One of the most confusing and misunderstood of the "Five Points of Calvinism" is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. The way the question is usually stated is as follows: "For whom did Christ die? For all mankind, or only for the elect?" And presumably the Calvinist answer to the question is, "Christ died only for the elect."
The question itself, however, is ambiguous. What do we mean when we say that Christ "died for" someone? And here the Calvinists and Arminians give two entirely different answers. What the Calvinist means is that Christ died in the place of the sinner, and thus effectively paid the price for his sins and freed him from guilt. What the Arminian means is that Christ died for the benefit of sinners, to make salvation available to them, although they may choose to reject the offer. Thus the difference between the two positions is that between a benefit actually realized and a potential benefit merely offered.
Near the end of his life Beza had as one of his students a young Dutchman named Jacobus Arminius. After he returned home to the Netherlands Arminius was asked to respond to attacks on the Reformed Faith by Roman Catholic theologians. In doing so he himself began to question the idea of predestination. A controversy ensued, which did not end with Arminius' death in 1609. Eventually the Synod of Dort was convened in 1618 to resolve the issue, and it issued a series of "Canons" which outlined the famous "Five Points of Calvinism."
On the Calvinist side there are some serious problems as well. One problem is that it is hard to see how the idea of Limited Atonement can be reconciled with the Free Offer of the Gospel. If God only intended to save the elect, and Christ died only as a substitute for the elect, then how can it be said that God has offered salvation to all mankind? If there is no intention and there is no provision, how can there be a sincere offer? Moreover, the practical difficulty that this entails is the position in which it places the evangelist. How can he off the sinner something that God Himself has not offered?
A further difficulty arises from the Synod's declaration that faith is a saving grace purchased by the death of Christ. If faith is the result of the atonement, does that mean that a person believes only after his sins have been forgiven? Whereas the Bible clearly states that we are justified by faith. Faith is the instrument of justification.
Then there is also the exegetical problem. There are a number of passages of scripture which seem to indicate that Christ died, in some sense at least, for the entire world. What do we make of them?
Next: the ongoing controversy