The word “atonement” in Romans 5.11, as found in our King James (Authorised) Version Bible, means reconciliation.1
The main part of the same word (in the original Greek) is translated “reconciled” in the preceding verse: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement [i.e. the reconciliation]” (Romans 5.10-11).
These verses teach us that “we” Christian converts have already received this reconciliation to God. We have now received the atonement. Our Saviour has already reconciled us to God.
The verses that follow the “atonement” statement above contain the apostle Paul’s famous long parenthesis (verses 12-21)—an extended argument in which he compares Adam, the Covenant Head of the whole human race, with Christ, the Covenant Head of the elect.
There is one verse within Paul’s long parenthesis which, if its context is not considered carefully, appears to support the Arminians’ idea that the Lord Jesus Christ has been crucified for the sins of all mankind: “Therefore as by the offence of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one [Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (v.18).
Arminians assert that one and the same group of “all men” is being spoken of throughout this argument—that the phrase “all men” means every fallen human being, past, present and future. Thus, all mankind is under condemnation, but then—“the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”
There are three candidates for the correct interpretation of this passage, and of other passages in the Bible that have to do with the extent of salvation:
- Real universal atonement: • Christ died for “all men,” meaning every fallen human being; therefore every fallen human being is, or will be, saved.
- Hypotheical universal atonement (Arminianism, free-willism, decisionism, etc.): • Christ died for “all men,” meaning every fallen human being; therefore every fallen human being is hypothetically (or, potentially) saved—but now individually they need to put their faith in Christ, in order to make this potential atonement “real for them,” or effective in their personal case.
- Real limited atonement2 (Calvinism): the “all men” for whom Christ died, and thereby saved, does not include every fallen human being.
The problem for Arminianism, both here in Romans chapter 5 and elsewhere in the Bible, is that their argument that “all men means all men, the entire human race, head for head” ends up disproving very doctrine that they are attempting to prove: namely, hypothetical universalism.
No, Paul’s teachings will not allow that interpretation. The apostle affirms, in Romans 5:
- Those who are substituted by Christ in his death “have now received” the atonement (v.11);
- The gift of justification by grace “hath abounded” unto many (v.15);
- The free gift of justification of life has already (note the past tense:) “came upon” the “all men” for whom Christ died (v.18);
- And therefore, all these many people, and only these, “shall be” made righteous (v.19).
Our Saviour’s death on the cross has already accomplished the atonement; justification by grace; justification of life; making righteous—for all those for whom he has died. And all these are applied to believers when they come to believe.
Therefore the Calvinist position is correct: in verse 18, the “all men” upon whom Adam’s sin actually brought condemnation is not (in extent) the same “all men” upon whom Christ’s righteousness brought justification of life.
This is according to the old usage of “at-one-ment,” meaning to be brought to a state of peace with another person—i.e. God himself. The English words “reconsiliation” and “atonement” translate the same New Testament Greek word καταλλαγή (katallage), meaning exchange, or settling of differences (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, word #2643). The Lord Jesus Christ gave his life for his people, suffering for our sins, in order to reconsile us to God, thereby restoring us to God’s favour. ↩︎
Limited Atonement is the name given to the third of the five points (tenets) of Calvinism. The phrase particular redemption is preferred by some Calvinists, in order to avoid the accusation that they are limiting the worth and value of Christ’s blood (i.e. his death on the cross). Arminians argue for a general redemption (i.e. Christ paid the redemption-price for all fallen, condemned mankind in general) but Calvinists argue that Christ did not redeem all mankind in general but only some men in particular. ↩︎