In the often contentious 2,014 year old verbiage known as Christian theology, the question has been raised as to whether Messiah died for all people or only the elect, (individuals designated for salvation). The view that Messiah’s atoning death was only for the elect is called limited atonement. Conversely, the view that Messiah died for the sins of all people in the world is called unlimited atonement. And basically the term atonement here refers to that aspect of Messiah’s work, specifically His death, which makes restoration of fellowship possible between individual believers and God.
Over the years, as I’ve reflected on the totality of biblical teaching on the extent of Messiah’s atonement while wrestling with if this is true over here how does that impact that over there, I’ve become convinced that this issue is truly a case of limited appropriation of an unlimited provision. Or to say this another way, limited efficiency despite unlimited sufficiency. However, before attempting to hit the highlights of the highlights to make a case for this conclusion, it makes sense to briefly unpack what the term atonement actually entails with respect to its nature and significance.
Concerning the nature and significance of Messiah’s work on a Roman execution stake, there are several emphases worth noting: A) It was purposeful and necessary. This means that Jesus’ death was not an accident, but a fulfillment of the predetermined plan of God (Acts 2:23; 2 Cor. 5:21). It also means that Jesus’ death was required if God was to be both just and the justifier of man (John 11:50; Luke 24:26; Rom. 3:26). B) It was sacrificial (1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:26). This means that physical death was involved, which in one sense should not have taken place. This sacrifice also involved spiritual death or separation from God the Father. C) It was provisional or conditional. The death of Messiah doesn’t save any person per se. There must be personal appropriation of the benefits of that death through an act of saving faith.
Now as to the question of which position is correct, limited or unlimited atonement, the answer revolves around God’s design or purpose with regard to atonement as a whole. And as I see it, here’s the deal. I understand the bible as teaching that Messiah died for all humanity. And so salvation, based on that death, is therefore offered to all humanity (cf. 1 Tim. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19; 1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:10, 2 Pet. 2:1). This means that the design or purpose of the atonement was not to secure salvation for the elect in the sense of definite possession before believing, but rather the purpose of the atonement was to provide salvation for humanity in the sense of something that will be accepted or rejected. The death of Messiah then becomes the basis of salvation for those who believe, which will be the elect. And it also provides the basis of condemnation for those who not believe, the non-elect. So what we’re saying here is that Messiah was able to suffer for all men of all ages. This emphasizes His quantitative ability. And, (within the span of three hours), Messiah was able to suffer to an eternal extent or degree. This emphasizes His qualitative ability.
Another point to consider is that Messiah died to pay the penalty of sin and its effects wherever it is found, not just the sin of the elect. In fact the whole creation was affected by sin (Rom. 8:20-21), and needs redemption and deliverance from its horrific and far reaching consequences.
Also, I don’t think it’s an accident or a coincidence that the majority of those who believe in limited atonement automatically believe in replacement theology. Because if the purpose of the death of Messiah was only the salvation of the elect, and since the elect make up the Church, one cannot have more than one people of God. So then, the one people of God is the Church, not Israel. There are exceptions to this, but more often than not this is the case.
Now practically speaking, in terms of communicating the good news which is the gospel, here’s the bottom line application: When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), God the Father was satisfied with the death of Messiah for sin, and now our responsibility is to tell people to be satisfied with it as well. Yes, appropriation will be limited to those who believe, but the provision itself is unlimited! And an unlimited provision of atonement enables us to honestly, and fully personalize the entire gospel message with no strings attached. Which means we can look anyone and everyone squarely in the eye and say with complete integrity, “Jesus died for you. Be reconciled to God!”