Did Jesus die to make the salvation of all people possible, or was his intention to secure the certain salvation of God's elect? I hold to the latter position, known as "definite atonement," as opposed to a general atonement that secures an offer of salvation, but stops short of fully saving anyone. Historically, this doctrine has been the most controversial tenet of what have come to be known as the five points of Calvinism, first formulated by the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).
Is definite atonement an obscurity of theological minutiae, or does it connect to important aspects of our lives? I believe it is a doctrine of profound pastoral significance, the reasons for which are as follows:
1. Definite atonement holds together the unity of the Trinity in our doctrine of salvation.
If we hold, with Scripture, that the Father has elected us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and that the Spirit applies the benefits of salvation to God's elect, and not indiscriminately (John 3:3-8), we insert disunity into the Trinitarian plan of redemption if we claim that the Son's atoning work did not align in its aim with the Father's eternal decree and the Spirit's effective application of the atonement. In other words, if the Father has chosen a particular people for himself, and the Spirit applies the benefits of redemption to that particular people in fulfillment of the Father's decree, it makes no sense to argue that the Son died to secure the salvation of anyone other than those chosen by the Father and ultimately regenerated and glorified by the Spirit. Jesus Christ was appointed the Mediator between God and man by his Father, in fuflillment of the eternal covenant of redemption, by which the Father promised to give a people to his Son. It is for this people that the Son died. To claim otherwise is to divide the Trinity.
Pastorally, this point matters tremendously, for it places the atoning work of Christ in the larger context of God's eternal plan, in which each Person of the Trinity acts in union with the other two. Our salvation is a Trinitarian act with roots deep in eternity past.
2. Definite atonement holds together the unity of the work of Christ in our salvation.
All theologians acknowledge that Christ's atoning work has two components: his sacrifice and his high priestly intercession. It is virtually impossible to deny that Christ's intercession is limited to God's elect people. In biblical categories, priesthood is always part of a larger covenantal relationship (Heb. 7:12). Priests represent before God those who stand within whatever covenant legitimizes their priesthood. This is why the high priest of Israel interceded for the twelve tribes of Israel, and for no one else (Exod. 28:12-17). It is also why Jesus Christ, the high priest of the new covenant, intercedes before God for the sake of those who belong to the new covenant. His intercession is always effective for salvation (Heb. 7:25). Not a single person for whom Christ prays before the Father will be lost. The New Testament declares explicitly that Christ intercedes for God's elect (Rom. 8:33-35). Jesus himself even denies that he is praying for "the world" in his great prayer of John 17, choosing to intercede only on behalf of those given to him by the Father (John 17:9).
If Christ clearly intercedes within the structure of the new covenant for God's elect people, we must likewise conclude that his sacrifice was offered on their behalf, for Christ's atoning work (including both sacrifice and intercession) are of one piece. His high priestly intercession is inseparable from his aim in laying down his life. Pastorally, grasping hold of the unity of his priestly work sets our salvation within biblical categories that greatly enrich our understanding of it, heightening our sense of absolute dependence on Christ.
3. Definite atonement enriches our grasp of a salvation that is completely by God's grace.
If Christ died to make the salvation of all people possible, leaving something else to happen in order to make it effective for some, we must conclude that the saving work of Christ doesn't reach all the way to us, but instead leaves the most crucial component (our faith) either to the Holy Spirit's application, to our free will, or to some combination of the two. Of course, I would argue that the Spirit's application of redemption to us personally through regeneration is what creates faith in us. However, because I hold to definite atonement I can affirm that such faith, produced in us by the Spirit, is itself a benefit effectively purchased for us by the atoning work of the Son. Faith itself is a gift of God, given through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, on the basis of Christ's death for us.
What this means is that all whom Christ intended to save will, infallibly, be saved. He is not a failed Messiah; he will lose none of those given to him by the Father (John 6:37, 44). Seeing this reality in Scripture sheds new light on such statements as "I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:15) and "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25). As we take in the particularity and effeciveness of Christ's love for us in his atoning work, we more deeply grasp the full reality that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Knowing how utterly dependent we are on Christ is always a good thing. Definite atonement reminds us of it.
One very common objection to this doctrine is that it undermines evangelism. It actually does no such thing. As John Owen pointed out almost 400 years ago, the promise of the gospel is not that Christ's death is equally (in)effective for all; it is, rather, that there is a certain connection between faith and salvation. We who confess definite atonement also joyfully proclaim to any and all, that if they believe in Christ, they will certainly be saved. That is a promise.