Broughton Knox (1916-1994) on “Limited Atonement”

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in For Whom did Christ Die?



Substitution in sin-bearing is the center of the New Testament doctrine of the Atonement, as well as the Old Testament adumbration of it. A Realization of this makes impossible the concept that Christ’s redeeming work is continuing in Heaven now, or that we can join our obedience to his as part of the act of redemption.

On the other hand, there is a way of viewing Christ’s satisfaction for sin which limits it in extent, so that Christ’s atonement is not co-extensive with humanity, but is limited to those elect of God only. However, that the work of Christ extends uniformly to the whole of humanity becomes clear when it is considered under the following heads:

(a) The Incarnation. When Christ rook man’s nature in the womb of the blessed virgin, he rook the nature which all men share, and not the nature of the elect only.

(b) Christ’s Perfect righteousness. When Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the law of God, he fulfilled the obligation which rests on all men equally, and nor an obligation which the elect alone have.

(c) Christ’s Victory. When our Lord overcame all the wiles of the devil and bound the strong man, he overcame the common enemy of mankind, and not the enemy of the elect only.

(d) Christ’s Bearing of the Curse. When our Lord, through his death on the cross, became a curse, he bore the curse which God threatens against all breakers of his covenant, and nor the curse which is particularly applicable to the elect.

From this it will be seen that the work of Christ viewed in itself, and apart from its application, is co-extensive with humanity, or, in the old phraseology, “Christ’s work is sufficient for all”. Thus William Cunningham wrote: “The atonement, viewed by itself, is just vicarious suffering, of infinite worth and value, and, of course, intrinsically sufficient: to expiate the sins of all men.”20 This may be underlined by reflecting, in contrast, that traditional theology has never regarded the atonement as intrinsically sufficient to expiate the sins of any fallen angel: that is, Christ has died for all men in a way he has nor died for any fallen angel, and thus we may give a straightforward exegesis to those Scriptures which assert the universal extent of the atonement.

Thus from the point of view of the preacher, Christ has died for all his audience. All may accept the proffered salivation which Christ has provided. The preacher is nor concerned with the intended application of the atonement, which at the rime of the preaching still lies hidden in the counsel of God. Thus, from the point of view of the preacher presenting the gospel (which is the same as our point of view), all have an equal interest in the death of Christ. Were it nor so, and nor true that Christ had died for all men, it would nor be possible to extend a universal offer; for the offer, if it is to be a true offer, must rest on true and adequate grounds, which cannot be less than the death of Christ for those to whom the offer is being made. Thus if the gospel is offered genuinely to all, it can only be offered because Christ died for all, and if for all, then the preacher is at liberty, and indeed obliged, to press home the offer, and to say to each sinner individually, “Christ has died for you”.

The extent of Christ’s work is not limited in itself, but only in the intentions and purposes of God, and consequently in the application of its benefits to those whom God had foreknown and predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

In intending to reconcile the elect only, the method God has chosen has been to make all men reconcilable. Both Calvinist and Arminian are right in what they affirm, bur the Arminian is wrong in what he denies. The Arminian affirms that Christ made all men savable, and denies that he saves any. The Calvinist affirms that Christ saves the elect; but some Calvinists are inclined to speak as though the atonement in no wise affects he savableness of any others. Cunningham states, “The intended destination of the atonement was to effect and secure the forgiveness and salvation of the elect only … God did not design or purpose, by sending his Son into the world, to save any but those who are saved”.21

This is correct. Cunningham thinks that the doctrine of limited atonement follows, but this is a non sequitur. For the method by which the elect are saved is that they and the non-elect alike are made savable by Christ’s death for mankind, if they will repent and believe, which God commands all to do. But only the elect do so, for only the elect receive the necessary grace, which grace to repent and believe was merited and purchased by Christ for his sheep; so that ultimately they are the only ones for whom Christ died.

All men receive benefits from Christ’s death. This is agreed. It should be further agreed that one of these benefits is savableness which no fallen angel has received. Thus it is true to say that Christ is a ransom for all, without limiting the word ‘all’, nor limiting the word ‘ransom’ to that which is less than complete salvation. The word ‘for’ is capable of two levels of meaning. Just as there are two levels of meaning in “Savior of all men, especially of those that believe,”22 so there are two levels of meaning in “He died for all”, and “Christ died for his sheep”, and in “He is a Savior of all”, and “He saves his people”. It is not what limited atonement states positively, but what it states negatively, that is objectionable (that is, the use of the word ‘only’ for the more appropriate ‘specifically’, or ‘especially‘).

In the phrase “Christ died for the elect”, the word ‘for’ is ambiguous. If it implies intention, it is true. Thus Scripture affirms that Christ came to save his people from their sins. But if it applies to the extent of his atonement, it is not true; so that, with the Church of England Catechism, we are right in affirming that “Christ redeemed me, and all mankind“; and with the Synod of Dort that he efficaciously redeemed only the elect.23 It is regrettable that the Westminster Confession has gone beyond this scriptural position of the Synod of Dort, to confine the redemption of Christ exclusively to the elect. “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ … but the elect only” (3.6). To deny, as “limited atonement” does, the propriety of laying on the conscience of the unconverted their duties to repent and believe the gospel, by telling them “Christ died for you”, is improperly restrictive of the scope of the atonement, as seen from the point of view of preacher and hearer.

Owen rejects the concept that the decree of redemption is antecedent to election, with the retort “cui bono?”24 This appears to be his only argument. Palmer uses the same argument, “There would be no sense, no use, no purpose in sending Christ to die for those whom he knew would never accept Christ”.25

But this argument is a non sequitur. It also smacks of anthropocentrism (i.e. Arminianism). God is glorified even in those who are perishing. Even to these the gospel is a sweet favor of Christ unto God, though a favor of death unto death.26 This could not be so if in the mind of God those not being saved were quite outside the scope of Christ’s redemption.

Limited atonement’ in its commonly accepted modern use amongst Calvinists is a textless doctrine. This is a fatal defect for any doctrine for which a place in Reformed Theology is sought. The Bible certainly affirms that Christ laid down his life for his sheep, and that he purchased his church with his own blood; but nowhere is the sentiment expressed negatively, i.e. that he died for his sheep only, or that redemption is to be spoken of the elect only; and in fact biblical phraseology is opposed to such expression, e.g. 2 Peter 2:1, where it is affirmed that apostates were amongst those whom God had purchased.27 Salvation and redemption are terms which properly belong to the elect (see, for example, the ‘new song’ of the living creatures and the elders before the Throne in Revelation 5:9). But in a secondary sense, salvation and redemption through the death of Christ arc spoken of in Scripture as applying to all men. A recognition of this terminology will prevent a harsh classification of humanity into the savable and the non-savable, after the fashion of the Valentinians.28

To summarize:

1. No purpose or intent of God ever fails.

2. The purpose of Christ’s death was the salvation of the elect. Christ’s death effects this.

3. It does not follow from these two points that the atonement (i.e., the work of Christ in discharging the penalty of the sin of mankind and fulfilling the obligations of the law) has reference to the elect only.

4. As the result of the atonement, all may be saved if they will repent and believe. So all may be told “Christ has died for you; therefore accept the proffered salvation”.

The doctrine of ‘limited substitution‘, which is used to defend ‘limited atonement’, goes too far. Thus B. B. Warfield in criticizing Amyraldists29, says that they alter the character of the atonement, and asks: “If sin is removed by Christ’s substitution, what remains as a barrier to the salvation of sinners?30 But this proves too much, by excluding the paradox (as Barth does on the other side of the paradox). For the elect are not saved at the moment that the substitutional atonement was made at Calvary, nor is their sin then removed from them. This takes place only on the application of the atonement to themselves in regeneration. Till then, the elect are children of wrath, as the rest.31 If the doctrine of substitution is to be pressed to support limited atonement, then it means that God is unjust to hold the elect accountable for their sins before they have turned to him in faith. An example of this erroneous use of the doctrine of substitution to establish limited atonement may be drawn from The Five Points of Calvinism by Edwin H. Palmer, now on the faculty of Westminster Theology Seminary. Dr Palmer writes, “Finally, a conclusive argument is to be drawn from the nature of Christ’s atonement. Is the atonement a substitution or not? It must be one or the other. Do we believe in the vicarious or substitutionary death of Christ or not? If so, then those for whom he died must be free from the penalty of the law because Christ satisfied the law.

If Christ was the substitute for all men, then all men would be free from God’s wrath and condemnation. For the atonement is objective. Christ paid for all. And if Christ paid for all, then all men are free. But of course even the Arminian will not assert that the unrepentant is free from the penalty of the law. Therefore he should admit that Christ did not die for the unrepentant. It is either-or. Christ’s death was a substitute or not. And if it was an actual substitute, then the persons for whom it was made are free. But this obviously cannot apply to all men.”32 If Christ’s substitution is conceived of in this pecuniary way, it would follow that all the saints are free from the wrath the moment the substitution is made and accepted. Otherwise God would be unjust.

The particularism which is characteristic of Calvinism ought not to be applied at the point of the making of the atonement, but at its application. If supralapsarianism33 is to be rejected, because “particularism, in the sense of discrimination, belongs in the sphere of God’s soteriological, not in that of his cosmical, creation,” so that the decree, or election belongs logically after the fall, as Warfield argues,34 then on the same argument the decree of election is logically after the decree of atonement, where also, in fact, it belongs in the working out of the application of salvation. That is to say, the atonement is general, its application particular. If the reply is made that Scripture affirms that Christ entered the world to “save his people from their sins”, it should also be noted that Scripture affirms God created his people to be his glory and praise.35 But since the infralapsarian36 does not regard this latter as establishing the decree of election prior to that of creation, he should not regard the former as bearing on the question whether the decree of election is subsequent to that of atonement.

Finally, it should be noted that limited atonement (as distinct from effective redemption) is not affirmed in the decrees of the Council of Dort, so it cannot be regarded as an essential bulwark against Arminianism. It finds no support, but the contrary, in the writings of Calvin. On Hosea 13:14, Calvin commented: “God does not here simply promise salvation but shows that he is indeed ready to save … the obstinacy of men rejects the grace which has been provided and which God willingly and abundantly offers” [my italics]. Moreover, it lacks the positive Scriptural testimony which the other four points of ‘tulip‘ (let him that reads understand!) are so rich in, so that it ought not to be placed on an equality beside them. Indeed, it appears to run counter to some plain verses in Scripture, such as “denying the Lord who bought them“.37? It cuts away the basis of a genuine offer of the gospel to all the world, and blunts the points of evangelism in preventing the pressing home of the claims of Christ on the consciences of the hearer, by interdicting such phrases as “Christ died for you”, “God so loved you ….”

The object of the doctrine of limited atonement is to ensure the truth that Christ’s death saves his people effectively, as against the Arminian doctrine of general redemption, which holds that by the atonement Christ redeems all men, without necessarily effecting the salvation of any. But while rightly stressing that the atonement saves those whom God intends it to save, we should not speak of the substitution of Christ on Calvary in such a way as to overthrow other Scriptural points of view. Limited atonement as commonly propounded, introduces unscriptural concepts into the doctrine of God’s relation to the world, and may prove an Achilles’ heel for the revival of Reformed theology.

Broughton Knox, ‘Some Aspects of the Atonement,” in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God, ed. Tony Payne, (Australia: Matthias Media, 2000), 260-266. [Some reformatting; some spelling modified; italics original; and underlining mine.]

Credit to the Blogging Parson for the find.


20William Cunningham, Works of William Cunningham (Edinburgh: T. & T Clark, 1863) vol iii, p. 364.

21Works III, p. 347,

221 Timothy 4:10.

23Dort 2,8. The Synod of Don was convened by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1618-19 to deal with the ‘Arminian controversy’ (and other issues). It issued the five articles which came to be known as ‘The five points of Calvinism’, the third of which is ‘a limited atonement’. By ‘limited atonement’ the Synod meant that the Christ’s death was “sufficient for all but efficient for the elect”,

24John Owen, The Death of Death (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959) p. 37. Literally, “What good is it?”

25Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Moelker Printing, [1954?]) p. 37.

262 Corinthians 2: 15, 16.

27Cf. also Romans 14:15,20; 1 Corinthians 8:11.

28The Valentinians were a 2nd century gnostic sect who divided all mankind into three distinct categories: the pneumatics (i.e. them selves) who alone had access to the secret ‘gnosis’ (or knowledge) of salvation and would enjoy eternal bliss; other Christians (the ‘psychics’) who might inhabit a lower level of heaven; and the rest of mankind (the ‘hylics’) who were destined for damnation.

29Amyraldists follow the system of Reformed theology put forward by Moise Amyraut in the 17th century. They hold to the formula: “Jesus died for all men sufficiently, but only for the elect efficiently”.

30B. B. Warfield , The Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1935) p. 95.

31Ephesians 2:3.

32Op cit p. 40.

33Supralapsarianism is the doctrine held by some Calvinists that (in logical order) God decreed both election and reprobation before the fall (supra above, lapsus fall). In this system, God’s first decree was to glorify himself by electing some to salvation and others to damnation; the decrees to create the world, to permit the fall, and to provide salvation for the elect through Christ logically followed.

34The Plan of Salvation pp. 88, 89.

35Isaiah 43:7,

36Infralapsarians (infra below, lapsus fall) argue that the logical order of God’s decrees is as follows: to glorify himself through creating mankind; to permit the fall; to elect some of the fallen race to salvation, and to pass by others, consigning them to damnation; to provide salvation through Christ for the elect.

372 Peter 2: 1.

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6 comments so far


Is there any indication that Christ died for the ‘goats’?

May 29th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Hey there, and welcome to C&C.

There are a few ways to answer your question.

Firstly, I do think the onus is on the person asserting the negation to prove the negation. I am not saying you are doing that. I just want to address the method of the questioning which so many, I think, misunderstand. Many want to shift the burden on to the proponent of unlimited expiation, as if they are required to disprove the negation as asserted by the proponent of limited expiation and sin-bearing.

Secondly, I would say that there is indication that Christ died for all men, which includes non-elect. Though we should be careful to note that Christ did not die for a man as he is non-elect, but as he is a man, a man who is not elect. In the same way he did not die for a man as he is wicked, but as he is a man, a man who is wicked.

Thirdly, verses like John 1:29, John 3:14-17, 1 John 2:2, 1 Tim 2:4-6, Heb 2:9. Assertions such as we find in John 4:42, 6:32-33, 6:51; 8:12, 12:47, Acts 3:26, Rom 14:15, 1 Cor 8:11, Luke 22:19-21 (note this includes Judas); 1 Cor 15:1-7, 2 Pet 2:1, Is 53:5-6. Also, Mark 14:24, where “many” in Scripture often stands for “all” as Calvin rightly notes.

All of these verses indicate that Christ died for more than the sheep only.

I am sure given more time I could remember other verses, but that’s a start.

Hope that helps,

May 29th, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Hi David :)
You’re website is a great resource for young punks like me – thanks for all your hard work. The question I’m wrestling with at the moment is what exactly is at stake in all these debates about limited atonement? The deeper I go the more complex it is all seems to be getting.

August 26th, 2010 at 6:18 am

Hey there Steve,

Thanks for stopping by and for the comment. I can understand the sense of complexity. Getting the nature and extent of the expiation is right because it impacts doctrines like the doctrine of God (which is a big grounding-point), person and work of Christ, the well-meant offer, down to the way we read Scripture and hermeneutics. This is hard to explain, but in high Calvinism, a lot of terms and ideas in Scripture are pushed back into the decrees, so that the decrees become more real than what is revealed in the present. The revealed and revealed knowledge will is thinned out, and begins to fade, while the secret will becomes our starting point. We think we can view God’s redemptive plan with a sort of immediacy as if we were right there looking at it from the perspective of eternity. Thus we stop looking it God’s redemptive actions from the revealed side. This shift then led to the Reformed community fixating on highly speculative points, eg lapsarianism, and regulating exegesis in the light of these speculative declarations regarding the divine decrees.

Bottom line, its about being more biblical, more faithful to Scripture, and more human.


August 26th, 2010 at 6:42 am
arlan aquino

Hi David,

This quote from DB Knox is very helpful. Would you know what he meant when he mentioned Barth? If yes, kindly clarify by sharing it with me. Thanks so much for putting up this site. Very informative and enlightening.

November 5th, 2011 at 7:40 am

Hey there Arlen.

From the context I would say he was probably referring to Barth’s “universalism.” Reputedly, tho it has been denied by some Barthians, Barth held that at some point, all men will be saved.

I gather the paradox, Knox is alluding to probably speaks to the conditionality of the application of the death, being dependent for application upon faith and penitence. That is, the death of Christ is not applied absolutely, contra Warfield, but conditionally: even if this ability to comply to the condition is a gift of the Father to the elect, because, for the non-elect, faith nonetheless remains the necessary condition (as causa sine qua non).

Sorry for the tardy reply. Weekends are bad for me, and this week has been very busy.

Thanks for stopping by,

November 10th, 2011 at 2:54 pm

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