The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Limitations to the Atonement in Universalist Theology

There was a lengthy discussion in an earlier thread on whether a consistent universalist theology could be developed along Calvinist lines and the general consensus seemed to be that the major point of departure would be limited atonement.

I made a few comments on that thread respecting the question of what we mean by a “limited atonement” and concluded that it is possible to argue for a limited atonement along universalist lines so long as we acknowledge that the limitation is grounded in our relationship to Christ, the source of the atonement, and as mutable as our own changing state of being.

If the atonement is limited to those who are in Christ (IE have entered the Covenant of Grace through faith) then of course many would be outside the scope of the atonement’s efficacy so long as they are also outside of the covenant of grace. But as universalists we would add that eventually everyone will enter into faith with Christ and thereby participate in the benefits of the atonement. Thus the application of atonement which is in fact limited to the faithful will also certainly be universal in its final results.

It seems to me that this question is really just another way of putting the inclusionist vs exclusionist question.

Those who insist that the gospel is exclusivist (only applicable to those who actually come to Christ) will have less trouble with the concept of a limited atonement as outline above than those who are of a more inclusivist mind-set and feel that the atonement applies to everyone whether they come to Christ or not. Thus the UUA which teaches that there is no need to put faith in Christ would not like any kind of limitation to the atonement. But anyone who sees the necessity of faith is by definition an exclusivist.

Thanks, that makes sense to me. In the appendix of the 2nd edition of TEU, Robin seems to argue something similar regarding election. i.e. that only the Elect, those in Christ, are saved, it’s just that the Elect isn’t a static group, it grows over time to eventually include everyone.

An alternative, along the “Now & Not yet” lines, is to say the atonement is unlimited but only effectual/actualised once someone has faith.

At various stages I’ve argued each, as I can see some support for both in the Bible, but don’t know which fits better :confused:

Also if we try to view the situation from outside of time, it become even more complicated :unamused:

The Calvinist would say that the Elect are in the Covenant of Grace from eternity past and thus there is no change in the number of elect nor of those attached to the Covenant of Grace from eternity past.

Calvinist distinguish between the Covenant of Grace in the absolute sense and in its outward administration (i.e., the visible church). The outward administration grows over time as the visible church grows (the outward administration is made up of all who profess faith in Christ and their children), but the number of elect does not change.

If we use the term “Effectual Atonement” or “Definite Atonement” then I think we are getting somewhere. Just as Calvinists, the Universalists can say that the work of Jesus Christ is effectual for all for whom He died, i.e., they will all be saved (at some point). None of those for whom Christ died will be eternally lost as required by the Arminian view.

I’d reply to a Calvinist that if some people are at risk of having their names removed from the Book of Life (Rev 3:4-6; Ps 69:28; Exod 32:32-33), I think it’s reasonable to assume it has dynamic contents. (Alternate move is to say Christ is the only one who is Elect)

I’m fond of the latter theory, Alex – that the only name written in the BOL is Jesus, and those who are in HIM, are in the Book. It seems to me too elegant and simple to NOT be true. Of course the other may be right as well.

the concept of a dynamic “elect” makes sense to me. it grows in fits and starts (and involves pruning out and grafting back in).

but i think considering what we are elected to (presuming “we” is the set of people “in Christ”, and also presuming i am a member of this “we”, which i doubt some days), ie salvation (ticket out of judgement) or the Kingdom of God. i personally feel the latter is the case…to me salvation is part of that, but the KoG is the big thing: what God is actively creating and building in a gloriously messy way that involves us. salvation is for all…and will be accepted by all…but the KoG is currently a very haphazard, ad hoc group, that i, because i am not THAT exclusivist, feel involves a large portion of people who do right by their understanding, but would be surprised to learn that they are Christ’s sheep, even more so than many who call themselves Christ’s sheep.
but still, this to me is a dynamic thing, and i am probably would be in and out of it from minute to minute, though from God’s point of view, i am a silly sheep that keeps getting lost, and still in His flock. so from His point of view, dynamic when viewed temporally, and static and all-inclusive when viewed eternally (God is capable of both views, which i find amazing).

I believe that the purpose of election is not for the exclusion of others but for the inclusion of all. The Jews were chosen, elected from among all peoples, why? They were chosen to be a city set on a hill, a nation guided and blessed by God, to reveal the glory of God, and ultimately so that Jesus might be born through them for the salvation of the world. We believers we are chosen, elected from among all peoples of the world, why? So that we might take part in the ministry of reconciliation, so that all might be saved. And some believers are sovereignly chosen and anointed as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers why? So that all believers might be equiped in the ministry of reconciliation, for the work of the ministry.

I believe very much in the sovereignty, grace, and love of God. I love God because He first loved me and revealed his love to me. I am free to love God because He set me free from slavery to doubt and unbelief. I was dead in my sins but He gave me life. I love Him because He first loved me!

To change, to redefine, what is meant by “Limited Atonement” in Calvinism from an exclusive perspective to an inclusive perspective is to completely change Calvinism so that one is no longer within that tradition. A foundational principle, though not defined within TULIP, foundational none-the-less, is the certainty that some, if not most, of humanity is not and will not be saved. This belief, the certainty of damnation of others, is actually more foundational in Calvanism than Calvinism’s “Limited Atonement”. The reason Calvin proposed Limited Atonement is because of the assumption that many will not be saved. If many are not saved, and all whom Jesus died for are saved, redeemed, then Jesus could not have died for / redeemed all. So in truth, the belief that all are not saved is more foundational to Calvanism than Limited Atonement.

Belief that all are not saved, that some are ultimately damned is a filter through which all else is understood/seen, just like viewing life through rose colored glasses.

Exactly. Election (limited in scope) and Reprobation are definitely more central to Calvinism than the extent of the atonement.

The doctrine of “Limited Atonement / Particular Redemption” is more a doctrine of implication to the Calvinist. If it is certain that the work of Christ in the atonement is effectual to all for whom Christ died and if it is certain that there are those are eternally lost (and thus the atonement is not effectual to them), then Limited Atonement necessarily follows. They would say that it follows “by good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession 1:6).

Well said.

Great post, Sherman.

As I am studying UR afresh, and am going through the epistles of Paul, I am finding that he uses “election” to mean those who are being brought into the church in this lifetime. His perspective on “election” is limited to those who believe the gospel in contrast to those who continue to walk according to the flesh.

Consider Romans 8 through 11.

The elect (8:33) in this passage are those (both Jew and Gentile) who walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (8:4); all they who hope for the redemption of their mortal bodies (8:23) - thus the elect in this passage are those being saved in this age. It does not include those who will be saved post-mortum. Thus, in chapter 9 the offspring of Israel according to the flesh are contrasted to the offspring according to the promise. The offspring according to the promise are the children of God (9:8). They are the loved Jacob, in contrast to the hated Esau. They are the remnant of Israel in 11:5, chosen by grace (11:8) that are being saved along with Paul in this present age, contrasted to they who have been hardened (11:7).

It is not until 11:25 and following that universal reconciliation is considered.

I am also finding in Ephesians the same. In Ephesians election relates to the church in contrast to those who continue to walk according to the course of this world (2:2).

Thus, as I am working through this, I am finding that the apostle’s usage of election relates to the church in this age and not the ultimate universal reconciliation brought about in future age(s). This is as it should be. The apostle is writing to an audience that had formerly been excluded from the promises given to Israel, the elect. He is telling them that they too are elect with Israel. His point is not to teach universal reconciliation, but to teach Gentile inclusion. That is not to say we cannot glean UR from Paul, but that does not seem to be his primary focus, at least, from what I can tell thus far.

Good point Dan - justification by faith is actually not about individuals; it’s Paul speaking among Jews and Gentiles - the Gentiles are included in God’s plan of salvation through faith and not trough adherence to Torah. I believe this is N.T. Wright’s central point about justification.

And here is a link to one Christian writer who views justification in terms of justified community -


I agree with you, Dan. This election is, I believe, the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus that Paul was racing for. That passage in 1 Cor always bothered me because it didn’t work for me in the context of Paul trying to win the prize of salvation. He HAS salvation. He wants the “ministry of reconciliation” given to the elect, imo. Could this be a ministry that extends beyond this present evil age? That would be WAY cool!

Here’s a link about the justification debate - … g-overdue/

And Wesley -

Jurgen Moltmann correctly notes that for Wesley sin is a sickness that requires healing rather than a breach of the law requiring atonement. Therefore, Wesley is less interested than Reformation theology in the permanent justification of the sinner and more interested in the process of moral renewal. Ted Campbell has argued that Wesley regarded the Gospel as a ‘medicine’, a cure. The result was that Wesley ‘developed something like a scientific taxonomy of spiritual problems with which his ministers could diagnose and cure.

…By participating in the life of grace, a life given by the Holy Spirit, the Christian is enabled to love God, other people, and the whole of creation with perfect love. It is noteworthy that for Wesley this vision of the transformation of life not only encompassed individual life but also the whole creation – another indication of similar orientations between the East and Wesley. In fact, for Wesley the category of ‘new creation’ combined in a critical way both individual and cosmic aspects of salvation. His was a vision of the very real transformation in the creature and the world that salvation brings about. The note of hope and expected transformation virtually sings its way through many of the sermons produced by Wesley in the final years of his long life. The following passage from his 1783 sermon ‘The General Spread of the Gospel’ echoes this hope in a most beautiful way:

‘God is already renewing the face of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises; until he hath put a period too sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and re-established universal holiness ad happiness, and caused all the inhabitants of the earth to sing together, ‘’Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!’’

I think the book of life references have to do with membership in the visible church. The meaning of the text was to serve as a warning to make sure the reader is truly in the faith and not a nominal follower of Christ. Because in Hebrews we read that we have been (past perfect) made partakers of Christ IF we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.So if we do not remain in the faith we never truly were in it.