The following is an letter I wrote to a friend who had questions about the reformed doctrine of “limitedÂ atonement.” Others have defended this distinctive of reformed Christianity more extensively and cogently. I offer this to those who may have similar questions about Christ’s atonement.
Reformed theology teaches that Jesus died for a particular people. This is often called limited or particular atonement. This is established in the Bible in that every time Jesus’ death and resurrection is mentioned it speaks of redemption being accomplished (John 17:6, 9, 10; Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25). Jesus said to his disciples: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14, 15) Jesus knows his own sheep and lays his life down for them. Jesus does not die for those who are not his.
God has from the foundation of the earth ordained some to be his. Jesus would only die for those whom the Father had chosen, otherwise there would be disharmony in the holy Trinity. If the Father decrees some to be saved, Jesus the Son will accomplish salvation for them. It makes no sense for Jesus to die for those who are not elect.
Another thing to consider is that Jesus did not potentially save; he actually saved those who are elect. Those who deny particular atonement believe that Jesus died for everybody. But if this were true, then Jesus would only be a potential Savior. On this view, it would be possible for all men to reject Jesus making his death vain.
Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus’ death was substitutionary. This means that Jesus was punished for the sins of others. Does it make any sense, then, for God to punish Jesus for the sins of all men and yet send some to hell? How, for example, could have Jesus die for the sins of, say, Lenin and yet send him to hell? God does not punish the same sins twice. If Jesus really did die for everybody, then it is compulsory heaven for all. But we know this is not the case. Thus, we are forced to conclude that Jesus did not die for everybody.
But what about the verses that say Jesus died for the world? Such passages (in John especially, but in other places as well) are not referring to every individual, but to all kinds of people; people from every tribe and nation. No longer is God’s chosen people a particular tribe (the Hebrews), but all tribes.
It is really those who deny particular atonement that believe in limited atonement. Such limit Christ’s work by making his atonement merely potential. Christ’s death only potentially satisfied God’s justice toward sinful men.
Much more could be said, but I hope this gives you a basic understanding of particular atonement. And far from being cold and severe, this doctrine gives the Christian great comfort. Jesus did not die for humanity in general. He died for particular people. He died for my sins. He died for your sins. When the apostle reflected upon Christ’s atonement, he speaks in the most personal terms. “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
Turning to your other question, “is it fair that Christ dies for some and not others,” the quick answer is yes. All men deserve hell. God out of his free grace has chosen to save some. How could that be unfair? God is just in all that he does. He is surely just in punishing some while saving others. God chooses some vessels for honor and some for dishonor. That he chooses not to save all is sobering. But it is not unfair. An analogy may help. Suppose I lent two men $100 each and both defaulted. Could I not forgive the debt of one but not of the other? How would this be unfair? If this is true of men, how much more of God?