The Death Christ Died -A Case for Unlimited Atonement
© by Robert P. Lightner, Th. D
[This Introduction was written by Robert P.
Lightner, Th.D. and found in
the book, "The Death Christ Died, A Case for the Unlimited Atonement" originally
published by Regular Baptist Press. This resource is now available once again from
Kregel Publications; ISBN: 0825431557; (October 1998). Posted with permission from Dr.
Table of Contents
Preface to the Third Printing
I. The Savior in Life and Death
II. The Divine Purpose of the Atonement
III. The Biblical Extent of the Atonement
IV. Problems with and Unlimited View of the Atonement
V. Problems with a Limited View of the Atonement
Note: page numbers in the book are indicated in brackets
Whether Christ died for all men or for only those who will believe has been an issue
much debated since the days of the Reformation. Prior to that time much was written about
the atonement but very little about its extent. Some older writers insist, however, that
the church from its earliest ages was of the opinion that Christ died for all. Even
Augustine, strict predestinarian though he was, maintained that Christ gave Himself a
ransom for all by providing for their salvation, thus removing an impediment which would
otherwise have proved fatal.1
There are scattered indications in the writings of some of the early fathers which
certainly imply their belief in an unlimited atonement. Of course, it must be remembered
that their first concern was not with the extent of the atonement but with the person of
Christ and with the nature of His work on the cross.
Irenaeus, who lived about A.D. 130-202, wrote a treatise entitled Against Heresies
in which he challenged some of the heretical groups springing up in the church. Speaking
of Christ and His work on the cross, he said that He ". . . gave Himself as a
redemption for those who had been led into captivity [italics mine] ."2
Another such strong hint by an early writer of the universal scope of Christ's
provision at Calvary comes from Athanasius, staunch defender of the faith, who lived and
labored from A.D. 298 to 373. In his work, The Incarnation of the Word of God, he
makes the following observation concerning Christ's humanity and death. "Thus, taking
a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He
surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father [italics
mine]."3 Again, the same writer said: "Death there  had to be,
and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid [italics mine] ."4
As far as the great ecumenical councils of the ancient church are concerned, there is
nothing in their pronouncements which would militate against an unlimited atonement. In
fact there are statements in the creeds, which followed the councils, which strongly imply
belief in the unlimited view. For example, the six council in Constantinople (680-681)
declared, "Wherefore we confess two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly
in him for the salvation of the human race."5 Statements similar to this
can be found in most of the councils' pronouncements.
Statements such as these and similar ones in the writings of the early church have led
some to believe that from the beginning of the Christian era Christ's death was viewed as
a true and perfect sacrifice for the sins of the elect and the nonelect. This sacrifice,
they maintained, was provisionary in nature and became effectual only to those who trusted
Christ as Savior.
"But even all this does not suppose that the death of Christ, considered simply as
a sacrifice for sin, had anything in it peculiar to the elect, or that in and of
itself it did anything for them which it did not do for the rest of mankind. The intention
of God, as to its application, or the use he designed to make of it, is a thing perfectly
distinct from the sacrifice itself, and so considered, as we believe by the church
antecedent to the Reformation. In no other way can we see how their language is either
intelligible or consistent."6
The reformers, and certainly the children of the reformers, were not united on this
matter. It is, of course, no secret to the student of the Reformation that the Lutheran
branch almost without exception embraced the unlimited view. "But that Luther,
Melanchthon, Osiander, Brentius, Oecoiampadius, Zwinglius and Bucer held the doctrine of a
general atonement there is no reason to doubt.... Thus also, it was with their immediate
successors, as the language of the Psalgrave Confession  testifies.... 'Of the power
and death of Christ, believe we,' say these German Christians, that the death of Christ
(whilst he being not a bare man, but the Son of God, died,) is a full, all sufficient
payment, not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. . . 7
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) of the German Reformed Church in answer to the
thirty-seventh question, "What dost thou understand by the word Suffered?"
has this answer: "That all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end of
his life, he bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the of the whole human
The Church of England's official statement of faith is equally clear in its embrace of
unlimited atonement. Article thirty one of The Thirty-Nine Articles reads: "The
offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction,
for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other
satisfaction for sin, but that alone."9
Those who believe in limited atonement usually assume that John Calvin's writings set
forth clearly the limited view. This assumption may be open to some question, however,
since on at least some occasions he presents his views in such a way as to make one think
he is carefully avoiding the issue. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which
were written early in his life, one gets the impression that he does not commit himself on
the matter. His language there is in keeping with the language generally adopted by the
church of his day, which was not very specific regarding the extent of the atonement but
favored an unlimited concept.
During the later years of his life Calvin wrote his commentaries, which reveal some
development of thought, and in which he avoided some of the extremes found in the Institutes.
This every honest student of Calvin will readily admit. Some believe without any
hesitation that in his commentaries Calvin taught an unlimited atonement. "But
whatever might have been  his opinions in early life, his commentaries, which were the
labors of his riper years, demonstrate in the most unequivocal manner that he received and
taught the doctrine of a general or universal atonement.''10
Whether that be true or not, it is true that Calvin's comments on some of the most
controverted passages make one hesitant to assign him the role of a limited redemptionist.
For example, on John 3:16, he said: ". . . The Heavenly Father loves the human race,
and wishes that they should not perish.''11 Concerning the term whosoever
in the same verse, he said: "And he has employed the universal term whosoever,
both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from
unbelievers. Such is also the impact of the term world, which he formerly used; for
though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favour of God, yet
he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without
exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.''12
Such an understanding of this verse and the words employed in it is certainly not in
keeping with many who claim to be Calvinists, as the following pages will reveal.
Another illustration of Calvin's view is to be found in his explanation of Matthew
26:28. ". . .This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for
the remission of sins [italics mine]." He says: "Under the name of many he
designates not a part of the world only, but the whole human race"13
The citations from early church fathers, the creeds and confessions, and John Calvin
have not been given as arguments in favor of unlimited atonement. They have been cited,
though, to demonstrate that the unlimited view is not new; nor did it originate with
Arminianisn. The fact is the limited view was not popularly held until the Synod of Dort
(1619) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).
Throughout this work I have used the words "atonement"  and
"redemption" interchangeably. Some may object to this on the basis that
redemption, it is contended, relates only to the believer and ought never be used in any
sense of the nonbeliever. However, there are instances in Scripture where the word
"redeem" or its cognates are used of Christ-rejectors. The best example of such
a usage is found in 2 Peter 2:1 (cf. Gal. 4:4 5). Therefore, since the word
"atonement" has come to refer to the totality of the completed work of Christ,
and since redemption used of both saved and unsaved, we have used them both when speaking
of Christ's work on the cross. It is readily admitted, of course, that no one benefits
from that purchased redemption until he believes in Christ as his Redeemer.
This subject is of paramount importance to the ambassador for Christ. Unless Christ
died for all men, the message of God's love and Christ's death must be given with tongue
in cheek and with some reservation, because some may hear who are really not to be
numbered among those whom God loved and for who Christ died. Consistency and honesty would
demand that the one who believes in limited atonement refrain from proclaiming God's
universal offer of the good news of God's love and grace in Christ to all men
indiscriminately, since in that view God did not extend grace to all nor did Christ die
for all. Therefore, to tell all men that these things are true and that salvation is
available for them is to speak that which is not true if the limited view be accepted.
It is hoped that this study will enhance the cause of Christ, stimulate a deeper
interest in personal Bible study, and give every confidence and assurance to the
proclaimer of the gospel that without reservation or hesitation he can tell all men that
Christ died for them according to the Scriptures.
I am indebted to many for making contributions to this work. A special word of
appreciation is due to my wife, Pearl, for her faithfulness in typing the manuscript; to
an esteemed colleague, Mr. John Benson, for his critical reading of the manuscript; and to
a diligent student, Mr. Robert Dyer, Jr., for preparing the Scripture index.
1 James Richards, Lectures on Mental Philosophy and
Theology (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1846), p. 302.
2 Robert L. Ferm, Readings in the History of Christian Thought (New
York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1964), p. 186.
3 Ibid., p. 193.
4 Ibid., p. 196.
5 Ibid., p. 181.
6 Richards, op. cit., p. 304.
7 Ibid., pp. 304,305
8 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper &
Brothers, 1877), p.319
9 Ibid., p. 507.
10 Richards, op. cit., p. 308.
11 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John (Grand
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), I, p. 123.
12 lbid., p. 125.
13 John Calvin, cited by Richards, loc. cit.