The Calvinist has no shortage of biblical ammunition to combat universalism of Arminianism or Roman Catholicism. The battle for a “Reformed” soteriology takes many forms. Philosophical reasons are often given for why Arminianism, for example, fails to give sufficient explanation for its doctrine of salvation. And the same goes for Roman Catholicism. These are often powerful arguments, but less accepted and less accessible to the layperson in the pew.

The layperson often wants a strictly biblical rebuttal rather than man-made philosophical attempts to undermine an opposing stronghold. Now, setting aside the popular methodological error of refusing philosophical inquiry in theology (we could call it biblicism), let’s see if we can’t find limited atonement right under our noses in the plain reading of the Scriptures.[1]

Ephesians 5:25-27

The apostle Paul writes:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).

After reading this passage, we could ask, “For whom did Christ give Himself up?” Assuming “gave Himself up” refers either to the whole of the Son’s redemptive work or perhaps only to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, our answer must be in accordance with the text, “He gave Himself up for the church!” Now, the obvious rebuttal from opponents of limited atonement is that this is not a statement of exclusivity, which is to say that this passage isn’t attempting to describe the only people for whom Christ gave Himself up. It’s merely using the special relationship of Christ to His church to draw implications for marriage.

However, upon a closer look, it can be seen this passage implies much more than a simple analogy between marriage between man and woman on the one hand, and Christ and His church on the other. Paul bothers to include a pretty extensive definition of Christ’s atoning work in these three verses. It’s much like a syllogistic process of reasoning, similar to what we find in Romans 8:29-30, where each clause hangs together formulating an unbreakable chain of instances leading to a grand conclusion.

I contend that this passage eliminates even the possibility of Christ giving Himself up for a people other than His church. Here is why:

First, in v. 25, Christ gave Himself up for the church. But the Greek word, hyper (ὑπέρ), can also be translated as “on behalf of.” If Christ died on behalf of His church, in what sense did He die for the entire world without exception? Is there a difference between Christ’s atonement for His church and His atonement for the world? If no, then the world and the church are identical, which simply cannot be the case for obvious reasons. If yes, then what is the difference and where is that difference found in the text?

If there is a difference between Christ’s atonement for His church and His atonement for the world, then what is the nature of that difference? Is it qualitative? In other words, is Christ’s atonement for His church better than the atonement for the world? Is it quantitative? Is Christ’s atonement for His church more (in some way) than His atonement for the world? And if there is a difference, why is there a difference? These are major questions which arise in light of this passage if Christ’s atonement is said to be universal rather than particular.

Second, we could ask, “Why did Christ give Himself up for the church?” The answer immediately follows in v. 26a, “that he might sanctify her.” Is this true for the world also? The word for “that” is an adjective of purpose. It was the Son’s purpose to give Himself up for the church so that He might sanctify her.

If Christ gave Himself up for the whole world, and not the church only, did He do so that He might sanctify the whole world? In other words, are the purposes of the atonement for the church and the world the same, or are they different? If the same, then Christ’s purpose has failed. If different, then where is the doctrine of “worldly atonement” spoken of in the Scriptures, and what is the purpose of such?

Third, when the passage is taken as a whole, it adds up to this: it is Christ’s body who has been atoned for. The Son of God died for those who are counted as His own. It is not as if Christ gave Himself up for a nebulous group of people who may or may not be part of the church—this is made clear by the purpose of Christ’s work given in the passage itself. He gave Himself up for a defined people—the church, the bride of God. And, moreover, if Christ has given Himself for His church, it therefore follows that He has not given Himself for a population without a definition. For if something is defined by God Himself, such as the object of Christ’s atoning work in Ephesians 5:25-27, then any other definition would be prima facie false.

Who did Christ die for? Paul says the church, Rome and the Arminians say the world. But, if Paul, speaking authoritatively as he is carried along by God the Holy Spirit, says the church, then it cannot be anything else. We must take the apostle at his word!


[1] Some call limited atonement “definite atonement” to avoid the charge that limited atonement is a doctrine which degrades the atoning work of Christ. I accept this alternate word usage, but have retained the original nomenclature since it is more widely recognized.

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