I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Trilemma of the Atonement

Few theological questions can ignite a firestorm of controversy as easily as the question concerning the divine intent of Christ’s cross-work.  At the center of this issue is the query, for whose sins did Christ die?  This question creates a trilemma; only three answers are possible.  Christ’s death propitiated and satisfied for either (1) some of the sins of all people, (2) all of the sins of some people, or (3) all of the sins of all people.  The Reformed perspective of the intent of Christ’s death, that his death atoned for all of the sins of only some people, is the correct view of the atonement.

Option one (1), which states that Christ died for some of the sins of all people, is essentially the Roman Catholic position.  On this view, Christ’s death propitiated the wrath of God against humanity’s guilt of original sin.  Postbaptismal sins, however, must be atoned for through the efforts of the believer by means of good works.  This truncated view is utterly foreign to a biblical theology of what Christ’s death accomplished.  If option (1) is the case, then all people have innumerable sins for which Christ did not die. Consequently, no one is actually saved by Christ’s death, if option one is the case. 
Option two (2),the historic Reformed understanding of the atonement, holds that Christ died for all of the sins of some people.  These beneficiaries are variously related to Christ as “his people” (Matt. 1:21), his “friends” (Jn. 15:13), his “body” (Eph. 5:23—26), his “Bride” (Rev. 19:7), his “church” (Acts 20:28), and his “sheep” for whom he lays down his life (Jn. 10:11, 15).  In theological parlance, the term of choice is the “elect” (Rom. 8:32—34).  On this view, option two, Christ’s death efficaciously accomplished the full redemption of  some people, namely the elect. 
Option three (3) is that Christ died for all of the sins of all people without exception.  This view is held by Arminians and Amyraldians.  However, if Christ’s death was substitutionary and efficacious, and he died for all people, then it follows that all people are redeemed and thus saved.  The teaching that all are saved is called universalism.  Historic Christian orthodoxy precludes universalism as a biblically faithful conclusion.  The attempt to avoid the charge of universalism is often made by maintaining that while Christ died for all the sins of all men, a person’s unbelief is what ultimately condemns him or her.  It may be asked, however, is not unbelief also a sin?  If unbelief is a sin, then Christ also died for that sin, since he died for all sins, as presented by option three.  If, on the contrary, unbelief is not a sin, then it may be rightly asked why God condemns a person for it?  Hence, if option three is maintained, and Christ’s death was efficacious, then universalism is unavoidable.

The foregoing has demonstrated that, despite the heated controversy that is often invoked by the question of the intent of the atonement, two of the three horns of this logical trilemma are pointedly unbiblical.  If the choice is option one (1), then all are condemned, which is unbiblical.  If the choice is option three (3), then unbelief would be included as a sin for which Christ died, and thus universalism is the unavoidable conclusion.  This is likewise unbiblical. Therefore, it has been proved that only option two (2), which posits that Christ died for all of the sins of only some people, the historic Reformed view, is the correct view of the atonement.  Hence, only option two, the historic Reformed view of the atonement, offers theologically self-conscious, critical-minded Christians a logically consistent perspective of Christ’s atonement, one which also couches coherently within the broader edifice of orthodox Christian theology.


Owen, John, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. London: Banner of Truth, 1959.

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