There is a strand of Calvinism that teaches that Christ atoned for the only sins of the elect and nothing more—this is called limited atonement—however, it may be more appropriate to call it X-limited atonement. This is a minority view, and one would have to examine each Calvinist and what they wrote and preached to know how they understood Christ’s atoning work on the cross. (I am going to explain what I believe now.)
Because there are such misperceptions concerning what it means to be a Calvinist, it is best not to lump anyone and everyone who espouses some association with Calvinism into one category. Certainly, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon would not agree with each other on every point, yet both are referred to as Calvinists.
So we need to be careful in putting people into a box. Baptists have stood for soul competency and the right of every human being to form their own opinions concerning religion and their interpretation of religious writings—most especially the Bible. We should do that today. The definition of a heretic is NOT someone who disagrees with me. Heresy has some very narrow criteria and how one understands the atoning work of Christ does not fall into that narrow criterion; nevertheless, the doctrine is important and it is appropriate to think about it and be able to articulate what you believe about Christ’s work on the Christ.
To those who suggest or teach that Christ died exclusively for the sins of only the elect, 1 John 2:2 is a problem.
1 John 2.2 states that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, for also for the sins of the whole world.”
Now that is exceptionally clear. In fact, it is overwhelmingly clear. Nothing stands in the way of the greatest sinner being saved but his own refusal to repent and believe the gospel—there isn’t anyone on the planet who would like to be born-again, but the problem is that Jesus didn’t die for them. Let me say that again. There isn’t and never will be anyone who desires to be born-again, and it is impossible because Christ didn’t die for them.
The Apostle John understood that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was for the sins of the whole world.
Jesus is the propitiation. What does John mean by propitiation? Propitiation describes Jesus’ atoning work as the sacrifice for sin. It communicates that Christ absorbed God’s wrath against sin in place of the elect, where the elect are defined as all those who are in Christ (past, present and future).
How sufficient was the atonement? How much of a debt can it pay? How many could be freed because of it? When the sinless Son of God died for sin how sufficient is that? Is it sufficient only for the elect? Was it limited to some huge number to something power?
Certainly God knew at the moment He was punishing Christ—in my place—the exact number of the elect. He knew and has always known who would believe, yet this isn’t the limit! This isn’t the limit in sufficiency. John also wrote: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
When the sinless Son of God—the spotless lamb of God—God Himself shed His blood for the remission of sins—it is sufficient for the “sins of the whole world.”
But WAIT. Please wait just a minute—at this point, you might be thinking pastor, I can’t imagine why anyone would have ever described atonement as limited.
But you must realize Christ’s atonement is limited—the Bible makes it perfectly clear that the whole world is NOT going to heaven. There are those who perish.
In fact, according to John 3:36 there is a group of people who do NOT believe; therefore, the wrath of God abides on them.
Although Christ’s atonement is sufficient for the sins of the whole world, it is NOT effectual or salvific to anyone who hasn’t repented and believed the gospel.
The wrath–absorbing, substitutionary atonement is limited to only those who BELIEVE. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the sins of the entire world past, present and future but simultaneously limited.
Christ satisfied God’s judgment against sin without limit—yet God placed a limit on the effectualness of that atoning sacrifice, and that limit will be revealed in the future by God.
If the atonement is NOT limited to only those who believe, then more are justified than those who believe and God would be unjust in condemning them.
The atonement is sufficient for anyone you and I share the gospel with, but we must also tell them it is limited. If they don’t repent and trust Jesus as their Savior, the wrath of God will remain on them. If the wrath remains on them, then it isn’t on Christ—God can’t remain just and pour wrath on Christ and still hold it against the person—that’s double jeopardy.
There is a difference between sufficient and efficient.
Sufficient means that it is enough; in Christ there is a sufficient quantity of righteousness for the entire world to be declared righteous.
However, God has limited the sufficiency of that atonement to only those who turn toward Him—repent and place their faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. At which point it becomes efficient or effectual.
Christ’s work on the cross did not instantaneously result in the entire world’s sins being pardoned—that would be a Universalist’s theological perspective.
The reason Jesus began His public ministry preaching “Repent and believe the gospel” was because He knew His atoning work on the cross would be limited to only those who believed. Therefore, it was imperative that the Jews He was preaching to turn toward God with broken and contrite hearts and believe the Good News that Jesus was the Messiah come to seek and save the lost for the remission of their sins.
The atonement is unlimited in its sufficiency, but very (John 14.6) limited in its efficiency—where efficiency is understood as producing the desired effect. The atonement of Christ produces the desired effect only in the lives of those who believe and no one else—for the rest the wrath of God continues to remain on them and will for all eternity if they don’t repent.