In his debate with Erasmus in 1525, Martin Luther ended up in a crucial, but sometimes overlooked dispute about atonement and free will. Erasmus had argued, using Scripture, that God desires the salvation of all people on account of Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:4–6) and that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:23). To solve the problem created by such an abstract consideration, Erasmus ended up making these passages indispensable to his argument for the freedom of the will. He inferred from them that if anyone ends up under divine punishment, the fault is with their will and not that God delights in dispensing wrath. In return, Luther came back with his Bondage of the Will, asserting that there is a difference between delivering this word of God’s universal saving will as a promise and speculating theologically about what this could mean in the abstract. For Luther, a promise gives what it declares to be the case, whereas speculation tries to reason its way to a comforting intellectual conclusion. But Luther concluded that resorting to speculative rationalization provides little comfort compared to what the gospel conveys to the sinner who fears God’s judgment.

However, there is another alternative way of dealing with this problem in the abstract that is also different from Luther’s approach. It happens to be very popular in Christian circles these days, and this alternative is known as limited atonement. The notion of limited atonement has a somewhat murky history in the church, but stated as neatly and simply as possible, it suggests that Christ’s death does not satisfy God’s wrath for all people (as 1 Tim 2:6 teaches), but that Christ purchases only those already elected by God as “vessels of mercy” (see Rom 9:23). Those who aren’t elect in Christ are “vessels of wrath” who likewise glorify God even in their consignment to eternal punishment in hell (see Rom 9:22).

In other words, when Scripture teaches that Christ has died for “all” it doesn’t mean all in its natural sense, but only that Christ has saved “all types” of people––both Jews and Gentiles, for example. When Scripture teaches that God doesn’t delight in punishing sinners, this must imply that there are two wills in God: justice and mercy, one desiring punishment, and the other desiring forgiveness. Which one of these God chooses to treat you with depends not on a decision made with free will, but on God’s prior decision made before all time. This decision isn’t one that you have particularly good access to, but at best, you can see the fruit of Christian love in your life and find some consolation there. A representative example is the Westminster Confession, which asserts that one of the purposes of good works in the Christian life is that they provide assurance of one’s election (WC XVI 2). But even this is only proximate.

The problem here, like in Luther’s instructive case, is failing to distinguish between an abstraction to which theologians devote their thinking and a promise that a preacher delivers.

Limiting the extent of the atonement has some logical benefits, but unfortunately, is underdetermined by the scriptural evidence. Like Erasmus, who infers from Scripture that free will must exist even though he can’t produce a text that openly teaches it, limiting the atonement’s extent relies on the logical inference that Christ’s atonement cannot possibly be universal. No clear passage of Scripture can be adduced to teach that Christ dies only for a limited group of people either, but logic necessitates it, and thus, it is introduced into Christian doctrine and preaching.

The problem here, like in Luther’s instructive case, is failing to distinguish between an abstraction to which theologians devote their thinking and a promise that a preacher actually delivers to a particular person. Luther observed that God’s universal saving will and his revulsion at punishing the wicked means something very different when considered generally as a proposition than when it is applied to you in the present. Luther described this as the most important distinction in all of theology, and this is knowing the difference between God preached and offered (deus revelatus) and God not preached, or God hidden (deus absconditus).

Maintaining this distinction is important because it recognizes that there are things that have not been revealed to us. Scripture, after all, does not communicate God in his naked majesty, since that would hardly leave us unscathed, but delivers God clothed in his word. By considering God in general and in himself (in se), not only are we left with unsatisfying (and unbiblical) inferences like free will or the limitation of the atonement, but we are left also with a silent and frightening God who works all things, good and evil, without respect to how anyone feels about it. Such an encounter with the hidden and “unpreached” God engenders confusion and consternation. Terror and even hatred of God are the only things with which divine hiddenness can leave us, since the only thing that can be known about this God is that he is free and sovereign over all things––hardly a comforting idea to simply think about. Luther himself had this problem early on in his ministry and finally found it impossible to love God when considered entirely in terms of the law and divine justice.

Terror and even hatred of God are the only things with which divine hiddenness can leave us.

So when it comes to the atonement, God’s universal saving will (gratia universalis), and divine wrath, it is best to take refuge in God’s promises in all their particularity. God desires not the death of sinners because he has given his own Son, Jesus Christ, to be the true and final sacrifice for us. Christ draws all people to himself (John 12:32) because he has removed the sin of the world finally and completely. God desires all humans to be saved because Christ’s death is limitless in its effectiveness. To circumscribe the efficacy of Christ’s blood and death is to engage in cosmic bean counting about the value of the incarnate Son and the price he has paid.

The truth is that there is no limit to the mercy God has given in Jesus Christ. The blood spilled at Calvary and now given to drink in the chalice of the Lord’s Supper, is not carefully measured out, so none is wasted. Rather, Christ forgives outside the law so that he is free to be more than generous. Indeed, he squanders his own divine righteousness on all the people who don’t deserve it. He gives his body and blood to sinners who offer nothing in return. There is no boundary on what Christ’s mercy can do. And strangely enough, Christ’s limitless atonement for sin does something that the law and all the speculations of talented theologians have never done: it creates faith in the hearts of the most unlikely of people simply by its own divine power.