As expressed in a previous post, humanity is totally depraved and unable to do anything of themselves to be saved. We are lost and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). But God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). He loves us, and not just some of us, but everyone in the whole world (John 3:16). God’s desire is that we all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). That no one should perish but all come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).
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God Takes the Initiative
Because of God’s love for us, and because of our helpless condition, God took the initiative in providing a way of salvation for us. John 3:16-18 is one of the clearest expressions of what God has done for us.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.John 3:16-18 NIV
This passage makes clear that God loves us; that he loves everyone in the world, not just a select few. It is also clear from this passage that God did what was needed to provide salvation for those that he loved. God gave his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for the whole world (1 John 2:2), in order to taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). Jesus was our sacrificial lamb (John 1:29) who delivers us from the wrath of God (1 Thess. 1:10) that we justly deserved. Over and over in the Scripture, we see that Jesus died for the sins of the world. His sacrifice was made for everyone, not just for a few.
Application of the Atonement
But while Christ’s death was for all people, the benefits of his sacrifice are effective only for those who will believe in Christ. As the passage above from John 3:16-18 makes clear, the sacrifice of Jesus was for the whole world. But only those who believe will obtain eternal life. And, those who do not believe remain in a state of condemnation. This is repeated in John 3:36; those who believe have eternal life.
Saying that the atonement is universal does not mean that all will experience it. Those who reject the Son remain under the wrath of God. Atonement is available for them. But they chose to reject it.
All Means All
Repeatedly the Scriptures express God’s love and concern for the whole world. But some would argue that the whole world is not really the whole world. Instead, it is only selective representatives. But I find it hard to ignore what seems to be the clear teaching of the Bible. That God loves the whole world; every one that he has created.
Limiting the scope of ‘all the world’ to ‘all of the elect from around the world’ would seem to be a case of interpreting these passages in a way to support a specific doctrine, limited atonement, rather than allowing the Scripture to define the doctrine.
Two passages would seem to be clear that atonement was made for everyone, although not everyone experiences it. 1 John 2:2 says that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” His sacrifice was for all; for the whole world. But John is clear to distinguish believers from the rest of the world here. His sacrifice was sufficient for all. But only applicable to those who believe.
And 1 Timothy 4:10 expresses that the living God “is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” This distinguishes believers from unbelievers in salvation, but still says that Christ is the savior of all people. The expression “especially of those who believe” in that passage really supports the idea that the sacrifice made for all people is only applicable for those who believe.
To deny the universality of the atonement is to deny the clear teaching of Scripture. Scripture teaches that God wants all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). And that he desires no one to perish (2 Pet. 3:9). I am by no means an expert of the teachings of the early church fathers, but according to the article “The Scope of the Atonement in the Early Church Fathers“, “In the early Ante-Nicene period, no respected father can be cited within his literary context as limiting the scope of salvation, or more particularly the atonement.”
Universal atonement also appears to have been, apart from Augustine, the teaching of the church, both east and west, up until the Protestant Reformation with Luther and Calvin. I recognize that an appeal to the Church Fathers and church tradition is secondary to the Scriptures. But I do believe it is significant that belief in a limited atonement seems to have been introduced with the reformers, implying that the church had it wrong for the first 15 centuries.
It is worth noting here that because of the total depravity of humanity, we are incapable of choosing to believe in Christ; we are not capable of responding in faith apart from the working of God’s grace. This will be the topic of a future post.
Scriptural Reference for the Doctrine of Universal Atonement
- God . . .
- Christ . . .
- The grace of God offers salvation to all people – Tit. 2:11
- Only those who believe are saved – John 3:16-18
- Those who believe in the Son have eternal life, those who reject him face the wrath of God – John 3:36
- God’s righteousness comes by faith to all who believe in Christ – Rom. 3:22
- Believe in your heart to be saved – Rom. 10:9-10
- Those who believe are saved – 1 Cor. 1:21
- Justified, not by works, but by faith in Jesus – Gal. 2:16
- Saved by grace through faith – Eph. 2:8-9
- Christ, the savior of all, especially those who believe – 1 Tim. 4:10
Quotes on the Arminian Doctrine of Universal Atonement
The covenant into which God entered with our High Priest, Jesus Christ, consisted, on the part of God, of the demand of an action to be performed, and of the promise of an immense remuneration. On the part of Christ, our High Priest, it consisted of an accepting of the Promise, and a voluntary engagement to Perform the Action. First, God required of him, that he should lay down his soul as a victim in sacrifice for sin, (Isaiah 53:11), that he should give his flesh for the light of the world, (John 6:51), and that he should pay the price of redemption for the sins and the captivity of the human race.The Works of James Arminius – Vol. 1, Oration 1: The Priesthood of Christ
That agreeably thereunto, Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in the First Epistle of 1 John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”Article 2 of the Five Articles of the Remonstrance (https://www.theopedia.com/five-articles-of-remonstrance)
- August 25, 2017 – Original post
- December 24, 2019 – Updated
- September 11, 2021 – Updated
Arminian Post List
- The Doctrine of Total Depravity
- Arminianism: Atonement for All
- Arminianism: Sovereignty and Free Will
- Arminianism: It’s All About Grace
- Arminianism: Foreknowledge, Predestination and Election
- Arminianism: The Persistence of Salvation
- Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart: Who Was Responsible?
- God, Israel, and the Nature of Free Will