Of the five points of Calvinism, the doctrine of Limited Atonement is probably the most debated and least understood.
Limited Atonement, also called Particular Redemption, could be explained this way: “It would have required no more obedience, nor any greater suffering, for Christ to have secured salvation for [all]…But He came into the world to represent and save only those given to Him by the Father. Thus, Christ’s saving work was limited in that it was designed to save some and not others, but it was not limited in value, for it was of infinite worth and would have secured salvation for everyone if this had been God’s intention.” (The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented) As some have put it, Christ’s death was “sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.”
A few salient points:
- Adam stood as the federal head (representative) of the entire race, and Christ stood as the federal head of the elect: “…So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Rom. 5:12, 17-18)
- Definite terms in the Bible teach that Christ died for the elect: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11); “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45)
- General terms in the Bible like “all” and “world,” which are so favored by Arminians, teach that Christ died for all without distinction (e.g. not just for the Jews). These verses do NOT teach that Christ died for all men without exception, i.e. He died to save every lost sinner. If this were true, then we would have to either say Christ failed in His mission, or all people are in fact justified and reconciled, which is universalism. (We Baptists use this terminology as well when we speak of an “all church potluck.” This does not necessarily mean that all will attend, but simply that all are invited.) Biblical examples: "…God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19); “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). These verses show that forgiveness is freely available to every tongue, tribe, and nation; they are not intended to be a commentary on the inner workings of the atonement.
For those who would like to learn more, I would suggest starting with a couple articles on the subject at Monergism.com.