“For whom did Christ die?” Most Christians today would answer that question by saying, “For everyone!”
In other words, most Christians today hold to a view known as “universal atonement”, which is the view that Christ’s atoning death on the cross redeemed every single individual who ever has and who ever will live, thus making eternal salvation possible for all, yet guaranteed for none. With the exception of those holding to a consistent universalist position (which is the view that in the end all human beings without exception will be eternally saved through Christ), most Christians who believe in some version of universal atonement also believe that many of those for whom Christ died will end up lost in hell due to their impenitence and unbelief.
In other words, Christ is believed to have paid for the sins of everyone without exception, but many of those for whom Christ died will still have to pay for their own sins in hell for eternity, because they rejected Christ. Thus, in the case of the lost, their sins end up getting paid for twice (once by Christ on the cross, and again by the impenitent sinner in hell).
But does this view not imply an injustice on the part of God, who demands payment for human sin at the hands of His Son on the cross, only to demand payment for those same sins again by the impenitent in hell? Thus, the position of universal atonement poses problems for the perfect justice of God.
And does it not also do a dishonor to Christ by implying that He failed in His saving work, since many for whom He died fail to be saved in the end? And if the advocate of universal atonement objects by saying, “No, Christ did not fail in the case of those who die in their sins; instead, they failed to avail themselves of Christ’s ransom!”, may we not respond by asking: Does not this view of “universal atonement” actually limit the power and efficacy of Christ’s atoning work on the cross by making it depend for its efficacy upon man’s response of faith? Does this view not imply that man’s “free will” decision to reject Christ is more powerful and efficacious than Christ’s redeeming work to overcome human hardness of heart, thus making man’s unbelief stronger than God’s grace? And does not this position, if carried out to its logical extreme, end up making the efficacy of Christ’s redeeming work dependent upon the “work” of man’s response of faith, thus making human salvation partially dependent upon God and partially dependent upon man (in other words, synergism), and thus denying the biblical truth of salvation by God’s grace in Christ alone?
In opposition to the popular and prevalent position of universal atonement, Bible-believing Presbyterian and Reformed Christians have historically held to a view which has come to be called “limited atonement” (or, to put it more positively, “definite atonement” or “particular redemption”). This is the view that Christ’s atoning death on the cross, while certainly infinite in value and sufficient to save all without exception, was intended to benefit only a limited number of individuals; namely, the “elect”, those whom Scripture identifies as Christ’s “sheep”, those who (by God’s sovereign grace) come in due time to trust in Christ as their Savior (see, for example, John 10:11; compare with vv. 25-29).
In the historic Reformed understanding of the atonement, Christ did not die merely to make sinners savable. Such a view denigrates the actual meaning of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice by making it a mere hypothetical atonement, an atonement which might satisfy Divine justice if certain human conditions (namely, faith and repentance) are met. But in the biblically Reforned understanding Christ did not die on the cross to offer the Father a mere hypothetical atonement for everyone without exception (i.e., an “atonement” which doesn’t actually atone without the help of human faith). No, instead He died to actually secure the eternal salvation of all those whom the Father gave to Him, namely, His chosen ones – a great multitude from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).
In other words, if Jesus died for you, your eternal salvation is absolutely certain and infallibly secure, for the Divine Son of God Incarnate has satisified the demands of Divine justice once-for-all and for all of your sins (past, present and future) – including your sins of unbelief and impenitence!
So, while the position of “universal atonement” actually limits the power and efficacy of Christ’s atonement (by teaching that it only makes sinners merely savable), the Reformed view only “limits” the atonement in the sense that it is designed by God and intended to benefit a limited number of human beings (namely, the elect, who in God’s timing become believers in Christ). But, in the Reformed view, Jesus’ death actually saves (once and for all and forever!) those for whom He makes atonement!
“But what about the biblical requirement that sinners trust in Christ as their Savior and repent of their sins if they would be saved?”
Certainly the Reformed Faith affirms the necessity of repentance and faith. The Reformed or “Calvinist” view of “limited atonement” offers no comfort to those who presume upon God’s grace and persist in the way of impenitence and unbelief. We wholeheartedly affirm that the salvation Christ purchased for His people is received and experienced only in the way of true faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto life. And certainly we who are Reformed affirm the biblical truth that God commands all people everwhere to repent (Acts 17:30)! Repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are universal duties enjoined upon all who are privileged to hear the gospel message.
At the same time, ultimately true saving faith and repentance are graces and gifts of God that God by His Spirit works within the souls of His elect in due time, and through the ordinary ministry of the Word. Ultimately they are not works of man, but gifts of God, purchased by Christ for His elect (see Acts 11:18; 13:48; Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 1:29; etc.). How could it be otherwise, since (as I explained in my blog article on Total Depravity) fallen man is spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins and thus incapable of converting himself by his own supposed “free will” (Ephesians 2:1; Romans 9:16; John 3:3; etc.).
What is the Reformed doctrine of “limited atonement” based upon?
First, it is based upon the nature of Christ’s death as a satisfaction for sin.
In the Bible, Christ’s atonement actually (not hypothetically) atones. It is an atonement that actually secures the eternal redemption of God’s people. A careful study of the Epistle to the Hebrews (especially, for example, chapter 9-10) will make this clear. When we consider the fact that the Bible makes it abundantly clear that not all will be saved in the end (see, for example, Matthew 25:46; Second Thessalonians 1:8; Revelation 20:12-15; etc.), by logical necessity we can infer that not everyone’s sins have been atoned for by Christ. Otherwise they would be saved.
Second, it is based upon explicit biblical teaching.
For example, in the good shepherd discourse in John chapter 10, the Lord Jesus explicitly states that He as the “good shepherd” lays down His life “for the sheep” (John 10:11, ESV). Later in that passage He explains to the unbelieving Jews who rejected Him that the reason they do not believe in Him is “because you are not among my sheep” (v. 26, ESV). If Christ laid down His life for His sheep, but these individuals are (by Christ’s own testimony) not among His sheep, then the clear implication is that Jesus Christ did not lay down His life for them – meaning that He did not die for them. Later on, in John chapter 17, in our Lord’s “high priestly prayer”, Jesus makes it clear that He is praying to His Father for those whom the Father has given Him. He explicitly says that He is not praying for the world (i.e., those not given to Him by the Father; see v. 9). This too implies that Jesus did not die for the purpose of saving them, since He refuses to pray for them as their high priest. Futhermore, in Ephesians 5:25 the Apostle Paul states that Christ gave Himself up for the church (meaning, in this context, the “invisible church” – the elect of God).
“But what about all those passages that speak of God loving the world and Jesus dying for all?”
John 3:16 is a favorite among advocates of universal atonement. And yet even that passage “limits” the benefits of Christ to those who believe in Him! But in response to this kind of objection it should be pointed out that the terms, “world” and “all” and similar “universal” language, must be interpreted within their own contexts. Often the terms “world” and “all” are used to indicate all without distinction (i.e., Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, etc.) rather than all without exception (i.e., every single human being without exception).
In addition, these words can often be used to make general statements which might have exceptions. For example, if I make the statement that “Everyone knows that Donald Trump is the current President of the United States”, I am making a generic statement which is generally true, but to which there may be some exceptions. Just as there is a semantic range of meanings to the words “all,” “everyone,” “world” and similar universal terms in the English language, so there is a similar range of meanings in the biblical languages. Only a careful contextual study of each passage in question can make it clear how these words are being used in particular contexts, and I would make the case that there is no passage of Scripture which explicitly requires that we understand it to be teaching that Christ died for the purpose of saving each and every human being without exception.
The good news of “limited atonement” is that Jesus Christ died on the cross, not merely to make salvation possible, but to actually save sinners from their sins, and to infallibly secure for them their everlasting salvation! While Christ’s atonement is effective only for His people, it is nonetheless sufficient for all. Dear reader, do you recognize yourself to be a sinner in need of salvation? Christ is offered to you in the gospel! Repent and turn to Christ in faith. Believe that Jesus’ death is sufficient to pay for your sins, and trust in Him as your very own Savior and Lord. If, by God’s grace, you do, you can be assured that Jesus died, not merely to make your salvation a hypothetical possibility, but to actually save you from the guilt, the penalty and the power of your sin! “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31, ESV).
If you are interested in digging deeper on this topic, I recommend that you read The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by John Owen (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust; Reprinted 1989)