Some opponents of Reformed theology argue the following:
Calvinism as a system claims that God reprobates a large segment of mankind so that they can never be saved. It further claims that the atonement is for this reason limited only to the elect who alone will benefit from the atonement and be saved (with no possibility of falling away). In such a system Jesus died only for the sins of the elect. If this is the case it seems that many passages of Scripture are disingenuous in commanding all people everywhere to repent and believe on Christ when repentance is impossible for reprobates and Christ did not die for them anyway.....
If Calvinism is to be consistent in these claims it cannot allow for a person to rightly tell someone that Christ died for them. The best one can do is say that if they repent and believe, Christ died for them or that Christ died for sinners (meaning “some sinners” but not necessarily the sinner they are presently speaking to) or that Christ might have died for them, or something similar. Therefore, consistent Calvinists say it is wrong to tell the unsaved that Christ died for them.
After making this charge the one issuing it will usually appeal to one pericope primarily, and other passages secondarily. First we will examine the primary text and provide an exegetical response. Let's turn to our text:
NAS 1 Corinthians 15:1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (1Co 15:1-4 NAS)
Paul is not saying that he is bringing forward new knowledge, but rather he is reminding his audience of the message he received, confirmed with John and James, then made known to them years earlier. He adds to this that it is that same apostolic message that they are currently standing in, rather than "could" be standing in. So it is evident that his goal here is not to make converts but to remind converts of the original message and compare. Paul then adds "by which also you are saved". The idea here is of an already continuing, firm, salvation that will persevere in the future. Contrary to the objector's interpretation Paul is not trying to convey this message to produce converts among them. As Ellicott's commentary for English Readers notes:
The idea here is not, as implied in the English version, that they were converted, and yet that heretofore no results have followed from their belief; it is the same thought which comes out more fully in 1 Corinthians 15:17. They are saved by their faith in the gospel as preached by St. Paul, unless (which is impossible) the whole gospel be false, and so their faith in it be vain and useless.
Paul then adds the phrase "unless you believed in vain". The Greek word used here is "εἰκῇ" and it is overwhelmingly not conveying the idea that unbelievers are being corrected about salvation here. This is shown in the work called "An Exegetical Summary of 1 Corinthians 10-16" by Ronald Trail where he lists the many ways this word can be taken to be meant. He writes:
QUESTION—What does εἰκῇ ‘in vain’ mean?It means that what they believed will not be realized [TH]. Paul addresses the whole membership of the congregation and some may not have a genuine faith [MNTC, TNTC]. This means unless their faith is worthless and they believed without effect [MNTC]. It means believing without due consideration or thoughtlessly [NIGTC]. It means ‘at random’ so that it led nowhere and resulted in nothing [Lns]. It means worthless [AB, Ho]. It means without consideration, heedlessly, rashly [ICC]. It means of no purpose, which would be true if Christ has not been raised [Vn]. The word refers to 15:14 and the possibility that the faith of the Corinthians might be in vain if Christ has not been raised [Alf, NCBC, NIC2]. Paul is using this ironically to refer to the hypothetical possibility that their faith just might be in vain if it turns out that Christ is not raised [Ho, NIC2].
All the contingency is then placed on the veracity of the bodily resurrection itself, it is the object of our faith in question here and not the veracity of faith itself. It would indeed be vanity for any of them to believe if the bodily resurrection is a sham. As if speaking anew to arouse the attention of his audience, Paul begins to give them the same arguments and repeat exactly what the original message is. He starts by emphasizing that this creed is of "first importance" and begins to define the good news they already received so that he can compare their message with his, just as he did with John and James.
Paul then states in verse 3 that Christ died for "our sins". The objection here is that it does not say "the elect's sins". I can readily agree on this point. However, It can equally be said that it does not say "every person's sins". In fact it is probably better to understand this phrase to be Paul including himself along with his audience. And who is his audience? He tells us in the salutation that it is not unbelievers. He explicitly says this letter is to " the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: (1Co 1:2 KJV)". It is likely that even here the usage of the word "Our" is referring to the Apostolic circle because they are here called saints who were sanctified. Additionally in scripture, while justification is attached to Christ's resurrection, the canceling of the sin debt and the penalty of death was still paid upon Christ's death.
Returning back to verse 3 of 1 Corinthians 15 it has been noted that the word "our" is a gloss as well; and the whole phrase is likely an allusion to the song in Isaiah 53:3-7 hence the phrase "according to the scriptures". But the attempt made by those who deny limited atonement here rests on the assumption that Paul is quoting this message verbatim (including you or our) in his kerygma. This is simply wrong. The language here is indeed very indicative if a passing on of oral tradition due to use of the words "paradoka" and "paralambano". But the way in which a strict quote is to be found in the Greek is not found here. James White explains it here.
With all of that out of the way only one issue remains to be answered. So are Calvinists telling someone something false when they say Christ died for sinners? Absolutely not! Since we do not know who the elect are. How can we be disingenuous, or labeled liars, for something we are unaware of ? Liars are people who tell somebody something they know is in reality false. Which is why saying Christ died for sinners, or sin is very legitimate. This is known as a synecdoche and there is absolutely nothing wrong or illogical with such usage. Especially considering every person has the quality of being sinful. Additionally this same charge applies to the Arminian due to his scheme of God's foreknowledge. As Loraine Boettner put it in his book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination:
1. THE SAME OBJECTION APPLIES AGAINST GOD'S FOREKNOWLEDGE
Although the Gospel is offered to many who will not, and who for subjective reasons cannot, accept, it is, nevertheless, sincerely
offered to all. The objection so strenuously urged on some occasions by Arminians, to the effect that if the doctrine of Predestination is
true the Gospel cannot be sincerely offered to the non-elect, should be sufficiently answered by the fact that it bears with equal force
against the doctrine of God's Foreknowledge. We might ask, How can the offer of salvation be sincerely made to those who God
foreknows will despise and reject it, especially when their guilt and condemnation will only be increased by their refusal? Arminians
admit that God knows beforehand who will accept and who will reject the message; yet they know themselves to be under a divine
command to preach to all men, and they do not feel that they act insincerely in doing so.
Finally there is a charge regarding how counter intuitive it is for God to command things people are unable to do. While I have dealt with that issue here, and disagree with Schreiner in a sense, I will leave you with Thomas Schreiner's comments in this post for your consideration on this final point.
It should be acknowledged that Wesleyan logic is coherent here, and one can see why Wesleyans would deduce human ability from the giving of commands. Nonetheless, even though their logic is impeccable, it does not necessarily follow that their conclusion is true. An argument may be logically co-herent and not fit with the state of affairs in the world because the answer given is not comprehensive. To put it another way, one of the premises in the Wesleyan argument is not in accord with the reality of life as it is portrayed in the Scriptures. They are incorrect in deducing that God would not give commands without giving the moral ability to obey them. The distinction between physical and moral ability is crucial. For instance, human beings are physically able (in most cases) to walk up steps, but they are physically unable to jump over houses. In a similar way, God gives commands to unbelievers that they can physically obey; that is, they could observe his commandments if they desired to do so. Unbelievers are morally unable to keep God's commands in the sense that they have no desire to obey all of his commandments.