should neglect praying for someone simply because they have the ability to reject the message. The same principle applies to sharing the good news. We can’t make someone be saved, but if they don’t hear the good news, then they won’t be saved.

      Now a question for you. If the eternal destination of every person is already decreed and fixed, what is the point of the Calvinist prayer? What is the point of evangelism at all?

      Regarding human free will. Free will comes about as a result of God’s sovereign decree to give humanity the ability to make choices. Human free will does not overcome God’s sovereignty. Rather we have it because of his sovereignty. That is the way God created us. It is not our position to second guess what God has decided.

      My question for you is if man doesn’t have free will, why is there evil in the world? Do you think that God decrees things like murder, rape, starvation, etc? I contend that these things come about because of the misuse of the free will of man. If God exhaustively determined everything the way you describe, there would be no evil in the world.

      Regarding John 10:26 “You do not believe because you are not my sheep”. This passage does not presuppose exhaustive determinism. The Pharisees were demanding that Jesus show them a miracle. Jesus said in effect that showing them a miracle wouldn’t do any good because they weren’t listening to him anyway.

      God bless,

  5. David says:

    Hey there,

    Calvin had an interesting take on our motives for evangelism:

    Calvin: However, St. Paul speaks here expressly of the saints and the faithful, but this does not imply that we should not pray generally for all men. For wretched unbelievers and the ignorant have a great need to be pleaded for with God; behold them on the way to perdition. If we saw a beast at the point of perishing, we would have pity on it. And what shall we do when we see souls in peril, which are so precious before God, as he has shown in that he has ransomed them with the blood of his own Son? If we see then a poor soul going thus to perdition, ought we not to be moved with compassion and kindness, and should we not desire God to apply the remedy. John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, Sermon 47, 6:18-19, pp., 684-5.

    Or this:

    And that speaks not only to those who are charged with the responsibility of teaching God’s word, but to everyone in general. For on this point the Holy Spirit, who must be our guide, is not disparaging the right way to teach. If we wish to serve our Master, that is the way we must go about it. We must make every effort to draw everybody to the knowledge of the gospel. For when we see people going to hell who have been created in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, that must indeed stir us to do our duty and instruct them and treat them with all gentleness and kindness as we try to bear fruit this way. John Calvin, Sermons on Acts 1-7, Sermon 41, Acts 7:51, pp., 587-588.

    I think Calvin has nailed it. Calvin makes the connection between image bearing and redemption a few times. I wont add a link here in case the spam filter grabs it, but just click on my name to see more.

    Hope that helps,


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