Exactly whom Jesus died for is a point of theological disagreement among evangelical Bible believers. Some Christians believe that Jesus died only for the elect; this is the doctrine of limited atonement, the L in Calvinism’s TULIP. Other Christians believe that Jesus died for everyone who has or ever will live; this is the doctrine of unlimited atonement, held by Arminians and most four-point Calvinists, or Amyraldians.
Limited atonement, sometimes called particular redemption, is based on the doctrine of election or predestination (Romans 8:30, 33; Titus 1:1). Since only the elect of God will be saved, the reasoning goes, Jesus must have died only for them. Otherwise, Jesus’ death “failed” those who are not elect. If Jesus died for everyone, then hell will be full of people for whom Jesus died—was His atonement insufficient? If Jesus died only for the elect, then His atonement perfectly accomplished its goal. Every person for whom Jesus died will be in heaven.
Unlimited atonement, on the other hand, says that Jesus died for everyone but that only those who respond in faith will reap the benefits of His sacrifice. In other words, Jesus’ death was sufficient for all, but only effectual for some (those who have faith). If Jesus did not die for everyone, the reasoning goes, then the offer of salvation is empty, because the non-elect cannot be saved. The teaching of unlimited atonement is based on verses such as 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.”
Precise theological thinking is a good thing. We are called to be students of the Word (2 Timothy 2:15). But on this point, it seems that most people follow a theological system to get to their answer, rather than the clear Word of God. If it were not for theological systems (namely, Calvinism and Arminianism), the question of whom Jesus died for would probably never come up—but it has come up! One side says that, if Christ did not die for all, then there can be no genuine offer of salvation. The other side says that, if Christ died for some who will never be saved, then His death in some sense fails to accomplish its purpose. Either way, there seems to be an attack upon God’s character or Christ’s work—either God’s love is limited or Jesus’ power is limited. This presents an unnecessary dilemma and creates a tension where none need exist. We know that God’s love is infinite (Psalm 107:1) and that Christ’s power is infinite (Colossians 1:16–17). The dilemma is a false one of our own making.
In short, the offer of salvation is universal—to all who will believe (Romans 10:11, 13). We also know that, regardless of how broad Christ’s atonement is, it is limited in some respect—it is effective only for those who believe (John 3:18).
John 10 provides more insight into the issue of whom Jesus died for. In that passage we see that Christ died for His sheep (John 10:11, 15). Also, all who are His sheep will come to Him (verses 4 and 27), and they are kept secure in Christ (verses 28–30). However, when we share the gospel, we don’t try to “pre-screen” the hearers of the message. We don’t delve into who are the elect or for whom Jesus may or may not have died. Those discussions would distract from the goal of evangelism. When presenting the gospel, we simply say, “Jesus died for your sin, and He rose again from the dead. His death is sufficient to pay for your sins if you will put your faith in Him.” This is a biblically accurate statement, and it avoids trying to get too specific. The preaching of the apostles in the New Testament doesn’t try to cut it more finely than that.