The Gospel, Evangelism and the Extent of the Atonement

From time to time, I am asked about my view of the extent of the atonement. I certainly have definite convictions about this issue (a most helpful essay, which many have read, is by J.I. Packer in his introduction to John Owen’s book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ).

However, I don’t like getting into these kinds of discussions with people because they are typically unfruitful and unnecessarily divisive most often because so many operate from a skewed, caricatured understanding (e.g., Calvinists stifle evangelism; Arminians don’t preach the gospel).

Moreover, these discussions more times than not miss the point when it comes to the gospel and evangelism.

The point is that regardless of whether a man believes in limited or unlimited atonement, there is never a reason to introduce either view when preaching the gospel. Neither view is something that needs to be included in the equation.

The believer’s responsibility is to clearly and faithfully explain and proclaim the gospel to the unconverted (whether in a pulpit or one-on-one at Starbucks) and then invite them to come to the living Christ. We preach Christ crucified and risen and then plead with sinners to believe on this basis alone (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20-21).

Christ’s death and resurrection are the ground on which forgiveness is given not one’s view of the extent of the atonement!

Too often, this issue is carried out with harsh rhetoric and uncharitable attitudes. Such a sad state of affairs is indicative of the loss of the gospel at the center on both sides.

Below is a well-known conversation between Charles Simeon (an Anglican Calvinist) and John Wesley (a Methodist Arminian) which serves as a gracious example when the gospel is kept central.

    “Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

    Yes, I do indeed.

    And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

    Yes, solely through Christ.

    But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

    No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

    Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?


    What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

    Yes, altogether.

    And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

    Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

    Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.”

“20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor. 5:20-21).


2 Responses to The Gospel, Evangelism and the Extent of the Atonement

  1. Doug Avent says:

    Man I needed that. That is the thing I wrestle with daily. Thanks for putting that out there. If only the so called Arminians and so called Calvinist for that matter would teach what they say they believe, LOL. Blessings Doug

  2. Martin T says:


    It is unfortunate that this issue seems to generate much heat, anger even, from some quarters. The irony, in my opinion, is that it is precisely because the gospel is not central in people’s thinking that a. such (largely unfruitful and inaccurate) efforts have been spent on the issue and b. that some get angry and defensive about it. It is particularly unfortunate in my experience that some seem unable to recognise that their acting as wannabe defendants of orthodoxy is not always gospel-motivated but rather comes out of hearts unaware of their tendency to continual reversion to autonomy and self-justification. Idolatry is particularly hard to identify when we think we are doing the Lord’s will!

    Interestingly, I personally find Packer’s essay UN-helpful, not least because it is now misleading – a number of people have in fact refuted Owen’s logic which he claims to be irrefutable. In my case, the Lord had to rescue me from a strict particularist view of the atonement before I was even open to hearing messages about the centrality of the gospel. Consequently this is an issue I have studied a fair bit. I am now fully convinced that the more moderate, dualistic view espoused by the early reformers and which became something of a minority by the time of Dordt but has continued to this day as a clear, identifiable stream within the overall reformed tradition is the correct biblical view. Briefly, in this view we can say that there is a sense in which Christ’s death is a definite provision sufficient for all on which the gospel offer may be genuinely grounded but that there is also a sense in which we can say it is effective only for the elect. Aside from pretty much all first generation Reformers, notable advocates of one form or other of this view include Ussher, Davenant, Twisse, Baxter, C. Hodge and Ryle.

    Unfortunately, I think that much that has been written in modern times on this issue has been misleading. Increasingly though good resources are becoming available which are setting the debate in its proper historical context and which are exposing the errors of the modern simplistic (and somewhat dismissive) treatments of this subject which I can share with your readers if you wish. However, like you, this is now something of a non-issue for me – I’m much more concerned with promoting “gospel-centredness” – and so I will only speak about this further and reference other helpful resources on this subject should you ask me to.

    Grace and peace,

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