Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Did Jesus Die Only To Save His Favorites? (The Calvinist Heresy of Limited Atonement)

Is the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement even biblical?

Regardless of what atonement metaphor one prefers (I prefer Christus Victor), Christians have historically held the position that in some way, Jesus died to save us.

Some say he died to pay the penalty for our sins, some say he died to defeat the works of the devil, others say he died to unmask our need for a scapegoat, and some will describe it yet other ways.

What is held in common is a belief in salvation through the cross, however one defines the surrounding terms we use in that general discussion.

But this brings us to the question: Who did Jesus die for? And that question brings us to a core Calvinist doctrine: limited atonement.

Limited atonement is a doctrine that begins on the premise of there being two groups of people who have ever lived: the elect and the damned. As Calvinist leader John Piper has previously stated, Calvinism (at least Piper’s flavor) teaches that before you were ever born God decided which category he was going to create your for. You were either created to be saved to eternal life, or created for the purpose of eternal damnation.

This, of course, is insane on an entirely different level, but double predestination isn’t the purpose of this post.

Back to the question: Who did Jesus die for? Everyone? The elect only?

The Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement argues that Jesus died only for the sins of the elect– that the power of the cross was limited to the people God had chosen ahead of time, to be saved.

It reminds me of the Calvinist version of Jesus Loves The Little Children:

“Jesus loves predestined children

All predestined children of the world

Jesus loves you and you, but no, not you

He has love for just a few

Jesus loves predestined children of the world.”

But are Calvinists right? Did Jesus die for the sins of a few?

Of course not– this idea is obnoxiously unbiblical. Here’s what the Bible *actually* says:

“(Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2

To make the idea of limited atonement work, one would need to redefine John’s term of the “whole world” so that such a redefinition didn’t mean “whole world” at all, but somehow came to mean “chosen few.”

We also see this is Paul’s letters to Timothy when he writes:

“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” 1 Timothy 2:3-6

Once again, for Calvinist doctrine to work, one would have to argue that “all people” really means “just the elect.”

Those who argue for limited atonement cannot get around these texts. I mean, they try to with ancillary arguments not germane to the actual texts in question, but I have never once found any of those side arguments compelling enough to dismiss the idea that “whole world” and “all people” probably mean exactly that.

Now, does this mean everyone who has ever lived automatically is saved? No, I’m not a universalist (though I hope and pray universal salvation turns out to be true.) What it does mean, however, is that Jesus died for everyone and that his invitation to new life, eternal life, is not a limited invitation that can only be accepted by the chosen few, but is an invitation open to all people.

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Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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  • If the Bible was examined on this subject, they can see that no one is born to be saved or born to be lost, but the Bible does mention the elect (the “chosen”). Yes, God has chosen his people, but it is based on the fact that God KNOW who will come to him for salvation and who will not. That has nothing to do with being predestined. Everyone has a free choice. 1st Peter 1:2 (KJV) is one of the scriptures that mention this. There are others — check it out. Another scripture is Romans 8:28-30.

    • ” God has chosen his people, but it is based on the fact that God KNOW who will come to him for salvation and who will not. That has nothing to do with being predestined. ”

      How is that not predestination if it’s a foregone conclusion that person will not come to God for salvation and yet God is sovereign? How does that person have free will if their fate has already been determined? If God knows beforehand that person will not come to him, then why create them? The only way that person has free will is if their fate hangs in the balance based on their decision. How can God be both sovereign and not culpable at the same time?

    • I think you are dismissing election too quickly. And I do not think you can explain it by God seeing the future (which I think He does as He is not limited by time) and what choices we will make . Personally I am content to hold both election and free will simultaneously. Whatever the truth of the matter, it will make perfect sense.

  • To ” hope and pray universal salvation turns out to be true” while not believing in it seems discordant to me. I do believe in the universal salvation of all mankind based on the grace of God alone. To hope and pray that something is true, while trying to reconcile that hope with an intellectual argument that says otherwise and betrays the beautiful God that you love, seems pointless. God wins in the end. If “God wins” means he has to send me, or my kids, or my neighbors, off to some eternal damnation when it’s well within the scope and power of this God who is Love to do otherwise, then “to hell” with that God. I don’t know that God, and I don’t WANT to know that God. God looks like Jesus. I’ll hang out with, and pledge my allegiance and entrust my life to, Jesus.

    • What do you think Jesus meant when he said that Capernaum would be worse off than the people of Sodom, and that it would not go to Heaven? (Matthew 11:23)

  • Here’s another verse Ben, that really made me exit the Reformed juggernaut, Hebrews 2:9 stating that Christ tasted death for every man

  • This form of Calvinism is bad, but there are problems with Christus Victor. God lets us suffer for a long time under the dominion of the Powers until He gets around to defeating them on the Cross. Why allow the Powers to exist at all? Thanks for suffering with us, but I’d really rather You didn’t create the Powers that are causing me to suffer. You say you didn’t create the Powers? Then where did they come from? And why do You make it so that my suffering doesn’t end until I somehow give my life to Jesus? When, exactly, are You going to destroy my particular suffering?

    I think it’s simple, albeit counterintuitive, to believe that God did not create the Powers, and that sin, disease, and death only exist in human minds. If we can learn to see the world as God sees it, we would see that our suffering is just a shadow with no power. The Kingdom of God is present now, and there is no sin, sickness, or death in the Kingdom.

    Beloved, we are now children of God, and what we will be has not yet
    been revealed. We know that when Christ appears, we will be like Him,
    for we will see Him as He is. 3And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

  • Why not post some verses from the other side, like Ephesians 1:4-14:

    “4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love 5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him 10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him 11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, 12 to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. 13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.”

    So God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him, and it was according to His will. So, if God chose every person who is to be saved before the earth was even created, then that means He also knew exactly who Jesus’s death would atone for.

    About those specific words that you say Calvinists have to redefine: Take a look at the phrase, “Ford makes cars for the whole word.” Is there anything wrong with that statement? No, not really. Most people wouldn’t have a problem with it. Does that mean that Ford makes cars for literally every person in the world? No, of course not. It just means Ford’s reach is across the entire world. We understand that phrases can have non-literal meanings. This applied in Jesus’s time just as much as it does today.

    So, no, it doesn’t take some crazy redefinition to come to an understanding that fits right alongside the Calvinist understanding. I think the much greater challenge is in how you need to reinterpret entire passages to fit your understanding.

    • That’s assuming that “us” means “we specific individuals reading the book of Ephesians” and not “we a community of people who are about to suffer with Christ.”

      Paul’s language here reflects not only Deuteronomy’s presentation of Israel as selected out of the nations of the earth, but more specifically, Isaiah’s election of the Servant (for instance, 41:8-9, 43:10, 44:1). If Paul is carrying through the Old Testament idea of election, he is addressing those early faith communities as those chosen among the nations to be God’s witnesses, specifically a people who will suffer in order to experience vindication.

      I’d be interested to hear your evidence that Ephesians 1:4 is best understood as God choosing specific individuals from the foundation of the world as opposed to God choosing a people to serve a particular purpose in the world. When the Old Testament talks about God electing Israel, surely it means that God has chosen the people Israel for a distinct purpose and not that God has chosen specific individuals to be Israelites.

    • ” I think the much greater challenge is in how you need to reinterpret entire passages to fit your understanding.”

      Kinda like how so many redefine the word ‘death’ or ‘perish’. Instead of it actually meaning, well, death and destruction, people redefine it to instead mean being scorched alive forever.

  • Let’s say that the purpose of the Cross was not a legal transaction of any kind between God or Satan or The Powers or anything. Let’s say the purpose of the Cross was to reveal that sin, disease, and death are illusions. God didn’t create them, and they don’t exist. Jesus shows us the reality of what actually exists in His Resurrection. The Fall was not the creation of evil, of adding something to the universe that God didn’t create. The Fall was man’s choice to believe there was something other than Good. The Fall only happened in man’s perception of Creation–man chose to see shadows and darkness in a world of Light. Salvation is returning our thoughts to God’s thoughts–removing sin, sickness and death from our minds the way a sunbeam removes shadows.

    Because the Resurrection is a revelation of a truth that has always been true, salvation belongs to everyone–it’s a matter of accepting this Truth.

  • “No, I’m not a universalist (though I hope and pray universal salvation turns out to be true.)” I like it. I hope that all believers pray for and hope for universal salvation.

    • I’m still amazed how Rob Bell was essentially categorized as a false teacher by some heavyweight evangelicals for merely HOPING for universal salvation. Like how ironic is that lol?

  • My personal view is that God the Father was so impressed with what Jesus the Son did on our behalf that he forgives everybody. You cannot limit Jesus’ atonement. Now soteriology is another matter

  • The moment I understood you didn’t have to know you were a Christian to accept him as your savior, regardless of where or how you were raised changed my entire perspective on the redeeming grace of Jesus. It was at a fall women’s retreat and during a discussion on personal transformative experiences both within and outside of the context of religion. A young mother told a story about how she was introduced to Jesus. She had spent the first five years of her life in a chldren’s group home before being adopted. Her adoptive parents were Christians who had put a children’s Bible story book on her shelf. Then she stopped time and said that when they got to the story of Jesus allowing the children to come to him, she didn’t want to turn the page. When her mother asked her why she said it was because it had a picture of her friend. When she couldn’t tell her mother his name, she was asked how she could have a friend and not know his name. She replied by explaining that at bedtime you can’t talk, but every time she was sad or scared her friend came and sat quietly at her side, and she knew that’s what friends do. I no longer saw the narrow gate in the way I’d been taught. I believe it is meant for those who fail to see Christ in every human being. Jesus by any other – or no – name.

  • Benjamin, thank you for your great post here! 🙂 As for myself, I was brought up from birth, in a Calvinist teaching/believing church. When I was 16teen years old, God let me know I was lost. Then God directed me to a man, who simply read a scripture passage to me and as he did, I knew God was there as well and God who was holy. God showed me my sin and led me to repentance and just as soon as I had repented, the love of God began to pour out on me and God put a picture in my mind of three crosses. And I knew on that center cross was Jesus Christ and that he was there for me, there taking all of my sins upon himself. I believed God and I prayed and thanked God, for what He had just done for me. 🙂 And an outcome of this, was God giving me the great desire, that every person have the same type of relationship with God,as I then had. 🙂 God gave me that; but my local church taught me, that such was not to be. And I am just so glad, that 6 or 7 years ago now, God showed me the great truth, that Jesus Christ is indeed the Saviour of the whole world and that taking in everyone, from Adam on down. 🙂 One of the best webpages I’ve seen on this so far, is at tentmaker.org.

  • However unfair the concept of election appears—in the end it appears to be more fair than any other alternative. Some say salvation is contingent upon man’s response to Christ’s offer of salvation—-but all do not get the same opportunity, are not subject to the same influences. Some say—it all depends on how well we respond to the light we have—then let’s put babies to death before they have the opportunity to refuse the light. Election is a mystery—but it puts the whole matter of salvation in the hands of a just and loving God. Who can improve upon this?

    • What does “fair” have to do with it. If God is “fair”, then we, as sinners, go to hell. I don’t want justice or fairness. I prefer God’s mercy . Seems Corey is a selective reader and still has not found the 100 or so verses in the old and new testatments that make it clear that God chooses, elects, draws, whom He pleases.

  • Would the concept of the Elect as described have something to do with the rise of capitalism? They both started in the same place at about the same time.

  • Of course calvinist view is totally biblical

    Mark 13:27 And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.

    So jesus has his elect.
    ´´
    Matthew 20:28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

    many is not all

    • Good point, dude, since there are absolutely no verses whatsoever that sound like Jesus’ work applies to everyone. None at all. How would anyone even get that idea?

      Your critique is truly devastating; thanks for sharing. I don’t think anyone who isn’t a Calvinist has ever heard those verses before or had to think about them. Bravo, sir. Bra – vo.

  • Limited Atonement is heretical, in every sense of that word. I’m tired of Calvinists calling Arminians “semi-Pelagian” and “sub-blbilcal”, as if we are somehow second class citizens who don’t understand the Bible. Calvinism has always been a minority view in the Church (which is exactly how they like it), was invented hundreds of years after the death of Jesus and Calvinists cherry pick and distort scripture like the best of them. You’d think they took tips from Bill Clinton the way they talk. It’s not even the theology itself that really gets me, as grotesque that it is, it’s this misplaced sense of self-assuredness about their doctrinal positions (I mean have you heard James White talk, he oozes so much condescension and sarcasm you wonder if he has red blood cells). Not just him, but the whole lot of them, let’s see:

    You have JMac, the Godfather of Calvinism, and you had better bend the knee or you know, you’ve seen the movies. You have the misogynist and rageaholic Mark Driscoll. The village idiot and washed out comedian, Todd Friel. The sex-abuse facilitator, CJ Mahaney. The two-faced politician Al Mohler who can’t exegete a Bible verse to save his soul (it’s a good thing he didn’t have to). The odious Vincent Cheung who says God is the author of sin.The pretentious Tim Challis/Kevin DeYoung/Justin Taylor (I can’t even tell them apart) who’ve made a cottage industry in picking out specks in everyone else’s eyeballs. Doug Wilson, who I think would have preferred the Confederacy had won the war. Oh, don’t forget the charming Robert Morey, just Google his God loves you video. You guys know what I’m talking about right? These are just off the top of my head. I guess you can take it all the back to their hero, the murderer John Calvin, so the apple doesn’t really fall far from the tree. I think the only other Christian movement right now with this many truly terrible people would be the prosperity gospel folks, but at least those guys would be fun to hang out with. The only person I would have a beer with on this list is Mark Driscoll (maybe the only allowed?), but just one beer, because any more and he might try to kick my ass. There is no universe where these folks just happen to have the “correct” theology and the rest of us are misguided idiots.

  • Both Arminians and Calvinists go too far… The Bible represents a God of love and compassion, I doubt very much a loving God would create a person to torture them for eternity. The Bible also says that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.. it is an oxymoron that God would say that and stop a person from being able to repent of their sins. There are other verses that deal with people being in the vine and being cut off, for those like Paul Washer etc that say that a person never was saved if they fall away (I’m sure taking a page out of Jonathan Edwards book, I’m not basing either man as I believe both were and are Godly men). Calvinism strikes me as being more like philosophy rather than a theological position, much like Arminianism. I think the word of God should be taken literally, when the spirit of God said all men He meant all men.

  • Like that other song I learned in Reformed Church Sunday School : Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible predestined me so. Some little ones to him belong, the damned are weak the elect are strong.

  • The only Jesus to come out of the tomb was the Christ who died for ALL. Any other Christ is a false idol with a dead gospel.

  • I really enjoyed this article!

    I dislike calling Calvinism a heresy, personally. I was formerly a Calvinist fundamentalist, then lost my faith entirely, now I have good and bad days spiritually where I mostly believe….in something or other you could call Christianity. One lesson I have apparently had to learn the hard way was to not doubt someone’s salvation for rejecting Calvinism (yes, I was that gung-ho about it, though I was polite in real life and usually so online unless I was deliberately trolling somewhere). To me “heresy” implies that there is probably no salvation in the person holding to whatever is called that, but I realize that is not always the intended implication.

    Nowadays, I still lean towards Calvinism, but quite honestly, I do not like it, and would easily prefer that Universalism be true than Calvinism. I was told by a strong Calvinist that election and sovereign grace ought to make one humble if he or she is elect (believes that he or she is, I would say). But in actual practice, I think the belief in election and sovereign grace can too easily lead to elitism and arrogance (it certainly did for me). And I can honestly say that I saw more grace and personal holiness in some Christians who did not have all their i’s dotted and t’s crossed theologically, like I assumed I did. I suppose some form of Calvinism will always be around in the Church, and I do not consider it evil in and of itself, but I will always hope that there are genuinely interesting and good theologians such as Roger Olson around to keep my fellow Calvinists honest.

    • Hmm but Catholics are heretics right? With their popery and Cult of Mary and stubborn insistence that Christ died for all people.

  • I recognize, and have, since Day 1, that this is a Christian-themed blog, and, as such, Dr. Ben pursues themes from within that framework…

    I’d just like to offer my personal perspective, from the standpoint of a politically and theologically liberal Jewish person…

    G-d, The One, if one truly subscribes to the omniscience of He who transcends all understanding, has a full comprehension of the “Schroedinger’s Cat” premise… and in His mercy, blessed be He, freely chooses to let the “cat” be alive and dead… It depends, to me, upon the choices a free human being makes, as to what becomes of such a soul, but no human has any right to determine such a state for any other human.

    I do not believe that any human being, whether or not seen as “divine” by some, or many, is required to atone or make reparation for the sins of any other human being… and, obviously, I do not regard Reb Y’shua as G-d in human clothing…

    To me, and, obviously I can only speak for myself, each human, apart from the sad individuals seemingly without conscience, has within her/him the capacity of doing what’s supposed to be done, or abstaining from what decent humanity says quite loudly what should be avoided or just not done…

    For certain people, with obviously vested interests, to say that some are destined for either Paradise or some burning hell, either for eternity, is the height of presumption. Some call themselves “Calvinists,” in the Christian oevre… others claim other labels…

    For myself, I consider such a mindset as presumption, arrogance, and greed…

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