The Most Common Error Regarding the Doctrine of the Atonement

For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. (Lev 17:11)

“That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3) is the … single most frequently used lens through which Christians in the New Testament sought to understand Jesus … Christ dying for our sins is the starting point for all further reflection about him, such as the incarnation and the Trinity … Atonement is the cornerstone of all theology, being the “stone that the builders rejected” which has now become the cornerstone (Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7; quoting Psalm 118:22). The New Testament writers without exception understood the death of Christ as the fulcrum for all theology because it was the worst thing that could have happened and the best thing that could have happened… The content of theology is the power in the blood. It is the hub, made indefectibly strong by Christ’s resurrection, from which all the spokes of theology derive.” – Paul F.M. Zahl

The above quotes serve as the preface to the page on the atonement at http://www.monergism.com , and -I hope- help to make the case that the atonement made by Christ is of central importance to all Christian thought. The purpose of this post -as made obvious by the title- is to expose the most common error regarding the doctrine of the atonement. In this particular post, I am NOT attempting to explore which erroneous view of the atonement is the worst (that is, which theory of the atonement is most contradictory to the Scriptural presentation of this doctrine), nor am I attempting to speculate on how far one may deviate from a right view of the atonement before plunging into abject heresy- I am simply hoping to draw our readers’ attention to the most prevalent way in which the biblical teaching on the atonement is distorted.

Near the end of an excellent Sunday school lesson regarding Christ’s provision taught on 7/16/06 at Grace Heritage Church in Auburn, AL, Bible teacher Kevin Gue gave the following observation:

“The most common error of this doctrine of Christ’s provision for us is that Christ has not effected any of this, but rather just simply made it available. As some product put on the shelf, which we can walk by and choose or not.”

By this, Kevin was referring to the doctrine of Universal atonement or General redemption- the idea that, by His death on the Cross, Jesus did not actually save anyone in particular, but that He died to make salvation possible for each and ever individual ever to live.

Kevin points out 2 reasons why this view is incorrect:

  1. It makes man responsible for his own salvation, which denies salvation by grace alone. [Ephesians 2:8-9]
  2. It defies biblical language such as purchased [Acts 20:28], bought [I Corinthians 6:20], redeemed [Galatians 3:13], reconciled [Romans 5:20; Colossians 1:21-22], etc.– “these are very action-oriented words– God reconciling to Himself, and so on– God has a plan, He’s making it happen. He’s sovereign.”

By identifying this most common error concerning the atonement and equipping ourselves to biblically refute it, Christians magnify the glory of God by exalting Him alone in saving us by His grace. As those who are called by the name of Christ, a driving passion in our lives must be to know what God has revealed about who Jesus is and what He has done.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Doctrinal Issues, Soteriology

12 Comments on “The Most Common Error Regarding the Doctrine of the Atonement”

  1. Scott Says:

    How many gospel presentations and invitations make this error? How often do we hear something like, “You are a sinner and God has made it possible for you to be saved.” This is not what we see in the New Testament. The language Paul and Peter use: Repent, believe, and you will be saved! Why is there such confidence (you WILL be saved)? Is it not because Jesus did more than make redemption possible? Is it not because Jesus actually accomplished redemption? Great post. I pray that more in our denomination will get hold of this and love it!

  2. Scripture Searcher Says:

    The Godhead, Holy Trinity, Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit)
    always cooperate in perfect harmony and complete unity.

    All those SELECTED by God the Father in eternity past according to His immutal purpose and plan and for His unfathomable pleasure, are SAVED (REDEEMED) in time by the substitutionary death of God the Son, and all those SELECTED and SAVED are SEALED or SECURED by God the Spirit forever.

    Ephesians 1:3-14, John 6:37, etc., etc., etc.


  3. […] Did Christ effect atonement or just make it available? StrangeBaptistFire discusses. […]

  4. 4ever4given Says:

    I appreciate the diligence to write about the humbling and uncompromised Truths of Biblical doctrine. To God be all the glroy.

  5. Bill Combs Says:

    Kevin’s second argument is good, but his first, that general atonement makes man responsible for his own salvation, does not stand up to the 4-point Calvinist. It is true that in the 4-point position a person decides to avail himself of the benefits of the atonement, but since God’s unconditional election stands behind that decision, this elect person is not responsible for his own salvation. The 4-pointer, who believes in unconditional election, is still a monergist.


  6. Bill:

    It’s true Kevin’s argument was primarily against the Arminian position, but- as you seem to recognize- his second point does apply to the 4-point position as well. Though true 4-pointers, such as Dr. Bruce Ware at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, are monergists, I don’t think that their view of the atonement, in understanding it as providing a potential, rather than an actual, redemption, fully does justice to the biblical view of the completed work of Jesus on the Cross for our sins, as made evident by the texts mentioned in the article.

    In Christ,
    -Andrew

  7. Bill Combs Says:

    Andrew,
    I agree, and that was my point. Kevin’s second argument is perfectly valid but not the first. And I think Kevin’s second argument about the force of these particular words of redemption is something that 4-pointers fail to feel the force of–they quickly move on to the “world” passages. It’s an argument that needs to be repeated often.

  8. Sam Hughey Says:

    I would like to propose a counter-argument to Kevin’s.

    1. Those who are not Calvinistic in their Soteriology do not deny Salvation is by grace alone. In fact, they clearly state salvation is by grace alone BUT through faith, that is, the faith of the unbeliever. What is meant by this is that even though Christ died for all humans, even those already dead and in eternal separation from God, each human must choose to actually receive the grace which brings about Salvation. Therefore, Salvation by grace alone is indeed God’s work alone to actually effect the salvation of the unbeliever who must cause the effect by a decision.

    2. Again, the anti-Calvinist does not deny God’s absolute sovereignty. God is still sovereign even though the unbeliever actually effects their own salvation. To the anti-Calvinist, this does not violate God’s sovereignty since the unbeliever cannot actually save him/herself.

    Of course, this is nothing but ‘word games’ devised to defend a Biblically indefensible view of Salvation. I know, I once believed the same. No. 2 works good for the anti-Calvinist unless one falls into the ‘exclusionary’ categories of being an embryo, unborn, infant, small child, mentally retarded or the innocent savage in Africa. This is where the anti-Calvinist is more than willing to become a ‘Convenient Calvinist’ and wholly reject Salvation by decision.

  9. Dan Rivaldo Says:

    It seems to me that to deny Limited (I prefer definite) Atonement means you have to deny Total Depravity.
    Total depravity, by definition, means man is unable to come to Christ (I Cor.2:14) apart from God’s election. Actually, it seems that to deny Definite Atonement starts a collapsing domino effect, if you know what I mean. What do you think?

  10. Darrin Says:

    Dan,
    I agree that the doctrines of grace are intertwined. Pulling one out does create problems with the others. It is problematic when people pick and choose the ones they like and discard the rest. Particular redemption or definite atontement (L) seems to go down the throat the hardest, possibly in close competition with Irresistible (or effective) grace. I at one time said I agreed with “TUP”. I must have thought a few verses plucked here and there were sufficient to negate the results of the tedious and brilliant work of the men of Dordt and so many others. What “chronological snobbery” (thinking the men of the past can be disregarded) I must have possessed in my ignorance.
    Often the problem people have with the body of doctrine does appear to come down to a real understanding of Total Depravity – many who think they agree with T only grasp a watered-down version, where man isn’t quite as bad off as the scriptures actually say.

  11. Dan Rivaldo Says:

    Darrin,
    I am so glad to hear your testimony. It is unusual to hear of someone believing in the 5 points then turning back to 4 points or a modified Amyraldism.
    Why is it they cannot see that making “faith” something everyone can exercise and necessary to complete the finished work on the cross is a man centered gospel? When Jesus said, “it is finished” that is what he meant. He didn’t mean everything except I need man to make what I shed my blood for effective???
    Or, I died on the cross just to make it “possible” for everyone who ever lived to get saved now!!! I think if we understand “total depravity” correctly there can be no place for a contribution of any kind from mankind, don’t you agree? But, the Arminian in mankind dies hard. Man has always got to throw in his contribution. Is it so terrbile that Jesus knew that when willingly offered Himself up as an offering, an atonement, that He did it for a particular people that God the Father had chosen to give to Him? Arminians, and I am a former one from about 1972-1976 until the Lord was gracious, think it is so unfair that we don’t get to use our mythological “free wills” to complete the work of Christ on the cross! They invented “prevenient grace” so we choose first then God must accept us based on that (decisional regeneration). On the contrary, putting God first in everything shows that He took the initiative and chose us FIRST, not the other way around. and yes, we do choose God by repenting, and putting our trust in the Savior and believing the Gospel BUT it as a willing response of a “new creation”. That is a totally new nature. From “natural man” who CANNOT receive the things of God…” I Cor 2:14 to a “spiritual man” who can enjoy and understand want the “things of God.” Salvation is of the LORD. I take that to mean He does it ALL. Man can take absolutely no credit or honor or glory for anything, absolutely nothing! Now, how can anyone believe that is such a horrible teaching if they know the Scriptures???

  12. Darrin Says:

    Dan, well said. Agreed on all points.
    All is of grace – no doubt about it. Praise God for His all-sufficient grace toward us, even when we are too sluggish to fully acknowledge Him for it!
    Arminians are right that we must believe, but the scripture seems pretty clear that faith itself is a gift from God to those He chooses to give it to, not based on anything better in us, but on the purpose of His own will. This certainly should evoke great humility and praise from us!
    Yes, the Total (mind, will, everything) Depravity is tough for us, if in a carnal state, to fully accept. We are so bombarded with humanistic deceit from the world, the flesh and the devil, and much preaching (as with decisional regeneration, as you mentioned) serves to reinforce our natural bent toward man-exaltation and imaginations of libertarian free will. I hope within the week to respond to a couple more anti-Calvinism sermons with a post or two to this site.
    It seems that the fear of leaving man’s responsibility out of the gospel message is one issue often taken against Calvinism. I don’t think I have a problem with preaching man’s responsibility, as long as it is coupled with man’s inability. We are all responsible for our sin, and we have a responsibility to come to Christ to have those sins forgiven, but we cannot come unless God enables us.
    Back on total depravity, it has been said that the biggest reason for not embracing the doctrines of grace is the failure to see how devastating was the fall of man and how evil our sin. Thus many think it unfair that God would choose some and not others (or all). Just an analogy I’ve heard is this: Suppose we saw an airliner go down on the news, crashing in flames and appearing totally destroyed, with no hope of survivors. If we heard later that in fact 10 people were rescued alive, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, man, ONLY 10 people – why weren’t there more?” We would more likely say, “Amazing – I can’t believe 10 people made it out of there alive!” The reason is that we had seen how terrible the event was. Likewise, it is amazing that God has rescued ANY of us – He is certainly under no obligation to save any, and His will is completely free to save whom He will. Praise His holy name – Salvation IS of the Lord.
    Thanks for bringing out this older post from the site. There are many from back then which are very insightful and touch on key issues. This is what drew me to the site more recently.


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