Was Jesus’ Atonement for Sins Only for His Elect?

"For He Himself is the propitiation of our sins, and not for ours only but for the whole world." 1 John 2:2

“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”

1 John 2:2

I have often wondered what it meant to be one of God’s “elect,” as the Bible puts it. Am I one of the elect? How would I know? Then I begin to wonder about other doctrines of Christian theology and faith such as Calvinism and Arminianism, both of which focus on atonement and who receives it.

How do we know if Jesus’ death on the cross was for all of us or just some of us (the elect)? Was the theologian Calvin correct or was his counterpart Arminian the one who got it right? Were either of them correct?? Is our salvation truly eternal?

These are very profound questions, ones that we ought to examine to be sure of what the Bible says and what God thinks about us. Though it can get a little confusing, it’s worth the effort to be sure of what we believe.

What is Calvinism?

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Calvinism or any reformed theology. Like you, I am merely a student in the great adventure of following Christ. But I am crazy about researching theology. I’m a Bible nerd that way. So, allow me to share what I’ve learned.

Calvinism, a.k.a Reformed Theology, is a doctrine created by John Calvin (hence the name) in the mid-1500s. It’s believed he based a lot of his beliefs on the earlier teachings of St. Augustine. His theology is widely shared across the world and was brought to the Americas with the first colonizing pilgrims during the Puritan movement.

The premise of Calvinism is based on the acrostic T-U-L-I-P.

T= Total Depravity. All people are hopelessly depraved because of their sin and, therefore, cannot choose salvation on their own without God’s calling.

U= Unconditional Election. God predestined who would be saved and who would not.

L= Limited Atonement. Jesus’ death on the cross is reserved for only those who are His chosen elect.

I= Irresistible Grace. If you are one of the elect, you are the object of irresistible grace, a calling you cannot ignore or deny. Denying God’s grace is impossible or else Jesus’ death would be in vain.

P= Perseverance of the Saints. Once the elect answers the irresistible calling, the saints persevere to the end in order to preserve their salvation and gain eternal security.

A “T-U-L-I-P” Summary

To describe the entire theology of Calvinism and the differing views of it would take far longer than we have space here. So, let me give you a quick summary.The T-U-L-I-P model is the Cavlvinistic way of explaining Jesus' atonement work on the cross.

God already chose before the foundation of the world who He would save. He placed a calling of grace on these people that’s so strong they simply cannot resist it and will not ever willingly let it go.

In Calvinism, the emphasis is on God’s sovereignty. He cannot be contained by time, He already knows everything in the past, everything that is present, and everything in the future. He is in complete control, and it is His decision who He calls to be a part of His kingdom.

Believers of Calvinism typically break into one of two groups: the four-point group and the five-point group. The difference between the two groups lies in what people believe about limited atonement. They disagree about whether Jesus died for only the Father’s elected people or if He died for everyone.

Most Christians would probably agree with at least some of the T-U-L-I-P model, but not everyone does. Which is where Arminianism breaks off into its own group.

What is Arminianism?

Now, don’t be alarmed if you have never heard of Arminianism. I didn’t either until I was deep into my studying.

Arminianism theology was created by Jacobus Arminian, a 16th-century reformist. His ideas expanded beyond the restrictions of Calvinism with a wider-angle view that still somewhat kept to the T-U-L-I-P model.

Total Depravity. Both Calvinism and Arminianism agree with Total Depravity. Man’s sin prevents him from recognizing his need for salvation, so it’s up to God to predestine it.

Unconditional Election. Since God predestines His elect, both theologies also agree that God chooses whom He will elect. This is based on John 6:44: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”

However, Arminians believe that man also has free will in choosing whether to follow Jesus. He may feel the tug of God on his life, but he has free will to turn away from it causing “conditional election,” meaning it is conditional on him whether to put his faith in Jesus.

Man watching a storm: We are given free will to reject God's work of atonement even if we are one of the elect.

Irresistible Grace. Both theologies also agree in irresistible grace, though Arminians still believe that man has the right to resist that grace. Man can choose for himself whether to accept or reject Christ and whether he wants salvation or eternal damnation.

Perseverance of the Saints. Calvinists believe that since God chose who He wants to save, those people are completely unable to turn away from God because of the continual pull of Irresistible Grace, which causes them to persevere in their faith.

But, Arminianists believe people, who have free will, are able to abandon their faith or “backslide” if they wish. People are in control of their own destiny, and God already knows who will persevere and who will not.

The Problem with Limited Atonement

Where Calvinists and Arminians differ the most is in Limited Atonement. And, it’s probably where many of us struggle to know what is true. Is the atoning work of Jesus on the cross only for His elect, or is it for everyone?

Calvinists believe Jesus’ atonement is only for God’s chosen elect. But Arminians (and probably most of us) believe that God’s salvation is for everyone. His grace is a free gift to anyone who will accept it.

The Calvinist view says that whoever accepts it was already predestined to accept it and cannot resist it. But Arminians believe we have free will to either accept or reject it even if we are one of the elect.

The Arminian view is based on the verse we all know and love—John 3: 16.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Even if we feel the tugging of Christ on our heart, we are fully able to ignore it.

Sacrificial Atonement

Jesus’ atoning work on the cross was also a sacrifice. He took on our sin and the sins of the world all on Himself and died in our place. He died the death we deserve. Now the debt of sin, which is death, has been paid, and we are reconciled to God once again.

“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements [Moses’ Law] that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Colossians 2:14

Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer. He died in our place, paid the price of death physically, spiritually, and judiciously, so that we might have access to the throne of the Father and forgiveness through His Son.

If we believe this, does that mean we’re Arminians? Maybe in some ways. But what does the Bible say about Jesus’ atoning death?

The Paradox of the Elect

Time and again, we find Scriptures that prove Jesus’ atonement work is for everyone and not just a chosen few, which creates a parodox. Why does the Bible indicate that salvation is only for God’s elect but in other places proclaim His grace is for everyone?

Many verses in the Bible talk about who is the elect, and there are two different types: corporate and individual.

In Genesis 12:1-3, we read how God called Abram to pack up his family and move to an unknown land so God could make Moses into a great nation. This was the beginning of the Abrahamic Election—corporate election—where all of Israel would be considered God’s elect. It is why the Jewish are God’s chosen people. They were specially chosen or elected as a whole by God.

We see evidence of corporate election again in Isaiah 45:4.

“For Jacob, My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name. I have named you, though you have not known Me.”

Individual Election

Then there is individual election, which we see often throughout the New Testament.

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30

“God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew.” Romans 11:2

“…Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will…” Ephesians 1:4-5

“And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” Matthew 24:31

“Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:48

“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.” John 17:9

Individual atonement (election) is for those whom Jesus died on the cross to save. It does not cancel corporate atonement for Israel, though. They are still His chosen people, His remnant. Paul addresses this in Romans 11:1-5 in response to the Jews’ questions about individual atonement.

“I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew…Even so, then, at this present time, there is a remnant according to the election by grace.”

God has called the nation of Israel as a corporate election to His grace.

Both corporate and individual atonements are in play, but the corporate atonement is reserved for only a small Jewish remnant who accepts God’s grace and recognizes Jesus’ work on the cross.

Does Atonement Include Free Will?

We have established that God is sovereign, and He is free to choose whomever He pleases to be with Him in heaven. But to say that He predestined certain people without giving them an ability to consent would cause us to think there’s no point in faith.

Why serve Him or do anything if He’s already made up His mind? Why preach the Gospel at all?

Though God can absolutely do whatever He wants anytime He wants, it seems difficult to believe that God would be so cut and dry. We know He’s a loving, caring, compassionate God. We know He sent His only Son, Jesus, to pay the debt for our sin out of an abundance of grace.

So, it makes sense that God recognizes that we have free will to decide if we will follow Him or not. We can see evidence of this way back in the story of Adam and Eve. They were told not to eat the fruit, but they ultimately had the free will to either obey or not obey.

Similarly, with salvation, we have free will to choose whether we want it. Remember Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

A self-described loving God would never force a gift on His people. It is our choice whether we want to accept it.

But God doesn’t just toss His atonement up in the air and waits to see who wants it. I do believe by personal experience that accepting His gift of grace is indeed irresistible as the T-U-L-I-P model suggests, but maybe not everyone thinks so. Sadly, I know of many people who walked away from their faith or have no trouble denying God at all.

But, if you’re like me and you were drawn to God by His irresistible offer of grace, does that mean we’re one of the elect?

Who are God’s Elect?

Whether we are one of God’s predestined elect is hard to know. We can only assume that because some have accepted His gift of grace, that they believe in His atonement for our sins, perhaps they are.

As for those we know who are not saved, they may still receive salvation at some point in the future, but only God knows if it will happen. He indeed knows who will accept His gift, but He does not get in the way of our free will to reject it. If our unsaved loved ones ultimately accept it, then perhaps they too are one of the elect. They just don’t know it yet.

Jesus' work of atonement was not in vain. His grace is for everyone!

Despite all that, it doesn’t stop God from offering His grace to everyone. Jesus’ work of atonement on the cross was not in vain. He died for all sinners, not just a chosen few. Everyone is welcome to come to the altar of salvation.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

“But we see Jesus…for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” Hebrews 2:9

“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” 1 John 2:2

Based on Scriptural evidence, Jesus’ sacrificial work of atonement on the cross is free to anyone who wants it. We have free will to respond to His irresistible grace and accept His great gift. And God already knows who is going to say ‘yes’ because He’s already elected them.

How about you? Are you one of the elect? There’s only one way to find out.

Accept—or reaccept—His gift of atonement today.

Further Reading

If you’re curious about the difference between Calvinism’s four- and five-point differences, Dr. Richard Land at the Christian Examiner did a simple and quick overview of it. It’s easy to understand and really clarifies what this theology is all about. Read all about it >> A Quick Tutorial on Calvinism’s Five Points and Why I’m a ‘Three-and-a-Quarter Pointer.’

Dr. Land also gives an alternate and perhaps a more accurate version of T-U-L-I-P in his own model, D-E-S-I-R-E in this Christian Post Church and Ministries article. I love the idea!

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