The word “atonement” in Romans 5:11, as found in our King James (Authorised) Version Bible, means reconciliation1.
The root of that same Greek word is simply translated “reconciled” in the preceding verse: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement [i.e. the reconciliation]” (Romans 5:10-11).
These verses teach us that “we” (Christian converts) have already received this reconciliation to God. We are now reconciled to God.
The verses that follow the “atonement” statement contain the apostle Paul’s famous long parenthesis (vv.12-21)—an extended argument in which he compares Adam, the Covenant Head of the whole human race, with Christ, the Covenant Head of the elect.
There is one verse within Paul’s long parenthesis which, if its context is not considered carefully, appears to support the Arminians’ “Christ died for every human being” idea: “Therefore as by the offence of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one [Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (v.18).
Arminians assert that one and the same group of “all men” is being spoken of throughout this argument—that the phrase “all men” always means all mankind, every fallen human being who has ever lived, and who lives today, and who shall live in future. Thus, all mankind is under condemnation, but then—“the free gift came upon all men [every human being?] unto justification of life”.
There are three candidates for the correct interpretation of this passage (and others in the Bible that have to do with the extent of salvation):
Universal atonement: Christ died for “all men” (every fallen human being) and therefore “all men” (every fallen human being) are saved.
Hypotheical universal atonement (Arminianism): Christ died for “all men” (every fallen human being) and so “all men” (every fallen human being) are potentially saved—but individually they need to put their faith in Christ, to make this atonement effective, for themselves.
Limited atonement2 (Calvinism): the “all men” for whom Christ died (and therefore, actually reconciled to God) does not include every fallen human being.
Paul’s whole argument here proves that what Christ achieved on the cross is actually applied to all those for whom he died. Paul affirms:
Those who are substituted by Christ in his death “have now received” the atonement (v.11);
The gift of justification by grace “hath abounded” unto many (v.15);
The free gift of justification of life “came upon” the “all men” for whom Christ died (v.18).
And therefore, all these many people, and only these, “shall be” made righteous (v.19).
The problem for Arminianism, here and elsewhere in the Bible, is that their insistance that “all men means all men, the entire human race, head for head” ends up disproving very doctrine they are attempting to prove: namely, hypothetical universalism.
No, Paul will not allow that. What Christ accomplished in his death on the cross (the atonement; justification by grace; justification of life; making righteous) is real for all those for whom Christ died.
Consequently, the Calvinist argument is correct: in verse 18 the “all men” upon whom Adam’s sin actually brought condemnation is not (in extent) the same “all men” upon whom Christ’s righteousness brought justification of life3.
Let us be perfectly clear at this point: that the Lord Jesus Christ’s sacrifice is of infinite worth and value. Calvinists do not “limit” the worth of Christ’s atonement, but only the extent of its application, when they affirm that the Saviour’s blood was not shed in order to save every human being who ever lived but only the elect (i.e. those whom God has chosen to save).
It is therefore wrong to think that the Calvinist (and, we affirm, Biblical) doctrine of limited atonement, also sometimes known as particular redemption4, in any way diminishes the infinitely precious blood of Christ.
This is according to the old usage of “at-one-ment,” meaning to be brought to a state of peace with another person (i.e. God himself). ↩︎
Limited Atonement is the name given to the third of the five points (tenets) of Calvinism. ↩︎
The word “all” in Holy Scripture is often used in a restricted sense—the context must decide whether the “all” is limited or universal. For example: in Acts 11:28 the “all” is a limited number of people; in Genesis 7:19 the “all” is universal, as the context makes clear. Similarly the word “many” can be limited or universal, as in Romans 5:19 (discussed above): the “many” in Adam includes every human being except Jesus Christ; the “many” in Christ includes only those saved by Christ—for the verse explicitly states that thus “shall many be made righteous.” ↩︎
The phrase particular redemption is preferred by some Calvinists, in order to avoid the accusation that they are limiting the worth of Christ’s blood (i.e. his death on the cross). Arminians argue for a general redemption (i.e. Christ paid the redemption-price for all fallen, condemned mankind in general) but we argue that Christ did not redeem all mankind in general but only some men in particular. However, we can’t really avoid this accuation, for Arminians (free-willists, etc.) will always make it against our position. But we can deal with it, as I have done above. ↩︎