People usually get around this by citing the axiom, “Christ’s atonement was sufficient for all, but efficient only for some.” What does this mean? The Calvinist would interpret this axiom to mean that the value of Christ’s sacrifice is so high, His merit so extensive, that its worth is equal to cover all the sins of the human race. But the atonement’s benefits are only efficient for believers, the elect. The non-Calvinist interprets this axiom in slightly different terms: Christ’s atonement was good enough to save everyone—and was intended to make salvation possible for everyone. But that intent is realized only by believers. The atonement is efficient (or “works”) only for those who receive its benefits by faith.
As I said, this is still a form of “limited atonement.” Its efficacy is limited by human response. Sadly, this kind of limit puts a limit on the saving work of Christ far greater than any limit of the atonement viewed by Reformed theology.
The real issue was the design, or purpose, of God’s plan in laying upon His Son the burden of the cross. Was it God’s purpose simply to make salvation possible for all but certain for none? Did God have to wait to see if any would respond to Christ to make His atonement efficient? Was it theoretically possible that Jesus would die “for all” yet never see the fruit of His travail and be satisfied?
Or was it God’s eternal purpose and design of the Cross to make salvation certain for His elect? Was there a special sense in which Christ died for His own, for the sheep the Father had given Him?
Here our understanding of the nature of God impacts strongly and decisively our understanding of the design and scope of the atonement. To deal with every biblical text that bears on those questions, the best source I know of is John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
This article originally appeared here and is used by permission.