It’s a fair question for the Arminian to ask: How can you preach the free offer of the gospel when you believe in a limited atonement? How can you preach the “whosoever” of John 3:16 if you cannot be certain that Christ’s atonement was for every person? How can you say, “Turn to Christ and be saved all the ends of the earth” if Christ’s atoning sacrifice does not extend to all humanity?
First, a brief theological refresher. The doctrines known as “Calvinism” insist that Christ’s atonement was completed with a limited or definite purpose in mind—the salvation of God’s elect. Thus, while the atonement was sufficient for all humanity, it was intended and applied only to those who had been specially chosen by God to be his. R.C. Sproul says, “Our view is that the redemption of specific sinners was an eternal plan of God, and this plan and design was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save His people is accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.” Conversely, Arminianism insists that Christ’s atonement was unlimited or universal, both sufficient for all humanity and applied to all equally. The call of the gospel, then, is to embrace what Christ has already done for each sinner.
The question is, do those who believe in a limited atonement have the right to honestly preach the gospel and to call on people to turn to Christ in repentance and faith even when it is possible that this person is not among the elect and, therefore, not the object of Christ’s atoning work?
The old preacher John Elias faced this question in a time of great debate about Calvinism and Arminianism. He was a convinced Calvinist and a gospel herald who could honestly say of himself, “There is not one Arminian on the face of the earth who would preach Christ to all more freely.” When he considered John 3:16 he insisted, “Whosoever! There is an infinite breadth in this word; whosoever, no matter of what nation, no matter how wretched or unworthy he might be; whosoever believeth.” He proclaimed the good news of the gospel and invited all who heard to put their faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, like many other Calvinists, he was told that he could only preach this way in contradiction to his theological principles.
So how did he reconcile “whosoever” with that tricky “L” of TULIP? He did it like this: “When we preach generally that Christ is a Savior to the lost, and persuade everyone that sees his lost estate to flee to him, we do it not under the idea that they are elected or redeemed, but as ruined; thus they are to go to him.” The call of the gospel is not to believe as one who is among the elect, but as one who is among the fallen. “You must believe as a sinner before you can know anything. This is the order of things for the Christian as an individual, and it is also the approach we should take with our listeners,” he insisted. “Our great purpose should be to get them to believe in the Son of God for salvation.”
Election is true and real, a precious doctrine of the Bible. But it is not the summons of the gospel. We do not wait until we are convinced that a person is among the elect before we call upon him to put his faith in Christ. We do not tell unbelievers to concern themselves with whether or not they have been chosen by God. No, we preach the gospel trusting that it will expose their sin, confront their unrighteousness, and save their souls. The only way they can be certain they are among the elect is when they have put their faith in Jesus!
(These quotes were drawn from Seven Leaders by Iain Murray.)