Discussion of the scope of the atonement of Christ is important. That is why Christians fight so vigorously for their particular interpretation of this doctrine. Is the atonement limited or unlimited, and for whom is it intended? It can be easy to get bogged down by just asserting the "plain meaning" of the text and not giving any foundation for it. Scripture interprets scripture, and that is why we cannot simply quote a verse without giving the context, this especially is the case when speaking of weighty matters like the atonement of the Son of God. It is also essential that other texts that speak to the issue at hand must be taken into account. Sadly, some passages are bandied about without assessing the issues within the text; for example, 1 Timothy 2:4 "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." At first glance, it might seem that hundreds of years of reformed theology have just gone out the window with the "simple reading" of this text. A closer examination of the context surrounding it reveal otherwise.
In 1 Timothy 1 Paul was warning Timothy about teachers that didn't have correct doctrine. Then Paul speaks of others who have been cast out of the church because of their conduct.
Then, in 1 Timothy 2:1-7 Paul says:
"1 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time."
In the end of V.1 we get the first use of the phrase "all men." Then Paul tells us what he means by "all men" in V.2, "kings and all who are in authority." Paul is saying that all classes of people, even those in authority, should be the objects of prayer. But why does Paul have to say this? There are some reasons of note:1. Paul was implying that the false teachers from chapter one were teaching the people not to pray for those in authority, 2. Paul has to command that the those in authority should be prayed for, because those in authority were persecuting the church, hence the church wasn't praying for those that persecuted them. So Paul is speaking here of a class of people, namely "kings and all who are in authority." This has bearing on how we interpret V.4, "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Here in V.4, "all men" means the same thing it did in V.1. Namely that it refers to "all" different classes of people, not every single person ever to live. Paul isn't commanding that prayers be made for every single individual in the whole entire world. Rather, he is urging them to pray for the people that they had been neglecting to pray for. Not that praying for the whole world is wrong, Paul is just not specifically commanding prayer for every single individual in V.1. V.5 Paul then bases this admonition to pray in the fact that Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God. V.6 This is then linked to the mediation and atonement of Christ. If this mediation is on behalf of every single individual, does it not follow that Christ's mediation fails for some, since all are not saved? If "all" means every person ever to live in V.4, then is it not the case that God's purpose is frustrated by the sovereign will of man? If we are to take the "all" in these texts as extensive, then it follows that the "ransom" spoken of in V.6 is merely a potential one.
The same thing is going on in Colossians 3 as in 1 Timothy 2:4. Colossians 3:11 "a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all." Paul is speaking again about classes of people. He is saying that the Gospel renews all different kinds of people. He is obviously not saying that Christ is renewing every single "Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman."
In Mark 10:26-45 Jesus is explaining the need for humility in order to be great in His Kingdom. Jesus' words in Mark 10:45 are helpful here: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Here Jesus' serving isn't a mere potentiality, and neither is His ransom. "Ransom" carries this idea of actually paying for the freedom of a slave, and thus resulting in the freedom of that slave. Notice also that the "ransom" here is for "many" and not all. This is exactly the testimony of the Bible; that the atoning work of Christ is definite, and it does what it's intended to do. If this isn't the case, how can one say the atoning work of Christ is perfect when it doesn't reached it's intended goal, which is the salvation of the whole world? In Isaiah 46, God establishes Himself as the one true God over the idols of Babylon. In V. 10, God says "... My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure." If it was God's purpose and good pleasure for the entirety of the human race to be saved, it would happen. In fact, the intercession of Christ is only for His Bride. Romans 8:34 "who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died...who also intercedes for us." Romans 8:33 says who this "us" is--"who will bring a charge against Gods elect? God is the one who justifies." The "us" is God's elect. These two texts spell out clearly that the intercession of Christ is only on behalf of His Church. The reason a charge can't be put to God's elect is because they have been justified ("He also justified" Romans 8:30). These verses speak nothing of Christ interceding for the non-elect. Part of the purpose of God's election is the election unto His intercession. Intercession and mediation, the ransom and the atonement are all unalterably connected; they are for all kinds of people, but not for every single individual, if it was for every single individual then every single individual would be justified. Christ intercedes for those He died. God doesn't try, He accomplishes all of His holy will.