The word atonement, from the verb ‘to atone’, means to reconcile, or to make “at one.” Christ’s Atonement, therefore, is the Satisfaction of Christ whereby God and the world are reconciled and made to be at one. “For God indeed was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (II Cor., v, 19). Christ’s Atonement was necessary due to our state of bondage to sin, from which we needed to be delivered by the payment of a ransom “For you are bought with a great price” (I Cor., vi, 20). In human history, ransom is paid to the captor, but because sin incurs a debt of Divine justice to the one whom it has offended, namely God, it is then God to whom the ransom must be paid. Man can not make this satisfaction for himself because the debt is far greater than he can pay. Moreover, all the service that man can offer to God is already due to God solely because of God’s nature. Even a completely innocent man could not pay the ransom because then the sinner would be under obligation to his deliverer, and he would thus become the servant of a mere creature. The only way in which the satisfaction could be made, and men could be set free from sin, was by the coming of a Redeemer who is both God and man. His death makes full satisfaction to the Divine Justice because it is both eternal and something greater than all the sins of all mankind.
The Reformed conception of the Atonement is that in Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father poured out all of His wrath for the sins of the elect on His Son. Christ, then, bore the punishment of the Father’s wrath that the elect deserved for their sins. In other words, God the Father transferred the guilt of all sins (past, present, and future) onto His Son. In doing so, God the Father punished Christ for all the sins of the elect of all time. Because the sins of the elect are now paid for, (through Christ’s having already been punished for them) the elect can never be punished for any sin that they might ever commit, because every sin they commit has already been punished. For this reason Reformed theology is required to maintain that Christ died only for the elect and not everyone. Otherwise, if Christ died for everyone, it would mean God intended universal salvation -that no one would be condemned to hell- because all the sins of all people have already been punished, and therefore cannot be punished again.
This Calvinist teaching that Christ only died for the elect, -referred to as “limited atonement” -denies the fact that God wills everyone to be saved. The idea that God willed that some would go to Heaven, but also willed that some would go to Hell is known as “double predestination.” Calvin emphasized this by saying; “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death.” –The Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 3, ch. 21, para. 5). For Calvin predestination meant that God positively willed that some go to heaven and some go to hell. Before each man is ever born, God has already decreed and ordained the eternal torment of those chosen for damnation. As Calvin said: “Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children.” –ibid., ch. 23, para. 1.
The Reformed concept of atonement is problematic for multiple reasons. First, it denies true justice and would make God the Father guilty of the greatest injustice of all time by pouring out the punishment for all sin on an innocent man. It also means that God was divided against Himself; the Father pouring out wrath on His own Word. God could only do this if the Son were another being. This would create either polytheism or Arianism. If God was only punishing Christ’s human nature, then it results in Nestorianism, i.e. that Christ was two persons, one divine and the other human. These concepts all conflict with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Double predestination and limited atonement are also problematic in that they deny any consequences of free will on behalf of the sinner. The sinner is damned before even being born and there is nothing they can do about it. God then, who is supposed to be all good, is ultimately responsible for those who go to hell rather than the sinners themselves. These concepts also clearly contradict Sacred Scripture, which states that Christ’s Atonement was sufficient that all be saved; I John 2:1-2; “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” I Tim. 2:3-6: This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” II Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
The Catholic conception of Christ’s Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men. Christ made satisfaction for our sins by using His human will to offer to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the displeasure of the combined sins of all men of all time. The Passion was not an act of the Father pouring out His wrath on His Son, but rather, the Passion was Christ’s greatest act of love -an act of self-sacrifice in loving obedience to the Father. Because of this act of love and obedience, God was pleased with His Son and greatly exulted Him (Phil 2:9). Thus, Christ merited for us our salvation, something we could not have merited on our own. In other words, at Christ’s Passion and death, it was not God who wished for punishment and crucifixion, but rather it was us who persecuted Christ. Christ freely chose to allow us to do this to Him, modeling for us an act of true love by laying down His life for another, saying “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
In other words, while Christ’s Atonement culminated in His death on the cross, it actually entailed His entire life, dedicated to love, servitude and obedience to the Father. The Atonement began with the Incarnation when the Eternal Word took the nature of man. Being both God and man, Christ became the Mediator between God and men. Many of the early Church Fathers saw the Divine Incarnation as the foundation of Christ’s Redemptive work because, through the union of the Eternal Word with the nature of man, all of mankind was lifted up and “deified” so to speak. Christ continued His Redemptive work through a lifetime of teaching and sacrifice in order to show us what love of the Father and holiness entails. He provided a shining example of obedience, even obedience unto death. Christ took our sin and willingly bore its consequence, which is death. Death is a curse because it is not natural, but Christ took the likeness of sinful man and subjected Himself to death for our sake. He bore our iniquities not in the sense that God punished Him for what we did, but in the sense that He suffered the consequences of sin by entering into solidarity with us and suffering with us.
Because Christ’s Atonement was sufficient for all of mankind, the gift of saving grace is made available to all people, but it won’t have the same effect in every person. Those who accept God’s offer of salvation and remain in his friendship make God’s grace efficacious. God makes salvation available to all, even if all do not choose to receive it. Those who refuse His grace do not do so because God wills them to Hell or because Christ did not die for them or did not win sufficient grace for them on the cross. It is because of the choice made of their own free will to reject God’s grace and choose a life of sin over Him that their salvation is forfeit. The set of those called in Romans 8:28-31 is not necessarily the same set as those justified, because some may reject the actual grace given to them, just as Christ says will happen in His parable of the wedding feast. God, who is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing), knows from all eternity who will accept his gift of salvation and who will reject it. God’s knowing how we will choose, however, does not entail his willfully predetermining how we will choose. Rather, to God, everything is present. Because He is outside of time, which He created, He doesn’t have to wait for history to unfold as we do to find out what is going to happen. It is because of God’s omnipotence that His Providence over all of creation does not interfere with our free will. As the Catechism puts it:
“To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace” (CCC 600).
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
2 Corinthians 8:9
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Philippians 2: 5-11
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
I John 2:1-2;
“My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
I Tim. 2:3-6:
This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
II Peter 3:9:
“The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Colossians 1: 19, 20
“Because in him, it hath well pleased the Father that all fulness should dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, making peace through the blood of his cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven.”
Church Father Quotes:
Irenaeus of Lyons
“The mighty Word and true Man reasonably redeeming us by His blood, gave Himself a ransom for those who had been brought into bondage. And since the Apostasy unjustly ruled over us, and, whereas we belonged by nature to God Almighty, alienated us against nature and made us his own disciples, the Word of God, being mighty in all things, and failing not in His justice, dealt justly even with the Apostasy itself, buying back from it the things which were His own” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 5:1
Athanasius of Alexandria
“He was made man that we might be made gods” -De Incarnation Verbi, 54
”His flesh was saved, and made free the first of all, being made the body of the Word, then we, being concorporeal therewith, are saved by the same” -Orat., II, Contra Arianos, 56
“For the presence of the Savior in the flesh was the price of death, and the saving of the whole creation” -Ep. ad Adelphium, 6
Augustine of Hippo
“[P]redestination, which cannot exist without foreknowledge, although foreknowledge may exist without predestination; because God foreknew by predestination those things which he was about to do, whence it was said, “He made those things that shall be.” Moreover, he is able to foreknow even those things which he does not himself do—as all sins whatever. . . . Therefore God’s predestination of good is, as I have said, the preparation of grace; which grace is the effect of that predestination” (On the Predestination of the Saints (book I)—In What Respects Predestination and Grace Differ, chap. 19 ).
“Men were held captive under the devil, and served the demons, but they were redeemed from captivity. For they could sell themselves, but they could not redeem themselves. The Redeemer came, and gave the price; He poured forth His blood and bought the whole world. Do you ask what He bought? See what He gave, and find what He bought. The blood of Christ is the price. How much is it worth? What but the whole world? What but all nations?” (Enartatio in Psalm xcv, n. 5).
“The New Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors” (Serm. cxxx, § 2).
St Thomas Aquinas
“It is fitting that God should predestine men. For all things are subject to His providence, as was shown above (Question 22, Article 2). Now it belongs to providence to direct things towards their end, as was also said (Q. 22, a.1, ad 2). The end towards which created things are directed by God is twofold; one which exceeds all proportion and faculty of every created nature; and this end is life eternal, that consists in seeing God which is above the nature of every creature, as shown above (Question 12, Article 4). The other end, however, is proportionate to created nature, to which end created being can attain according to the power of its nature. Now if a thing cannot attain to something by the power of its nature, it must be directed thereto by another; thus, an arrow is directed by the archer towards a mark. Hence, properly speaking, a rational creature, capable of eternal life, is led towards it, directed, as it were, by God. The reason of that direction pre-exists in God; as in Him is the type of the order of all things towards an end, which we proved above to be providence. Now the type in the mind of the doer of something to be done, is a kind of pre-existence in him of the thing to be done. Hence the type of the aforesaid direction of a rational creature towards the end of life eternal is called predestination. For to destine, is to direct or send. Thus it is clear that predestination, as regards its objects, is a part of providence.” –Summa Theologica I, a.23, a.1
”[S]ince one cannot be directed to the ultimate end except by means of divine grace, without which no one can possess the things needed to work toward the ultimate end, such as faith, hope, love, and perseverance, it might seem to some person that man should not be held responsible for the lack of such aids. Especially so, since he cannot merit the help of divine grace, nor turn toward God unless God convert him, for no one is held responsible for what depends on another. Now, if this is granted, many inappropriate conclusions appear.” -Summa Contra Gentiles III.159.1
“To settle this difficulty, we ought to consider that, although one may neither merit in advance nor call forth divine grace by a movement of his free choice, he is able to prevent himself from receiving this grace: Indeed, it is said in Job(21:34): “Who have said to God: Depart from us, we desire not the knowledge of Your ways”; and in Job (24:13): “They have been rebellious to the light.” And since this ability to impede or not to impede the reception of divine grace is within the scope of free choice, not undeservedly is responsibility for the fault imputed to him who offers an impediment to the reception of grace. In fact, as far as He is concerned, God is ready to give grace to all; “indeed He wills all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” as is said in 1 Timothy (2:4).But those alone are deprived of grace who offer an obstacle within themselves to grace; just as, while the sun is shining on the world, the man who keeps his eyes closed is held responsible for his fault, if as a result some evil follows, even though he could not see unless he were provided in advance with light from the sun.” –Summa Contra Gentiles III.159.2
St. Francis de Sales
“First He willed, with a genuine will, that even after the sin of Adam all men should be saved, but in a way and with means suited to the condition of our nature, which is endowed with free-will; that is to say He willed the salvation of all those who would contribute their consent to the graces and favours which He would prepare, offer and distribute for this purpose. Now, among these favours, He willed that the call be first, and that it should be so accommodated to our freedom that we might at our good pleasure accept or reject it. And to those whom He foresaw would receive it, He willed to give the sacred movements of repentance; and to those who would follow those movements He determined to give holy charity, those again who were in charity, He purposed to supply with the helps necessary to persevere, and to such as should make use of these divine helps He resolved to impart final perseverance, and the glorious felicity of his eternal love. … Without doubt, God prepared heaven only for those whom He foresaw would be His. … But it is in our power to be His: for although the gift of being God’s belongs to God, yet this is a gift which God denies no one, but offers to all, and gives to those who freely consent to receive it.” –Treatise on the Love of God, 3.5
David Nelson, Southern Baptist
”In John 1 and 2 kosmos is used in the sense of both the earth and all the inhabitants of the earth, indicating that in the incarnation Jesus came to earth for the sake of saving all who would believe in him . . . to say that world refers to ‘all the elect’ or ‘all without distinction’ (i.e. all kinds, classes, or ethnicities) strains the plain meaning of the text.” –Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue
Richard Carrier, Biblical Scholar, atheist
Paul “is telling people to pray for peace, on behalf of everyone alive, but in [verse four] he is describing what God wants . . . there is simply no other way to interpret what Paul is saying except that what God actually wants is all people, not some of all kinds of people, to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” –Two Examples of Faulty Bible Scholarship