Who did Jesus die to save? How far was the reach of the atonement? Did Jesus die to potentially save everyone or did he die to save specific people? There are a number of reasons why I believe that Jesus died only for the elect. His death on the cross was never intended to save everyone – potentially or otherwise – but to save specific people that he and the Father determined ahead of time. Let me offer some reasons why I think this is the case.
God can fulfil his plans
One issue is whether God is capable of fulfilling his plans. If Jesus died to save everyone, then his plan has necessarily failed. Unless we want to make a case for universalism (and you really shouldn’t), we know that not everybody is saved. If Jesus died to save everybody, then his plan has failed. He hasn’t and doesn’t save everybody. If, however, Jesus always only intended to die for the elect, then his plan is perfectly fulfilled at the cross. If Jesus died for all, the atonement has failed. If he only intended to die for the elect, he has fulfilled his original plan. The Bible speaks of a God who is both capable of fulfilling his plans and who always does so. As such, the atonement must only apply to those he ever intended to save.
Hell still exists
This might seem like I’m making the same point as above, but this is slightly different. If the atonement covered the sin of everybody, by definition, there is no more sin to be paid for. God cannot punish sin twice. If he has already punished all sin in Jesus, he cannot now punish it in people – even those who reject Christ. If the price has been paid, it has been paid. If Jesus died for everybody, we are forced to one of two problematic positions. Either, everybody is not going to Heaven and Hell need not exist because everyone has been forgiven already and justice served (universalism). Otherwise, God is unjust and is punishing sin twice; once in Christ and then a second time in anyone who rejects him. Neither is satisfactory nor biblically justified.
In truth, Hell does still exist. God is still, rightly, called just. That is because he punishes sin once. He either punishes it in Christ or he punishes it in the individual who rejects Christ. But this necessarily means that Jesus did not pay for the sins of those who reject him. His atonement simply did not cover their sin and was not held out potentially to them; if it were so everybody would be in Heaven. But as we know, everybody doesn’t go to Heaven. This is because Jesus did not die for everybody’s sin; he died for the sins of those who believe in him (the elect).
The persons of the Godhead are not divided
The Bible clearly speaks of an elect, who have been chosen before the foundation of the world (cf. Rom 8:28-30; Eph 1:4-5; etc). The Father has an elect he has chosen to save. Likewise, we know that the Spirit does not work in the hearts of those who are not saved. That is, he only works in the hearts of those that God intends to save (cf. John 6:37-39, 44-45, 65 i.a.). So, the Father and the Spirit seem to be at one in terms of the plan of salvation. The Father elects and the Spirit effects and they seem to agree on whom to apply these things.
However, if Jesus died for everybody, this introduces division among the Godhead. The Father elects certain people to salvation, the Spirit only effects salvation in certain people, but the Son apparently disagrees and insists everybody can potentially be saved. This division among the Godhead is a problem because all three persons of the trinity always work together in unity. If the Father elects a particular people, and the Spirit effects salvation in particular people, the Son’s atonement must always have been intended for particular people too, not everybody in general.
God’s sovereignty is total
RC Sproul used to speak about the ‘single atom’ problem. He said, in Chosen By God, ‘If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.’ In other words, if there is even a single atom somewhere that is not under God’s total sovereign control, we cannot guarantee that it won’t be the one that does something that totally undermines and undercuts his plan of salvation. God is either totally sovereign over all things (and the Bible insists he is) or he isn’t actually sovereign over anything at all.
When it comes to the atonement, this is equally true regarding the will of men and the people he will save. If there is a single person running around outside of God’s control, we cannot be sure they won’t be the person who undercuts the entirety of God’s plan. If Pilate was that man, he might have set Jesus free, seeing him never crucified and the atonement scuppered. But if God is totally sovereign over the wills of men, this must also mean he is totally sovereign over the salvation of men too. If he is sovereign over the will of those who will come to faith, then Jesus’ death must always have been intended to cover the sin of those the Lord was going to sovereignly save in the first place. Jesus’ death must have accomplished exactly what it intended to achieve, meaning that he must only have died for those he originally intended to save.