The English word "atonement" was coined by William Tyndale as he translated the Scriptures from the original languages into the English tongue. Tyndale needed a word that conveyed the Hebrew concept of forgiveness of man's sin and the reconciliation of the sinner to a holy God through the death of a substitute (sacrifice). The word is a contaction of three English words "at" "one" "moment" (atonement). In Tyndales mind, the death of the supreme Substitute (Jesus Christ) brought reconciliation of the sinner to God. Now the question evangelicals have struggled with throughout the centuries is this: "For whom did Christ atone?" In other words, through the death of Christ, which sinners were forgiven and reconciled with God? There are only three possibilities.
(1). Every sinner that has ever lived (universalism).
(2). Elect sinners--those whom the Father has chosen and given to His Son.
(3). Believing sinners--those whom the Father foresaw would believe on Jesus.
Bible-believing evangelicals see the atonement of Christ as a satisfactory payment for specific violations of God’s law. "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23) and the sinner who has sinned by not loving God and his fellow man with all his heart is subject to the righteous and holy punishment of his Creator. The essence of Jesus' saving work is His substitution in the sinner's place, bearing the curse in the place of the sinner (Gal. 3:13).
Theological liberals have denied the substitutionary element of Christ's death and teach that the cross simply demonstrates God’s love, and as people are moved by God's act of love at the cross, they are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to begin living a life of selfless love. This view is called "the moral influence view," and totally rejects ideas of Christ's payment, substitution, satisfaction, etc ...
But for those of us who are conservative and believe that the Bible teaches penal substitution, we are faced with a very serious question: "For whom did Christ die?"
Most evangelicals would answer that question in this manner: For every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live. If the person who holds to this view is then asked, "Will every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live be in heaven?" The answer given is "No. The sinner must accept what Jesus has done. The sinner must believe. The sinner must take hold of the atonement that has been offered." So most Christians, when pressed, would have to say the atonement of Jesus actually saves nobody. It is the faith of the sinner in Christ that saves (because of this prevalent belief we ought to consider changing the title of the hymn "Have Faith in God" to "Have Faith in Faith"). The modern evangelical has a belief in a very weak, impotent atonement performed by Christ. God, they believe, actually saves nobody through the cross; sinners are only actually saved through their belief in the cross. I believe the greatest challenge we face in the modern evangelical world is moving people toward a stronger, more biblical and powerful view of what Christ actually accomplished at the cross.
Some propose that the greatest challenge within the Southern Baptist Convention is a resurgence of the doctrine of unconditional election. The idea that God chooses sinners to be saved, without any condition or merit in the sinner (including foreseen faith), is disconcerting to many. On the other hand, SBC Calvinists are concerned with those Arminians who say "election" is simply God's foreknowledge as He looks down into the future and sees who will believe on Christ and called them "His elect." However, I propose both views (i.e. "sovereign election" and "foreknowledge"), Calvinism and Armininism, are compatible in a Convention that has a belief in a strong and powerful atonement--i.e. that Christ actually, powerfully, sufficiently and eternally saves those for whom He died.
In my opinion, the greater problem we face within modern Christianity is changing the current popular and prevalent belief that Christ's atonement was a weak and impotent atonement. One would have no problem with those who hold to the traditional Arminian view that God "looks down through the future and sees which sinners will believe on Christ," nor with those who hold the traditional Calvinistic view that God chooses sinners to be saved and gives to His elect the gifts of repentance and faith--if both groups believed in a powerful and effectual atonement performed by Christ on behalf of those for whom He died.
As long as Christians believe that Christ actually pardons and reconciles to God those for whom He dies, then whether or not God "foresaw" faith in sinners or creates faith in sinners, we would fellowship around a belief in Christ's strong work on our behalf. Again, the Bible teaches that God saves us through Christ's work at Calvary.
The conversation we ought to be having is not necessarily over election, but over the extent and power of Christ's atonement at Calvary.
In His Grace,