Limited Atonement: Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect

Limited Atonement: Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect 

Dr. Nettles does a wonderful job of summarizing the “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” position(s) in his book By His Grace and For His Glory (note pages 302-05).  He believes this view represents “a majority view among Calvinists” though as I demonstrated in previous posts, is not the position he himself prefers.  From this point on I will refer to the Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect view as the SFA position.

The SFA position basically affirms both the sufficiency in the nature of the atonement to save all men and the limitation of the atonement to the elect in its divine intent.  It is unlimited in extent but limited in its intent.  According to the Synod of Dort, “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”  W. G. T Shedd (a Presbyterian theologian form the nineteenth century) wrote, “Christ’s death is sufficient in value to satisfy eternal justice for the sins of all mankind…Sufficient we say, then, was the sacrifice of Christ for the redemption of the whole world, and for the expiation of all the sins for all and every man in the world.” 

This view would say Jesus Christ bore the sins of the entire world (Isaiah 53:1-6) on his shoulders when he died on the old rugged cross.  As the sinless God-man He offered up a perfect sacrifice of infinite value.  The extent of the atonement is universal but the intent of the atonement (to save only the elect) is clearly limited.  Steele and Thomas explain it this way, the atonement was limited in its original design; not in its worth, value, or scope. 

Richard Mayhue believes the atonement of Christ is in some ways a paradox.  He argues that this atonement is limited in some senses, and in other ways it is unlimited.  He believes it is limited in that it does not extend to angels or animals (Heb 2:16); and that it is not effaciously applied to all humans by God’s choice (via sovereign election).  It is unlimited in that its message is extended to all humans in its proclamation; Its sufficiency is unlimited in value; it makes all men accountable in terms of eternal responsibility; It makes common grace available in non-eternal ways to all mankind (Matt 5:45); It benefits all the elect in its redemptive, eternal efficacy.  Mayhue points to the Day of Atonement as a OT picture of this NT concept.  He concludes his essay with the following words, “Christ’s atonement is unlimited in a non-saving sense for all of sinful humanity, but it is limited in its redemptive efficacy only to those who God particularly and unconditionally elected unto eternal salvation.”  According to Dr. Daniels Thomas Boston and the other Marrowmen taught that there were two aspects of the atonement, one general for all men and one particular for the elect alone.

So the argument between those who hold a SFA position and a more limited 5 point view is really over whether or not the atonement of Jesus Christ was truly sufficient for all.  In other words, does Jesus’ atonement really cover the sins of the non-elect?  Is that what Isaiah 53:1-6 mean?  Is that what 2 Peter 2:1ff implies?  Is that the John’s intention when he uses the Greek word holos in 1 John 2:2?  Please stay with me friends the biblical exegesis is just around the corner… 

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Andy Chance on April 12, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    Are you sure that within the SFA position, it is correct to say that the sins of the whole world (if you mean each and every man) was laid on Jesus?

    What I mean is, I think sufficiency points to the worth of the sacrifice. It does not necessarily mean than the sins of the world were laid on Jesus; it only means that if they were laid on him, his sacrifice would atone for them.

    It magnifies the worth of Jesus’ sacrifice without necessarily extending it’s effectiveness to each and every person.

  2. Andy,

    Great note- I think your post is very accurate. The great challenge is that no one really represents the SFA position officially; for that matter John Owen does not officially represent the more limited view either. Their are lots of variations between the SFA position and the more limited view.

    ***I really appreciated your statement here: “I think sufficiency points to the worth of the sacrifice. It does not necessarily mean than the sins of the world were laid on Jesus; it only means that if they were laid on him, his sacrifice would atone for them.” ****

    You are correct the SFA position does not necessarily mean Christ paid the penalty for elect and non-elect alike (and perhaps this understanding is the most biblical view). I am trying to get my mind around the various interpretations myself.

    In days to come some of our other contributors will offer exegesis in regards to some of the key texts. At this point i am more of an editor and a learner.

    Grace to you

  3. Posted by Juan Z on April 12, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    Great stuff. I am finallay getting to understand the different views of atonement!


  4. Andy,

    It would probably be safe to say that Steele and Thomas and Mayhue and Thomas would all have different takes on this issue. Mayhue may not even consider himself a 5 point-(modified) Calvinist.


    Thanks for your kind words. It is good to know others are benefiting from this short study.

    In Christ,


  5. […] Caleb Kolstad ( continues his series on limited atonement with this post entitled: “Limited Atonement: Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect.” […]

  6. Posted by Mike on July 21, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Want to know my view on the statement that is prevalent in many Reformed circles on the Atonement which says- “Christ’s death was of infinite worth and is sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect”. I am personally convinced that this statement is dabbling with Amyraldian speculation. We know that Amyraldius attempted to fuse together the Arminian tenant that Christ died for all, while holding to part of the Calvinistic tenant that Christ died only for the elect.
    In trying to relay information to the public at large as gracious as possible, the Synod of Dordt, one of the most respected councils in the history of the church, said this: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” Don’t you think this is erroneous? Nothing wrong in saying, “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value.” But to say, “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” is an Arminian statement, don’t you think?
    Many Calvinist’s hold that if God desired, He could have saved everyone, and the same atonement that saved His elect, could have saved a million billion worlds – hypothetically speaking of course. But here is the rub; the Scriptures never speak hypothetically in this way – ever. Instead, they always speak of what Christ did do and what Christ accomplished. For example, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is what Christ did. A pondering god on what “might have been” or what “might be” is not at all-sovereign, and all knowledge God. God speak in terms of reality, not possibility. He operates in the realm of the actual, not the realm of “what if?”
    To say that the atonement is of infinite value or worth is to correctly describe it biblically speaking. I agree with that sentiment because of the design and nature of what the atonement had to be to redeem an elect number of people for their sin. The atonement of Jesus Christ is of infinite worth, and must be of infinite worth, because it is a propitiation and expiation of the elect’s sin before the infinite holiness of an infinitely holy God. God’s character defines the kind of sin offering that must be given. God is infinitely holy. Men have sinned against an infinitely holy God. The sacrifice, then, of the Mediator that God sends, must be infinitely given – an infinite sacrifice. For this reason alone, the Mediator must be God for only God is infinite. We know, Scripturally, Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Only God could offer up to Himself an infinitely holy sacrifice for sin.
    To say the atonement of Jesus Christ is “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect” is really saying only have a truth. The atonement is only sufficient and efficient for the elect. It is sufficient to do exactly what God designed it to do – that is – atone for all the sins of the elect. Could God have decreed something different? Let’s speculate! Sure He could have. He could have decreed that trees grow upside down, that men are born with wings to fly around and live in giant green pea-pods that float in the sky. He could have decreed that all fish breath air, and that the ocean is really made of strawberry jelly. He could have decreed that we see with our nose, smell with our ears, and see with our toes. He could have decreed that Christ’s sacrifice could save everyone, including a million billion worlds. He could have decreed anything. But He decreed what He did decree. As you can see, to speak otherwise is just to speculate, and speculating can become very weird very quickly. Instead, why not simply follow the biblical directives of what Christ actually did, and what He actually accomplished in His infinite sacrifice which had to be infinite for the infinite sins against an infinitely holy God. And mind you, the Bible never depicts God as the one who speculates in hypothetical possibilities, and thus, neither should we.
    [paraphrased from an article by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon titled “Jesus died for Aliens on Planet Zeno”. Read the full article on]

  7. Posted by Caleb on July 21, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    This is a subject i continue to study and one that truly amazes me. Thanks for your thoughts-


  8. Caleb,
    S.Lewis Johnson has a great series on “Limited Atonement” at the Believer’s Chapel website. He gives both historical and theological data/exegesis that was very helpful to me. Also, A.A Hodge’s book “The Atonement” is laborious-to me-but very insightful. David Long’s book, Definite Atonement, is short, but significant. Owen’s book of course is masterful. Best of all and what has cleared up my mind is doing the exegesis of passage myself and both teaching and preaching them in my ministry setting. Look forward to seeing your exegesis. Hope you are well.

  9. Thanks Tom!

  10. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on July 22, 2010 at 7:12 am


    The only problem with your post is that you do not deal with the Scriptural texts that lead some to believe in a sufficient for all, efficient for the elect view. What if God purchased “some good things for all men and all good things for some men” as Charles H Spurgeon suggested?

  11. Dear Brother,

    Maybe you are right, that I should have mentioned and dealt with the Scriptural texts that lead some to believe in a sufficient for all, efficient for the elect view. That really should be no problem.
    But I would lovingly caution you about quoting Spurgeon to support any Reformed Truths that you are contending for. Because though Spurgeon was a gifted and eloquent preacher, there is no denying that as far as solid doctrine was concerned he was a Compromiser. But that should come as no surprise seeing the crowds he commanded.

    Concerning 1Tim2:4 ‘Who will have ALL men to be saved’ Spurgeon said – “All men’ say they — that is ‘some men’: as if the Holy Ghost could not have said ‘some men’ if he had meant some men. ‘All men,’ say they: that is ‘some of all sorts of men’; as if they Lord could not have said ‘all sorts of men’ if he had meant that. The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written ‘all men’ and unquestionably he means all men.”

    Some of the quotes of Spurgeon are almost unbelievable. For instance –
    “Our Father.” That then, includes those of God’s children who differ from us in their doctrine. Ah! There are some that differ from us as wide as the poles; but yet they are God’s children. Come, Mr. Bigot, do not kneel down, and say, “My Father,” but “Our Father.” “If you please, I cannot put in Mr. So-and-So, for I think he is a heretic.” Put him in, sir; God has put him in, and you must put him in too, and say, “Our Father.”

    In the above quote, speaking of a difference in doctrine, Spurgeon says, “There are some that differ from us as wide as the poles; but yet they are God’s children.” This is the exact opposite of the words of 1 John 4:6 and 1 Timothy 6:3-5

    We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

    If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.

    Paul told Timothy to withdraw himself from people who differed in doctrine. Spurgeon says to “put in” those you “think to be a heretic”!

    Spurgeon calls Calvinism the gospel , and holds Arminian doctrine as heresy. Yet, unlike Paul who calls for a curse two times over for anyone who would preach any other gospel (Galatians 1:8-9), Spurgeon gives praise.

    Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitfield and John Wesley. (C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Vol. 1, p. 173, in “A Defence Of Calvinism,” The Banner Of Truth Trust edition, bold added)

    Prior to this Spurgeon says,

    What is the heresy of Rome, but the addition of something to the perfect merits of Jesus Christ, – the bringing in of the works of the flesh, to assist in our justification? And what is the heresy of Arminianism but the addition of something to the work of the Redeemer? Every heresy, if brought to the touchstone, will discover itself here. I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.

    “If ever it should come to pass,
    That sheep of Christ might fall away,
    My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
    Would fall a thousand times a day.”

    If one dear saint of God had perished, so might all; if one of the covenant ones be lost, so may all be; and then there is no gospel promise true, but the Bible is a lie, and there is nothing in it worth my acceptance. I will be an infidel at once when I can believe that a saint of God can ever fall finally. (ibid., 168-169, bold added)

    What a hypocrite! John Wesley, being “the prince of Arminians,” believed that a “saint of God” can fall. Spurgeon said he would be an infidel, the Bible would be a lie, and it would be heresy, if he were to believe the very thing John Wesley believed. Yet, Spurgeon says of Wesley that he would be a prime candidate for a position with the twelve apostles, that he revered Wesley, and he was one “of whom the world was not worthy” (ibid., 176)! In other words, he revered one who by his own words was an infidel, one who made the Bible worthless and a lie! In this, Spurgeon reveals that he was not a man who “may dwell in [God’s] holy hill” (Psalm 15:1). Because, those who abide in His tabernacle (Psalm 15:1) despise a vile person (Psalm 15:4), and those who trust in the Lord do not respect those who turn aside to lies. As Psalm 40:4 says,

    Blessed is that man who makes the Lord his trust, and does not respect the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies.

    Here is the ultimate quote from Spurgeon –

    “In Brussels, I heard a good sermon in a Romish church. The place was
    crowded with people, many of them standing, though they might have had a
    seat for a halfpenny or a farthing; and I stood, too; and the good priest —
    for I believe he is a good man, — preached the Lord Jesus with all his
    might. He spoke of the love of Christ, so that I, a very poor hand at the
    French language, could fully understand him, and my heart kept beating
    within me as he told of the beauties of Christ, and the preciousness of His
    blood, and of His power to save the chief of sinners. He did not say,
    ‘justification by faith,’ but he did say, ‘efficacy of the blood,’ which
    comes to very much the same thing. He did not tell us we were saved by
    grace, and not by our works; but he did say that all the works of men were
    less than nothing when brought into competition with the blood of Christ,
    and that the blood of Jesus alone could save. True, there were
    objectionable sentences, as naturally there must be in a discourse delivered
    under such circumstances; but I could have gone to the preacher, and have
    said to him, ‘Brother, you have spoken the truth;’ and if I had been
    handling the text, I must have treated it in the same way that he did, if I
    could have done it as well. I was pleased to find my own opinion verified,
    in his case, that there are, even in the apostate church, some who cleave
    unto the Lord, — some sparks of Heavenly fire that flicker amidst the
    rubbish of old superstition, some lights that are not blown out, even by the
    strong wind of Popery, but still cast a feeble gleam across the waters
    sufficient to guide the soul to the rock Christ Jesus. I saw, in that
    church, a box for contributions for the Pope; he will never grow rich with
    what I put into it.” (from Geese In Their Hoods: Selected Writings on Roman
    Catholicism by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, compiled & edited by Timothy

  12. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on July 23, 2010 at 8:10 am

    If you think evangelical Arminianism is a false gospel then you don’t fully understand the gospel or the historical context/implications of Galatians 1. The same point is equally valid for Arminians who blast biblical Calvinists as being false teachers, heretics, etc. Both interpretations can’t be right but that does not demand that Arminians are preaching a heteros gospel.

    This is an important discussion about very important doctrines; but Arminianism and Arianism should not be lumped together in the same category!

    I would suggest you read Iain H Murray’s “Wesley and the Men Who Followed” or some more balanced and historically accurate Calvinist authors (R.C. Sproul, John Piper, D.A. Carson, John MacArthur).

    The issue of the atonement as was presented in this series of blog articles is a matter of friendly debate among true Christians. You are creating unnecessary division in the church by not understanding the fundamentals of the faith and the necessity of theological triage (see Al Mohler). I am more concerned about you my brother than I am about the evangelical Arminian pastor down the street.

  13. Maybe the better book to read would be “Spurgeon vs Hyper-Calvinism” by the same author Iain Murray. I thought it was an excellent read.

  14. Mike,

    I’m not sure what motivates a person to post an historically inaccurate and baseless diatribe about Spurgeon on a three year old blog post but I’ve been surprised before. The issue with your comment is not Spurgeon or the atonement but an unbiblical view of separation which is tired and worn out. It is impossible for you to maintain such a position with any consistency. In fact there are numerous inconsistencies in your comment but I digress.

    If you leave comments please keep them on the topic of the actual post. Also please keep your comments brief and again, to the point.


  15. Limited Atonement” a sovereign god , yes , it hurts when we debate above subject and find a large gap, between us all, if I got to 34 and in a gold mine about 1 mile underground in south Africa , a engineer, told me of Christ on the cross, the gospel, yes its what we do just tell the gospel, and when some lost soul like me in 1984 heard it I got down on my knees and repented of my sins, asked Christ to come, take me, use me, after 19 years of drinking+smoking, and lots of sin filled life that we do, stopped, truly i was changed, and fresh, forgiven, can i boast in anything of above, me me , know this brothers if we what to get any truth in this type of debate then not understanding fallen man, sin , or a GOD who only lifts his wrath from sinners when that sinner mouth is shut and his head is down, sovereign GOD ,will not share his glory with , Arminian , catholic, or cults, and anyone who adds a little me,or self, to Christ, wonderful, work on the cross, its grace, its all of grace, we give all glory to GOD or we may not be saved at all. may my lord bless all , from Scotland,

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