Unlimited Atonement: Not Really Substitutionary

I really appreciate what Greg Forster has to say here about definite, substitutionary atonement – the truth that Jesus died to save his people, his sheep, the elect chosen before the foundation of the world.  It will especially interest those of you who have studied the Arminian/Calvinism differences as well as those of you who have noticed the errors of Amyraldianism, which some popular semi-Calvinists teach today (can I use the term semi-Calvinist?).

“…The claim – made by all traditions except Calvinism – that Jesus did his saving work impersonally comes squarely into conflict with any meaningful concept of substitutionary atonement.  To avoid the Calvinistic conclusion [of definite atonement], all other traditions have to say that Jesus’ saving work is not aimed at any particular people.  It cannot be aimed at ‘all humanity’ in the sense of being aimed at each individual person in the whole human race.  It must be aimed at ‘all humanity’ as an abstract concept, without reaching any individual people at all.  And this means it cannot be, in itself, an act of substitution.  If Jesus’ work only makes salvation available, then it cannot be substitutionary in any meaningful sense.”

“The most common way of getting around this difficulty is to say that Jesus’ death and resurrection are ‘hypothetically’ or ‘conditionally’ substitutionary.  Jesus dies and rises again in the place of all humanity on the hypothesis, or condition, that they will get plugged into the salvation system – by receiving the sacraments, or the means of grace, or the gospel.  Thus, Jesus can personally substitute for every person; not actually, but hypothetically or conditionally.”

“This view creates several problems.  Perhaps the most important is that it totally removes the act of substitution from Jesus’ work.  A substitution occurs, but Jesus does not accomplish it.  Jesus dies on the cross and rises from the dead, not for you, but for some hypothetical or conditional version of you.  Then, apart from Jesus’ work, through the salvation system that Jesus creates, you become the hypothetical or conditional version of yourself for whom Jesus died.”

“That process, not Jesus’ work, accomplishes the act of substitution.  When you receive baptism, or when you believe the gospel, or when you plug into the salvation system in some other way, that is the moment Jesus’ righteousness is substituted for your sins.”

“In this view, the cross and the empty tomb provide neither the basis nor the mechanism of the substitution.  The mechanism of the substitution is the salvation system.  The basis of the substitution is whatever it was – baptism, belief, etc. – that plugged you into the system.”

“The staggering conclusion is that, in this view, Jesus’ work does not remove your sins.  If it did, it would actually save you.  And then we’d be right back on the merry-go-round – if Jesus died for all people, and his work removed the sins of those for whom he died, everyone would be saved.  All traditions besides Calvinism have gotten off the merry-go-round only by denying – in effect, if not in so many words – that Jesus’ work removes your sins” (p. 56-57).

You can find the entire argument in chapter one of this excellent book: The Joy of Calvinism by Greg Forster.

shane lems

6 thoughts on “Unlimited Atonement: Not Really Substitutionary”

  1. can I use the term semi-Calvinist?

    I would advise against it. It’s worth noting that in the broader ecclesiastical world, the terms “Reformed” and “Calvinist” are much broader than the American evangelical tendency to equate them with the popular presentations of 5-point theology. The professors at my seminary, Union Presbyterian, (and at sister seminaries like Princeton and Columbia) would say that they are Reformed and Calvinists, and they are very serious about this identity and the theological tradition it represents. Yet, scarcely any believe in limited atonement, and most would identify with Barth’s Reformed theology. Likewise, when I was studying systematics in Scotland, I met innumerable students and professors who were Reformed and intent on developing their theology within the Reformed tradition and in service to their churches, yet (once again) they would seriously question the merit of limited atonement.

    Moreover, there is a historical point, debatable of course, that Amyraldianism is indeed Reformed and treated as such by opponents within the scholastic European community of the 17th century. Not being a historian of Reformed scholasticism, I don’t have the ability to argue one way or the other, but I’m interested in what the folks at Calvin College/Seminary have to contribute on this topic of Reformed parameters. I suppose this would parallel current debates about whether credobaptists can be considered Reformed when the idea of a “Reformed credobaptist” would strike the 17th century professors at Geneva and Leiden as absurd.

    Lastly, there are more options on the table than simply limited or unlimited atonement. In II.2 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth said that “the world as such is not elect” because election is particular, the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, Barth preserves the category of reprobate in his “determination of the rejected” in his doctrine of election, a section which scarcely anyone reads (if they read Barth at all). Their rejection is not an illusion, and the proximity of the rejected to the elect is in order to illuminate the grace of election (a very Calvinist move indeed). Of course, because of his supralapsarian Christology, Barth infamously leaves open the matter of ultimate reprobation, and thereby departs from Calvin. Yet, I say all of this as a recognition that unlimited atonement itself has different avenues of defense, with Amyraut and Barth (to use the two most commonly cited examples) offering rather different paths.


  2. Shane,
    I am still a Calvinist but a four point one. We must come to Scripture as honestly as we can.
    The limited atonement tends to deny some obvious Scriptures by foisting a theological system on the text. I believe sufficient for all and efficient for the elect. I am from Grand Rapids, MI and was brought up in a covenant theology. Before I was saved, I thought that I was the elect. Later I realized that being saved means, saved from the penalty and power and presence of sin.
    True believers in Christ persevere in holiness.

    For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers, 1 Timothy 4:10, NASB.


    1. I understand where you come from however, when we look at Jesus died for the world in modern terms we understand it literally. But put in the context of first century Judaism, it means Jews as well as Gentiles, not necessarily that his sacrifice is potentially effectual for the whole world including the non-elect.


  3. Well that is actually what Limited Atonement (or better said particular redemption) says. Jesus HIMSELF said in John 17 that he came to die for those the Father have given him in His priestly prayer. Yes Jesus death would have been sufficent for all, if it was the will of the Father, but since the Father elects and chooses who will be saved, the work of the Son on the cross and Spirit in regeneration are in harmony with the purpose of the Father.


  4. This is excellent! It would be great if all my Arminian friends could read this book. So many, like Steve in his comment, seem to forget, also, that the “all” passages, in context, mean all the elect, for that it who the scriptues are addressing – “all” of the elect! Jesus said all that the Father gives Him SHALL come to Him, and no one comes to Him UNLESS the Spirit of God draws them.


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