One passage of scripture that stuns me with its depth and beauty is Jesus' High Priestly Prayer from John chapter 17 (click here to read). This prayer is the pinnacle of the Farewell Discourse, the teachings of Christ to His disciples in John 13-17. Immediately after John 17, Jesus headed to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Two verses stand out from John 17 that help us understand the extent of Christ's atonement. In John 17:6, Jesus prays, "I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word." A few verses later, in John 17:9, our Lord says, "I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours."
When we read these verses, several things stand out:
First, God the Father gave specific people to Jesus.
Second, Jesus made Himself known to those particular people.
Third, these people first belonged to God the Father.
Fourth, these people kept God's word.
Fifth, Jesus prays for these particular people.
Sixth, Jesus does not pray for the world.
So what is going on here? It is clear from this passage that God the Father chose specific people that He then gave to His Son, Jesus Christ. During His time on earth, Jesus made Himself known to those people who had been given to Him. These people were the ones who ended up keeping His word. In other words, they became followers of Christ. When Jesus prays, He prays for those specific people that had been given to Him. Christ makes a point of saying that He does not pray for the world.
How do these verses impact our understanding of the atonement? Specifically related to the extent of the atonement, do these verses support a particular redemption (limited atonement) or a general redemption (general atonement)?
John 17:6 and John 17:9 clearly show us that God has a particular people that have been given to Jesus. Christ causes Himself to be known to these people, who then follow and obey Him. Jesus prays for these people, but not for the entire world.
There can be no doubt that these verses support particular redemption. The entire theme of these verses is that God has a specific people. Christ prays for only these people. Therefore, Christ would have died for these specific people.
It would be outlandish to say that Christ died for the sins of those whom He was not given, who do not follow Him, and whom He does not even pray for.
God has a specific plan of redemption which began before the foundation of the world (see Eph. 1:3-5). This plan extends to the end of time and beyond (see Eph. 1:13-14). This plan is for the redemption of a specific people, whom God has chosen out. These people will all turn to Christ in repentance and belief.
In this specific plan, God the Son died for this specific people. All of the atoning work of the cross is effective. If, on the other hand, Jesus had died for the sins of all humanity, then most of the atoning work of the cross would have been wasted (since the vast majority of people are not saved). We know that God's work is not wasted.
When Jesus prays in John 17, He prays for God's specific, particular people. These are the same people for whom He died. Christ prays for His own children.