The third point is limited atonement, perhaps the most misunderstood of the five. At issue here is the reason why the cross of Christ does not save everyone. Those who do not savingly believe in Christ will suffer eternal punishment and will never be reconciled to God.
Why does the cross not save all? Is it because God has limited power in the cross or because God has a limited purpose for the cross? Did God intend to save everyone through the cross and fail, or did He plan to save only a limited number through the cross and succeed? Our position is the latter. We believe that God had a limited design or purpose in the atonement and that the cross of Christ saves everyone God intended it to save.
We believe this because God never fails to carry out His plans. If God had intended the cross to save everyone, then everyone would be saved through it. What God has planned, that He will do (Isaiah 46:9-11; 55:11; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11).
We believe this because the Bible teaches that Jesus came to accomplish a real and saving salvation for His people. He did more for them than provide a mere possibility of salvation. See Matthew 1:21; 26:28; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-26; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 2:17; and Revelation 5:9.
We believe this because the Bible says that God will give everything, including saving faith, to those for whom He delivered up His Son to die (Romans 8:32). If we were reconciled to God at the cross, then we will be saved (Romans 5:10). Through His work on the cross, Christ provided for the deliverance of His people from the spirit of unbelief and purchased for them the gift of saving faith.
We believe this because the Bible teaches that the Good Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep (John 10:11) but no where teaches that the Good Shepherd in like manner laid down His life for those who are not His sheep (John 10:26). Christ's sheep are those whom the Father has given Him (John 10:29), and they manifest themselves through their faith and obedience; that is, they in faith recognize Jesus as the Messianic Good Shepherd and listen to His voice and in obedience follow Him (John 10:3-4, 27). Christ died for the sheep, and all the sheep will savingly believe. Christ died for those whom the Father gave Him, and all these will come to Christ and none of them will be lost (John 6:37,39). Those who are not Christ's sheep manifest themselves through their moral inability to believe (John 10:26).
We believe this because Christ as high priest prayed only for those whom the Father had given Him (John 17:9). If Christ had offered up His life as a priestly sacrifice for everybody, then why did He not also offer up His priestly prayer for everybody?
We believe this because it would not be just for God to require double payment for sin. If Christ died equally for the sins of all men, then those who go to hell will be paying for their sins themselves even though their sins have already been paid for once through the sufferings of Christ.
We believe this because the Bible speaks of individuals for whose sins there was never to be any atoning sacrifice (1 Samuel 3:14; Isaiah 22:14; Hebrews 10:26; cf. Jeremiah 18:23).
This doctrine does not deny that the cross has infinite saving potential. It teaches that the cross could save everyone if God had only intended it to do so. This doctrine does not deny that there are common grace benefits from the cross for every man. In this sense, God through Christ is everyone's Savior (1 Timothy 4:10). The doctrine of limited atonement is simply that the cross of Christ provides a sure, secure and real salvation for everyone God intended it to save and for them alone.
But, you ask, what about passages which mention the world and use the universal term all? These passages do not teach that God planned for the cross to save every sinner that ever lived. These passages no more refer to every individual without exception than Paul's statement that the gospel "was preached to every creature under heaven" (Colossians 1:23) means that even the slugs and snails were evangelized. Passages with universal terms must be interpreted with careful consideration of both the immediate context and the clear teaching of other verses. For example, what did Paul mean in Romans 5:18 when he said that "the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life"? He could not there be referring to all men without exception because the Bible clearly teaches that not all men will be saved. Paul's context in Romans 5 indicates that by "all men," he was there referring to all men who are under the covenant headship of Christ. The message of some other passages with universal terms is that Christ has saved the world in the sense that His people are now from every tribe, nation and tongue of the world and not from only one nation as under the old covenant. Christ also will take away the sin of the world in the sense that He will totally remove sin and the curse from the world at His second coming.
Some object that if Christ did not die for all men without exception, then we cannot go up to the lost and say, "Christ died for you!" But where in all of Scripture do we find an example of that sort of evangelistic message? We should follow the example of the Apostle Paul and say to the lost, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." That message is the gospel truth and in no way contradicts the doctrine of limited atonement. All are commanded to come to Christ, and none who come will be cast out. And all whom the Father has given to Christ (i.e., the elect for whom Christ died) will come (John 6:37).
The doctrine of limited atonement also does not contradict the sincere nature of God's gospel offer. Our Lord Jesus Christ genuinely grieved when Jerusalem rejected Him (Matthew 23:37), and this sorrow reached to the depths of His divine Person. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and sincerely exhorts them to turn from their wicked ways and live (Ezekiel 18:23,32). God really desires obedience to His revealed will, His commands (Deuteronomy 5:29), including the gospel command to believe in Christ. And yet at the same time, God, in terms of His secret will, has sovereignly planned all of history to bring to Himself the greatest possible glory. He has sovereignly chosen to give saving grace to some to the praise of His mercy, and He has sovereignly chosen to pass others by and allow them to remain in their depraved state to the praise of His justice.
Romans 9:14-16: What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
Romans 9:21-23: Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory?
There is here admittedly a degree of mystery beyond our understanding, for we cannot fully comprehend the interworkings of the secret and the revealed aspects of God's will (Deuteronomy 29:29), nor the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. All we know is that when someone rejects the gospel message, the fault is theirs and God is grieved; and when someone believes the gospel, the reason is God's sovereign gift of undeserved grace and God alone deserves the glory and the praise.