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Contextual Limits of “ALL” and the Limited Atonement

A reader with the pseudonym Edge7 left a comment in regard to the brief section on the Limited Atonement in this post. This assumes that verses like 1 Timothy 2:3, 5 and 1 John 2:2 confound the Calvinist position that the Atonement saves only the elect. These verses, combined with John 3:16, seem to indicate that Christ died for all men.

I had no intent to write at length about the Limited Atonement. My friend TurretinFan already has an excellent post here, but that post only mentions verses such as those above in passing. So I will add some thoughts about the above verses and their use of “all.” Specifically, I will talk about the contextual limitations of the word “all.” An appropriate subtitle for this piece could be, “When ‘all’ doesn’t mean ‘all.'”

“All” in the case of these verses refer to “all of the elect.” Can I prove that? No. But I have already provided a logical defense of the Limited Atonement, which I will repeat. And I can provide examples from the Bible where “all” doesn’t really mean “all,” but is instead defined by a contextual limitation. Taken together, along with my friend TurretinFan’s article, I believe that will provide a convincing case for the Limited Atonement.

First, a universal atonement is logically flawed. If Christ’s sacrifice paid for all of the sins of mankind, then no one is going to Hell, ever. But we know that this is not the case. Some may say that Christ’s atonement is universal in its scope but only effectual for believers. I might be inclined to agree with that idea. The problem is that, even with this view, the atonement is still limited. It still doesn’t cover the sins of unbelievers.

Another way to look at atonement is in light of the Unforgivable Sin. This is not recognizing the very work of God when you have enough knowledge to do so. Put another way, it is rejecting God’s grace–or unbelief in Christ. Perhaps the atonement is universal except for this one sin. But, you see, even then it is still limited.  It still only covers the sins of people who believe in Christ.
Anyway you try to slice it, the atonement is limited.

What about the verses, such as those mentioned above, that seem to preach a universal atonement?  According to Got Questions Ministries:

How can we understand the paradox that occurs because the Bible teaches God intends that only the elect will be saved, yet on the other hand the Bible also unequivocally declares that God freely and sincerely offers salvation to everyone who will believe? (Ezekiel 33:11; Isaiah 45:22; 55:1; Matthew 11:28; 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 22:17) The solution to this paradox is simply an acknowledgment of all that the Bible teaches. 1) The call of the Gospel is universal in the sense that anybody that hears it and believes in it will be saved. 2) Because they are dead in their trespasses and sin, no one will believe the Gospel and respond in faith unless God first makes those who are dead in their trespasses and sins alive (Ephesians 2:1-5). The Bible teaches that “whosoever believes” will have eternal life and then explains why some believe and some don’t.

Many people will further argue that “all” always means “all.”  So it is necessary to look at some other uses of the word “all” in the gospels to see if “all” means “all,” always.

First, when the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he “took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Mt 4:8).  So, the devil showed Jesus every kingdom in the entire world?  Not even from the world’s tallest mountain could a person see every single kingdom in the entire world.  So “all” in this case doesn’t mean “all.”  No Christian should have a problem with that interpretation.

Second, we see in Mark 13:23 Jesus tells His disciples “I told you all things beforehand.”  Is Jesus indeed referring to “all things,” such as expanding pi to the nth digit and the inner workings of a supercomputer?  Or is He narrowing the context slightly, to the signs at the end of the age, of which He was just speaking?  I think even the most hardcore biblical literalist will agree that Jesus limits “all things” to the end of the age.

In Luke 1:3, the historian notes to Theophilus that he has followed “all things closely for some time past.”  Does “all things” in this verse mean that Luke is following every event that ever happened in the first century, or is the context limited again to things that Jesus has done?  Again, even a biblical literalist can agree with my interpretation that “all things” means “all things related to Christ” in this passage.

It is my contention that the same contextual limitations have been placed on phrases like “all” and “the world” when they refer to salvation.  In those verses, like the ones above, “all” doesn’t really mean “all,” it means “all of the elect” or “all of the believers.”  The Atonement, which could have been universal if that was what God had intended, is limited only to the elect, both logically and biblically.

Only by ripping verses like John 3:16 away from the rest of the teachings of Scripture could a person arrive at a universal atonement.  When considered together with the rest of the passages that teach about the atonement, the contextual limitation of “all” becomes quite apparent.

Now I should note that there are several passages in which any theologian will tell you that “all things” means “all things, everywhere, and always.”  For example, among other verses, John 3:35 says that “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.”  This would, indeed, mean everything in the world.  However, this is made clear by other passages of Scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments, that everything on this planet will be under the Lordship of the Son.  We are not reading passages such as those in a vacuum, so why read passages like John 3:16 apart from everything else Scripture says about salvation?

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on February 29, 2008, in Apologetics, Theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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