Arthur W Pink expounds on the concept of a limited atonement The Atonement. I refer you to that for a much broader analysis of limited atonement than I have room for here.
First, when speaking of Christ’s atoning death, we’re faced with four possibilities. Christ died to atone for:
1) all sins of all men
2) all sins of some men
3) some sins of all men
4) some sins of some men
The Bible is clear that all sins – save one – can be forgiven. That one is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31). Additionally, for the atonement to only apply to some sins would make it a limited atonement. So I think we can safely dispense with the last two of our list. That leaves us with atonement for all sins of all or only some men.
There certainly are Scriptures which seem to infer that atonement was for all men; yet analyzing them in context usually shows that they are pointing to a limited nature of the atonement. There are also Scriptures which flat-out show that the atonement wasn’t meant for all men; here are a few of them (taken from Pink’s The Atonement); when you read them, please keep in mind the following statement: If Christ’s death atoned for all sins of all men…
John 8:24 – We already know that the Pharisees were guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. If Christ atoned for all other sins of all men, then what are the ‘sins’ Jesus points out that the Pharisees will die in?
Ephesians 5:5-6 – If all sins but blasphemy against the Spirit are atoned for, why then does Paul say that the ‘sons of disobedience’, who comprise ‘everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater)’, will not ‘inherit God’s kingdom’? After all, there’s no mention of blaspheming the Spirit in there.
Acts 7:60 – Those who stoned Stephen weren’t guilty of blaspheming the Spirit – why would Stephen plead that Christ not hold their sin against them?
1 Thessalonians 2:16 – No matter how high the Jews pile up the ‘measure of their sins’ (again, plural), they would all be forgiven of those; yet Paul is adamant they will not be.
1 Timothy 5:24 – Those conspicuous and inconspicuous sins (plural) Paul mentions wouldn’t be held against the sinners because none of them are blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Here is a Scripture portion which ought to lay to rest the idea that Christ died for all the sins of all men: Revelation 18:4-5 – if Christ’s atonement was universal, then short of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, none of the sins (plural) of the people of Babylon would ever be held against them.
Luke 11:49-51 – Christ told the Jews that they would be held accountable for the deaths of all the prophets God had ever sent; this accounting would be ‘charged against this generation’ – the generation alive when He was with them. But why, if His death would atone for all sins save that of blasphemy against the Spirit? In fact, that generation did pay the penalty – in AD 70, Titus Vespasian destroyed Jerusalem.
Revelation 20:12-13 – why are the dead judged ‘according to what they had done’ if Christ’s death atoned for the sins (save non-belief) of all of them?
Matthew 11:22; Mark 12:40; Luke 12:47-48; Hebrews 10:28-29 – how can there be differing degrees of punishment for sins when all the sins of all the people have been forgiven (save blasphemy against the Spirit)?
The Bible is clear on this: Christ’s atonement clears all sins save one; man is still liable for sins beyond blasphemy of the Spirit. Since Christ’s atonement isn’t for some sins only, it must be for some people only. But if that’s the case, then who are these beneficiaries of the salvation of the atonement? Who among men can be saved?
The Bible tells us: in order to be saved, in order for your sins to be forgiven, in order to be gifted with eternal life, one must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve already pointed out (I certainly hope) that non-belief is not a sin which is forgiven – in order to be forgiven, you must believe in the only One who can forgive your sins.
It’s obvious, just looking at the world we live in, that many people don’t believe in Christ. With the admonition that no one comes to the Father but through Christ (John 14:6), belief is an absolute must. Therefore, there are many people who, unless they come to believe in Christ, will not be given everlasting life. Therefore, the atoning sacrifice Christ made on the cross cannot be universal – these who do not believe in Christ, particularly in our day and age – are not all guilty of the ‘unpardonable sin’ – but they are all guilty of non-belief.
There are some Scriptures, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that can be manipulated or misconstrued as countenancing a universal atonement; Pink outlines some of them in the second half of his paper. Those I will look at in a later post.