That's the way the question is put by most advocates of limited atonement. I clearly remember hearing Greg Bahnsen (on tape) say that very thing. Christ's sacrifice actually saves. This is in contrast to the Arminian position (and other non-Calvinistic positions) that says that Christ's sacrifice only potentially saves: it merely makes salvation possible.
Roger Nicole's Fifth argument against the moderate Calvinists
As you may remember, last time I gave Nicole's response to the myriad of quotations that can be produced from Calvin's works that seem to say that Christ died for the whole world, for every sinner, for all sin, and such like. Nicole has five arguments in response to the moderate Calvinists, who point to those many quotations from Calvin. (If you want to review Nicole's first four arguments, go to John Calvin's many statements on the scope of the atonement. This article is about Nicole's fifth argument, which relates to the question of actual v. merely potential salvation provided by Christ's sacrifice.
In response to the dozens of quotes from Calvin that have a universalistic import, Nicole makes this argument (the fifth of five):
Finally in the context of many of the above quotations expressions are used that connote the actual application or attainment of salvation, not merely an impetration that would still await appropriation: “our sins are forgiven” or “wiped away,” God is “satisfied” or “appeased,” “we are justified,” “we are exempt from condemnation,” “we may partake of the Lord’s Table,” we are “saved,” “delivered,” “restored to life,” “reconciled.” In this respect, as in so many others, Calvin’s language parallels very closely the usage of Scripture. (See for instance Rom 5:18; 8:32 ; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14; Heb 2:9; 1 John 2:2). Neither the Scripture nor Calvin can be fairly interpreted to teach universal salvation, but the passages advanced as supporting universal atonement simply do not stop there. It is of course legitimate to distinguish, as Calvin clearly does, between impetration and application, but it is improper to separate these, since they always go together. The choice, therefore, is not between universal atonement and definite atonement as properly representative of Calvin’s theology, but rather between universal salvation and definite atonement.
Nicole, at 218.
Nicole's fundamental error
Nicole's logical fallacy is called the "black or white fallacy," or "false dilemma." Nicole would have us believe that all the possibilities for interpreting Calvin can be fairly grouped into one of two positions: universal salvation or definite atonement. And when Greg Bahnsen asserted limited atonement as affirming the principal that Christ's death actually saves, he committed the same fallacy.
For example, let's take Nicole's view of Calvin's commentary on Mark 14:24 (cited in footnote 93 of Nicole's article). First here is the quote from Calvin:
Which is shed for many. By the word many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke — Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated.
Calvin, Comm. Mark 14:24. Emphasis added.
Calvin said that Christ's blood was shed not for a part of the world only, but for the whole human race. Nicole would point out that Calvin goes on to say that the words for you are directly related to the disciples, and Calvin applies this language to every believer. And Nicole would buttress his point by reminding us that Calvin is speaking of the institution of the Lord's Supper here, which is, of course, only for believers.
Well, yes and no. First, though, we must remember the logical problem: just because Calvin (and Christ) says that Christ's blood was shed for believers does not mean that Christ's blood was not shed for unbelievers. If the Lord's Supper is given as a comfort to believing souls does not mean that it is not given for the salvation of unbelieving souls.
Those of you who have read this blog for any length of time will remember that this is precisely the point I made in my article about Calvin's dispute with Heshusius.
[W]e maintain, that in the Supper Christ holds forth his body to reprobates as well as to believers...."
Calvin, Theological Treatises.
In Calvin's theology of the Lord's Supper, he plainly asserts that Christ is offered to believer and unbeliever alike in the Supper. Indeed, Calvin goes so far as to say that Christ's body and blood are offered to all in the Supper. Nicole hasn't seen this point, and so his thinking on Calvin's comment to Mark 14:24 is colored by a false bias. He has improperly excluded one of the possibilities for interpreting Calvin.
If I might be so bold as to offer my view of Calvin's theology on this point, I would put it this way: Christ's sacrifice was made for all; and in the Lord's Supper the benefits of that sacrifice are offered to all. Those benefits of the sacrifice of Christ's body and blood offered to us in the Supper can be appropriated only by faith, and the comfort of that universal expiation is realized only by the believer's applying to himself the universal promise. Those who impiously reject Christ offered to us in the Supper cannot be saved, and those who partake of the Supper improperly (not discerning the Lord's body) eat and drink damnation to themselves.
This view both accepts universal expiation and rejects universal salvation. So Nicole can't be right in reducing the possibilities for interpreting Calvin to universal salvation or particular redemption.
More on this point next time.