Sunday, January 9, 2011

The scope of Christ's sacrifice for "all"

In Catholicism, the fruits of Christ's work on the cross are considered to have been made available to all mankind. The Catechism reads:
CCC#616 It is love "to the end" that confers on Christ's sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction. He knew and loved us all when he offered his life. Now "the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died." No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all.
In other words, Christ died for all persons.

Many followers of the Reformed Christian tradition and others who share their sentiment on atonement do not believe Christ died for all, but only for a specific group of people. For instance:
Jesus Made Atonement for the Elect Alone
In doing the will of the Father by atoning for the sins of His people, Jesus Christ death was on behalf of a specific people group. ... It is primarily for this reason that atonement within the Reformed Tradition has been dubbed limited, because Christ’s atonement was limited to the elect alone. (
In one sense, Christ's atonement is "limited" in that it is not finally appropriated to all souls since some go to hell. The difference between the Catholic and "limited atonement" position is this: a Catholic insists Christ's work on the cross is made available to all. He rightly can be said to have "died for all men." No one is deprived of the graces poured out by Christ's work, and thus it is possible for anyone to go to heaven. (For an apologetic treatment by a former Protestant, see James Akin's A Tiptoe Through TULIP.) The "limited atonement" tradition says the graces poured out by Christ's sacrifice are limited in that they are never made available to a certain group of people, but only made available to the elect.

I think there are a number of ways to support the Catholic position over the "limited atonement" position. This post is to show one of them.

From the Apostle Paul:
Romans 5:12-19 Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned -- sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous.
Notice a few things stated in this text:
  • Adam is a type of Christ.
  • Adam's trespass brought death to all men.
  • Jesus' obedience brought life to all men.
Notice the symmetry. Notice how Christ is a reversal of Adam. The "limited atonement" interpretation reads the "all/many" pertaining to Adam's half of the equation as literally "all mankind." The "limited atonement" interpretation of Jesus' half of the equation is read as "only all the elect." (See the Editor's note #169 in John Calvin's commentary on Romans for an example reflecting this interpretation.)

However, this interpretation violates a basic Biblical principle: New Covenant types are better and more glorious and perfect than their Old Testament antetypes. As I have written prior on this blog, the Old Testament is fraught with imagery that foreshadows counterparts in the New Testament. The OT manna that brought only physical life represents the NT bread of eternal life (John 6:31-35); Noah preserved physical life through the waters of the flood which represents the superior spiritual life conferred through the waters of baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21); the book of Hebrews has numerous examples of the superior types in the NT including a "better covenant" (Heb. 7:22), "better promises" (Heb. 8:6), "better sacrifices" (Heb. 9:23); etc. Paul teaches that the new is much more splendorous than the Old (2 Cor. 3:11) as was prophesied by Haggai (Hag. 2:9).

So a key principle in typology is to recognize the superior qualities of the New Testament types over their Old Testament antetypes. But what happens when one attempts to say Christ's sacrifice was only for some? Consider the following illustration:

So we ask, does the "limited atonement" interpretation remain faithful to the superiority of New Testament types? The answer is no. The "limited atonement" interpretation considers the scope of Christ's work to be weaker than Adam's. Adam's work is actually seen to be the more powerful of the two. Thus, the idea of a limited atonement not only departs from the balance and symmetry of the text in Romans 5, but does not give proper justice to the Biblical concept of typology. Christ, as the superior New Testament type, cannot be made the less powerful agent of the two. The Catholic interpretation recognizes that the scope of Christ's work is the overturning of Adam's. Adam's path of death for all mankind is turned by Christ into a path of life for all mankind.


  1. I love typologies. Thanks for the article, a great lesson for future thoughts on the subject.