The great debate between Calvinism and Arminianism has been around for over four hundred years. Their differing views of salvation essentially center on the question “How shall we go about explaining how it is that Christ’s saving work on the cross is limited to ‘just us?’” Or, put more respectably, “Why are we saved and not others?”
Simply put, the Calvinist says, “Because God chose us and not others.” The Arminian answers, “No, because we chose God and others did not.”
These two answers are diametrically opposed. But they have four things in common. First, they are both wrong. Second, they can each be proved and disproved with Scripture and sound reason (as evidenced by the four hundred year old debate.) Third, they both put God’s reputation in jeopardy. Calvinism questions God’s love (He arbitrarily loves some and hates others.) Arminianism challenges God’s power (He loves all, but is powerless to save all.) Fourth, and what I want to address here, is that each theology necessarily limits Christ’s atoning work on the cross - turning it into something less than what it actually was.
Calvin, with logic proceeding from his understanding of divine election, concluded that when Jesus died on the cross, his death atoned only for the sins of the elect - the chosen of God. Thus the “L” in reformed theology’s TULIP acronym stands for “limited atonement.” Jesus work on the cross was, by God’s design, limited to “just us.”
Arminians find too much Biblical support for the universality of the atonement and claim to believe in an unlimited atonement. However, they teach that the atonement only becomes real when an individual, by an act of their free will, chooses to believe it. Thus the death and resurrection of Christ did not actually save anybody - it only made salvation possible. So IF and WHEN an individual believes in the atonement, then the atonement actually atones. In this way, Arminians limit the atonement perhaps even more than Calvin - subjecting it ultimately to the capricious and powerful will of man.
Luther, of course, had little tolerance for either of these two theologies. His belief, as we might expect, was far more radical. According to Luther, Scripture clearly taught an unlimited, universal atonement that actually saved the world. (“Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!”) Thus he believed that when Christ died on the cross, the entire world - and every creature (then or ever) associated with the world - was reconciled to God. (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” )
This simple trust in a universal atonement harmonized with Luther’s trust in an unconditional Gospel. For only an unlimited atonement can be grounds for an unconditional Gospel. Calvin’s gospel (IF you are among the elect) and Armininius’ gospel (IF you choose to believe), are both conditional gospels which spring from the limitations they have placed on the atonement. The Gospel according to Luther knew nothing of such conditionals or limitations.