And He Himself is the propitiation [satisfaction of God’s justice] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:2).
Calvinists believe that Christ died for the sins of only a small portion of humanity, called the elect. Since limited atonement sounds a bit negative, many Calvinists prefer to use the expression particular redemption.
R. C. Sproul wrote:
I prefer not to use the term limited atonement because it is misleading. I rather speak of definite redemption or definite atonement, which communicates that God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Christ died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him (see here).
There are three humongous problems with believing that Christ died for the sins of only some people.
First, if that is true, then you cannot know your eternal destiny until it’s too late. According to Calvinism, only when you die do you find out whether or not Christ died for you. You must live your entire life in fear of eternal torment. That is a sad way to live.
You might say, “But if I believe in Christ, then I know He must have died for me.” Well, not according to Calvinism, which says that saving faith is unknowable. You can’t be sure whether you have true faith or not. You must look to your works and your feelings to get an idea of how likely it is that you will persevere in faith and good works until death, thereby proving that you have the right kind of faith.
Second, if you believe in limited atonement, then you cannot evangelize anyone with anything other than a confusing message. You can’t say to your son, “Christ died on the cross for your sins so that if you believe in Him, you have everlasting life that can never be lost.” Why can’t you say that? Because you don’t know if Christ died for him, or for you! He will, for the rest of his life, have to do his best to try to follow Christ, but he will find out where he is going only when he dies. That is works-salvation thinking. That is thinking contrary to the message of John 3:16.
This sort of evangelism goes like this: “I don’t know where I’m going when I die. If you have 10 minutes, I can help you not know where you’re going when you die.”
Third, if limited atonement is true, then I cannot do anything to influence my eternal destiny. If I’m elect, then Christ died for me, God will eventually give me the gift of faith, and I will persevere to the end and win what Calvinists call final salvation. But if I’m not elect, then Christ did not die for me, and I’m doomed. In fact, according to this way of thinking, most of humanity is doomed, since the elect are understood to be a small percentage of humanity.
Calvinism is deterministic, fatalistic. I don’t know where I’m going until I die. I hope Christ died for me. But did He?
Listen to John MacArthur’s explanation of limited atonement in an article entitled, “The Doctrine of Actual Atonement, Part 1”:
I just can’t bring myself to believe that hell is full of millions of people whose sins were paid for in full by Christ on the cross. I cannot see the Father fully punishing the Son on the cross for the sins of people who will then be punished for those sins forever in hell.i What is the point? What Christ did on the cross was a true, and full, and complete atonement for the sins of all who would believe, and since no one can believe unless God grants them faith, it is the sins of those whom the Father has chosen to call to Himself (see here).
If I believe the Biblical teaching that Christ died for the sins of the whole world, then I can and should be convinced that my sins are no longer a barrier between God and me (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2). I can be sure of my eternal destiny since I can know for sure that I believe in Jesus for everlasting life (John 11:27; 1 John 5:13). I can share the promise of everlasting life clearly and confidently with my family and friends.
The message of unlimited atonement is vital truth. It is good news. It is gospel truth. I’m so glad that I know that Jesus died for me! Do you?
i This is a common Calvinist position. Yet Scripture does not teach that the cross of Christ eliminates judgment for our sins. Even born-again people are judged for their sins in this life. And at the Bema, our bad works will be judged (2 Cor 5:10). The cross removed the sin barrier, not all consequence of our sins. The Scriptures are clear that whatever a man sows, believer or unbeliever, that he will also reap (Gal 6:7-9; cf. Matt 16:27).