It's a debate that's unfortunately called 'limited vs unlimited atonement', but I will be using the more accurate word 'reconciliation' to mean what most people mean by atonement. When a Christian makes it into heaven, they have been reconciled to God. Its the word in Romans 5:11, καταλλαγή.
I will be using the word 'propitiation' to discuss the expiation or value, or satisfaction of God's wrath. It's the same word as in 1 John 2:2, ἱλασμός.
For whom did Christ intend to save?
All men without exception? If that were true, then all men would be saved, and since all men are not saved then Christ is not strong enough to save the people He wanted to save, then how is He strong enough to save anyone?" If He desires what He is unable to affect then He is no longer God
desiring that mankind will be good enough to Him to say "oh I suppose you can be my God." Which is of course the worst thing you could do to the magnificant death of the one true God - to call it powerless. In this case Christ didn't come for you personally, He came to make you an offer. "Oh do accept me!" The God of the Bible is very different:
Isaiah 42:8 "I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols."
The other option is that He intended to save His people. Titus 2:14 "who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good."
In Isaiah 55:10-11 God shows us that when He setsout to accomplish something, He accomplishes it. Isaiah 46:10 "I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please."
So yes, Christ came for His people Matthew 1:21, His Church Eph 5:25, His disciples John 17:6-9, for our sins Romans 4:25, and God made Him sin to be sin for us 2 Cor 5:21.
With me so far? Christ came for His own, and only His own. Right off the bat we see that the scope was automatically limited. Otherwise we impugn God, make Him no bigger than us, and ignore the Bible.
-Who did Christ die for?-
Since we have established that Christ came only for the elect we must ask ourselves, did He die only for them also? The best answer is to say with Paul in 1 Tim 1:15-16 "It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life." If Christ died only for the sins of the elect we would have to know if we were elect or not to know if He died for our sins. We are reborn spiritually when we hear the gospel message, but how can we hear the gospel message if it is not for us? Further, what was the state of the elect when He died? They were sinners, every one, so the conclusion we come to is that Christ died for sinners. This is the same thought we see in Romans 5:6-8.
-When was His death effective?-
This dovetails with the point above. If Christ dies for the sins of the elect, and He died in power, then the sins of the elect are forever banished. In other words, if Christ accomplished His work on the cross and finished it on the cross and we are saved from the cross then we need nothing apart from the cross, for from the cross flows both atonement and reconciliation. A position which just boxes out the Holy Spirit. In this case we are saved from the cross by the cross regardless of our belief, which is the problem with Owens famous Trilemma. If we are both atoned and reconciled at the cross then there is now no condemnation ever for any of the elect. But what do we find in Scripture? Ephesians 2: 3-5 "All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved."
We are saved when we are regenerated, at the moment The Holy Spirit gives us the gifts of faith and repentence. Look at Galatians 4:8 "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods."
Rather, we are saved when we have faith. From just one such passage, Romans 10:9 "if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved"
The result is that satisfaction is NOT pecunial, it is judicial. We are reconciled by grace through faith, and not a moment until.
-The reason for unlimited atonement (or propitiation)-
Here is the perfect man, dying as a man, for men so now any man can come and drink the water of life should he will it freely. (of course since man's spirit is dead and he hates God he never will come to faith, but there is nothing stopping him but his greedy heart). There is now no lock on the door of heaven, any can by simple faith, sieze eternal paradise, because Christ took away SIN, not just my sin or yours, but He bore the sin of the world.
1 Timothy 4:10 "(and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe."
John says in 1 John 2:2 "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that whomeever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life" His death has an unlimited value to it. The expiation is infinite, boundless, limitless. The sacrifice of Christ upon the cross shattered the realationship of the God-head itself. When He atoned, it was utterly beyond all comprehension.
In the same way the high priest offers a sacrifice for the sins of the people, as in, the people at large, the nation, everyone. This is the imagry in Hebrews esp chapters 8 and 9. The propitiation on the cross is not like a bag where once the last of the elect get their cleansing the bag is empty and there is no room for more, the propitiation is so vast, so unlimited, so amazingly large that it is enough to swallow all the pain in the universe and have room for more.
Whomever has faith will have life. It so happens that only the elect will have faith, but God is not the one keeping people from hell, it is their own hunger for hell. He has made a way for anyone who wants it to have it, as 1 John 2:2 makes clear.
So lets summarize:
Christ came for: His elect.
He died: for sinners.
He bore: the sins of the world
His intent: to reconcile His sheep to God by bearing their sins upon the cross
The satisfaction: Judicial, on condition of faith.
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