A. The Problem of Provisional Salvation
The doctrine of limited atonement has always been contested by those who believe that Christ’s death was made for all of humanity. These Christians believe in an unlimited atonement, where Christ’s atoning work makes salvation possible for every person, but it only comes to those who believe in him. H. Orton Wiley, a holiness theologian, advocated this view. In his magnum opus, Christian Theology, he stated, “The atonement is universal. This does not mean that all mankind will be unconditionally saved, but that the sacrificial offering of Christ so far satisfied the claims of the divine law as to make salvation a possibility for all. Redemption is therefore universal or general in the provisional sense, but special or conditional in its application to the individual (emphasis added).” Thus, salvation is provisional. It is dependent upon one’s freely made response to the offer of salvation. Contemporary theologian Norman Geisler also emphasizes the universal provisionalism of Christ’s atonement. He makes such statements as: “all are savable, but only those who believe will be saved,” “everyone is potentially justifiable, not actually justified,” “reconciliation of all (‘the world’) did not guarantee the salvation but the savability of all,” and “reconciliation by Christ makes salvation possible.”
Here is the heart of the debate: did Christ die merely to make people savable, or did he actually accomplish salvation for his people? Does the atonement secure salvation, or does it just make salvation possible? The biblical truths already established readily counter the error of unlimited atonement. Salvation is assured, not provisional. James White observes, “Christ’s death saves sinners. It does not make the salvation of sinners a mere possibility. It does not provide a theoretical atonement. It requires no additions, whether they be the meritorious works of men or the autonomous act of faith flowing from a ‘free will.’ Christ’s death saves every single person that it was intended to save.” White is simply summarizing the consistent teaching of Scripture: Christ saves his people.
B. The Danger of Universal Salvation
If the atonement actually saves those for whom Christ died, then holding to an unlimited atonement necessitates believing in universal salvation. R.C. Sproul explains, “The atonement of Christ was clearly limited or unlimited. There is no alternative, no tertium quid. If it is unlimited in an absolute sense, then an atonement has been made for every person’s sins. Christ has then made propitiation for all persons’ sins and expiated them as well.” The result of an effective unlimited atonement leads to universalism. Sproul concludes, “This means that if Christ really, objectively satisfied the demands of God’s justice for everyone, then everyone will be saved.”
Obviously, universalism is an unbiblical position outside the bounds of the Christian faith. This is why evangelicals holding to an unlimited atonement rightly reject it. Unfortunately, to maintain both orthodoxy and their view of Christ’s death, they have gutted the atonement of its power. Christ becomes a potential Savior of all but an actual Savior of none. Thankfully, Scripture does not reveal Christ’s death in this way.
H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, vol. 2.
Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004), 3:352-353.
White, The Potter’s Freedom, 230.
R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 164-165.