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.
Nevertheless, I see why some have trouble going that far, coupling that verse to other statements of Scripture. Look at 2 Peter 3:9, for example. “The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” There is an argument that makes sense that says that “all” refers to all of His elect. Possible. But again, do we stretch too much?
And what of 1 Timothy 2:4-6? God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth…Jesus Christ gave Himself a ransom for all! But then in Titus 2:14, Paul tells us that Jesus Christ gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us… Understood, but in my mind, not a conclusive answer.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15 weighs in here also, and weighs heavily. “We judge thus: that if one died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him Who died for them…” If the “all” and the “them” are the same group, we can salvage this verse for the “Calvin” side too, but again, a little bit strained is this interpretation.
And how do we deal with 1 Timothy 4:10 where Paul calls Jesus the Savior of all men? He goes on to add, especially of those who believe. If I were an Arminian, I’d jump on this verse saying that He indeed died for everyone, but only those who believe will benefit from it.
It is true, isn’t it, that when all is said and done, Jesus’ death will bring to Heaven only those who believe? Practically speaking, Jesus died only for the ones God saw from the beginning. Jesus was the means by which God brought many sons to glory, the same sons in God’s view from the foundation of the world.