Summary: Was it for every single person that Jesus died, or only HIs elect? Tough question...
For Whom Did Jesus Die?
Jesus died for every single soul that ever lived or ever will live (unlimited atonement) or, Jesus died for His own, the ones God saw from the beginning, the elect (limited atonement).
With the “L” of the Tulip, we come to a bump in the road for many. Trying to use the Calvinistic mindset, many “problem” Scriptures arise, including everyone’s favorite, John 3:16.
Frankly, this one has been a problem for me, too. One thing I never want to get into is the practice of “explaining away” obvious Scriptures, becoming so defensive and protective of my system, that I become blind to the Scriptures.
Are we caught here? Does this element of the system expose all the others as implausible and unnecessary? Does it all unravel here? No, we’ve seen that Scripture strongly supports man’s condition of depravity, and God’s elective choices. No need to give up ground won with such clear words from the Lord.
So why is a limited atonement necessary to the Calvinistic way, or the Biblical way? Or is it? Can we not pick and choose here and see where Scripture, not John Calvin, leads?
Let’s at least see for a moment what these men were seeing.
How were you “justified” from our sins? By Jesus’ death on Calvary, correct? But does not Romans 8 tell us that the same group that was foreknown and predestinated was also justified? That verse alone cries out for a limited atonement. Those that He saw and chose, He justified, and only those. Only a certain number of people were given to Jesus by the Father, right? (John 6)
Look also at the issue of sin’s debt and its payment. Jesus is the Redeemer. He paid the debt for our sins on the cross. But if Jesus paid the debt for all sin and sinners, why must sinners go to Hell and pay even more? Here, Arminianism sounds a bit like Universalism, by claiming that, since Jesus died for all, all sins are paid up and Hell is canceled.
John 3:16 does indeed say that God loved the world, but John 3:17 says that all this happened that the world through Jesus might be saved. The world? It’s the same word in both verses, and drives some to the Universalist position. God loved the world. Jesus died for the world. The whole world will be saved.
That’s why John 3:16 will need a second look. Love it though we do, and desire to hallow it as we must, there’s something that really does need “explaining.” If the world means every single person that ever lived, then Jesus paid for the price of Hitler’s sins, and Judas’s, and for a whole host of Old Testament age nations who, we are told, were cursed and destroyed. Will the blood of Jesus now go back and avail for all? Then all are saved?
Perhaps though, John 3:16 means that God saved a planet and its people system, by sending His Son into it, to rescue it, the world, collectively, from eternal loss. Perhaps He wasn’t talking about every single person after all, but the world, as a unit.