[Editor’s Note: John Hammett is Professor of Systematic Theology and Associate Dean of Theological Studies at Southeastern. He is a former missionary to Brazil and a specialist in eclessiology. He is a theologian in all the best senses of the word. For these reasons, we asked him to put his view of a controversial point of theology on the record.]
Like most Calvinists who hold four of the traditional five points, I have struggled with the L of limited atonement. On the one hand, limited atonement makes perfect logical sense and I like the idea that the cross actually accomplished salvation for me. Further, if the cross is efficacious for salvation, then it must be limited or it leads to universal salvation, which is unquestionably non-biblical. On the other hand, there are a number of verses that I have not been able to reconcile with limited atonement. Placing biblical arguments over logical or theological arguments has led me to affirm a general understanding of the atonement.
The three texts that seem to point most forcefully to the general view are I John 2:2, I Tim. 4:10, and II Pet. 2:1. First John 2:2 affirms Christ as the propitiation not just for “our sins” but also “for the sins of the whole world.” Those who support limited atonement argue that the “whole world” does not mean every individual but all types of people, or all races, classes, or times of people. Those are possible arguments, and if this was the only verse, it might be exegetically fair to infer such a reading. But there are other verses, and there is nothing in the context to indicate a limitation of the scope of “world.”
The second text, I Tim. 4:10, speaks of God as Savior “of all people, and especially of those who believe.” Admittedly, this verse does not speak of the cross specifically, but if the cross that accomplishes salvation, here that salvation seems to extend beyond those who believe. In some sense, God is the Savior of “all people” in a sense that extends beyond believers. In what sense could God be the Savior of those who do not believe? The most cogent way I have heard is to see it as affirming that God has made provision for their salvation through the death of Christ.
The third text approaches the topic from a different direction. According to limited atonement, all those for whom Christ died, the elect, are saved. But II Pet. 2:1 affirms that some of those “bought” by Christ have become false teachers, deny Christ and bring destruction upon themselves. This sounds very much as if they are lost individuals, and yet they had been bought by Christ. It again sounds as if those for whom Christ died extend beyond those who are saved.
I recognize there are several objections lodged against the general atonement view. To my mind, the most serious is that this view weakens the accomplishment of the cross. It sees the cross as making provision for my sin, but it does not become efficacious for my salvation until I receive that provision by faith. But that is in fact what Scripture seems to teach (see Rom. 5:17). I see my reception of that provision as itself the result of God’s effectual calling and election at work in me, both of which are limited, and so I am still a Calvinist, but the L belongs in calling and election, not the cross.
A second argument is that general atonement leads to universal salvation. But this is true only if the cross by itself is efficacious for salvation; that is, that sins are forgiven by the payment offered on the cross apart from any personal response. But the general atonement view argues that it is theologically permissible and biblically warranted to separate the provision of atonement and the application of atonement.
A third objection is that general atonement seems somehow wasteful and introduces disharmony within the Trinity. If God the Father has chosen a limited group, and the Holy Spirit only convicts and draws to faith a limited group, why would the Son die for a larger group, especially when many of that group will not be saved? But we can note that God often provides more than is accepted. Universal revelation is given to all, but Romans 1 is clear that, rather than utilizing that light, many suppress it (Rom. 1:18). At any rate, this too is a logical argument that I cannot place over a biblical argument.
Thus, I find myself in agreement with the classic if somewhat ambiguous formula: the atonement was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect (or for those who believe, since they are the same group).