Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
Christ died for our sins. This sacrifice is efficacious to us upon faith in Him. So, everything else is an intellectual disagreement.
Catholics reject limited atonement, as do most people that call themselves Christians. According to Called to Communion:
The Catholic conception of Christ’s Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men.
If the majority of Christians reject limited atonement, should we dump the doctrine? No. We may be absolutely certain of the doctrine because of the Scripture. In John 10 Jesus says:
Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them (John 10:7-8).
We may surmise that not everyone is a “sheep,” for the sheep did not follow the false messiahs, they only follow the Christ.
I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture (John 10:9).
The sheep find pasture, and thereby salvation. Being that not everyone is saved, not everyone is a sheep.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11).
May we infer that he does not lay down His life for those that are not sheep?
I know My own and My own know Me (John 10:14).
As we can see, the sheep did not follow false messiahs and they are the only ones that hear the shepherd because they know His voice.
I have other sheep, which are not of this fold (John 10:16).
This is in reference to the gentiles. So, Christ makes reference to other sheep, which we may surmise are His elect. There are other men right in front of Him (Pharisees) that He does not consider sheep:
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:25-27).
And there we have it, limited atonement. The Pharisees do not believe, because they are not sheep. To the contrary, the sheep know Christ and Christ knows them. Remember what Christ said to the virgins late for the ceremony and the goats? I never knew you.
So, when Isaiah writes, “My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Is 53:10) and we know that the sheep are the ones Christ laid His life down for, it stands to reason that the sheep are the many. So, where does that leave everyone else? Without a savior.
Now, many take issue with this because of verses in the Bible:
“He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Now, my response is that John was saying that Christ was a propitiation for “our” (i.e. Jews) sins and the world’s (i.e. the rest of the nations). Not only does this intuitively make sense knowing that John was a Jew and it is a consistent interpretation that does not allow for universalism, it actually fits John’s language used elsewhere:
…he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation and not for the nation only but also that He would gather together in one the children of God scattered abroad (John 11:51-52).
So, while the Biblical case is solid, I would not say it is “ironclad.” For this reason, it should not surprise us that the Early Church Fathers read the same Scripture, and generally gave guarded approval of the doctrine:
Although Christ suffered for all, yet He suffered for us particularly, because He suffered for the Church (Ambrose, Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam, 6.25, PL 15:1675).
[I]f thou believest not, He has not come down for thee, has not suffered for thee (Ambrose, NPNF2: Vol.: Volume X, Of the Christian Faith, Book IV, Chapter 2, §27.).
He does not say that he gave his life for all, but for many, that is, for all those who would believe (Jerome on Matt 20:28, Commentariorum in Evangelium Matthaei, Liber Tertius, PL 26:144-145).
So, they understood the concept though not every Church Father appeared to give it serious enough thought to pass comment on it. In the early Church, most writers simply did not theorize on the topic. Period. When one reads Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, it is apparent that their passing comments on several things were not meant to be definitive, all-encompassing answers on the subject.
Therefore, we cannot state the early Church taught limited atonement. They essentially did not answer the question whether the atonement was limited or universal because no one was asking it. Nonetheless, because the Scripture is clear and several early fathers in passing seemed to recognized the ramifications of Biblical truth in passing, we have good reason to believe that the Reformed view of the atonement is correct.