Q&A: Unlimited Atonement

Unlimited Atonement

Question

In arguing for unlimited atonement and against limited atonement, my professor went to 1 Corinthians 15:2-3, where Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them. My professor said that Paul preached to the people that Christ died for their sins, and that Paul was most likely speaking to a group that included both elect and non-elect. In order for Paul to have told the non-elect that Christ died for their sins, the atonement would have to have been efficient for all but proficient only for the elect. From my reading and understanding of the particular redemption view, Christ's atonement accomplished redemption of the elect; it did not just make it possible. I see this thoroughly demonstrated throughout Scripture, but I do not know how to answer his question concerning 1 Corinthians 15:2-3.

Answer

In 1 Corinthians 15:2-3, Paul stated that he had preached that "Christ died for our sins," but he did not specifically identify to whom he referred by the word "our." Modern readers are at somewhat of a disadvantage in following Paul on this point since we were not there when Paul was preaching in ancient Corinth. So, while Paul's statement seems a little vague to us, it wasn't vague to the Corinthians — they remembered what Paul preached. We, on the other hand, have to speculate as to what Paul might have preached that would have led him to make this statement.

Clearly your professor's speculation is that Paul preached something like "Christ died for your sins," and that this preaching content would not have been true unless Paul believed in a general ransom. If that is what Paul preached, and if that were the only insight we had into Paul's theology of the atonement, then it might be reasonable to think that he subscribed to a general ransom view.

In point of fact, however, that is not what Paul preached. Although we know very little about the specific things he said to the Corinthians, we do at least know that he did not say, "Christ died for your sins." Rather, he said, "Christ died for our sins." But what is the antecedent to "our"? Was "our" inclusive (i.e. "yours and mine") or exclusive ("mine and my company's, but not necessarily yours")? If it was inclusive, was Paul quoting what he had preached, or simply paraphrasing? And if he was paraphrasing, was he doing so in light of the fact that his audience at the time of his writing consisted essentially of believers and not unbelievers ("the gospel à you received"; 1 Cor. 15:1)? If "our" was exclusive, or if Paul was paraphrasing in light of his believing audience, then Paul's words here are very easily reconciled with limited atonement.

Moreover, when we look at the rest of Paul's writings to figure out his underlying theology, we don't come away with the impression that he held to a general ransom view. Since the text in question is ambiguous, and since Paul's broader teaching indicates that he affirmed limited atonement, it seems more reasonable than not to assume that he intended "our" in 1 Corinthians 15:3 to be exclusive or to paraphrase his earlier teaching in light of the current belief of his audience.

In any event, the ambiguity of this passage ought to prevent us from forming our doctrine of the extent of the atonement from it. And in no case is Paul's intent clear enough to demonstrate that the meaning of these verses is incompatible with limited atonement.



Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.