All Biblical proof-texts that Calvinists use to provide evidence for the doctrine of limited atonement suffer from an objective logical fallacy informally known as the 'negative inference fallacy.' A simple example of such a fallacious argument is:

John loves his friends.

Therefore, John does not love his enemies.

Calvinists use limited atonement proof-text verses (John 10:11, Ephesians 5:25, Acts 20:28) to make the following argument:

The Bible states that Jesus died for believers (the sheep, the church, the elect, etc.)

Therefore, Jesus did not die for unbelievers (the goats, the reprobate, etc.)

But this argument has the exact same logical form as the objectively fallacious argument that I provided as an example. Furthermore, the Bible contains a plethora of verses stating plainly that Jesus died for all men, casting further doubt on the Calvinist position.

My question: How do Calvinists respond to the criticism that many proof-texts they use to support the doctrine of limited atonement suffer from a basic logical fallacy?

Edited to add quotes from Calvinists:

Matt Slick, carm.org

Jesus said in John 10:15 that he laid his life down for the sheep. Furthermore in John 10:26 Jesus said that people did not believe because they are not his sheep. The argument goes that if Jesus lays his life down for the sheep and there are people who were not his sheep, then he did not lay his life down for those who are not his sheep.

R.C. Sproul or someone from his website, ligonier.org

God did not send His Son to make it possible or even probable that some would be saved. Instead, His plan guaranteed the salvation of His elect. Christ died for the sins of His people alone. He gave His life only for His sheep (John 10:11).

James White, aomin.org

There are a number of Scriptures that teach us that the scope of Christ's death was limited to the elect. Here are a few of them:

Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).

The "many" for whom Christ died are the elect of God, just as Isaiah had said long before,

By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11)

The Lord Jesus made it clear that His death was for His people when He spoke of the Shepherd and the sheep:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep....just as the Father knows me and I know the Father---and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15).

The good Shepherd lays down His life in behalf of the sheep. Are all men the sheep of Christ? Certainly not, for most men do not know Christ, and Christ says that His sheep know Him (John 10:14). Further, Jesus specifically told the Jews who did not believe in Him, "but you do not believe because you are not my sheep" (John 10:26). Note that in contrast with the idea that we believe and therefore make ourselves Christ's sheep, Jesus says that they do not believe because they are not His sheep! Whether one is of Christ's sheep is the Father's decision (John 6:37, 8:47), not the sheep's!

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    "How do Calvinists respond to the (objectively true) criticism that every proof-text they use to support the doctrine of limited atonement suffers from a basic logical fallacy?" ... This is far from objectively true. In fact it's so far out of left field I've never heard anyone raise this argument before.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 7, 2018 at 22:55
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    @curiousdannii Please tell me your reasoning for declaring my statements incorrect, and I will consider editing my question. Just saying "you're wrong" without providing any justification doesn't do me any good.
    – pr871
    Mar 8, 2018 at 3:36
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    -1; although the content itself is a good question,the way the question has been asked comes off as combative and hostile. "How do otherwise philosophically intelligent theologians commit such an amateur error?"; we got your question, what does this achieve except attempting to equate Calvinists with intellectually ignorant people? Please leave your personal opinions and biases out of this question and future questions if you wish to garner acclaim for legitimate inquiries into Christian tradition. Mar 8, 2018 at 18:08
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    Right, it’s sort of like a back-handed compliment. That shouldn’t be what the motivation of your question is, it should be a black and white, “Calvinists say X, when X appears to be Y, how do Calvinists respond?” Anything else is excess commentary that is generally not well receieved per site-guidelines. I’m not trying to be nit-picky or anything, I think this is a wonderful question and am interested in reading the responses. The “(objectively true),” “biblical proof-texts” and other portions of the question like these are what are unnecessary. Mar 8, 2018 at 18:32
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    I'm not sure I see negative inference in these quotes. For the ones referring to the Good Shepherd passages (John 10), the parable carries additional non textual information. The metaphor eliminates the possibility of the Shepard dying for someone else's sheep. Christ's heaters could be expected to reach this conclusion from their understanding of what a shepherd does. It seems to me that your question is flawed in that it assumes that the analysis of a parable must rely only on formal logic.
    – bradimus
    Mar 9, 2018 at 1:50

2 Answers 2


This question comes from two false premises.

  1. That the claim that Calvinists depend on a logical fallacy when they point to the particularized language of the Bible.
  2. That the Calvinist argument for "limited atonement" depends exclusively on such inferences.

First, let's address the alleged fallacy. When exegeting scripture, it is not enough to treat the verses in an isolated fashion apart from any context or subtext.

Example 1: "Coffee is in the lobby."

Technically speaking, this is just telling you the location of coffee. Now suppose I give some context: You're at a car dealership for an oil change. Now it's clear that it's not just information, it's an offer for complimentary coffee. Even if the pot had a sign that said "free coffee" on it, there is is a subtext: It's only free coffee for customers to drink while they wait for their cars. If you were a drunkard who stumbled into the dealership and poured yourself a cup of coffee and started lounging on the furniture, you would be asked to leave. You would not be able to say, "Ha! You have committed the objective logical fallacy of informally known as the 'negative inference fallacy'! You didn't actually say that the free coffee was only for customers!"

Example 2: Englishman #1: "How have you been?" Englishman #2: "I've been better."

How is Englishman #2 doing? Absolutely horrible! How do you know? Because it's common for Englishmen to say, "Just fine" under virtually any circumstances. If he can't say he's doing fine even to this most insincere inquiry, he must be doing exceedingly poorly.

In both of these two examples, just a little bit of information about the backstory changes the meaning completely. So it is with so much of the particularized language of the New Testament.

When Jesus speaks of laying down his life for his sheep (John 10:15), we cannot divorce this from the immediate context of Jesus' sayings nor from the Old Testament context of "sheep" language.

Immediate Context

  • Jesus is disputing with Pharisees after being accused after healing a blind man.(John 9:40)
  • Jesus argues that the sheep hear his voice and the gatekeeper opens the door when he calls, calling himself both the shepherd (10:11) and the door to the sheepfold (10:9). He is the shepherd, the savior (10:9), owner (10:12), protector (10:15), and feeder of the sheep (10:9). he is the door as the only right and proper way into the sheepfold (10:1).
  • Jesus has other sheep outside of Israel who he will gather (10:16).
  • The Pharisees are not his sheep (10:26).

The point of the parable is that he is distinguishing between those who are in and those who are out. He is especially distinguishing between the true and false people of God. It is in that context where Jesus says he lays down his life for the sheep.

Think of how strained this interpretation would be: "I lay down my life for the sheep (but also for everyone else). The sheep come and enter the sheepfold and I feed them and keep them safe. Those who are not my sheep who try to come in are my enemies. Either way, I've still died for all of them, whether or not they are my sheep and whether or not they have entered through the door." It just does violence to the passage.

Old Testament Context: The Identity of the Sheep

Jesus is invoking a familiar biblical metaphor when he refers to the sheep, but giving it a prophetic twist. Israel was a nation of shepherds traditionally. It is why even when they first came to Egypt they were first despised by the Egyptians on the grounds they were shepherds and allowed to settle in the land of Goshen (Genesis 46:32-47:6). As biblical history unfolded, the metaphor grew to liken the people of Israel to be the sheep and God's anointed, David, to be the shepherd (2 Samuel 5:2). Even more so this language grew in the prophetic (Isaiah 53:6) and poetic literature (Psalm 23).

In the context of John 10, Jesus is drawing upon the analogy of God's people to sheep, but using it subversively. He draws a distinction between the literal, visible Israel, and the true people of God. This is why he rejects the literal Israelite, the Pharisee, who presumed that his pedigree (not his faith in Jesus) made him one of God's sheep and turns around and calls him a wolf.

Jesus is making the point that the true child of Abraham is the one who has faith like Abraham. This is exactly the point that Paul makes in Romans 4:1-13 and Galatians 6:15-16, where Paul identifies the true Israel as those who are righteous by faith.

Therefore, in John 10, Jesus intends to draw a distinction between the true sheep for whom he died and the false sheep who are simply biological descendants of Jacob or Judah. The argument is that Jesus' saving work is particular to his people.

Likewise Jeremiah 31:1 works perfectly with this interpretation.

“At that time, declares the LORD, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, [the people of faith from all nations] and they shall be my people.”

Otherwise, Jesus words of John 10 cannot be true. If Jeremiah 31:1 were speaking only of biological Israel, the Pharisee would have been one of Jesus' sheep, yet Jesus said explicitly to him, "You are not my sheep."

Limited Atonement Not Depending on this Inference

The logic of Limited atonement (or particular atonement, which is more correctly termed) can be proven on the simple fact that Jesus' death actually paid for the forgiveness of sins. If the atonement were not particular, then there are people whose sins were paid for through the blood of Christ who ultimately end up going to Hell for their sins. While weeping and gnashing their teeth, they cry out, "At least Jesus died for my sins!"

For a more Biblical perspective, you get an affirmation of all five of the so-called, "Five Points of Calvinism" in Ephesians 1 & 2.

  • Total Depravity (Eph 2:1)
  • Unconditional Election (Eph 1:4-6)
  • Limited Atonement (Eph 1:7 blood atonement understood in the context of the aforementioned election)
  • Irresistible Grace (Eph 1:7, graciousness understood in terms of predestination before the foundation of the world)
  • Perseverance of the Saints (Eph 1:13, sealed by the Holy Spirit)

Finally, as stereotypical of a Calvinist passage as it is, Romans 9 directly states that certain people were predestined for non-election and hardening (Romans 9:14-24).


The standard Calvinist interpretation of these passages is indeed the negative inference fallacy, which actually seems to be a form of the formal fallacy Denying the Antecedent:

P → Q

∴ ¬P → ¬Q

Or in this case,

[Sheep] → [Christ died for]

¬[Sheep] → ¬[Christ died for]

I'll answer the OP along with some observations from my reading and experience of what arguments tend to be used and how the debates tend to flow.

The primary defense is to try and defend the methodology itself, which some such as Boettner have attempted:

"Mankind is divided into two classes and what is distinctly affirmed of one is impliedly denied of the other." (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination)

Such logic applied to passages like John 10:11 has led others to quip that Galatians 2:20b ("I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.") implies that since Paul states that Christ died for him, He must not have died for anyone else!

Since if,
Jesus died "for His sheep" → He did not die for anyone other than His sheep
Jesus died "for [Paul]" → He did not die for anyone other than Paul

They counter that it doesn't stand to reason that Christ is excluding anyone from His death any more than Paul is. This is mere narrowing of scope for emphasis (c.f. Psalm 18:50, Hebrews 10:30).

The standard response among Calvinists when they realize it is indeed a fallacy appears to be to switch tack, the most prominent probably being "the atonement actually saves" argument, which is simply citing scriptures about what the atonement does for believers, but insisting they must happen inevitably or automatically (depending on which Calvinist you ask). This is essentially arguing that the atonement itself is intrinsically efficacious, though such an assertion suffers from the same deficiency at Limited Atonement itself: no clear, scriptural support.

Lesser responses include:

  • Appealing to the passages where "many" is used in reference to those from whom Christ died (e.g. Matt 20:28, Heb 9:28); the argument is that "many" cannot mean "all." Oddly, "many" does appear to mean "all" in Romans 5:19. A trivial solution to both is that neither is strictly universal: Christ is the exception to both (Heb 7:26-27, 2 Cor 5:21).

  • Citing the "ransomed" or "bought" language used to describe what Christ did (e.g. Rev 5:9, 1 Cor. 6:20), but stretching the figurative language to include limitations that would apply to literal fiduciary transactions. ("Doesn't Christ get what He paid for?")

  • There's a semi-popular argument that Limited Atonement is necessary for consistency within the Trinity. The logic goes, The Father elects to salvation The Spirit regenerates to save The Son died to save So for them to be in harmony, then they must all be doing these things for the same set of people (the Elect). This is a less convincing argument to someone who is not already a Calvinist, since most Christians who hold to Universal Atonement believe that,

    The Father desires all be saved through faith (1 Timothy 2:4) The Spirit convicts the world of its unbelief (Jn 16:7-8) So it stands to reason that the Son died to save anyone in the world who believes in Him without a pre-set limit.

  • Some Calvinists simply assert that Limited Atonement simply must be because Universal Atonement would be inconsistent with the other points of Calvinism, some even citing their standard proof-texts for irresistible grace and such as evidence for such a limitation. I have searched for and even tried to figure this one out for myself, but I cannot find any logical reason why any other points of Calvinism, taken individually or collectively, would necessitate it. It appears that the TUIP would work just as well with a Universal model as with a Particular.

  • Oddly, it also seems popular to appeal to Christ's prayer in John 17, specifically vs 9, "I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours." The reasoning is that since this was Jesus's "High priestly prayer," then He must not be priest for anyone but a specific set of people (and therefore didn't die for them). This argument is also weak in that there is no apparent connection between who Christ prayed for in a specific instance and who He died for, or as one commenter worded it, "Limited Prayer =/= Limited Scope of Death."

  • An argument I've seen only a few times is that the scope of the atonement is analogous to the sacrifices for ancient Israel (atonement made only for certain people, not all men everywhere). This is also weak in that obviously not all properties of the OT sacrifices transfer to Christ's sacrifice, and that there were many (see those who fell in the wilderness due to apostasy) for whom such atonement availed nothing (indicating a provisional nature, which Calvinists would not want applied to Limited Atonement!).

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    Please provide more than a single quote from Boettner. Every point you make should have quotes showing Reformed people who teach it. Otherwise you can't claim it's the "standard" interpretation.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 20, 2019 at 0:08
  • @curiousdannii, The only interpretation I labeled as 'standard' was the exclusionary interpretation of John 10:15, etc listed in the OP, which already has numerous supporting quotes. Sep 20, 2019 at 18:46

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