Atonement for All

Here’s a fun interchange, regarding the Calvinist doctrine of “Limited Atonement” and the Classical Arminian viewpoint that Jesus died for all. Starting post: 


“I have always been an odd duck when it comes to the atonement. In my Arminian days, I held to Limited Atonement. When I became a Calvinist, I eventually believed in Universal Atonement (becoming a 4 pointer). I have since switched back to Limited Atonement. This is all to say that I have no problem going where exegesis and logic take me. Currently, they have taken me to Limited Atonement and I do not see how I could possibly be moved back. 

Here, I am only going to provide one particular argument which is an adapted form of John Owen’s “Double Payment Argument.” 

If you are thinking that scripture is too clear against me, that John 1:29, 3:16, 1 John 2:2, 1 Cor 5:19, Heb 2:9, 1 Tim 4:10, 2 Tim 2:6, 2 Peter 2:1, etc., are so insurmountable that only a stubborn Calvinist could ignore them, I ask for your patience. Just consider for now that I am aware of these verses and their surrounding contexts and without ulterior motives I reject that they mean what Arminians insist upon. (I’ll give my individual responses to each verse in another post). 

The Double Payment Argument

My ultimate issue with Universal Atonement (UA) is that I think it is incoherent. No only do I believe scripture does not teach it, I believe that the doctrine does not make sense. For consider two propositions that the proponent of UA holds:

  1. Christ bore the sins of all individuals and atoned for their sins.
  2. Some people are punished for their sins in hell.

Considering these claims led John Owen to ask a simple question: Why are people being punished for their sins in hell if Christ atoned for them? If Christ was a ransom for them, a propitiation for their sins, and their Savior, why are they being punished for their sins? Their sins are being punished twice: once on the cross and once in hell. Therefore, he argued, Christ could not really atone for every sin, but just for those who have been forgiven.

Now, this argument is always misunderstood upon its first hearing, so I ask that readers just pause and reflect on it. If Jesus really died in their place and bore all of their sins, then why are they being punished for their sins later? If God’s wrath was taken away through Christ’s propitiation, why are they in hell? How is Christ’s death valuable to an unbeliever if it doesn’t take away their sins?


The Response

There is a nearly universal response to this argument. “They did not accept the sacrifice through faith,” people will respond. “Christ made the payment, but they did not receive it. For imagine if someone paid your fine at court but you refused to accept it. You would still be expected to pay the fine, and thus the fine would effectively be paid twice. This is just like the atonement. The debt was paid, but people still need to receive it.”

So has Owen’s argument been overthrown? Not quite. For this response (and those like it) relies on using analogies with financial payments. The problem is that this is not analogous to how the atonement works. UA proponents seem to think of Christ’s atonement as creating some sort of debit account where once people believe, atonement is sort of credited to their account, so to speak. But this is not how the atonement works. Christ actually bears our sins and our iniquities on the cross. God’s wrath is poured out on these sins and His wrath is satisfied (which is what “propitiation” means.) 

This isn’t like a debt someone gives you money to pay for, this is like the actual debt itself being destroyed. Christ paid for our sins, and those sins are removed from us. Christ actually paid for sins on the cross, He didn’t potentially pay for them. The atonement actually satisfies God’s wrath, it doesn’t potentially do it. ”         (Michael Brusuelas)


An Arminian’s Response: 

“I personally agree that holding to those two propositions would be incoherent. The type of “Universal Atonement” that I hold to is better called “Atonement for All” (also part of the acnonym FACTS, which covers Classic Arminian belief). The tenents are more like this: 

1 – Jesus died for all
         a – He died to provide salvation for all 
         b – He died to procure salvation for the elect/believers throughout all time
2 – For those who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, their sins are paid for, in full, by the blood of Christ
3 – For those who die in their sins, they are punished for their sins in hell.

My position that Jesus died for all does not include the idea that Jesus bore the sins of those who die in their sin (unbelievers/non-elect). 

I believe these things are true from Scripture, and can be hard to understand (like the Trinity), and sometimes even the best analogies that we can come up with do not help to fully shed light on a concept. But I’m going to try an analogy – and not one that involves money. 



Suppose that there are 20 men named Abraham, and 20 sons named Issac. All of the Abrahams take their son to an alter, and as each raises the knife, God provides a ram to take the place of the son on the alter. This ram, for each Issac, is provided as a substitution. Now, suppose that only half of the Abrahams actually take that ram and kill it instead, and the other 50% just go through with the original idea of killing the kid on the alter in front of them. 

In that situation, rams were provided as a substitution for all Issacs, but were only used as a substitute for some of the Issacs. I’d say that, similarly, Jesus was provided as a substitute for all humans, but only bears the sin (substitutes for) believers/the elect. 

Similarly, there’s the analogy of the serpent in the wilderness – provided to make healing available to all bitten by the snakes, and to heal those who look upon it.”



The rebuttal: 

“My problem with your view is that I think it is incoherent in light of 1A. In what sense did He die for them? He didn’t bear their sins, so how exactly did He die for them? How is He their “substitute”?

I would say the problem with your Abraham/Isaac example is that it is not analogous to the atonement either. I would say only 50% really had a substitute in any relevant sense of the word. Half of the Isaac’s had a substitute, the other half had a potential substitute.
If we are just using the word “substitute” to mean something to the effect of “if person A had believed, then Christ would have born their sins” then this is completely indistinguishable from the Limited Atonement view.

If your view were to make sense, I think It would need to answer the two following questions:

1. What is the actual difference between your view and Limited Atonement (i.e. What does Christ’s death actually do in your view that it doesn’t do in mine?)
2. How is person A any better of if his sins were not born by Jesus than had Jesus never died at all for him.”


Arminian’s Reply: 

“‘In what sense did He die for them?
He didn’t bear their sins, so how exactly did He die for them?
How is He their “substitute”?’

He died FOR the non-elect in the sense that He died to provide FOR them salvation.
He died for them in the same sense that the bronze serpent was lifted up FOR all who were bitten (though it only healed those who looked).
He is a substitute offered for them, but did not substitute for them. Like a ram available, and stuck in a thicket, available as a substitute, but then rejected and not used as a substitute.

‘1. What is the actual difference between your view and Limited Atonement(i.e. What does Christ’s death actually do in your view that it doesn’t do in mine?)’

Well, in your view, Christ did not die to provide salvation for the non-elect. No substitute was available to them. Christ did not die to, in part, make salvation possible and available for those individuals. In Calvinism, salvation is procured for the elect, but not provided or available to the non-elect. Nothing Christ did was for them in any sense. They are the vessels prepared for wrath.

In my view, Christ’s death made salvation available and possible for anyone. For example, if my Mom asks me to provide lunch for my siblings, and I serve grilled cheese sandwiches and green beans to all of them (and all are able to eat that), then I’ve provided for them – even if one of my siblings decides not to eat.

In the analogy, you say that half of the Isaac’s had a substitute, the other half had a potential substitute. But that’s not how it in my view. In an analogy of my view, all of the Isaacs had a substitute provided for them, standing right there, but only half of them actually used the provided substitution for substitution.

In an analogy of your view, only half of the Isaacs had a substitute provided; the others had no option but death available for them. So, you might think that our views are identical, since I agree with you that Christ only bore the sins of the elect, and only the elect were baptized into his death (Romans 6, 1 Peter 2:24) – but your view only affirms that Christ procured salvation for the elect and does not affirm (as I do) that He also provided salvation for everyone, including the non-elect.

‘2. How is person A any better of if his sins were not born by Jesus than had Jesus never died at all for him.’

He isn’t any better off. A person who rejects the offer of atonement ends up in the same sticky mess as a person who never had a substitute provided at all. The difference is in God’s character, God’s actions, and the options available to that person. The outcome is not part of the difference.

It’s also similar to a passover lamb. Suppose that each of my 8 brothers has a house, and it’s almost the night of the tenth plague. I go and I find a lamb that is efficacious for as many houses as you can put it’s blood on, and I know that it has enough blood for at least 9 houses. So I kill that lamb – FOR me and for my brothers – and I gather them together and invite them to put its blood on their doorposts in the proper places.

Blood and safety, in that case, has been “provided for” them, but will only effect their lives if they do put it on their doorpost. If they reject what has been provided, and go home, leaving their door unmarked with blood, their firstborn will die.”





  1. Hey there,
    Have you read Charles Hodge’s rebuttal of the double payment argument? or Dabney’s or Shedd’s? If you want to go here:

    Hodge and Dabney, among others, point that that it only works by assuming a sort of commercial atonement, or at the least injecting a sort of commercial causality into the penal satisfaction.


  2. Hello David,

    I have read the writings of Hodge, Dabney, and Shedd from the link you provided. The theory they put forward is a theory that many Arminians hold to:

    “If a substitute be provided and accepted it is a matter of grace. His satisfaction does not ipso facto liberate. It may accrue to the benefit of those for whom it is made at once or at a remote period; completely or gradually; on conditions or unconditionally; or it may never benefit them at all unless the condition on which its application is suspended be performed.”

    I think that it’s a viable theory. I could say that Christ died to provide salvation for all, and to accrue benefit for those who meet the condition of faith in Him as Lord and Savior. I think it’s another way of mentally framing the same thing as I said above.

    So, the writings of those three (Hodge, etc) agree with me that the claim of Arminian “double-jeopardy” is entirely unfounded.

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