Penal Union and Limited/Unlimited/Universal Atonement

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Back in my post on the Nature of Wrath, Rey made the following comment problem doesn't have anything to do with the propitiation but with the "united with Him on the Cross through the Holy Spirit" bit when 1 John 2:2 says that Christ was a propitiation for our sins and the sins of the world. If we're united in the Holy Spirit to Christ on the Cross then it sounds like the world is united in the Holy Spirit to Christ on the Cross...and they can't even receive the Holy Spirit (John 14:7). I don't know, it just really sounds like there is a line being fuzzed out in there when the connection to Christ on the cross is the Holy Spirit.

I promised a response, so here it is. Unfortunately, I'm going to answer in a bit of a roundabout way...

In the circles that I seem to run, there is a mini-obsession with limited/unlimited atonement. Every model of the atonement that is studied gets heavily analyzed on that particular aspect of the model. To keep things interesting, I keep pointing out that universalism is another possibility, and the discussions really get going.

Though the discussions are certainly interesting, the downside is that much more important issues regarding the atonement are overshadowed by the "extent of the atonement" discussions. Issues of Christology, anthropology, sin, death, and the subjective/objective nature of the atonement all have greater impact and are of far more importance than the limited/unlimited issue.

As such, when I am discussing my model of the Atonement, I doggedly remain silent on this issue. I want people who are thinking about this model to be thinking about the more important issues rather than get sucked into a minor point. That is to say, I'd hate for a person to reject the whole model just because they disagree with my stance on limited/unlimited/universal atonement.

That being said, most people seem to think that my model demands the limited atonement view. I disagree. I think my model is flexible and robust enough to support limited, unlimited, and universal atonement:

1) Limited atonement. This one is fairly straightforward. The elect are united with Christ on the cross via the Holy Spirit. The non-elect are not. Christ dies only for the sins of the elect.

2) Universal atonement. This one is, if anything, even more straightforward. All are elect, and therefore, all are united with Christ on the Cross via the Holy Spirit.

3) Unlimited atonement. This one take a little work, but not much. The elect are united with Christ on the cross via the Holy Spirit. This union is a marital union (Eph 5) and the Spirit indwells the elect. However, it is also clear that Christ is united with all humanity in some way, though not in a marital union (Matt 25:31ff). Let us suppose for the sake of argument that this union is achieve via the Holy Spirit as well, but not through indwelling, as with the elect, but in some more temporary manner, just as the Holy Spirit would be with some in the OT but then depart. Thus it is conceivable that all of humanity is united with Christ on the cross, though not necessarily in a marital union. For those where the Spirit's presence is temporary, the union stops with the cross and does not include the resurrection. Thus they are punished for their sins in Christ, but are left dead. They are stranded in Hell without union with Christ and His resurrection to bring them out. In this scenario, Christ really does die for the sins of the entire world, but the benefits of the resurrection only apply to those who are maritally united with Him. As I've (tried to) note before, the crucifixion is an incomplete act. Without the resurrection, it is worthless (1 Cor 15:17).

As you can see, the unlimited atonement scenario requires quite a bit more nuance than the others, but that is pretty much true for all unlimited atonement scenarios.

At any rate, hopefully I've shown that my model of the Atonement does not require any particular view on the limited/unlimited/universal atonement issue. Any by so doing, hopefully I've answered Rey's worries as well.


I disagree with you that universalism is another option beyond the unlimited atonement view as it's standardly conceived and the limited atonement view as it's standardly conceived. When not taken absolutely, unlimited atonement is consistent with limited atonement. When taken absolutely. unlimited atonement logically entails universalism. For my arguments for those theses, see this post. Here is the quick version, though.

If the atonement is truly unlimited in every sense, then universalism is true. The atonement covers everyone, and everyone is saved. If the atonement is unlimited merely in a potential sense, then the atonement is limited in its effect, which is what the limited atonement camp says. So we have two views. Calvinists are right, and the atonement is actually limited, whether it's potentially unlimited or not. Alternatively, the atonement is purely universal, and all will be saved.

This third view you're giving doesn't seem to me to be required by or even consistent with the standard way of conceiving unlimited atonement. The way people who say they hold to unlimited atonement put it is that the atonement potentially covers all but actually covers just those who are saved. [As I've argued, that's consistent with limited atonement, but these people don't seem to see that.] Rather than saying that those who won't be saved are merely potentially atoned for, your third altenative holds that all are actually atoned for, and then the atonement for the ones who won't be saved is later removed because it wasn't as full in some way.

You don't need to say this, because those who say they hold to unlimited atonement say the atonement is merely potential for those who will not be saved. Thus you just have to say that people who won't be saved are only potentially united with Christ on the cross and in the resurrection. That is to say that if they had believed, they would have been united with Christ on the cross and in the resurrection. That would be sufficient for unlimited atonement. [Of course, that's consistent with limited atonement also, but that's because the views are about different things and just talking past each other.]

If you really want to do the unlimited atonement scenario as you do it, though, you have a very weird feature. Whether someone is united to Christ on the cross and in the resurrection the way I explained it depends on what they later do. Whether someone is potentially united to Christ depends on their mere existence. The way you've done it, they are united and then are not, whereas the way I've done it either they are or aren't actually united but potentially are one way or the other.

On your model, therefore, people are actually united to Christ on the cross during their lifetime until their death, when that uniting is removed. It's not the same kind of uniting as the elect, but that's not important for my point. Here's what's bothering me. Are they united with Christ on the cross and in the resurrection? During their lifetime, the answer is yes. After their death, the answer is no. What about during the cross and the resurection? I think what you have to say is that the part of them during their lifetime is united with him, but the part of them after their death is not. Thus this view requires a four-dimensional view of persons. I wouldn't have thought that you would want your model of the atonement to require this view, even if you think the view is true. It would be a strange consequence of a view on the atonement.

Jeremy - While I agree that most people just mean that all are potentially atoned for when they say "unlimited atonement", I think that there is a small but significant group of theologians who mean something more than that. In my circles, this meaning of unlimited atonement is increasingly dominant. As such, I gave a model which would suit them. It sounded to me that Rey was thinking along similar lines, so I blogged this particular model.

This meaning of "unlimited atonement" goes something like this: The cross and resurrection accomplished things which affected the entire cosmos, which includes all people, not merely the elect. These accomplishments are not enough for salvation of those who do not have faith, but in some manner the sins of the non-elect are paid for on the cross even though that does not result in salvation. (Implicit in this is the idea that salvation entails more than mere payment of sins.)

Thus the cross provides atonement for all (though that atonement is something less than salvation (don't ask me...I didn't make up this model)) but only salvation for some. Hence the name "unlimited atonement".

I had forgotten that not everyone uses "unlimited atonement" to mean this. Hence my somewhat nonsensical post.

Now to clarify what I was saying in that model. For the elect, there is a marital union via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit where the believer is united with the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. For the non-elect, there is a lesser form of union via the Holy Spirit. However, this union is not marital, and it is not the indwelling of the Spirit but more like the temporary way that the Spirit would come upon people in the OT. This union only unites the non-elect with Christ's death, and not with His life or resurrection.

This union is not temporally removed upon the unbeliever's death. When I said "the union stops with the cross and does not include the resurrection", I was speaking to the extent of the union in Christ, not a temporal duration in the non-believer. And my use of the word "temporary" was a bit of a slip which clearly implied the latter view though I did not mean that at all. I was trying to use it as a contrast to the permanent indwelling that believers now have as opposed the how people in the OT experienced the Spirit. My bad.

Anyways...maybe I now make more sense?

Thanks for that btw. You're right though, I was seeing the union in the Holy Spirit bit as connected with a Limited Atonement view...but your piece here has cleared that up enough that I can now get lost in the rest of the discussion. heh heh. Honestly, thanks.

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