The Cross and the extent of the atonement

The Co-Extent Theory Examined and Critiqued

As it should be obvious to those who know me, I am an advocate of Limited Atonement. Though it may be the most controversial of all the “five points of Calvinism”, I find it to be the most clear logically speaking, as well as the most supported biblically. The main argument against it used by Arminians is that the Scriptures contain the words all and world when referring to the extent of the atonement. In response, the Calvinist would simply point out that those terms are seldom universal in scope (John 1:10; 11:48; 12:19).
There is, however, one argument used by Arminians called the co-extent theory which at first seems to turn the Calvinist view on its head. They reason from certain texts that if sin is universal in scope, so atonement must also be. Thus they reason that since Calvinists clearly believe that every human has sinned and is totally depraved, then every human must also have been included in Christ’s redemption. The following texts are used:

  1. Romans 5:18Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”
    They reason, “Since all men were condemned by Adam, the same all men were offered justification through Christ. It would be foolish to say that only the elect are condemned through Adam’s offense.
  2. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
    They reason, “The all who die in Adam must be the same all who shall the made alive in Christ. Are we to say that only the elect die in Adam?”
  3. Isaiah 53:6 “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
    They reason, “Whoever the ‘us all’ who had their iniquities laid on Him are, they must also be the ‘we all’ who went astray. If a Calvinist says Christ only died for the elect, then the depravity of man also only extends to the elect.”

Upon first reading this seems to be a tough predicament to the Limited Atonement doctrine. The Calvinist cannot simply redefine all when its plain reading does not fit their theology–how much more when in the same sentence! It seems as though one must either deny a universal extent of sin, or deny a limited extent of the atonement. The Calvinist would have to choose between giving up “Limited Atonement” or “Total Depravity”. However, after a quick examination of these passages we will see it is safe to interpret that everyone ever is depraved while only the elect are included in the atonement.

  1.  Romans 5:18.
    This section has many parallels as Paul compares and contrasts the effects of the sin of Adam with that of the obedience of Christ. Before determining what is meant by “all men” or “free gift came upon…unto justification of life,” we must examine everything else Paul has to say concerning this.Where verse 18 uses “all men,” verses 15 and 19 says “the many“, a definite group of people. Verse 17 is most important in helping us define “all,” for he makes a parallel between “all” and “they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness”. This cannot be speaking of all men ever, but of all believers. This becomes even more clear when we observe secondly, that the “justification of life” spoken of in verse 18 should be paralleled with verse 19, “shall be made righteous.”Thus, “the free gift came upon all men,” in Paul’s argument here is likened to, “all who receive the gift will be justified.” If all means everyone ever, then we must preach universalism, for everyone ever would be justified in such a case. In his overall reasoning, Paul is not saying that every human is justified in Christ in the same way that every human is condemned in Adam. He is rather reasoning that those in Christ are justified while those in Adam are condemned. Although every human is in Adam and depraved, not every human being is in Christ; only those who receive His grace are.
  2.  1 Corinthians 15:21-22 Paul uses a similar argument, paralleling Adam with Christ. On its face it would seem to argue for a co-extent. However, two important observations should be made. The first is that this passage does not even concern the atonement! It is speaking of the resurrection of the righteous at the return of Christ.Second, despite the term all being used both in the case of Adam and of Christ, in the latter it cannot mean everyone ever. In the very next sentence we learn Paul was speaking of, “they that are Christ’s at his coming” (v.23) And so, if the Arminian is correct, then every human being is going to be raptured.
  3.  Isaiah 53:6.In Scripture and in plain language, the terms we and us refer to those present. God did not mean to say through Isaiah, “The human race has gone astray…but the sins of the human race was laid on Christ.” Rather, the message God wishes to get across is, “My people have gone astray, but I will forgive them by laying their iniquities on Christ.” Further, two things can be said concerning the definite aspect of this atonement.First, later on in this same chapter Isaiah writes that “many” will be justified (v. 11), and that the Servant bore the sins of “the many” (v. 12). Thus a specific group of people rather than every human being ever is spoken of here. Also, the wording of verse 11 shows that same group of people whose sins were borne were also justified. Thus the Servant’s death is effectual, and brings about its intended purposes.Second, the “bearing iniquity” terminology in this chapter is similar to that concerning the Scapegoat spoken of in Leviticus 16. When the iniquities were confessed and laid on the goat, it bore those iniquities away and the LORD remembered them no more. Can this be said of an unbeliever who dies apart from Christ? Also, Isaiah 53 mentions a guilt offering. In Leviticus 5 we see that when one makes a guilt offering for themselves their sins are forgiven and the guilt is removed. Again, can this be said of the lost?

Thus we see that the co-extent argument does not hold as much weight as Arminians think. To close, I would like to turn the tables back around to our favor by asking a similar question: How does the Arminian reason that the extent of sin has actual, definite application, whereas the atonement has only a potential and an indefinite application. Put another way, how can we say that Adam’s sin actually brings about a change to all men, yet Christ’s work does not actually bring about what God wants it to?

Steven Rohn

What do you think?