Perhaps the most divisive of topics in the debate: Who exactly did Christ die for?
Of course, the short answer to this question is that Christ died to save mankind. However, the difficulty in this question lies in who is included in this general group we refer to as “mankind”. Did Christ die on the cross for the unbeliever who went to hell? If so, does that mean that the cross failed to save the said unbeliever?
But we need to do some groundwork first before we tackle the issue head on. What exactly do we mean by atonement? How does this relate to salvation? And what do both sides say specifically about atonement?
Simply put, the doctrine of atonement is all about how salvation is only made possible through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. How this works is that Christ took on our sins and thereby bore the corresponding punishment, which is death, on behalf of us. And this what we mean when we say Christ atones for our sins.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by the Old Testament practice of sin offerings (Isn’t it great how the Old Testament can explain to us a lot of the things in the New Testament?). In Jewish customs, whenever a man sins he must make amends by making a blood sacrifice. He takes an unblemished lamb, lays his hand on the head of the lamb, and then kills it and has it burned. The symbolic meaning of all of these is first that a suitable proxy is needed for atonement, one that is unblemished. Second, the man lays his hand on the head of the lamb, signifying that his sins are being placed on the lamb. Lastly, the lamb is killed and burned, illustrating that the lamb takes on the punishment of sin, which is death.
And this is essentially the atonement that happens on the cross. Christ takes on the sin of man, and the death that comes with it, thereby atoning for him. And both Calvinism and Armenianism agree on it.
Where then does the divide lie? The crux of the issue is actually found in the question of who did Christ actually atone?
You see, both Calvinism and Armenianism agree that the cross CAN save all humanity. There is no question with regard to its potency. And both sides also agree that the cross WILL only save a few people. As mentioned before, both sides reject Universalism, the view that God will save everyone. And thus both believe in the limited efficacy of the cross, in that it will only effectively save a limited amount of people. Some will still end up in hell.
The issue then lies on whether this limited efficacy is intended or not. Did Christ die on the cross only for the elect or for everyone including those who will go to hell?
What traditional Calvinism teaches is what we call Limited Atonement. Now, we have to be clear on this. Limited Atonement does not mean limited in power, as mentioned earlier. Calvinism teaches that the power of the cross is sufficient to save all humanity. What Limited Atonement means is that the cross was only intended to save the elect, the unconditionally elect. It is for this reason that some have opted to use the term Particular Atonement to address this misconception.
This idea kind of flows from the doctrine of Unconditional Election. Since God, before the beginning of time, already knew who will be saved, this implies that when God had Jesus die on the cross, it was done with a very specific target group in mind. It doesn’t seem to make very good sense for him to die for those whom he did not intend to save. And hence Limited Atonement says that atonement was only purposed to those whom God will save.
There are several passages in the bible that lean towards this idea. Jesus himself mentions in John 15:13 that he lays his life for his friends, and not just about everyone. Similarly, Jesus also mentions in John 10:14-15 that he lays down his life for his sheep, and his sheep knows him and thereby must be his followers and not everyone. Even Paul alludes to this in his advice to husbands in Ephesians 5:25, that Christ gave himself up for the church. And so such verses do actually indicate that it seems like Jesus only died for the believers.
However, Limited Atonement does seem rather scandalous if one thinks about it. After all, we’ve been taught ever since that Christ died for all. John 3:16 kind of implies that it is the whole world that God loves, whom he gave up his son for, and that the offer of salvation is available for all. Romans 5:18 also gives us a parallel between the sin of Adam that brings death to all (every single one), and the righteousness of Christ that brings life to all (every single one). But perhaps the greatest objection to Limited Atonement can be found in 1 Timothy 2:3-6 and in 2 Peter 3:9, which both say that God wants to save all men.
And thus Arminianism came to a different conclusion, and that is what we call Unlimited Atonement. This simply means that the cross was intended to save all individuals, but is effective only to the elect by virtue of faith. I must once again stress that Unlimited Atonement does not say that everyone will be saved.
What is interesting about this matter is that this topic is so divisive that even those who follow Calvinism can’t seem to agree among themselves. This gave rise to what we call today as Four Point Calvinism. Traditional Calvinism has five basic points, one of which is Limited Atonement. Some who hold true to Calvinism have actually rejected this point, embracing instead the Arminian view of Unlimited Atonement. Hence the “Four Point” name.
But do note that Unlimited Atonement is not without its own share of criticisms. Some have suggested that the use of the word “all” does not mean every individual, but all nations, a statement to include the Gentiles in the kingdom of God. But this is something that may require knowledge of the original Greek text. Additionally, anyone who holds to Unlimited Atonement must also find an answer for himself whether God effectively failed at saving the unbelievers, since he intended to save them but in the end will not.
In essence, both sides naturally flow from their respective doctrines with regard to election. On one hand, if God had already decided the definite group of the elect, then the execution of atonement must be purposed specifically to that end, otherwise some parts of the atonement would be superfluous (dying for those he will not save). On the other hand, if God had left the election as open-ended, then the distinct possibility for anyone to be saved must necessitate that atonement be available for all.
One interesting implication of this matter is the question of when did atonement for our sins actually occur. If we take into account Limited Atonement, then it is possible to say that the sins of the elect were really atoned for at the cross. This is so because at the time of the crucifixion, it was already certain who will be saved, and who the atonement will be effective for. However, if we take into account Unlimited Atonement, then at the moment of the cross, it is not yet certain who atonement will be effective for. The cross then only secures the possibility of atonement, but is only completed and comes into effect upon choosing faith in Jesus.
Nevertheless, the doctrine of atonement is still intact for both sides. Christ’s death on the cross is the only way to salvation, and salvation is possible only because of the atonement done on the cross, nothing more and nothing less. The only difference is whether the limited efficacy is intended or not.