One of the real sticking points to many folk considering Reformed theology is the doctrine of limited atonement. To speak of limiting the atonement seems so wrong, so constricting to the plan of God to save the world. To be sure the word "limited" does have an unnecessary pejorative effect.
Yet, we have to ask the question, "What happened at the cross?" Did the death of Jesus make salvation "possible" for everyone, or did the death of Christ actually "save his people from their sins"?
If you take the former view, you've limited the atonement as well. You've limited it's effect and power to the extent that the only sin it does not atone for is unbelief. This leaves us with three problems, one philosophical, one pastoral and the other exegetical.
Firstly, the exegetical problem. In Scripture, it does not say that people will perish because they merely refuse to believe. Reading through the book of Revelation, we see the nations punished not just for unbelief (the root of all sin), but for idolatry, sexual immorality, etc. Read chapter 21:8; God is still enraged by the actual sins of rebellious humanity. If Christ's death had taken away his wrath for these things, with the exception of unbelief, surely he would only be mad at their faithlessness?
Secondly, the pastoral problem with this approach is that if unbelief is the only sin for which God did not atone, what happens to genuine Christians experiencing doubt? Doubt is a sin. It must be punished. Will these Christians have to pay the ultimate price?
Thirdly, and philosophically, if the wrath of God is exhausted against sin on behalf of everyone, it is unjust of him to require it again of sinners in eternity. God is punishing the same sins twice. This injustice leads some to reject penal substitutionary atonement (see Pierced for Our Transgressions, p268). At least those who reject PSA on this argument do so on the basis of understanding the doctrine better than most Arminian evangelicals.
No, we must believe that the atonement is limited in scope, although not in value. We believe that God really punished sin in Christ. This punishment is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world. Yet, covenantally, God reckons this punishment sufficient only for the sins of the elect. Only a covenantal framework will make sense of the cross. Those for whom Christ died will be saved, will be granted the gift of faith, will be united to Christ and his benefits by the Holy Spirit, will be accounted righteous, will be accounted raised with Christ and will most certainly and actually BE raised at the eschaton. This is far more exegetically, philosophically and pastorally satisfying than the normal bland evangelical presentation of Christ's death.
"Limited" Atonement is a crap name. It concedes too much to Reformed hating theologies. It's time for a re-branding. Effectual Atonement anyone?