For whom did Jesus Christ die?

The question, for whom did Jesus Christ die? has generated some of the most heated and varied answers in church history. To help you understand the different answers to this question, we offer the following chart:

Heresy of “Christian”



Heresy of Contemporary Pelagianism


Unlimited Atonement


Limited Atonement


Unlimited Limited Atonement
View of Sin We are born sinful but guilty for our sins, not Adam’s. We are born

sinless like

Adam but follow his bad example.

We are born sinful but guilty for our sins, not Adam’s. We are born sinners guilty in Adam.


We are born sinners guilty in Adam.
Who Jesus

Died For


Jesus took all the sin and pain of the world onto himself. Jesus lived and died only as an example for sinners. Jesus died to provide payment for the sin of all people. Jesus died to achieve full atonement for the elect. Jesus died to provide payment for all, but only in a saving way for the elect.
How Atonement is Applied


God’s powerful love in Jesus will overcome all sin. Anyone can follow the example of Jesus by living a good life. God will apply the payment to those who believe in Christ. God designed the atonement precisely for the elect. While God desires the salvation of all, he applies the payment to the elect, those whom he chose for salvation.
Heaven & Hell


Everyone will be saved and will go to heaven. There is no eternal hell.


Those who live a Christlike life will be saved and go to heaven. Those who reject goodness will go to hell. All who accept the gift go to heaven. Everyone else gets to follow their free will and choose to go to hell.


God does not need to save anyone from hell, but chooses to save some. God does not need to save anyone from hell, but chooses to save some.

The first two answers (universalism and Pelagianism) are unbiblical and therefore unacceptable. Universalism erroneously contradicts the clear teachings of Scripture on human sinfulness and hell.1 Pelagius denied human sinfulness and taught that people begin their life morally good (like Adam), and through the decision of their own will can live a holy life that would obligate God to take them to heaven upon death. Pelagius was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Carthage in AD 418.

We are left with three options for Christians regarding the question of who Jesus died for. All three positions are within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy.

First, some Christians believe that Jesus died for the sins of all people. This position is commonly referred to as Arminianism (after James Arminius), Wesleyanism (after John Wesley), or unlimited atonement. Arminians appeal to those Scriptures that speak of Jesus dying for all people,2 the whole world,3 everyone,4 and not wanting anyone to perish.5 Arminians then teach that to be saved, one must make the decision to accept Jesus’ atoning death and become a follower of Jesus. Furthermore, it is said that anyone can make that choice either by inherent free will (Arminians) or by God’s universal enabling, so-called prevenient, or first, grace (Wesleyans). Subsequently, election is understood as God choosing those he foreknew would choose him, and since people choose to be saved they can also lose their salvation.

Second, some Christians believe that Jesus died only for the sins of the elect. Election means that before the foundation of the world, God chose certain individuals to be recipients of eternal life solely on the basis of his gracious purpose apart from any human merit or action. He calls them effectually, doing whatever is necessary to bring them to repentance and faith.6

This position is commonly referred to as five-point Calvinism (after John Calvin), Reformed theology, or limited atonement, which is also sometimes called particular redemption. These Calvinists commonly appeal to those Scriptures that speak of Jesus’ dying only for some people but not all people,7 his sheep,8 his church,9 the elect,10 his people,11 his friends,12 and all Christians.13 They disagree with unlimited atonement, pointing out that if Jesus died for everyone, then everyone would be saved, which is the heresy of universalism. They also teach that people are so sinful that they cannot choose God, and so God regenerates people before their conversion and ensures they will be preserved until the end because salvation cannot be lost.

One vital point of debate is the intent of Jesus when he died on the cross. Did Jesus intend to provide payment for all sins of all people, opening the doorway to salvation for all? That would be unlimited atonement, or what the Wesleyans and the Arminians believe. Do we accept it at face value when Paul said that Christ Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all” in 1 Timothy 2:6? Or did Jesus die to complete the purchase of our pardon on the cross? That is limited atonement, or what five-point Calvinists believe. Do we accept it at face value when Jesus said, “It is finished” in John 19:30?

At first glance, unlimited and limited atonement appear to be in opposition. But that dilemma is resolved by noting two things. First, the two categories are not mutually exclusive; since Jesus died for the sins of everyone, this means that he also died for the sins of the elect. Second, Jesus’ death for all people does not accomplish the same thing as his death for the elect. This point is complicated, but is in fact taught in Scripture. For example, 1 Timothy 4:10 makes a distinction between Jesus’ dying as the savior of all people in a general way and the Christian elect in a particular way, saying, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

Additionally, 2 Peter 2:1 speaks of people for whom Jesus died as not being saved from heresy and damnation by Jesus: “False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Simply, by dying for everyone, Jesus purchased everyone as his possession, and he then applies his forgiveness to the elect—those in Christ—by grace, and applies his wrath to the non-elect—those who reject Christ. Objectively, Jesus’ death was sufficient to save anyone, and, subjectively, only efficient to save those who repent of their sin and trust in him. This position is called unlimited limited atonement, or modified Calvinism, and arguably is the position that John Calvin himself held as a very able Bible teacher.14 Christ died for the purpose of securing the sure and certain salvation of his own, his elect.

This is the intentionality the five-point Calvinists rightly stress. Christ died for all people. This is the universality the Arminians rightly stress. If the five-point Calvinist is right and no payment has been made for the non-elect, then how can God genuinely love the world and desire the salvation of all people? There is a genuine open door for salvation for anyone who believes in Jesus, and this makes the rejection of Jesus completely inexcusable. Jesus’ death reconciles “all things” to God.15 God will overcome all rebellion through Jesus’ blood. In this sense, all those in hell will stand reconciled to God but not in a saving way, as the universalists falsely teach. In hell unrepentant and unforgiven sinners are no longer rebels, and their sinful disregard for God has been crushed and ended.16

Are you certain that Jesus Christ died for you?

1E.g., Dan. 12:2; Matt. 5:29–30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:23; 25:46.
22 Cor. 5:14–15; 1 Tim. 2:1–6; 4:10; Titus 2:11.
3John 1:29; 3:16–17; 1 John 2:2; 4:14; Rev. 5:9.
4Isa. 53:6; Heb. 2:9.
51 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9.
6Isa. 55:11; John 6:44; Rom. 8:30; 11:29; 1 Cor. 1:23–29; 2 Tim. 1:9.
7Matt. 1:21; 20:28; 26:28; Rom. 5:12–19.
8John 10:11, 15, 26–27.
9Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25.
10Rom. 8:32–35.
11Matt. 1:21.
12John 15:3.
132 Cor. 5:15; Titus 2:14.
14E.g., see his commentaries on Romans 5, Galatians 5, Colossians 1, and Hebrews.
15Col. 1:18–20.
16On this point, Dr. Bruce Ware has been very helpful to both Gerry and me as we studied this doctrine together.

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