Roy Ingle, “Calvinism and the Atonement”

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This is part of an ongoing series on the atonement and how Arminians and Calvinists differ over the extent of the atonement and whether Jesus’ work was for the elect or the entire world.

Calvinism and the Atonement

The Calvinist understanding of the atonement is based on the five points of Calvinism. All five points flow together. The Calvinist understanding of total depravity where all humans are born dead in their sins and fall under the guilt and condemnation of Adam (Romans 5:12) leads to the Calvinisitic understanding of unconditional election. The election of the child of God has to be unconditional since all people are born dead in their sins and by nature are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). People do not seek after God (Romans 3:10) but rather God must seek after them and He does so by the doctrine of election where God sovereignly chooses by His own will and His own grace from among humans those whom He would redeem through His Son.

Because election is based on God’s perfect wisdom and knowledge alone (Ephesians 1:3-14), man has no part of this salvation (Jonah 2:9). Salvation is a free gift from God that comes by faith that is also a gift given only to the elect (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore, when Jesus died on the cross He did not die for all men but in essence He died only for the elect chosen by God (Matthew 1:21). While the Bible often speaks of Jesus’ death being for all (John 3:16; Hebrews 2:9; 1 John 2:2), the all would not be the entire world but the elect who would believe through the preaching of the gospel (2 Timothy 2:10). Thus Jesus’ atonement is a limited atonement in that it was an atonement that truly accomplished the work of redemption before a holy God on behalf of the elect.

Biblical Passages of Limited Atonement

It is important that we understand the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election in order to rightfully interpret Scriptures on the atonement. Not only does this philosophical basis help us see the passages that Calvinists claim clearly teach a limited atonement but also will guide us in interpreting passages that unlimited atonement believers often point to such as John 3:16 or 1 Timothy 2:1-6 where the Bible seems to teach a universal atonement. In the following passages I will give the Calvinist interpretation first and then an Arminian response. For the sake of time I will limit both interpretations.

Matthew 1:21 – Calvinists point out that this verse shows that Jesus’ work of atonement was to save his people from their sins. The focal point is his people and not the world.

Arminians point out that “save” is more than “atone for” and that the word “save” is in the future tense. Arminians agree that Christ will actually save those whom He died for, but this verse hardly teaches limited atonement in the sense of the Calvinistic understanding.

Matthew 20:28 – This verse along with Matthew 26:28 and Mark 10:45 reveals that Jesus gives His life as a ransom for many. Calvinists view the many as being the elect. Calvinists point out that Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished something in that it purchased the elect’s eternal salvation. Calvinists further point out that Matthew 20:28 shows that Jesus did not die for all but many.

Robert Picirilli writes, “There is good reason to believe that ‘many’ is a Hebraistic way of using an unrestricted plural meant to stand in contrast with one or some rather than with all. If so, the passage may turn out to argue more strongly for universal than for a limited atonement” (Grace, Faith, Free Will, p.92). Compare this passage with Romans 5:18-19 where Paul uses both “all” and “many” and the passage strongly teaches universal atonement to the point that even John Calvin in his commentary on Romans 5:18-19 seem to uphold universal atonement. [Editorial note: Friberg’s Analytical Greek Lexicon lists this Semitic, inclusive sense as part of the word’s range of meaning and notes that it is the sense used in passages about the saving work of Jesus.]

John 10:15 – Jesus lays down His life for the sheep (compare also with John 15:13). Calvinists point out that Jesus died for His sheep and not the goats (compare Matthew 25:32-33). Again, Calvinists point out, Jesus’ death truly accomplished something by giving His life for the sheep.

The Arminian reply is that neither John 10:15 nor John 15:13 specifically teach either limited or unlimited atonement. John 15:13 clearly is not even speaking of Jesus but anyone in general and is a general truth. John 10:15 simply reveals that Jesus lays down His life for the sheep (v.11). Jesus is the honored good shepherd (Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25) and Jesus lays down His life for the sheep, but the focus in John 10:15 is on Jesus and not the extent of the atonement.

Acts 20:28 – Along with Ephesians 5:23-26, these passages show that Jesus died for the Church and not for all men.

The Arminian reply would be that the focus of Acts 20:28 in context is that the church is precious to God and therefore the elders (v. 17) are to care for God’s Church and protect it from fierce wolves (v. 29). The extent of the atonement, again, is not the focal point. Arminians further have no disagreements that God loves the Church of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:23-26 would clearly teach the same. God loves the Church so much that He gave His Son to die for the Church, but this is hardly identifying the atonement as meant only for the Church. The Arminian response would also hold that the Church contains the elect of God and the Bible teaches that the elect is anyone who comes by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29-30; 11:20-22).

Galatians 2:20 – Calvinists point out that Paul says that Christ died for him and not for all. If Paul believed in universal atonement, surely he would have said so in this passage.

Arminians reply that while Paul does say that Christ died for him, we cannot read into the text a limited atonement view. If that is the case, then Paul is saying that Jesus died only for him. Calvinists obviously do not believe that Galatians 2:20 is meant to teach that Jesus died only for Paul, so the passage does not teach a limited atonement. [Editorial note: This passage reveals the fallacy of Calvinist claims that Scripture’s affirmations that Jesus died for the Church or his sheep etc. mean that he only died for the Church. It is simple and unavoidable logic. To say that Jesus died for Paul is not to say that Jesus died only for Paul. To say that Jesus died for the Church is not to say that Jesus died only for the Church.]


Arminians agree with Calvinists that Jesus’ death accomplishes something. The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus’ death was a propitiation (Romans 3:24-25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10) and was for the God ordained purpose of reconciliation (Romans 5:11; 11:15; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

What we disagree with Calvinists over is whether the Bible actually teaches universal atonement. We believe the Bible overwhelmingly teaches both a universal atonement and a universal call to salvation (the latter Calvinists would agree with while denying the former). Arminians further believe that Calvinistic exegesis of passages that speak of all, the world, many, etc. are often interpreted by Calvinist presuppositions such as limited atonement.

In my own conclusions on the matter, I believe that the Calvinist teaching of limited atonement is the weakest of the five points of Calvinism. Others will no doubt disagree with me here. For every one passage that the Calvinist can point to for a limited atonement, the Arminian can point to many more for an unlimited atonement. Again, the Calvinist must then twist the universal passages to fit their preconceived theological position rather than take the passages at face value. Having read the Puritan John Owens classic, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, I was amazed at how a brilliant man such as Owen could take his Calvinistic theology and read into the Bible what it seems the Bible is not teaching. Many others have offered a reply to Owen including another Puritan, John Goodwin.

[Link to original post and comments at Roy Ingle’s website]