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.