The Arminian Heresy of Universal Atonement
Rev. Angus Stewart
Many today believe and teach the Arminian heresy of universal atonement. The Synod of Dordt (1618-19), the most international assembly of Reformed Protestants, declares that Christ redeemed the elect “and those only” (II:8) and that those who teach that He died for everybody speak “contemptuously of the death of Christ” and “bring again out of hell the Pelagian error” (II:R:3). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) states, “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ … but the elect only” (3:6). This article was included in the Congregational Savoy Declaration (1658) and in the Baptist Confession (1689).
A universal atonement means that Christ must have died for Esau whom God hated (Rom. 9:13); Judas, “the son of perdition” (John 17:12); and Antichrist, the “man of sin” (II Thess. 2:3); as well as the whore, the false church (Rev. 17:1-2); those who commit the unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:32); and those who never hear the Word (Ps. 147:19-20) or are already in Hell. Is this consistent with the infinite power, wisdom and holiness of God?
A universal atonement means that Christ merely makes salvation possible and thus it denies that His death actually saves. The Bible, however, declares that Christ delivered (Heb. 2:15), reconciled (Rom. 5:10), redeemed and ransomed (Gal. 3:13), and justified His people “by his blood” (Rom. 5:9). If Jesus paid the price for everybody head for head and some perish in Hell, then His atonement does not save all—or even most of those—for whom it was made. How can Christ be “satisfied” in His atonement (Isa. 53:10), if millions perish for whom He shed His blood? Then too Christ’s death is not substitutionary, for if He took the punishment of the reprobate, why are they judged? If some for whom Christ died go to Hell, then God punishes their sins twice, once on Christ and once on them. Is this consistent with the infinite justice and righteousness of God? How can some whom Christ reconciled, and for whom there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:34), dwell forever in Hell?
Listen to John Wesley, an advocate of universal, ineffectual atonement:
What! Can the blood of Christ burn in hell? … I answer, … If the oracles of God are true, one who was purchased by the blood of Christ may go thither. For he that was sanctified by the blood of Christ was purchased by the blood of Christ. But one who was sanctified by the blood of Christ may nevertheless go to hell; may fall under that fiery indignation which shall for ever devour the adversaries (The Works of John Wesley [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], vol. 10, p. 297).
The Scriptures teach that Christ died for His “people” (Matt. 1:21) and His “friends” (John 15:13). He ransomed “his seed” (Isa. 53:10) and not the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15); His “sons,” “children” and “brethren” (Heb. 2:10-14) and not “bastards” (Heb.12:8); His sheep (John 10:11) and not the goats (Matt. 25:33); His church (Eph. 5:25) and not the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 3:9); and the “many” (Matt. 26:28) and not everybody head for head.
Many make the fundamental exegetical error of taking the word “world” (Greek: kosmos) to mean “everybody head for head” in John 1:29, 3:16 and I John 2:2. Charles Spurgeon noted that nowhere in the Bible does “world” have this meaning. I challenge anyone to find one Biblical verse where “world” means “everybody head for head,” and then prove that it has this meaning in a text teaching the extent of Christ’s atonement. Kosmos can mean the universe (Acts 17:24) or the Roman world (Col. 1:6) or the evil world system (John 12:31) or the reprobate (John 17:9) or the elect (John 4:42; 6:33; II Cor. 5:19) etc. The context is vital in explaining the Word, according to the great Reformation principle: Scripture interprets Scripture.
Just hours before the cross and with a view to His atoning death, Christ says, “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me” (John 17:9). If Jesus did not do a lesser thing (pray for the reprobate world), how could He do a greater thing (die for the reprobate world)? If Christ did not pray for the ungodly world (one aspect of His priestly work), is it possible that He died for the ungodly world (the other aspect of His priestly work)? Moreover, Christ prays on the basis of His work of redemption. Therefore if Christ did not pray for the reprobate world, it is because He did not purchase salvation for them. Christ’s prayers and atonement are not only particular—”for them which thou hast given me”—but also exclusive, not “for the world.”