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Actual vs Potential Atonement

I am a Calvinist. Shocker. I’m a Five Point Calvinist. Double Shocker. When I read God’s Word, I see evidence that the Five Points of Calvinism are present and how God works out our salvation.

With that said, I do think that many of today’s main stream Calvinists take things too far, sometimes to the point of changing God’s Word and compromising the Gospel. One of those areas would be their extreme views of the Perseverance of the Saints and turning that into a works-based Lordship Salvation Gospel. And I’m saying that as someone who believes in Lordship Salvation. I like to use the phrase “Preservation of the Saints.” I also need to clarify that the Bible is clear that our salvation is not based on our works at all. We are saved in spite of our works, not because of them.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

-Ephesians 2:8-9

I’ll deal with this issue of the perseverance of the saints at a future time. However, what I wanted to deal with today is the idea that passages like John 3:16 refute the teaching of limited atonement.

What is limited atonement? This is the belief that the work of Jesus on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins atoned only for the sins of those that would be saved. It did not pay the penalty for the sins of those that would reject him and spend eternity in hell. Many of us who believe in limited atonement would call it Actual Atonement, while we’d say that the other view would be Potential Atonement. What do I mean by that distinction?

Actual Atonement would be the belief that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for the sins of those that are chosen by God (election) for salvation. That means that His work on the cross was enough. No one is going to have their sins paid for and not receive salvation.

Potential Atonement would be the belief that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for the sins of everyone who ever lived, including those that are not chosen by God for salvation. Although, to be fair, I must admit that many who believe in this Potential Atonement are not Calvinists, thus don’t believe in the doctrine of election. With that said, this belief in Potential Atonement means that His work on the cross was not enough. There will be those who have their sins atoned for and still do not receive eternal life.

My view would be that of “Actual Atonement.” I would describe that as Christ’s death on the cross was enough. If your sins are atoned for then you will receive eternal life. I don’t think that the Bible supports the view that everyone in hell has their sins already paid for.

Charles Spurgeon put it this way:

We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number who, through Christ’s death, not only may be saved but will be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.

Now, one of the passages that Potential Atonement guys cite is John 3:16, which states:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

They’ll point to this passage and say, “See? ‘God so loved the WORLD’ and ‘WHOEVER believes.’ This proves unlimited atonement.” And my response is: “No it doesn’t.”

I feel that what can happen when we get in these debates is both sides are looking for proof-texts, and then they only look at it with their pre-conceived belief in their head and then read into passages things that it’s not actually saying. I even have to be aware that this could be a blind spot for me, personally. Those of us who believe in Limited, or Actual, Atonement believe every word of John 3:16, which is shocking to our critics.

Let’s break this passage down. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world…” Who is the world? Is that everybody? Is He talking about the physical world (i.e. the earth, globe, planet, etc) or is He talking about the people in it? So we have to define world, as there can be many different definitions of the word. I believe that Christ is saying that God loved the people in the world, in general. He saw His creation and that we need a Savior.

Does the fact that it says “world” make His atonement unlimited? I would argue that this is referring to the world in general, but is not a defining factor as to whose sins will actually be atoned for.

Then let’s take a look at the next part of the passage: “Whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And then all of the unlimited atonement-ers will jump up and exclaim: “See? This proves that I’m right and you’re wrong! ‘Whoever!’” And I respond with pointing out that it actually does the exact opposite.

You see, what John 3:16 does is point to a limited atonement. Whose sins will be atoned by Christ’s work on the cross? “Whoever believes in Him.” So Jesus, Himself, states whose sins will be paid for by His death on the cross, and that’s those that would believe in Him.

What’s interesting to me is that Jesus didn’t say that He died for the sins of everyone. He didn’t say, “I’ll pay the penalty for your sins, you just have to activate it by believing.” What He actually said here was that God loved the world, sent His Son to pay the penalty for sin, and that penalty was paid for those who believe in Him.

From my view, John 3:16 is more of a proof-text for limited atonement than it is for unlimited atonement.

Now, this debate is actually quite controversial and both sides go back and forth quite vigorously. Practically speaking, however, whether you are an Limited Atonement guy like me or an Unlimited Atonement guy like my good friend Sam Jones, our mission remains the same: Preach the Gospel. In season and out. Wherever we go, Preach the Gospel. We can have our theology and our belief system about how God works out our salvation and actually does the saving, but it doesn’t change our mission. It doesn’t change anything, practically speaking. We still go out, preach the Gospel and people need to repent from their sins, place their faith in Christ and follow after Him.

So while I believe that this is an important debate to be had, we also need to remember that we are on the same team and all want as many to come to saving faith in Christ as possible. We just disagree about what God is doing behind the scenes to actually save people. But for us, we are brothers and sisters in Christ with a common mission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

-Matthew 28:19-20

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