Just a quick note: Remember that this paper was me writing from the perspective of a Calvinist.
Without exception, every orthodox Christian confesses that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the two most important events in human history. It is the first of these events, Jesus’ death, which shall be examined today. In discussing the atonement, the question inevitably arises: for whom did Jesus die? This question can be interpreted in two ways, dependent on the meaning of the word for. If for refers to motive, the question becomes: whom did God intend to save through Jesus’ death on the cross? But if for is in reference to substitution, the question becomes: whose sins did Jesus actually suffer for on the cross? The Biblical data indicate that Jesus suffered the punishment of all people with the intention of saving the elect. In other words: ontologically, Jesus death is the same for all men, yet teleologically, Jesus’ death was primarily to save the elect.
Although the salvation of the elect is the primary intention of God in the death of Jesus, Bruce Ware has helpfully pointed out that there are many intentions and designs within the death of Jesus. A few of these designs include the salvation of the elect (John 10:15), the glorification of God (John 17:1), and the unification of all things in Christ (Col 1:20). Asserting that Jesus died teleologically to save the elect is not to reject the other intentions, nor is it implying that the salvation of the elect is the highest purpose in the death of Jesus.
Before I argue for my position, I would like to clarify my use of language. When I speak of the teleological nature of Jesus’ death, I am referring to the purposes of God in the death of Jesus. And for this paper, I will be focusing on the purposes God had toward individual humans in the death of Jesus. Words and phrases like in order to, so that, intention and purpose indicate when I am referring to the teleological nature of Jesus’ death. On the other hand, when I speak of the ontological nature of Jesus’ death, I am referring to the suffering of Jesus itself. It is difficult to find good language indicators that correspond to the ontological nature of Jesus’ death, so I will normally stick to the word ontological.
Scripture teaches, as stated above, two propositions that are not logically contradictory: first, Jesus died ontologically for all men. Second, Jesus died in order to save the elect. In one sentence: he died for all to save his bride. My basic argument for this view is as follows: first, multiple passages seem to teach that Jesus ontologically died for everyone. Second, there are no solid reasons (whether exegetical or theological) to deny that Jesus ontologically died for everyone. Therefore, Jesus ontologically died for everyone. This argument will serve as the outline for this paper. (I will not be arguing the following points, which all Christians would profess: that the Gospel can be freely offered to all people, that only the elect will be saved, or that Jesus had the right to die for whomever he wanted to.)
First Argument: Passages Supporting a Universal Atonement
The passages that teach that Jesus’ death was ontologically for all men speak of his death as being for “all,” the “whole world,” and “everyone.” For example, Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6); He is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2); and Jesus did “taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9). These verses are speaking of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, when he gave himself as a ransom, died as a propitiation, and tasted death. All sin deserves punishment; Jesus suffered the punishment that sin accrued; the passages listed above indicate that this punishment-bearing death was (ontologically) for everyone. There is not one sin that Jesus did not die for. The man in hell and the man in heaven can both say that Jesus suffered on the cross for their sins.
This first step of the argument is the easiest to establish. Few would object to the assertion that seeing Jesus’ death as ontologically for all men is the “plain,” “literal,” or “surface level” reading of these passages. Obviously, this proves little by itself; indeed, it only provides a rough starting point in our exegesis. However, the “plain” reading should be adopted unless there are good reasons to reject it. This leads to my second argument, that there are no good reasons to reject universal atonement.
Second Argument: Potential Reasons to Reject Universal Atonement
Why should a doctrine be rejected? There are three main reasons: first, if it is based on poor exegesis, if it is in contradiction with other texts of Scripture, or if it theologically contradicts other doctrines that are grounded in Scripture. As a general rule, I have found that the strongest objections to universal atonement come from the theological category. In fact, I do not think any Calvinist would object to me saying that there are very few exegetical or textual arguments that directly argue against what I proposed. The argument, essentially, is that there are theological objections to the atonement being universal, and there are alternative interpretations of the “all” passages. With this in mind, we shall briefly examine the first two potential objections, and then address the theological objections more thoroughly.
First Test: Arguments against the Exegesis of the “Universal” Passages
These arguments usually focus on the meaning of the words “all,” “everyone,” and “world.” Calvinist theologians point out that these words do not always refer to everyone without exception. For example, the word “all” clearly does not mean everyone without exception in Mark 1:5: “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem” went to John the Baptist to be baptized. Certainly, not every human being actually made it; in this case, it is obviously hyperbolic. The immediate context clearly denies reading “all” as universal.
So then, do the contexts in the “universal” passages suggest that the words refer to all people without exception, or to something else? Let us examine the three I mentioned above in turn.
1 John 2:2. Some have suggested that in 1 John, the distinction between us and the world is a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, not for the saved and the unsaved. Thus, Jesus died as a propitiation for the elect Jews and the elect Gentiles, but not for all people without exception. This argument is based on John 11:52, in which it is said that Jesus died “not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” I do not believe this is an adequate proof for three reasons. First, John says “whole world,” which hints (though doesn’t prove) that he’s thinking universally. It’s frankly difficult to imagine what kind of words John would have chosen if he did want to communicate that Jesus died ontologically for every person. Second, John contrasts “the sins of the world” with “our sins.” So then the question becomes: who is “us”? In the text it is not referring to Jews; it is referring to the “little children” in verse 1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins.”  Thus, the contrast is between the saved and the unsaved, not the Jew and Gentile. Third, the word world in 1 John is never used to describe Gentiles. In fact, it usually carries the connotation of referring to the wickedness of this present age, which fits well with it referring to the unsaved in this verse. 
1 Timothy 2:6. In 1 Timothy 2, there simply is nothing in the context to refute that “all” most likely refers to all people without exception. We are commanded to pray for “all people… for all who are in high positions,” (vs 1-2) because God “desires all people to be saved” (vs 4) and because Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all” (vs 6). Pray for all people. Why? Because God desires all to be saved, and because Jesus died as a ransom for all people. Saying this does not contradict the doctrine of election. Even Dr. John Piper, who argues for limited atonement, affirms that God truly does desire all people to be saved without exception: “My aim… is to show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for ‘all men to be saved’ (1 Timothy 2:4) and his will to elect unconditionally those who will be actually saved is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion.”
Piper and I affirm that the “all” in 1 Timothy 2:4 refers to literally every human who has ever lived. It seems quite a stretch for Piper to argue that the “all” in verse 6 does not refer to the same group of people.
Hebrews 2:9. Some have argued that Jesus’ tasting death for everyone is synonymous with God’s leading many sons to glory in verse ten. But nothing in the text implies this. Consider:
“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Jesus tasted death for everyone. And as the text indicates, he tasted death for everyone was because it was fitting that many sons be led to glory by means of a suffering savior. That the purpose of God was to bring many sons to glory is not inconsistent with Jesus’ tasting death for everyone. This text well represents what I am arguing for: Jesus died ontologically for everybody in order to save the elect. In order to bring many sons to glory, Jesus tasted death for everyone. To try to assert that Jesus’ tasting death and the Father’s bringing many sons to glory are essentially the same is a major blurring of theological categories. And to assert that the intention of the Father to save the elect requires that the Son die only for the elect is a massive jump in logic (I will return to this point in the theological section). It simply does not follow.
Now, I would like to clarify that it is certainly possible that these verses can be interpreted in other ways. My argument in this first section is that there are no strictly exegetical reasons to do so. So then, this leads to the next question: are there any other texts that would teach contrary to this interpretation?
Second Test: Arguments from Other Texts
Are there any texts that state or imply that Jesus did not ontologically die for all men, but only for the elect? Common texts that are referenced include John 10:15 and Ephesians 5:25, which respectively say “I lay down my life for the sheep” and “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The argument can take one of two forms, depending on how the word “for” is interpreted. If it refers to the ontological nature of Jesus’ death, the argument is that Jesus actually died for the church, and that this implies that he did not die for anyone but the church. But that is not actually stated in the text. Furthermore, the same argument could be made from Galatians 2:20 that Jesus died only for Paul, for there he says that “the Son of God… loved me and gave himself for me.” If Jesus died for Paul, does it stand to reason that he did not die for the church? Certainly not. And if Jesus died for the elect, does it stand to reason that he did not die for every human? Again, certainly not.
However, if these passages are taken to refer to the intentionality of Jesus’ death, then I am in full agreement. Jesus did die for the purpose of saving his bride. Teleologically, his death was designed for the church. I deny that it somehow follows from this that just because we know this one intention of God, we can conclusively determine his actions. This kind of reasoning assumes that we know all the intentions of God – it could very well be that he has motives for dying ontologically for all men that are not immediately related to his intention to save the elect, but are related to some other intentions. This is where it is crucial to remember that God had many designs in the cross. I shall propose some of these in the next section. However, as long as it is even possible that there are motives that would require Jesus’ dying ontologically for all men, then there is no reason from John 10 or Ephesians 5 to say that Jesus died exclusively for the elect.
Third Test: Theological Arguments
Double Payment. We now move at last to the theological arguments against universal atonement. The first objection is the problem of “double payment.” The argument is contained in the question: if Jesus died for all people’s sins, then for what are those in hell suffering? The argument, essentially, is as follows: when Jesus died for sins, he was dying and suffering as a substitution. He absorbed God’s wrath and suffered the punishment due sin in such a way that the wrath is removed. It would be unjust of God to inflict wrath on sins that Jesus already suffered for. To use the analogy of God’s wrath being contained in a cup: if Jesus drank the wrath of God, then there is nothing left in the cup to be poured out on those in hell. That is the basic argument. If Jesus died for sin, wrath toward that sin cannot exist anymore.
Yet this argument does not hold up biblically. Let us examine the case of the elect (all agree that Jesus died for them). In Ephesians 2:3, Paul writes that before the Ephesians were saved, they were “carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Three things to observe: first, the Ephesians Paul is referring to are saved (this is the whole focus of chapter one). Second, these believers, prior to their regeneration, were children of wrath. Third, they were children of wrath in the same way that all humans were children of wrath (“like the rest of mankind”). In other words: Jesus died for the Ephesians and absorbed the wrath of God (we know this because they were saved); the Ephesians were under God’s wrath before they were regenerated (we know this because they were children of wrath); this wrath they were under is exactly the same as the wrath that the rest of mankind was under (“like the rest of mankind”). Based on these observations, we see that the wrath of God, though absorbed by Jesus at the cross, still looms over every one of the elect until he is saved. Until the death of Jesus is applied to a person by faith, that person is still under God’s wrath.
So then, we see that a sinner is still under wrath until the work of Jesus on the cross is applied to them when God regenerates them. So long as the application is not applied, so long does the wrath remain. Thus, if the application is never made, the wrath remains forever. It does not make sense to affirm both of the following statements: God can punish Jesus for the sins of the elect and still display wrath toward them for their sins prior to their conversion; God cannot punish Jesus for the sins of the non-elect and still display his wrath toward them for those sins in hell. To affirm the plausibility of the first is to affirm the plausibility of the second.
A fitting analogy is the relation between a landlord and his tenants, in which the landlord represents God, and the tenants represent sinners. The sinners have not only failed to pay their bills, but they have also destroyed the houses in which they are living. On payment day, they will be required to pay for all of the things they have broken, and if they cannot pay, they will be punished. The landlord explains that the punishment, if they were ever able to pay it through their punishment, will serve as their money. Out of love, the landlord’s son tells the tenants to come to his house; if they do, he will give them the money required to survive payment day. Little do they know, the son earned this money by receiving the individual punishment of each and every one of them. None of them come on their own, so the Son goes out and woos those of his choosing to come to his house, receive the money, and bring it before the landlord on payment day; they acknowledge their gratefulness to the son and are forgiven. Those who refused to come to the son did not ever receive the money necessary, and even though the son labored for the money, they had to be punished for their lack of money. The tenants then received an eternal punishment, forever unable to earn through their punishment what the son earned through his. As to the leftover money, it is wrapped up and stands as an eternal testimony. Like the blood of Abel which testifies to the righteousness of Abel and the wickedness of Cain, so the money, and so the blood, forever testify to the loving righteousness of Jesus and the wickedness of those who reject him.
One of the keys that I want to point out is that, strictly speaking, the Son did not pay the Father on the cross. He earned the righteousness through his death required to pay the Father. There are no texts that actually speak of Jesus’ death offering a payment to the father. And this explains why it is not unjust for God to inflict punishment on both the Son and those who never repent: because the reward of the punishment of the Son is never taken in faith.
The Efficacy of the Cross. The Calvinist strongly wants to affirm that Jesus’ death is efficacious: that all who are elect by the Father have their sins paid for by Jesus, and when he paid for their sins, he really paid for them. They put it this way: when Jesus died on the cross, he did not merely make salvation possible, but he actually saved the elect. I want to sympathize with the attempt to magnify the greatness of Jesus’ death, but I simply find the doctrine unbiblical. As discussed above, the suffering of Jesus must be applied. I already discussed one of the problems with this view: namely, that people are not actually saved at the moment of Jesus’ death. Still, some might argue from Colossians 2:13 that all those whom Jesus died for are forgiven (the argument being that if Jesus really died for everyone, then everyone would be saved – eventually). Here is the text:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the circumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (italics mine).
The logic is that there is an unbreakable connection between each of the four steps I italicized: God makes people alive; he makes people alive by forgiving them; he forgives people by canceling the record of debt; he canceled the record of debt when he nailed it on the cross. By his death on the cross, the debt is canceled; since the debt is canceled, people are necessarily forgiven; since people are forgiven, they are made alive. Thus, every sin Jesus died for must be forgiven.
This argument is dependent on all of these events being instrumentally related. However, in Greek, there is not a specific “by” relationship between God’s forgiving and his canceling of the record of debt. The Young’s Literal Translation reads: “And you… he made alive together with him, having forgiven [not “by forgiving”] you all the trespasses, having blotted out the handwriting in the ordinances that is against us.” This greatly effects our interpretation. Now, God’s forgiving sinners is not instrumentally caused by his canceling the record of debt. Rather, his forgiveness is grounded in his canceling of the debt. In other words, now that he did away with the “legal demands” through the death of Jesus, he is now legally free to forgive any sinner whom he pleases.
A similar argument can be made from Romans 3:25-26. Jesus’ death grants the Father the right to save sinners. Consider the following argument:
God put [Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Jesus was a propitiation: he absorbed God’s wrath. He did this “by his blood.” He absorbed God’s wrath by suffering for sins on the cross. And this suffering on the cross that absorbed God’s wrath is to be “received by faith.” Thus we see, first of all, that Jesus’ work on the cross must be received by faith. In other words, it is not efficacious until it is wed with faith. The second thing we see here is that the reason Jesus died as a propitiation was “that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Jesus died and absorbed God’s wrath by suffering for sins, and he did this that he might be able to be just in justifying the one who, by faith, receives the work of Jesus. Jesus’ death accomplished its purpose: God the Father is now entirely justified to save anyone who comes to him in faith. To put this another way: the Father is now free to apply the death of Jesus to anyone.
John Owen raises a similar objection based on Romans 5:10 “we were reconciled to God by the death of his son.” He argues based on the word by. The means by which we are reconciled is by the death of Jesus. Thus, Jesus’ death actually accomplished our reconciliation. But this faces a similar difficulty: I was not immediately reconciled 2000 years ago. It also fails to recognize the many senses the word by can take on. I was saved by Jesus death, yes. But how? By God taking the objective work of Christ’s death and applying it to my account. As an illustration, suppose a house was built by a hammer. How should one interpret the word by? Certainly the hammer did not, by itself, build the house. No, a person wielding the hammer built the house. In the same way, the death of Jesus, as glorious as it is, does not save in virtue of its happening. It must be applied by the Father.
The Doctrines of Grace. Does this understanding contradict the doctrine of election? Am I proposing that God does his part on the cross, and then it’s up to us to autonomously, out of our own goodness, choose Christ? Absolutely not. I believe that salvation is fully of the Lord. I affirm God’s unconditional election of individuals for salvation, and I affirm that in order for a totally depraved individual to be saved, he must be irresistibly drawn by grace. The propitiation made for all men must be received by faith, and Ephesians 2 teaches that God gives the dead man the faith. God regenerates men; therefore they believe. The bringing of salvation to the elect is a function of God’s irresistible grace, not the death of Jesus.
The question then becomes: if this is so, and God truly is in full control of salvation, then why did he plan it this way? As some have put it, why would Jesus waste his blood on those who never would come to believe? I think there are basically two answers, and again, I refer to the two wills of God. I believe that under the concept of God’s will for all to be saved, he died for all men so that all could be saved. Given the limited atonement model, it is a false statement to say that all men are savable. It’s true in that scheme to say that God could have saved men if he had designed the cross to save them. And I would agree with the Calvinist that those whom God did not elect will not be saved. But there is a real difference here: Jesus’ death really could save anyone, and this seems to be consistent with his desire for all to be saved. Another way to think of it is this: if God were to change his mind about who the elect were, he could freely choose to save someone who was previously not elect, and he would not have to “go back in time” and change anything about the nature of the cross.
How does this view understand God’s motives at an ultimate level? Why would God, in his sovereign will, ordain that Jesus die for men who would reject him? Or, to put it another way: why would Jesus die for people whom he knew he wouldn’t irresistibly draw to himself? Here, perhaps, is one of the ultimate reasons: to further their condemnation. This seems to be consistent with the teaching of Romans 9, that the punishment of sinners in hell advances the glory of God. I believe that there is no sin worse than refusing the love of Jesus, displayed in his actual death for sinners. If that’s true, and we have understood Romans 9 correctly, then it follows that one of the purposes of Jesus’ death for all men is that those who reject him would accrue a greater condemnation, so that God could inflict a greater punishment, so he could receive greater glory. Yet keep in mind, this still is the God who, at one level, desires all to be saved. Think of it this way: Jesus died for all men’s sin, he invites all to receive the Gospel, and he truly desires for all to be saved; God then gets glory, both when he awakens dead hearts to receive him by faith, and when he allows sinners to march on in their rebellion against the real offer of salvation. God is glorified.
The Trinity. One more objection is that this view of the death of Jesus somehow puts the members of the Trinity at odds. The argument is that if God chooses only the elect, and the Spirit only regenerates the elect, why would Jesus die for all? Again, this argument confuses some of God’s purposes and ignores the rest. The Trinity is not at odds. When God the father planned salvation, he planned to save the elect by offering a universal atonement through Jesus. When Jesus died, he died for all men, still with a special eye on the elect whom he loves with a special love. When the Spirit regenerates, he applies the same universal atonement that the Father planned and the Son obtained. The objection that this somehow pits the Trinity against each other is simply a misunderstanding of universal atonement.
In the end, I want to affirm what Scripture teaches, and I am fine abandoning teachings that Scripture does not teach. I want to affirm that Jesus died for all men ontologically. I want to affirm unconditional election, irresistible grace, and total depravity. Further, I want to see the implications those doctrines have on the death of Christ. The Christian who holds to the view I’ve been arguing for can say with John Piper: “there is a precious and unfathomable covenant love between Christ and his bride that moved him to die for her.” That Jesus died ontologically for all and teleologically for the elect are not at odds, and I believe there are robust implications of this view of the atonement open to be explored.
Frame, John M. “The Work of Christ.” In Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013.
Grudem, Wayne A. “The Atonement.” In Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.
Owen, John. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ: A Treatise in Which the Whole Controversy about Universal Redemption Is Fully Discussed. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959.
Piper, John. “For Whom Did Jesus Taste Death?” Desiring God. May 26, 1996. Accessed April 21, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/for-whom-did-jesus-taste-death
Piper, John. “Appendix: Are There Two Wills in God?” In The Pleasures of God. Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1991.
Ware, Bruce. “Extent of the Atonement: Outline of The Issue, Positions, Key Texts, and Key Theological Arguments,” Eternal Perspectives Ministries, accessed April 22, 2015. http://www.epm.org/static/uploads/downloads/Extent_of_the_Atonement_by_Bruce_Ware.pdf
 Bruce Ware, “Extent of the Atonement: Outline of the Issue, Positions, Key Texts, and Key Theological Arguments,” Eternal Perspectives Ministries, accessed April 22, 2015, http://www.epm.org/static/uploads/downloads/Extent_of_the_Atonement_by_Bruce_Ware.pdf
 I would argue that the highest goal would be the glory of the Trinity, based both on Jesus’ prayer in John 17:1, and on the argument Paul presents in Ephesians 1:3-14
 For example, Grudem argues that it would be logicially consistent if an Arminian were to believe that God decided to have Jesus die only for those whom he foreknew would believe. See Wayne A Grudem, “The Atonement,” in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994, 595-6. Whether God would have been just to do so is not the question; the question is whether or not he truly did so.
 Several other passages use similar language. See 2 Cor 5:14-15, 2 Pet 2:1, Romans 5:18-19.
 Consider John Frame, who disagrees with the view I’m proposing: “The unlimited view seems fairly obvious from a number of Scriptures.” See John M. Frame, “The Work of Christ,” in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 904. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. He goes on to say that there are reasons to not take the “plain reading,” but the point here is that he acknowledges that these verses seem to be saying that Jesus died for everyone.
 This is the outline-level argument that John Frame employs. He affirms that the universal atonement seems obvious (904), argues that it can’t be true on theological bases (905), and then proposes alternative interpretations of the “universal” passages. See John M. Frame, “The Work of Christ,” in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 904-6. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. Thus, if it is possible to show that there are no theological difficulties, then one should (presumably) be open to believing in a universal atonement.
 John M. Frame, “The Work of Christ.” In Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 906. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013.
 Credit to my friend Jordan Schaeffer for pointing out that the context is likely the little children.
 The world should not be loved (2:15), everything in the world is evil (2:16), the world and its evil desires are passing away (2:17), the world hates Christians (3:13), and the world is in the power of Satan (5:19).
 Piper, John. “Appendix: Are There Two Wills in God?” In The Pleasures of God, 313. Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1991.
 Verses like 1 Corinthians 6:20 – “You were bought with a price” – refer to their moment of salvation, not to the act of Jesus at the cross.
 Owen, John. “End of Christ’s Death as Eternally Intended.” In The Death of Death in the Death of Christ: A Treatise in Which the Whole Controversy About Universal Redemption Is Fully Discussed, 158. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959.
 John Piper, “For Whom Did Jesus Taste Death?” Desiring God, May 26, 1996, Accessed April 21, 2015, http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/for-whom-did-jesus-taste-death