Christians have understood the divine intention in the cross in different ways. Traditionally, in answer to the question, “For whom did Christ die?” proponents of so-called “Limited Atonement” have answered, “Christ died for the elect; that is, he died to save those who were chosen by God from eternity to be saved.” Proponents of so-called “Unlimited Atonement” have answered, “Christ died for all people; that is, he died to make the salvation of every single person who has ever lived a possibility if that person will exercise faith in him.” I think this way of framing the question is problematic and needs to be nuanced a bit more.
The question, “For whom did Christ die?” seems simple enough, but it is really not a simple question. It could be interpreted in multiple ways. I think it is not only possible, but quite biblical to say that Christ died for his sheep (that is, his elect) in a certain sense that he did not die for everybody. But then there is a sense in which, I believe, it is biblical to say that Christ died for all people everywhere. So the question needs to be revised.
I submit that the best way to frame the question is in this form: “What did God intend to accomplish through the atoning work of Christ?” Putting the question in these terms opens up a possibility to give more than a simple, polarizing answer that is bound to offend one group or another. Those who adhere to so-called “Unlimited Atonement” would say that God intended to accomplish the precondition by which any person, if he or she will only believe, might be saved from the wrath of God. Many proponents of this view would go so far as to say that Christ has already paid the judicial penalty for all sins of all people. Yet in order to benefit from what he has already accomplished, each individual person must believe in him. Proponents of so-called “Limited Atonement” would say that God intended to secure the salvation of his elect in the death of Christ. Christ paid the judicial penalty for their sins, but he did not suffer as a substitute for those who are not elect.
It should be fairly clear at this point that the words “Limited” and “Unlimited” are not all that helpful, for both sides place some limits on the effects of Christ’s atoning work. The “Limited Atonement” view limits the scope of God’s saving intention to the elect. The “Unlimited Atonement” view limits the effectiveness of the atonement and makes its completion dependent on the faith response of every individual. For this reason, I much prefer the terminology of “Particular Redemption” and “General Redemption.”
Now that the question has been clarified, I will give my answer in the next post and explain why answering that question matters.