Luther, Calvin, Arminius and I: Universality and Particularity of Atonement

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Mini

The shed blood of Christ Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” wrote the author the first epistle of John (1 John 2:2 NIV). This article presents a universality and particularity of atonement and showed that Martin Luther, John Calvin and Jacob Arminius held a similar understanding of the nature and extent of atonement.

I have studied and reflected 1 John 2:2 for the last 5 months. I have come to a conclusion that Christ shed his blood for all, post-Christ’s death and resurrection, without exception. This is the universality of the atoning work of Christ Jesus. The story, nonetheless, does not end here. The shed blood of Christ is, however, not extended to all without exception but to all without distinction. This is the particularity of the atoning work of Christ Jesus.

The shed blood of Christ extends or is applied particularly to believers, the elected or the called, whom in God’s proper time are also given the gift of regeneration that spring forth faith to receive it (Acts 13:48). Through the shedding of His blood, Christ’s righteousness is thus given to all without distinction.  Christ’s righteousness is given to whomever believe (Rom. 3:22) in the person and work of Christ Jesus. Continue reading

John Owen’s Argument Against Unlimited Atonement

Atonement Nails

When limited atonement is discussed, John Owen’s argument in The Death of Death (see Owen’s argument and  Prayson’s treatment of the argument) is often evoked. The argument shortly stated is that if Christ died for the sins of all people (unlimited atonement), what about the sin of unbelief? Doesn’t this make God unjust because Christ Jesus can’t pay the penalty for unbelief and yet let unbelievers pay it again in hell? And since universalism (Christ died effectually for all people securing their salvation) is unacceptable, this leads many to say that atonement has to be definite and limited in scope in order for it to be effectual. Christ dies and pays the penalty for the sins of the elect.

There are plenty of exegetical discussions on the relevant texts (e.g 1.Tim 2:4, 2. Peter 2:1, 1.John 2:2 etc.), so I will rehearse here.  I do, though, want to present a principled objection that John Owen’s argument proves to much (Jordan Cooper, a Lutheran minister makes this point in the podcast “limited atonement part 5”, which I am here summarizing). If unbelief is a sin which Christ atoned for, for the elect, then that sin was also paid for before the elect was regenerate. This means that the elect had atonement for the sin of unbelief which would make faith unnecessary, which leads to the view called eternal justification. Some hyper-Calvinist would bit the bullet argue for this but most Calvinist would still maintain that justification happens in time by faith. The elect appropriate the benefits of the atonement by faith they would say. But in making this step Owen’s argument collapses because this this is exactly what the Lutheran and the Arminian would say, that the atonement is only applied by faith. So Owen’s argument proves to much.

About Guest Contributor

SorenSøren D. Øhrstrøm is 24 years, lives in Aalborg, Denmark. He hold B.A. in Social Sciences from Aalborg University with Study of Religion as a supplementary subject from Aarhus University. He is currently enjoying life at a Bible school in Israel with his wonderful girlfriend Miriam.

Particular Atonement: Strengths And Weaknesses


Classical Reformed theologians hold that:

“[I]t was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.”( Second Head Of Doctrine, Article 9) [1]

This Reformed view of the extent of the atoning work of Christ Jesus reverberates with Christ Jesus’ proclamation that “[a]ll that the Father gives [him] will come to [him], and whoever comes to [him He] will never cast out”(John 6:37) and that He will “lose nothing of all that [the Father] has given Him, but raise it up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)

Holding a Reformed position, J. I. Packer correctly summarized Reformed doctrine of particular atonement, when he defined definite redemption as the finished work of Christ that “ actually put away the sins of all God’s elect and ensured that they would be brought to faith through regeneration and kept in faith for glory, and that this is what it was intended to achieve.”(Packer 1995: n.p)

Strengths of Particular Atonement

Particular atonement makes sense of Christ Jesus’ exclusively John 17’s prayer, namely He prayed not for the world, but for those whom God the Father gave Him, for they belong to the Father.

Charles Hodge noted that “[t]he high-priest interceded for all those for whom he offered sacrifice. The one service did not extend beyond the other.”(Hodge 1997: 553). He argued as high-priest bore the names of the twelve tribes upon his breast when representing them as he offered sacrifices for their sins on the day of atonement, Christ Jesus bore the names of those whom God the Father gave Him.

Moreover, particular atonement is the only view that would lead, I believe, to Romans 9:14 reaction, namely “Is there injustice on God’s part?” and that of Romans 9:16b: “Why does he[God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” position. God showing mercy on whom He shows mercy and our inability to come to Christ Jesus unless the Father particularly show us mercy by drawing us to his Son and the Son will raise all whom the Father gave up on the last day (John 6:44 cf Roman 9:16) does prima facie sound injustice on God’s part.

Particular atonement explains why the cross of Christ is still a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, as Paul explained to the Corinthians, but to those whom the Father particularly called and draw to His Son, “both Jews and Greeks, Christ [crucified is] the power of God and the wisdom of God”(1 Cor. 1:24) On the Soul, 1, Tertullian awesomely observed: “For, who can know truth without the help of God? Who can know God without Christ? Who has ever discovered Christ without the Holy Spirit? And who has ever received the Holy Spirit without the gift of faith?” It is those whom faith is given as a gift who see the power of God and the wisdom of God displayed at the Cross.

Reflecting on this view, William G. T. Shedd brilliantly resolve that “[t]he tenet of limited redemption rests upon the tenet of election, and the tenet of election rests upon the tenet of the sinner’s bondage and inability.”(Shedd 2003: 744)

Concurring with Shedd, Wayne Grudem concluded that all whom the Father had, according to the purpose of his will and praise of his glorious grace, already destined before the creation of the world, to become the children of God “are the same people for whom Christ also came to die, and to those same people the Holy Spirit will certainly apply the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work, even awakening their faith (John 1:12; Phil. 1:29; cf. Eph. 2:2) and calling them to trust in him.”(Grudem 1994: 595)

Weakness of Particular atonement

One of the weaknesses of the doctrine of Particular atonement is that it stands or fall by the truthfulness of the doctrine of Radical depravity viz., fallen creatures are spiritually dead, hostile to God and have no ability to come to Christ Jesus because the things of Spirit are foolish to them, the doctrine Unconditional election viz., those whom the Father gave to His Son, Effectual grace viz., the awaking of a spiritual dead person by the saving work of the Holy Spirit to see the power and beauty of cross, and Eternal assurance viz., those whom the Father gave to His Son are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of [their] inheritance until [they] acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”(Eph. 1:13-14)

Particular atonement necessarily requires a particular assembly of people from all nations, all tribes, all tongues, who were hostile to God, drawn by the Father to His Son with a power that awakes unquenchable delight and joy to the things of Spirit and are forever kept, never to perish because “no one can snatch them out of [Christ Jesus] hand”(John 10:28).

Question To Reformed Theologians: Am I correct in viewing particular atonement as solely dependent on the truthfulness of radical depravity, effectual call, unconditional election and assurance of salvation to the elect?

[1] Historic Creeds and Confessions. 1997 (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic theology : An introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House

Packer, J. I. (1995). Concise theology : A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.

Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. (2003). Dogmatic theology (3rd ed.). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub.

Universal Atonement: Strengths And Weaknesses


Classical Dutch Arminians understand the work of Christ Jesus as a penalty for the sin of every mankind. God’s love and desire to save everyone made salvation possible to any one who will call upon and believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savor.

James Arminius1 (1560–1609) accepted that humans are born dead in sins but God in his fairness and justice has restored to every mankind “without any difference of the elect and the reprobate2(Arminius 1853: 497) the power to believe in Christ Jesus.

Following Arminian position, Donald G. Bloesch argued, “Christ has reconciled and justified the whole human race but in principle (de jure), not in fact (de facto) except for those who believe.”(Bloesch 1997: 169)  He pointed that every single person is an heir to the kingdom of God but only those who accept Christ Jesus becomes the members of the church.

Bloesch3 concluded that”[t]he atonement of Christ is universal in its intention and outreach but conditional in the way its efficacy is realized in the lives of God’s people. (ibid 169). Bloesch as all orthodox Christians hold to some form of limited atonement. The dispute is over whether it’s God or human that limits it. Reformed argued that atonement is limited in intention namely God limits it to his chosen, while Arminian, as Bloesch, limits atonement in its efficacy namely Christ’s atoning work is a potential atonement that man has to actualize.

Strengths of Universal Atonement

The strongest verses, I believe, that support universal atonement could be established along Paul’s reasoning that God is the Savior of all men, especially of believers (1 Tim. 4:10) and John’s maintaining that Christ Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) 4

Paul’s reasoning entails that God is the Savior of both nonbelievers and believers but specifically believers, while John’s leads to Christ’ universal atoning work.

Passages that stressed that Christ died for his sheep, viz., his bride, the Church (e.g. John 10:11-18) does not necessary negate 1 Timothy 4:10 and 1 John 2:2 because they do not assert that He died only for his sheep.

Weakness of Universal Atonement

Universal atonement necessarily leads to universal salvation, namely universalism5. If we consider that Christ’s atoning work propitiated the wrath of God for the sins of every single person, then it follows logically that every single person is saved from the coming wrath of God (Col. 3:6) .

John Owen correctly argued:

If […] we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world… then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? Yon will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.(Owen 1862: 173-4)

Using Bloesch’s claim, viz., “[t]he gates of the prison in which we find ourselves are now open, but only those who rise up and walk through these gates to freedom are truly free.” (Bloesch 1997, 169), Owen’s reasoning would lead us to a position that if a prisoner is free, she is free indeed even though she chooses to remain in her prison’s cell. The warden cannot limit her freedom of staying or leaving.  She is not either falsely free or truly free but free or not free.

Wayne Grudem properly pointed out that if “Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of every person who ever lived, then there is no penalty left for anyone to pay, and it necessarily follows that all people will be saved, without exception.”(Grudem 1994: 594) It would be unjust and unloving for God to demand payment for a debt that was already paid by the work of Christ Jesus, regardless of the debtor knowledge that her debt is paid or accepts that her debt is paid.

Bloesch does not explain how “[u]niversal atonement does not necessarily mean universal salvation, but it does imply that all people are the beneficiaries of God’s grace in some way or to some degree”(ibid 168) because, as Robert L. Reymond explained, that Bloesch’s position “requires that we conclude that Christ did not savingly die for everyone—since neither Scripture, history, nor Christian experience will tolerate the conclusion that everyone has been, is being, or shall be saved—but for some people only, even those whom the Father had given to him.”(Reymond 1998: 681)

How universal atonement does not lead to universal salvation, I believe, is a fatal problem in this understanding of atoning work of Christ Jesus.

Question To Arminian Theologians: How do you answer John Owen logical case against universal atonement?

[1] Arminius, the father of Arminianism, reacted to Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza, teaching that was described as of less of grace and goes beyond Calvin’s own teachings, namely  “[t]he decrees of election and reprobation are said to be logically prior to the decrees of creation, fall and redemption.”(Culver 2005: 547)
[2] Emphasis original

[3] Bloesch goes even further to claim that ” [e]ven though incorrigible sinners may find themselves in hell, outside the holy city, they are not outside the compass of God’s love and protection.”(ibid 169)

[4] I did not include Christ’s died for ”all” passages (e.g. John 12:32; Rom. 3:22–24; 5:18; 8:32; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:14–15; 1 Tim. 2:5–6; Tit. 2:11; Heb. 2:9, Rom. 11:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) nor ”the world”(e.g. John 3:16, 2 Cor. 5:19) because the term ”all” and ”world” are not used in strict sense (see Matt. 10:22 and John 17:16)

[5] a view that all humans either may or will be saved through atoning work of Christ Jesus.


Arminius, James (1853). The Works of Arminius ii, trans. James Nichols (Auburn & Buffalo: Derby, Miller & Orion, recently repr. 1853), art. xvii.

Bloesch, D. G. (1997). Jesus Christ : Savior & Lord. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic theology : An introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Reymond, R. L. (1998). A new systematic theology of the Christian faith. Nashville: T. Nelson.

Owen, J. Vol. 10: The works of John Owen(1862). (W. H. Goold, Ed.). Edinburg: T&T Clark.

James Arminius + Paul’s Romans 9:14-25 Case

James Arminius

James Arminius correctly captured the contribution of Romans 9:14-25 to the overall argument of “whole epistle.” He viewed the scope of Romans 9 is the same as that of the whole epistle, viz.,

[…] the Gospel, not the law, is the power of God unto salvation, not to him that worketh, but to him that believeth, since, in the Gospel the righteousness of God is manifested in the obtainment of salvation by faith in Christ. (Arminius 1853: 528 emphasis original)

Concurring with Arminius, Romans 9 defends the proposition against the objections of the Jews that could be deduce as:

“If righteousness and salvation consist in faith in Christ, whom Paul preaches, it follows that the Jews, for the most part, are rejected from the covenant. The reason of this conclusion is this. “Because most of the Jews do not believe in Christ.”(ibid 529)

Paul showed that the word of convent has not fail, even if most of the Jews, “who, with the greatest zeal, seek the righteousness of the Law” since “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”(verse 6b ESV) and that word of convent applies to and fulfilled in “the children of the promise”, both Jews and Gentiles who pursue righteousness that is by faith in finish work of Christ Jesus.

Paul in Romans 9:14-25 aims to defend the righteous of God in fulfillment of his convent promise to those whom He has eternally elected as “the children of the promise” not because of the righteousness of the Law, namely merits, but God’s own free grace poured through faith in Christ Jesus and also to show that “God always works by the method of election.”(Morris 1988: 358).

Paul argument can be formulated as follows:

  1. God is just in all His acts.
  2. God’s act of electing some and pass others prima facie seems injustice.
  3. God is merciful to whom He pleases and hardens whom He pleases according to His will.
  4. Thus, God is not unjust.


Arminius, J. (1853). The Works of Arminius, Volume 3 (J. Nichols & W. R. Bagnall, Trans.) Auburn; Buffalo: Derby, and Miller; Derby, Orton and Mulligan.

Morris, L. (1988). The Epistle to the Romans. The Pillar New Testament Commentary Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press.

NB: Though I hold to a reformed tradition, I am continually edified by Arminius powerful thinking. I am open for correcting, comments, and critics as we try to glorify God through our thinking.