Is this verse forced into limited atonement theology?


(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

I’m speaking of 1 Corinthians 15:3: ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (ESV)

I find some Calvinists not to be upfront about their meaning when they make statements about Christ dying for sinners. A person asked online, ‘When Paul initially preached to them [the Corinthians] there would have been non-believers present. What would you say to such a crowd regarding “Christ”, “died” and “sins”?’[1]

A Calvinist who believes in limited atonement responded,

Christ died for sinners. You are a sinner. To receive forgiveness for your sins you must repent of your sins believe on The Lord Jesus Christ.

Later I could say that I preached that Christ died for our sins. And it would be true.[2]

Therefore, I asked, ‘In your first sentence, ‘Christ died for sinners’, are you affirming that Christ died for ALL sinners?[3] He did not want to affirm his belief in limited atonement at this point, so he said, ‘Read it again’.[4] My response was, ‘That’s like a non-answer’ He has affirmed his belief in TULIP Calvinism constantly in his posts to Christian Forums, but he didn’t want to go down that route at this stage of the discussion.

A.  The meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:3: Limited atonement or not?

That only believers are mentioned in 1 Cor 15:3, ‘Christ died for our sins’, is because of the grammar and semantics of writing a letter to anyone. When the Bible uses ‘our’, ‘us’, and ‘we’ regarding the atonement, it does this because this is the group of people that a writer (in this case, Paul) is addressing.

Such a verse as 1 Cor 15:3 is not addressing all of those for whom there has been provision of atonement; it is speaking to those for whom there has been an appropriation/application of the atonement in Corinth. Here in 1 Cor 15:3, Paul is addressing a few to whom the atonement has been applied, so he uses the language of ‘our sins’.

B.  Provision and appropriation

This language of ‘provision’ and ‘appropriation or application’ is used by some theologians to differentiate between the number of people who are provided with opportunity for salvation (all of the people in the world) and those who accept Christ’s offer (appropriation or application of salvation). Geisler, who links his view to that of a ‘moderate Calvinist’ (Geisler 1999:52-54), uses it also (see below). He wrote that ‘while salvation was provided for all, it is applied only to those who believe’ and ‘since God also wanted everyone to believe, he also intended that Christ would die to provide salvation for all people’ (2004:187, emphasis in original). Geisler also uses ‘everyone is potentially justifiable, not actually justified’ (2004:352, emphasis in original). He also uses parallel language when he stated that ‘God’s grace is not merely sufficient for all; it is efficient for the elect. In order for God’s grace to be effective, there must be cooperation by the recipient on whom God has moved’ (Geisler 2004:144).

Thiessen, an Arminian in his views, uses the language of ‘appropriation’:

‘There is a necessary order in a man’s salvation; he must first believe that Christ died for him, before he can appropriate the benefits of His death to himself. Although Christ died for all in the sense of reconciling God to the world, not all are saved, because their actual salvation is conditioned on their being reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20)’ (Thiessen 1949:330, emphasis in original).

Therefore, Thiessen offered this summary of how Christ can be the Saviour of the world and not offer salvation only to the elect:

His death secured for all men a delay in the execution of the sentence against sin, space for repentance, and the common blessings of life which have been forfeited by transgression; it removed from the mind of God every obstacle to the pardon of the penitent and restoration of the sinner, except his wilful opposition to God and rejection of him; it procured for the unbeliever the powerful incentives to repentance presented in the Cross, by means of the preaching of God’s servants, and through the work of the Holy Spirit; it provided salvation for those who die in infancy, and assured its application to them; and it makes possible the final restoration of creation itself (Thiessen  1949:330).

Others such as David Allen use the language of ‘the extent of the atonement’ and ‘the application of the atonement’ (Allen 2010:65, emphasis in original). Allen argues ‘the case for unlimited atonement (an unlimited imputation of sin to Christ)’ (Allen 2010:66). He concluded his exposition with this statement:

I have attempted to demonstrate the following: (1) Historically, neither Calvin nor the first generation of reformers held the doctrine of limited atonement. From the inception of the Reformation until the present, numerous Calvinists have rejected it, and furthermore, it represents a departure from the historic Christian consensus that Jesus suffered for the sins of all humanity. (2) Biblically, the doctrine of limited atonement simply does not reflect the teaching of Scripture. (3) Theologically and logically, limited atonement is flawed and indefensible. (4) Practically, limited atonement creates serious problems for God’s universal saving will; it provides an insufficient ground for evangelism by undercutting the well-meant gospel offer; it undermines the bold proclamation of the gospel in preaching; and it contributes to a rejection of valid methods of evangelism such as the use of evangelistic altar calls.

I cannot help but remember the words of the venerable retired distinguished professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Jack McGorman, in his inimitable style and accent: ‘The doctrine of limited atonement truncates the gospel by sawing off the arms of the cross too close to the stake.’[5] Should the Southern Baptist Convention move toward ‘five-point’ Calvinism? Such a move would be, in my opinion, not a helpful one[6] (Allen 2010:107).

In 1 Cor 15:3, the language of ‘Christ died for our sins’ is using simple etiquette. When I’m writing to my friends and use ‘our’, I’m referring to them and me exclusively, so ‘our’ is appropriate. That is what Paul is doing here in 1 Cor 15:3. Paul is not making a statement about ‘our sins’ meaning limited atonement.

We know this because elsewhere in the NT, we have confirmation that God loves all people, Christ died for the sins of all people, and that God is not willing that any people should perish (Jn 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Tit 2:11; 2 Pt 2:1; 3:9).



C.  Norman Geisler responds to this verse

In his ‘answering objections to the origin of salvation’, Geisler responds to an objection ‘based on God’s unique love for the elect’. This is the objection:

Strong Calvinists claim that God does not salvifically love all people, insisting that Christ died only for the elect. If this is true, then God is not omnibenevolent. For instance: ‘He chose us’ (not ‘all’ – Eph. 1:4); ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15;3); ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’ (John 10:15); ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself for her (Eph 5:25) [Geisler 2004:194, emphasis in original].

What is his rejoinder to this objection?

The fact that only believers are mentioned in some passages as the object of Christ’s death does not prove that the Atonement is limited, for several reasons.

First, Paul also said that Jesus ‘gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20), het no proponent of limited atonement takes this to exclude the fact that Christ died for others as well.

Second, when Paul uses terms like we, our, or us of the Atonement, it speaks only of those to whom it has been applied, not for all those for whom it was provided. In doing so, Scripture does not thereby limit the Atonement.

Third, and finally, the fact that Jesus loves His bride and died for her (Eph. 5;25) does not mean that God the Father and Jesus the Son do not love the whole world and desire them to be part of His bride, the church. John 3:16 explicitly says otherwise (Geisler 2004:195).

See also, S. Michael Houdmann, ‘Main arguments against limited atonement(please understand that Houdmann in this link is a 4-point Calvinist who does not believe in limited atonement).

red blood cells

(courtesy wpclipart)

Works consulted

Allen, D L 2010. The atonement: Limited or universal? In D L Allen & S W Lemke (eds), Whosoever will: A biblical-theological critique of five-point Calvinism, 61-107. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic.

Geisler, N 1999. Chosen but free. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

Geisler, N 2004. Systematic theology: Sin, salvation, vol 3. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.

Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


[1] janxharris#11, 17 November 2013, Christian Forums, Soteriology, ‘What did Paul preach to the Corinthians?’, available at: (Accessed 17 November 2013).

[2] Hammster#12, ibid.

[3] OzSpen#14, ibid.

[4] Hammster#16, ibid.

[5] At this point the footnote was, ‘Spoken to the author in a personal conversation’ (Allen 2010:107, n. 133).

[6] Here the footnote was: ‘We should heed the words of Thomas Lamb, seventeenth-century Baptist and Calvinist, who said: “… yet I deny not, but grand with him [John Goodwin], that the denial of Christs [sic] Death for the sins of all, doth detract from God’s Philanthropy, and deny him to be a lover of men, and doth in very deed destroy the very foundation and ground-work of Christian faith” (Thomas Lamb, Absolute Freedom from Sin by Christs Death for the World [London: Printed by H. H. for the authour, and are to be sold by him, 1656], 248)’ (Allen 2010:107, n. 134).


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 8 October 2016.