Early Church Fathers and Limited Atonement

early church fathers

Church history is not static and various doctrines have been developed over time as the church has matured. The early church fathers certainly were inconsistent with many things. Limited atonement was prsent in the early church but it was held inconsistently. Our forefathers in the faith did not get everything right all of the time. Some have argued that the doctrine of limited atonement was not present in early Christian writings. This could not be further from the truth.

So, what exacty is Limited Atonement? Brian Schwertley's article on the subject is a good read. In that article he says; "[t]hose who hold to a particular atonement (i.e., Calvinists) teach that Christ died for the elect only. Christ’s atoning death definitely secured the salvation of those for whom He died."

The following quotes show a number of early hereos of the faith whose writings, or at least some aspects within their writings, reflected the doctrine of limited atonement. I have also included some quotes wherein these early fathers teach that there are elect people who are saved and non-elect people who are not saved.

Barnabas (A.D. 70)

“[Christ speaking] I see that I shall thus offer My flesh for the sins of the new people.”

"The way of darkness is crooked, and it is full of cursing. It is the way of eternal death with punishment."

Clement of Rome (A.D. 96)

"Day and night, you were anxious for the whole brotherhood, so that the number of God's elect might be saved."

Letter to Diognetus (A.D. 125-200)

"You should fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who will be condemned to the eternal fire. It will afflict those who are committed to it even to the end."

Polycarp (A.D. 135)

"They despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by the suffering of a single hour...For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and will never be quenched."

Hermas (A.D. 150)

"God removes the heavens, mountains, hills and seas, so that all things become plain to His elect, so that He may bestow on them the blessing which He has promised them...The white part is the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell. For those who are elected by God to eternal life will be spotless and pure."

"Sinners will be consumed because they sinned and did not repent."

"Those who have not known God and do evil are condemned to death. However, those who have known God and have seen His mighty works, but still continue in evil, will be chastised doubly, and will die forever."

Justin Martyr (A.D. 150)

“He endured the sufferings for those men whose souls are [actually] purified from all iniquity…As Jacob served Laban for the cattle that were spotted, and of carious forms, so Christ served even to the cross for men of every kind, of many and various shapes, procuring them by His blood and the mystery of the cross.”

"For we believe...that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merits of His deed...Sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up."

"Christ foretold that Satan would be sent into the fire with his host, along with the men who follow him, and they will be punished for an endless duration."

"The unjust and intemperate will be punished in eternal fire."

"Some are sent to be punished unceasingly into judgment and condemnation of fire. Others will exist in immortality, with freedom from suffering, from corruption, and from grief."

"We know from Isaiah that the members of those who have transgressed will be consumed by the worm and unquenchable fire, remaining immortal. As a result, they become a spectacle to all flesh."

Tatian (A.D. 160)

"We who are now easily susceptible to death, will afterwards receive immortality with either enjoyment or with pain."

Irenaeus (A.D. 180)

“He came to save all, all, I say, who through Him are born again unto God, infants, and little ones, and children, and young men, and old men…Jesus is the Savior of them that believe; but the Lord of them that believe not. Wherefore, Christ is introduced in the gospel weary…promising to give His life a ransom, in the room of, many.”

"When the number is completed that He had predetermined in His own counsel, all those who have been enrolled for life will rise again."

"To such, He has assigned everlasting damnation by cutting them off from life...Those who believe in Him will be incorruptible and will not be subject to sufferring. They will receive the kingdom of heaven...The unrighteous, the idolaters, and the fornicators all perished...So is it also now...the Lord declares that such persons are sent into eternal fire."

Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195)

"All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked. Yet, it would be better for them if they were not deathless. For they are punished with the endless vengeance of the quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery."

Tertullian (A.D. 200)

“Christ died for the salvation of His people…for the church.”

"After the [Last Judgment], there is neither death nor repeated resurrections. But we will be the same as we are now, and still unchanged. That is, we will be the servants of God, ever with God, clothed with proper substance of eternity. But the profane, and all who are not true worshippers of God, in like manner will be consigned to the punishment of everlasting fire. That fire, from its very nature indeed, directly attends to their incorruptibility."

"By the sentence of judgement, we say that the wicked will have to spend an eternity in endless fire. The godly and innocent will spend it in a region of bliss."

Cyprian (A.D. 250)

“All the sheep which Christ hath sought up by His blood and sufferings are saved…Whosoever shall be found in the blood, and with the mark of Christ shall only escape…He redeemed the believers with the price of His own blood…Let him be afraid to die who is not reckoned to have any part in the cross and sufferings of Christ.”

Methodius (A.D. 290)

"[When] the predestined number of men will be fulfilled, men will afterwards abstain from the generation of children."

Lactantius (A.D. 320)

“He was to suffer and be slain for the salvation of many people…who having suffered death for us, hath made us heirs of the everlasting kingdom, having abdicated and disinherited the people of the Jews…He stretched out His hands in the passion and measured the world, that He might at the very time show that a large people, gathered out of all languages and tribes, should come under His wings, and receive the most great and sublime sign.”

Eusebius (A.D. 330)

“To what ‘us’ does he refer, unless to them that beleive in Him? For to them that do not believe in Him, He is the author of their fire and burning. The cause of Christ’s coming is the redemption of those that were to be saved by Him.”

Julius (A.D. 350)

“The Son of God, by the pouring out of His precious blood, redeemed His set apart ones; they are delivered by the blood of Christ.”

Hilarion (A.D. 363)

“He shall remain in the sight of God forever, having already taken all whom He hath redeemed to be kings of heaven, and co-heirs of eternity, delivering them as the kingdom of God to the Father.”

Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384)

"The people of God hath its own fullness. In the elect and foreknown, distinguished from the generality of all, there is accounted a certain special universality; so that the whole world seems to be delivered from the whole world, and all men to be taken out of all men."

Ambrose (A.D. 339-397)

“Before the foundation of the world, it was God’s will that Christ should suffer for our salvation…Can He damn thee, whom He hath redeemed from death, for whom He offered Himself, whose life He knows is the reward of His own death?”

"Although Christ suffered for all, yet He suffered for us particularly, because He suffered for the Church."

"Great, therefore, is the mystery of Christ, before which even angels stood amazed and bewildered. For this cause, then, it is thy duty to worship Him, and, being a servant, thou oughtest not to detract from thy Lord. Ignorance thou mayest not plead, for to this end He came down, that thou mayest believe; if thou believest not, He has not come down for thee, has not suffered for thee. “If I had not come,” saith the Scripture, “and spoken with them, they would have no sin: but now have they no excuse for their sin. He that hateth Me, hateth My Father also.” Who, then, hates Christ, if not he who speaks to His dishonor? — for as it is love’s part to render, so it is hate’s to withdraw honor. He who hates, calls in question; he who loves, pays reverence."

Jerome (A.D. 347-420)

Writing on Matthew 20:28 said; "He does not say that he gave his life for all, but for many, that is, for all those who would believe."

“Christ is sacrificed for the salvation of believers…Not all are redeemed, for not all shall be saved, but the remnant…All those who are redeemed and delivered by Thy blood return to Zion, which Thou hast prepared for Thyself by Thine own blood…Christ came to redeem Zion with His blood. But lest we should think that all are Zion or every one is Zion is truly redeemed of the Lord, who are redeemed by the blood of Christ form the Church…He did not give His life for every man, but for many, that is, for those who would believe.”

Augustine (A.D. 354-430)

"2. But alongside of this love we ought also patiently to endure the hatred of the world. For it must of necessity hate those whom it perceives recoiling from that which is loved by itself. But the Lord supplies us with special consolation from His own case, when, after saying, “These things I command you, that ye love one another,” He added, “If the world hate you, know that it hated me before [it hated] you.” Why then should the member exalt itself above the head? Thou refusest to be in the body if thou art unwilling to endure the hatred of the world along with the Head. “If ye were of the world,” He says, “the world would love its own.” He says this, of course, of the whole Church, which, by itself, He frequently also calls by the name of the world: as when it is said, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself.” And this also: “The Son of man came not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” And John says in his epistle: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also [for those] of the whole world.” The whole world then is the Church, and yet the whole world hateth the Church. The world therefore hateth the world, the hostile that which is reconciled, the condemned that which is saved, the polluted that which is cleansed.

3. But that world which God is in Christ reconciling unto Himself, which is saved by Christ, and has all its sins freely pardoned by Christ, has been chosen out of the world that is hostile, condemned, and defiled. For out of that mass, which has all perished in Adam, are formed the vessels of mercy, whereof that world of reconciliation is composed, that is hated by the world which belongeth to the vessels of wrath that are formed out of the same mass and fitted to destruction. Finally, after saying, “If ye were of the world, the world would love its own,” He immediately added, “But because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” And so these men were themselves also of that world, and, that they might no longer be of it, were chosen out of it, through no merit of their own, for no good works of theirs had preceded; and not by nature, which through free-will had become totally corrupted at its source: but gratuitously, that is, of actual grace. For He who chose the world out of the world, effected for Himself, instead of finding, what He should choose: for “there is a remnant saved according to the election of grace. And if by grace,” he adds, “then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.”"

"Hence things that are lawful are not all good, but everything unlawful is not good. Just as everyone redeemed by Christ's blood is a human being, but human beings are not all redeemed by Christ's blood, so too everything that is unlawful is not good, but things that are not good are not all unlawful. As we learn from the testimony of the apostle, there are some things that are lawful but are not good."

Pacian (A.D. 380)

“Much more, He will not allow him that is redeemed to be destroyed, nor will He cast away those whom He has redeemed with a great price.”

Epiphanius (A.D. 390)

“If you are redeemed…If therefore ye are bought with blood, thou are not the number of them who were bought with blood, O Manes, because thou deniest the blood…He gave His life for His own sheep.”

Theodoret of Cyrrhus (A.D. 393-466)

Writing on Hebrews 9:27-28 said; "As it is appointed for each human being to die once, and the one who accepts death’s decree no longer sins but awaits the examination of what was done in life, so Christ the Lord, after being offered once for us and taking up our sins, will come to us again, with sin no longer in force, that is, with sin no longer occupying a place as far as human beings are concerned. He said himself, remember, when he still had a mortal body, “He committed no sin, nor was guile found in his mouth.” It should be noted, of course, that he bore the sins of many, not of all: not all came to faith, so he removed the sins of the believers only.

Hilary of Arles (A.D. 401-449)

Writing on 1 John 2:2 said; "When John says that Christ died for the sins of the “whole world,” what he means is that he died for the whole church."

Prosper of Aquitaine (A.D. 463)

"He is not crucified with Christ who is not a member of the body of Christ. When, therefore, our Saviour is said to be crucified for the redemption of the whole world, because of his true assumption of the human nature, yet may he be said to be crucified only for them unto whom his death was profitable...Diverse from these is their lot who are reckoned amongst them of whom is said, ‘the world knew him not.’"

"Doubtless the propriety of redemption is theirs from whom the prince of this world is cast out. The death of Christ is not to be so laid out for human-kind, that they also should belong unto his redemption who were not to be regenerated."

Bede (A.D. 672-735)

Writing on 1 John 2:1-2 said; "The Lord intercedes for us not by words but by his dying compassion, because he took upon himself the sins which he was unwilling to condemn his elect for...In his humanity Christ pleads for our sins before the Father, but in his divinity he has propitiated them for us with the Father. Furthermore, he has not done this only for those who were alive at the time of his death, but also for the whole church which is scattered over the full compass of the world, and it will be valid for everyone, from the very first among the elect until the last one who will be born at the end of time. This verse is therefore a rebuke to the Donatists, who thought that the true church was to be found only in Africa. The Lord pleads for the sins of the whole world, because the church which he has bought with his blood exists in every corner of the globe."

Gottschalk of Orbais (A.D. 850)

"He who knows God’s work in Jesus Christ will undoubtedly admit without hesitation and joyfully state that the loving redeemer redeemed absolutely all Whom He redeemed from eternal death at such a price and that He gave them all eternal life. Let them deny this, if they want, who love the dregs more than the oil, the grape skins or seeds more than wine, chaff and weeds more than wheat, kids and goats more than sheep and lambs, because they perhaps come from them. But those who love God, who know that He is omnipotent and believe, know, and say that He has done whatever He willed in heaven and on earth, and in the sea and in all the deeps (Ps. 134:6), most firmly hold, state, and assert that no one among those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ perishes eternally."

Remigius (A.D. 850)

"Since only the elect are saved, it may be accepted that Christ did not come to save all and did not die on the cross for all."

Anselm of Canterbury (A.D. 1033)

"If you die in unbelief, Christ did not die for you."

There is a broad and rich early church fathers heritage of limited atonement. 


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