Biblical Reasons Why Catholics Don’t Believe in ‘Limited Atonement’

“Since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.” (Gaudium et Spes, 22)

Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified”, c. 1632
Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified”, c. 1632 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Limited atonement is a specifically Calvinist or “Reformed” doctrine. It holds that Christ died not for all men, but only for the elect — those whose eternal destiny is heaven.

Other Christians, including Catholics, believe in universal atonement, in which Christ died for all men and made a way for every person to be saved, if they accept his free offer of salvation (itself made possible by his grace). Because a certain number reject the offer, they cannot be and are not saved.

I will be taking a survey of the biblical data against limited atonement and in favor of universal atonement. God didn’t create a bunch of robots, who could do nothing other than follow his will at every turn. We must choose to follow God or reject him:

  • Deuteronomy 30:15, 19 ... I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. ... I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.
  • Joshua 24:15, 20-24 And if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” ... If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “Nay; but we will serve the LORD.” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.” And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”
  • Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Calvinists falsely presuppose that human beings have no free will by which they can reject God and his grace and salvation. They clearly do have such a will and an ability, according to the Bible. Nor is it “works” to simply accept a free offer of salvation. St. Paul repeatedly teaches that we indeed “do something” in the matter of our own salvation, but that this is not “a dead work by an unregenerate person.” It is part of the grace that God gives us. We simply cooperate with it.

God is limited in his perfect will by the rebellious choices of men. This is how God chose for things to be — for us to have free will to accept or reject him. And so some men reject his grace and forgiveness:

  • Matthew 23:37-38 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.

The free gift is available to all:

  • Psalm 86:5 For thou, O Lord, art good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on thee. 
  • Isaiah 53:5-6 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 
  • Isaiah 55:1 Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; ... (cf. 45:22; Joel 2:32) 
  • Zechariah 1:3 Therefore say to them, Thus says the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. 
  • Mark 2:17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (cf. Matthew 9:13)
  • Luke 5:31-32 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” 
  • Luke 19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
  • John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” 
  • John 3:14-17 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
  • John 4:42 “... this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
  • John 6:33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world. (cf. 8:12; 9:5) 
  • John 6:51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
  • John 11:51-52 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.