Can Calvinists Make a Meaningful Distinction Between the Sufficiency and Efficacy of the Atonement?

A while ago, I wrote about John Owen’s famous trilemma argument in favor of limited atonement and criticized its shortcomings.  I noted that it is reliant on a commercialist view of the atonement, which is faulty, and that it diminishes the importance of faith.  Philosophical arguments like that one are not out of bounds by nature and can guide interpretation, but it is not nearly strong enough to overturn better interpretations of passages such as 1 John 2:2 that speak against limited atonement.

Now, I want to discuss another problem for Calvinists who advocate the double payment argument.  Many of them insist that though there is a sense in which Christ did not die for everyone, there is another sense in which he did.  In other words, while Christ’s blood and sacrifice is sufficient for everyone, it is efficient only for the elect.  I think this, along with the double payment argument, leads to a contradiction.  Even for those few Calvinists who reject Owen’s argument, this distinction is meaningless and confused.

Explaining the distinction

The primary motivator for this distinction is that it makes many Christians uncomfortable describing Christ’s atonement as “limited.”  Isn’t the blood of the Son of God infinitely valuable?  Wouldn’t such a sacrifice easily cover the sins of men?  How can Calvinists give genuine invitations of the Gospel if the reprobate have no provision given to them?  Since Calvinists do not want to sound like they’re limiting the value of Christ’s blood (which is why some try to distance themselves from the word “limited” and advocate something like “particular” or “definite” atonement), they have tried to make the above distinction between sufficiency and efficacy.

On the face of it, this distinction is unproblematic and one non-Calvinists make all the time.  However, merely saying something as vague and generic as, “Christ’s blood has infinite value but only applies to those who believe” fails to explain what makes limited atonement different.  Why should anyone bother being a Calvinist then?

The answer Calvinists give is purpose.  Many Calvinists try to make limited atonement about God’s original design.  They rhetorically ask: Did God have a plan of salvation, or did he just hope that people would believe, wringing his hands in nervousness?  Since God is sovereign, he clearly sent Christ to die specifically for his elect.  Thus, many Calvinists will say that while the merit and value of Christ’s death is unlimited, God’s plan was such that he unilaterally and unconditionally chose the people to whom the atonement would apply.  Therefore, Christ’s payment is sufficient for all but not effective for all.

Contradiction and meaninglessness

There are several problems with this distinction for Calvinists, and I’ll touch on a few here, first for those who advocate of the double payment argument (which in my experience covers the majority of Calvinists) and then for those who may not.

Recall how Owen’s double payment argument contends that since unbelief is a sin, it is impossible for Jesus to have paid for the sins of the unelect because if he did, they would all believe (and most Christians are not universalists).  Again, this is a commercialist view of the atonement: Every sin is covered in a quantitative way by the blood of Christ.  Owen’s argument necessarily rests on this notion or it falls apart.  However, if this is the case, then Christ’s sacrifice cannot be sufficient for all because there can be no provision made for all of the sins of all men.  In essence, due to the very purpose of the atonement, the price paid by Jesus is limited to the sins of the elect.  If that is the case, to say that Christ’s death is “sufficient” for all is to either talk hypothetically, which is hardly useful, or to fall into contradiction.

The contradiction is derived like this:

  1. The double payment argument is true. (granted)
  2. Christ’s blood is sufficient for all. (granted)
  3. If the double payment argument is true, then a commercialist view of the atonement is true.
  4. If a commercialist view of the atonement is true, then Jesus quantitatively died only for the sins of some.
  5. If Jesus died quantitatively for the sins of some, then his blood did not provide payment for the sins of all.
  6. If his blood did not provide payment for the sins of all, then it is not sufficient for all.
  7. Christ’s blood is not sufficient for all (working through the simple logic of #2-6).

2 and 7 are contradictions.  Calvinists who rely on Owen’s trilemma argument are in no position to say that Christ’s atoning sacrifice is sufficient for all in any meaningful sense of the word “sufficient.”  Calvinists are quick to respond that, as the Son of God, Christ’s blood is of infinite value by nature, but this is hardly in dispute and also not the issue.  The issue is whether or not Calvinists can hold to the payment of Christ’s blood as actually having infinite value.  If not, then they are being misleading when they preach “sufficient for all” because this “sufficiency” is hypothetical in nature.  Sure, if God wanted to save everyone, he could have expanded Christ’s payment to everyone, but he didn’t and thus the payment is limited in a quantitative manner.  In what sense is Christ’s atoning work sufficient then?  In theory?  In fact, according to Owen’s argument, the very reason why the atonement is effective for only some is because it is sufficient for only them as well.

This problem even bleeds over to Calvinists who do not advocate Owen’s argument.  It is still worth asking them how Christ’s atoning sacrifice is in any way “sufficient” in a meaningful sense if God unilaterally elected some to damnation.  Imagine if a billionaire was talking to someone struggling with medical bills and told him, “My bank account is ‘sufficient’ to pay for your bills, but I have no desire that you have any of it.”  That would hardly be good news.  In this case, it is misleading to say that a sufficient payment has been made for everyone because there never was any intention to cover the sins of the reprobate with Christ’s blood.  Again, this “sufficiency” is adequate only in theory if God decided to act differently.  This is why I questioned Piper’s contention that Calvinists can give bona fide invitations to faith.

Also, regarding the argument from God’s original purpose: It is a bit of a red herring and erroneously contends that God could not have other means to ensure his plan in addition to the atoning work of Christ.  The issue is not about God’s plan; after all, most flavors of evangelicals, from Arminians to Molinists, will speak about the certainty of God’s overall plan.  Even evangelical open theists will advocate the certainty of God’s victory and acquisition of his Church.  The question is simply this: Did Jesus die for the sins of all?  Is his atoning work actually sufficient for everyone’s sin?  Those Calvinists who flatly say no here are the most consistent.


It is popular for Calvinists to hold to the idea that Christ’s atoning work is sufficient for all because they do not want critics accusing them of limiting the value of Christ’s death.  However, their own theology makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to say this.  For those who hold to the double payment argument, it is a flat contradiction to say that Christ’s death is sufficient for all without smuggling in a different sense of the word “sufficient.”  For them, Christ’s death is effective for some precisely because it is sufficient for them.  Even for those who don’t agree with that argument, there doesn’t seem to be a meaningful sense in which the atoning sacrifice is sufficient for all, at least not in a meaningful enough way to preach it.



15 thoughts on “Can Calvinists Make a Meaningful Distinction Between the Sufficiency and Efficacy of the Atonement?

  1. The primary motivator for this distinction, is that it makes many Christians uncomfortable describing Christ’s atonement as “limited.” (and there is the rub!!)

    An wonderful article!! And very well articulated!!

    We should be able to see different postures of Calvinism at different times in history. Some in which they are vein-bursting, pulpit-pounding, no-holds-bard, asserting-forcefully, a 100% voluntaristic deity. And along with that, unabashed accusations that all alternative views are heresy.

    But that behavior seems to be based on how well things are going in the marketing front. When head-count starts to fade, temperaments, and nuances shift dramatically. And you find Calvinists today representing Calvinism as a gentler-kinder theology. But ironically, using the very same theological constructs they denounce as total heresy, when presented by opposing views. The new name for Calvinism is: “Equivocal Theology”.

    This appears to be completely pragmatic, and makes Calvinism again win the grand prize for being the most subtle beast in the garden. It is all to obviously dishonoring to Christ. And I can only image how John Calvin himself is churning in his grave, for it stoops his betrayal, and to a level of dishonesty that not even he would go.

    Thank you for your wonderful contribution to seekers of truth in Christ Jesus!!

  2. Pingback: Failed Attempts to Rescue Limited Atonement From 1 Timothy 4:10 | leesomniac

  3. The problem is that you have an issue with the finish work of Christ. Most people do. In fact the all men are prideful from birth so they naturally sway towards works. You want an atonement that doesn’t save because you also want a piece of the glory.

    • I have no problem with Christ’s work. I have problems with doctrines that have bad scriptural support and are not consistently articulated. I also have issue with silly accusations of wanting a piece of God’s glory (whatever that means) just because of theological disagreement.

      Let’s try this: You want to be right here because you’re prideful and cannot fathom that the way you think could possibly be wrong. Isn’t it fun to play telepath?

      • You do have a problem with Christ’s finish work. This is why you teach an imperfect atonement. An atonement that doesn’t save is not an atonement at all. In fact, the teaching of Scripture is rather much more direct. If Christ died for every single human being equally the same even for those who end up in hell then guess what it isn’t his death that saves but something that was necessary. The Bible says by the blood of Christ we, those whom God predestined, are made acceptable.

        So you are sadly speaking against the atonement of Christ because you yourself are yet still lost. You haven’t yet been renewed by the gospel yet.

      • The teaching of Scripture does not support limited atonement; ironically, you are resorting to philosophical arguments, arguments that I have dealt with before, to make your case that somehow rejecting limited atonement makes the atonement “imperfect.” Rejection of limited atonement is just that; rejecting limited atonement, not the great work of Christ who lovingly and graciously spilled his blood.

        More assertions, no argument. You might want to take a long look in the mirror to figure out why you are taking things so personally and why you are adding things to the gospel for the sake of your own pride.

      • Ironically I have dealt with the Scripture. It is you who is dealing with philosophical arguments and bad at it I might say.

        You have no atonement if it is made for those who even end up in hell. Your christs love is no love at all. Just a weak view of what your demonic god is like.

      • No, you haven’t. Merely asserting that you dealt with Scripture doesn’t make it so, especially when you don’t even have citations and make bare assertions rather than arguments.

        This is getting amusing, but also tiring. I guess I should thank you for giving me another real life example of a hyper-Calvinist, but it is also sad that you were either taught this or came to believe it by distorting the teaching of Calvinists that you have read.

      • I thank you for being an example of those who the truth. You obviously are blinded by your pride. As I made mention to the three verses. But you just haven’t dealt with.

      • I guess that’s that. Hopefully, the Holy Spirit will work on your pride, you’ll hear the actual Gospel, and you’ll repent of your sins, particularly of this one where you deny the salvation of others because they disagree with you on a secondary doctrinal point.

        You’ve made no attempt to handle texts carefully but have resorted to presumptuous and vague prooftexting. There’s nothing for me to “deal” with. Such debating would get you laughed out of a room in any serious scholarly setting. These kinds of comments are actually not what I envision on this blog, but then again, the internet is the internet, and it’s at least a good example of what not to do. Even my Calvinist friends are finding this whole exchange very funny.

      • Holy Spirit works by truth not by lies. As your gospel is no gospel at all. In fact the gospel that does not save is no gospel at all.

        I can you have made no attempt to address these text at all that I presented. And I could list a litany of others but because you hate God and you hate the gospel you are now on a diatribe to profane the word.

      • You’re merely repeating yourself now, and I at least do not want spam on this blog. You can believe what you like; I think it is sad and it is clearly not the gospel, but it’s a free country. You can also argue how you like, even though any objective observer will see that there are no real arguments made. But while I try to have a pretty wide latitude on comments, I’ve let you say your piece (mostly nonsense), and I don’t need the clutter on the blog.

        Again, all I can hope for is that God will work on your pride because this is a pretty severe (and relatively rare now) case of modern hyper-Calvinism. That’s not where you want to be.

      • To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray………”

        When Calvinists exhibit a religious pharisee spirit, I follow Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 15:14

        Thanks for your web-site leesomniac!
        Don’t let the bad ones get to you.
        I’ve discovered, their strategy is all too often, simply to beat people down and wear them out.
        Then they claim they won by speaking the truth in love.
        Go figure!! :-]

      • Thanks, br.d. This guy didn’t get to me at all; I found the whole thing kind of hilarious and let my Calvinist friends know that an angry hyper-Calvinist came screaming, and they found it funny too that apparently John Piper is an Arminian and Al Mohler is a devil. True Calvinists would never say that one has to agree with them on all points in order to be saved because we at least agree on the gospel. Even genuine Christians often do not handle disagreement maturely, but this guy was on another level.

      • I agree!! You handled it with grace and patience.
        And gave him a lot more room than most blog hosts would put up with.
        My best!

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