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This question was asked in response to something that someone either heard or read from Charles Swindoll. While I could not find anything that Swindoll said about unlimited atonement, it is clear that he is a proponent of the free grace view. The free grace position formally includes a belief in unlimited atonement.
Unlimited atonement is the belief that God’s saving grace is extended to all people without reservation. Someone who believes unlimited atonement can be a universalist, meaning every person actually receives saving grace, or not, indicating that it is up to the person to either accept or reject the saving grace that is available to all people through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Unlimited atonement is one of the Arminian doctrines that developed as part of the counter-reformation among protestants.
The highest praise of this view is that it elevates God’s loving nature over all of His other characteristics. The truest criticism of this view is that this view creates such a theology in which saving grace is made available, but does not necessarily accomplish its work. If Christ has died for all people and has extended His saving grace to all people and some do not accept it, then Christ’s atoning sacrifice has proven not to be sufficient for the salvation of those for whom He died. Furthermore, there are many who die unbelievers who are having to make atonement for their own sin because they did not accept the free gift of grace even though, according to this view, atonement has already been made for every person. Christ work is seen as insufficient, imperfect, and as not accomplishing that which it sets forth to accomplish. Christ has failed.
Unless one is a universalist, “Unlimited Atonement” is a misnomer because it refers to a type of saving grace that is available to everyone but does not save everyone, so it is limited in its effect and unlimited in its extent. The completion of God’s work depends explicitly on people and God is not powerful to make His own work effective.
The converse of the unlimited atonement view is the view of limited atonement. Limited atonement was a term that came out of the Synod at Dort, when churches met to discuss theology in response to Jacob Arminius’ counter-reformation. They searched the Scriptures and found the Arminian position to be contrary to Scripture and more in line with Roman Catholic theology. Limited atonement is the belief that God’s saving grace is extended to only the elect and is wholly effective.
The highest praise of this view is that it recognizes the sufficiency and efficacy of Christ’s work as truly substitutionary and recognizes the insufficiency of people. The most popular criticism is that this view ignores certain passages of Scripture regarding God’s unconditional and universal love.
Limited atonement is the exact opposite view of unlimited atonement and refers to a type of saving grace that is accomplished for all the elect and not accomplished for everyone, so it is unlimited in its effect and limited in its extent. The completion of God’s work depends only on God and God is powerful to make His own work effective.
The biblical view
Whereas no verse in Scripture explicitly states that God’s saving grace is extended to all people and whereas there are several verses in Scripture that explicitly claim there are individuals who will never be atoned for forever (1 Samuel 3:14, Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:33, John 17:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:3), then the biblical view is that atonement is and must be limited in its extent. For an expository look at this, please click here. In verses like John 6:39, 10:28, and 18:9, Jesus teaches consistently that He will not lose one that the Father has given to Him. This means that His atoning sacrifice is completely effective. All those for whom Christ has died will be saved and come to belief in Him. The term, “Limited Atonement,” is simply a term that refers to the biblical extent and efficacy of Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross. “Unlimited Atonement” is a term used to describe a view that is entirely contrary to Scripture.
The most popular objections to the biblical view of atonement actually employ verses within the Bible, which are plucked form their context and used to create a philosophical argument based more on speculation than on the explicit Gospel. The most widely eisegeted (the process of reading something into the text that is not there) verses are John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
To see a proper exposition of John 3:16, click here. Notice how, even without the surrounding context, we can see that John 3:16 says nothing explicitly about the extent or efficacy of Christ’s atonement. In context, Christ has already taught that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he or she is first born again (John 3:3). There is the promise that all those who believe in Christ will have eternal life. It is the case, according to this passage, that new birth must precede one’s ability to see God and one’s belief in Christ. The work done in Christ’s atonement logically precedes belief according to John 3. According to John 3, only those who are first born again can even see God’s kingdom- only those who are atoned for in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice.
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
To see a proper exposition of 2 Peter 3:9, click here. Notice how, even without the surrounding context, we can see that 2 Peter 3:9 says nothing explicitly about the extent or efficacy of Christ’s atonement. In context, Peter has already taught limited atonement and is writing particularly to and about “those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). If this verse is read as a part of the whole letter rather than being plucked form its context, it is reads that “the Lord is not slow about His promise… but is patient toward you (those who are saved and being saved), not wishing (or willing) for any (of those who are saved and being saved) to perish but for all (of those who are saved and being saved) to come to repentance” (Parenthesis mine). Just like Jesus’ teaching in John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9 states that God is faithful and patient and powerful to bring all of those He is bringing to Himself to belief and repentance.
This is the message we receive through the whole of Scripture. While I am not telling you what to believe, I hope to reason with you, here. Limited atonement is a term used to describe what the Bible teaches explicitly. Unlimited atonement is a view that is entirely contrary to the Bible’s teaching at every point. Anyone who teaches any form of unlimited atonement is in disagreement with God according to what God has revealed in His word. They are teaching something that is contrary to the very gospel of Jesus Christ.
To listen to a recent expository series on predestination and reprobation, click here.