Some Christian doctrine is difficult. It challenges our self-image by bringing us face to face with the limits of the finite. To put it plainly, we don't know everything, and God sometimes tells us things that would require more knowledge than we possess to properly understand.
(That doesn't mean, of course, that we ought to reject the truth or succumb to skepticism.)
Calvin's universalism and particularism
Calvin's doctrine of the atonement is one of those doctrines that we find it difficult to believe. There is no dispute that Calvin believed in predestination. There ought to be no dispute, on the other hand, that he also taught that Christ died for all men. Many who read Calvin, including eminent scholars, find Calvin's doctrine of predestination irreconcilable with the idea of universal atonement. And so they reject Calvin's plainly universalistic statements. He must have taught limited atonement, or else he could not have held to predestination. (See Paul Helm, for example.)
John Flavel's universalism and particularism
But not all theologians who followed in the Calvinistic tradition had such skeptical reactions. John Flavel is a good example.
My friend Tony Byrne has posted several quotations from John Flavel on his blog lately. Consider this strongly universalistic statement from Flavel that Tony posted on his blog on September 3rd:
[T]he first motions of mercy and salvation to you freely arise out of his grace and good pleasure. God entreats you to be reconciled. 2 Cor. 5 : 20. The blessed Lord Jesus, whose blood thy sins have shed, now freely offers that blood for thy reconciliation, justification, and salvation, if thou wilt but sincerely accept him ere it be too late.
Here is Flavel speaking of Christ's blood having been shed for the sins of all sinners. Very much in the vein of Calvin's thought.
On the other hand, here is Flavel with a strongly particularistic statement. Flavel speaks here of Isaiah 53:12:
In this verse we have, 1. His work. * * * His work, which was indeed a hard work, to pour out his soul unto death, aggravated by the companions, with whom, being numbered with transgressors; the capacity in which, bearing all the sins of the elect, "he bare the sins of many"....
So which is it?
Did Christ die for all — or did he die for the elect?
The answer, of course, is, "both." Christ died for all men in some senses (which include redemptive and gracious purposes) though these senses do not necessarily reach to actual application of the eternal salvation purchased by Christ. From Flavel's universalistic and particularistic statements, I conclude that he held to some sort of dual aspect to the atonement, probably along lines similar to Calvin.
How does one reconcile universalism with particularism? Well, there are ways —there is always a way— though these ways may seem artificial or speculative. But we must accept the plain statements of scripture, though we may find them difficult —or impossible— to reconcile. To paraphrase R. L. Dabney, it would be exceeding presumption to suppose that because we do not see a reconciliation to the problem, none can be known to God.