[Update: I think Jay Bennett does a good job of making the case that common grace does not require atonement, which I speculated about in point 2 under 'in what way Christ died for all,' see what you think: LINK HERE]
Limited Atonement, by far, is the most debated doctrine of grace. Part of this, I believe, is due to its unfortunate title. The title seems to cheapen the atonement by limiting it. Yet, perhaps without knowing it, every group of Christians is forced to limit it in some manner, unless we are Universalists and believe everyone is headed to heaven. I do believe, we might explore the ways in which we might talk about both realities, of Christ's death in regards to the Church/Elect and all men
The Particular, Special nature of the Atonement
[What ways we say that Christ died particularly for the Elect]
1) It’s application of true reconciliation. Even if we attach a trigger, to say Christ did all and merely requires faith for the salvation of the believer to be complete, we still limit the application of the atonement to the elect, or believing Christians. (more on that in the conclusion)
2) It’s intent - Did Christ die intending that every person end up in heaven? Many would quote the verse from 2 Peter 3:9:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
So does the Lord not wish for any person in the world ever born to perish? Within the content of the verse, we can see the word “any” point back to “you” or in Texan “y’all” since it is plural (ὑμᾶς). Who is “you”? When writing a letter, when the 2nd person is used, the author is talking to the intended audience of the letter, which is told to us in 2 Peter 1:1:
2 Peter 1:1 - Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
Rather than speaking of the wish that may not be fulfilled in 2 Peter 3:9, Peter is assuring those of true faith (of equal worth with ours I.e. the apostles) they will not be abandoned by God in their salvation.
So again to our question, Who did Christ intend to be adopted in His death?
Eph 1:4-6 “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”
We must confess that Christ’s intention for His death is for the elect, those He chose.
But don't other people experience grace?
1) We can all confess that Christ’s death is of limitless worth. Even the Canon of Dort on the Atonement says as much. If Christ was God, then His payment must have the element of infinity attached to it. Even if every man was saved, it would not drain the merit of Christ’s death.
2) All are benefits of some graces that are not saving. However, these are not attached to the work of atonement. The Reformed faith includes an element of Common Grace, or grace given to both the elect and the non-elect. The rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). That God forebears in His justice, is a part of His grace in being merciful to the reprobate. That the reprobate enjoy the beauty, pleasure and delights of creation is a grace unexplained and seemingly wasted on those who will never turn that enjoyment into praise toward the Glory of God.
I would distinguish atoning grace from other graces. But Christ died for atoning grace, not common grace. And Christ atoned only for the elect.
The only place that the idea of atonement or propitiation seems to be applied to more than the elect is in John, in particular
1Jn 2:2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
In what sense is “whole world” meant here? I do believe there is a compelling case that the intent of this verse, as recorded in explanation in tradition, is multiracial, as in some from all peoples. This was a hard lesson for the Jews to learn (look at Peter, who needed it pounded into his head, that Cornelius was to be a recipient of the gospel too).
Thereby, the whole world mean here the elect. (see Michael Svigel’s post here, where I steal this argument from).
Follow me here: When the disciple of John, Polycarp, is being killed, his students declare:
“They [the pagans] did not know that we [Christians] will never be able either to abandon the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the blameless on behalf of sinners, or to worship anyone else.”
Polycarp taught his disciples that this was the proper way to understand 1 John 2:2. If those in closest contact with the disciples have given us the exposition and meaning of the words “whole world,” should our modern sentimentality correct this?
Does it matter?
When we speak of the death of Christ especially in the gospel message, we are primarily speaking of the atoning work of Christ. So in the atoning sense, we cannot say that Christ died for all.
By faith the sinner is made a recipient of the work of atonement. And God knows, if He did not give this as a gift to me, I would never be a recipient of the atonement, for I am incapable of faith and repentance. This faith is a work of God in his Holy Spirit, given to all He has chosen, to the elect of His Bride. Given to all those whom he intend to apply the atonement.
In that way, I confess the particular death of the groom for His Bride, as much as she has ignored Him, denigrated Him, disbelieved Him and left with Her inheritance, still she, still I am His son and His bride because He has pursued and purchased me, never to leave me.