John Owen on the dilemma of unlimited atonement

To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists [that is universal redemption/unlimited atonement proponents, specifically Thomas More and contemporaries]:–God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God enter into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: “If the LORD should mark iniquities, who should stand?” Ps. cxxx. 3. We might all go to cast all that we have “to the moles and to the bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty,” Isa.ii. 20, 21. If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will.” – John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [Banner of Truth, 2007], 61-62

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6 thoughts on “John Owen on the dilemma of unlimited atonement

  1. Hey there,

    What about this: Original Sin. If Owen says Christ made a satisfaction for original sin, then there is at least one sin of all men for which Christ made a satisfaction. For the original sin is an indivisible sin. There are not original sins, plural. If Christ made a expiatory sacrifice for the original sin of the elect (so to speak) then he made a satisfaction for the original sin of the non-elect too,

    You might also consider that the double payment argument which lies behind Owen’s statement: “If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?” (and like assumptions) was deemed invalid by such men as RL Dabney, Charles Hodge, William Shedd and others. There counter was that Christ could suffer for the sins of a given man and yet that man will suffer in his own person if he does not believe in Christ.

    You can find their rebuttals and explanations regarding the unsoundness of the double payment argument, along with others, here: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=7323

    Thanks for your time,
    David

    • I am unsure what exactly you are going for when you talk about Christ dying for original sin. As far as my understanding of Owen’s view of limited atonement (which I hold to) it looks like this: Jesus Christ on the cross bore the sins (both the guilt of original sin and any guilt for personal sin) for each and every one of the elect and no one but the elect. Christ’s death is sufficient in value to provide a offer of salvation to all man; if you believe you will be forgiven of yours sins and imputed with Christ’s righteousness (obviously not presented that way), but the intent of the Father and Son in the cross was to bear the sins of and be substitute for only the Elect, in dying the Son purchased faith and sanctification ensuring that those He died for would believe, and since all others are bound to their sin only they would believe, and persevere to glorification. When someone goes to Hell they are suffering as consequence of inherited sin, personal sin, and sinning in rejecting God. I do not recall any specific discussion of the bearing of original sin (though he does discuss Thomas Mores argument from the typological relationship between Adam and Christ, specifically page 240-247 of the Banner of truth reprint with an introduction by J.I. Packer). I recommend scanning this discussion for what Owen has to say on it. I am reading some of the links on your site, I have to ask; have you read Owen’s book? Because most of their objections seem to be answered in his book (for example, the argument in the article by Davenant about conditionality of Christ’s provision was brought up by the Amyraldians of Owen’s day and is explicitly and sufficiently dealt with in the book; Davenant’s, and I guess Hodge’s, basic position would seem to drift away from Penal Substitutionary Atonement in that it would deny an actual imputation of sin to Christ on the cross but merely [implied, they definitely don’t say this] that the Cross gave God the ability to pardon sinners upon a condition), and where they lead to an ambiguity (it could be equally universal or limited on this point) the evidence produced by Owen, much of which has never been answered, tips the scale in favour of Limited atonement: for one the very nature of Christ’s priestly duties and the inseparable connection between mediation and the offering of sacrifice, which would seem to have, both on the basis of their Scriptural accounts and the nature of the role, the same recipients; namely, the elect, for it is only these that Christ mediates for both in Hebrews and in John 17 (where this sole object of mediation is made explicit); also the ambiguity of the uses of “all” and “world” brought up in favour of universal atonement, but the clarity of the Scriptures where Christ is said to die for His church (eg. John 15, John 10, Ephesians 5:25) giving the apparent intention of His death. Shedd’s answer also falls into the conditionality talk and takes away from the definiteness of Christ’s payment. In this small space of a comment I am in no way able to accurately deal with what you have to say, but I highly recommend reading Owen’s book, at least to clarify what he believes, and if you have read it, re-read it with the articles on your site in mind.
      I also struggle with what you say about original sin, I feel like we have differing understandings on what exactly original sin is. According to William Ames, a prominent Puritan theologian, Original Sin is “a habitual deviation of the whole nature of man, or a turning aside of the law of God” (120- Marrow of the Theology). What I think you have in mind is the inherited guilt from Adam. Ames discusses this under the heading of “The Propogation of Sin”; this is that we are imputed with the guilt of Adam due to his fall incurring guilt for all his seed as their federal head (116- Marrow of Theology). This “Propogation of Sin” is also called Inherited guilt/sin by Grudem (494). He clarifies that he prefers inherited guilt/sin to the more common “original sin” because of the common confusion between Adam’s actual sin and the sin that is ours as a result of thee fall (494, ft. 8) (Rom. 5:12 being the main text for this idea of propogated, inherited sin). I think that your argument suggested has an unwarranted premise. You argue like this: 1) If Christ made a satisfaction for original sin 2) the original sin is an indivisible sin; There are not original sins, plural.2) then there is at least one sin of all men for which Christ made a satisfaction. Therefore if Christ made a expiatory sacrifice for the original sin of the elect (so to speak) then he made a satisfaction for the original sin of the non-elect too. The original sin is one sin, but we all have been imputed with guilt based of the fall and Adam’s federal headship; Christ did not need to bear the guilt for the sin Adam commited, for he did that (assuming Adam is a believer) in dying on the cross for Adam as an elect man. All Christ had to do was bear the punishment that was imputed to each of the elect from the fall; to make your argument justified you need to show from Scripture (which I do not think you can) that Christ bore the whole mess of imputed guilt for all man, which comes back to proving He died for all man (which you can’t, because it is not taught in Scripture), and that “original sin” is an indivisible single entity imputed provisionally to each human being but remaining one body of guilt (which you can’t). Also, applying a reductio ad absurdum to your argument, it nips itself in the bud; original sin contains both Ames’ Propogation of Sin and his Original sin, what was given to us as a result of the fall, intertwined, was both a total inclination to sin and actual condemning guilt. If you argue that Christ died bearing the whole package for each and every man then you have to conclude that no man is under slavish bond of depravity, as well as being free from inherited guilt, which is something that can only be said of the elect, those drawn by God and regenerated (John 6:37-45).

      As for their counter, I don’t see how that helps any. If a man can suffer after Christ has born his sin then there is only two things he could be suffering for: either Christ only conditionally bore his sin (which leads to the satisfaction or moral theories of the Atonement, or even Governmental, as held by Hugo Grotius, the Socinians, and various others, but which all negate the strong biblical language of redemption, reconciliation, and propitiation: Christ did not potentially bear sins but actually died bearing the punishment for sins in a sinners place and taking the full weight of the wrath of God against said person one Himself), or Christ did not bear all his sins for he would be punished for the sin of unbelief, which could not have been covered in the Atonement or else the man could not be punished for it.

      What I have to say may be incoherent (sorry, I am a little tired and needing to get to working on a sermon), but I highly recommend that you read/re-read The Death of Death in the Death of Christ so that you both see the answers to your challenges as well as the tremendous positive scriptural case for the doctrine of limited atonement (preferably; particular redemption).

      Blessings in Christ,
      James

  2. Hey James

    You say: I am unsure what exactly you are going for when you talk about Christ dying for original sin. As far as my understanding of Owen’s view of limited atonement (which I hold to) it looks like this: Jesus Christ on the cross bore the sins (both the guilt of original sin and any guilt for personal sin) for each and every one of the elect and no one but the elect.

    David: Original sin is a singular sin. It is indivisible. As Adam’s one sin is imputed to all his offspring, as to condemnation. It is not as if his offspring each committed original sins. There is only one. To make an atonement for Adam’s original sin, is to make an atonement for all his offspring. It’s the nature of the thing itself, as its indivisible. That is why Adam brings death to all, with no exception (apart from Christ of course).

    You say: Christ’s death is sufficient in value to provide a offer of salvation to all man;

    David: Actually for Owen its not sufficient for all externally or extrinsically. Owen posited a distinction between the sufficiency’s internal value and external sufficiency. This changes everything.

    For Owen, the satisfaction is only sufficient for all who come. That is not the same as saying its sufficient to all to whom the offer comes. If you go here, http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?page_id=7327 you can see Owen’s comments as compared to the original sufficiency formula.

    You say: if you believe you will be forgiven of yours sins and imputed with Christ’s righteousness (obviously not presented that way),

    David: But that is not properly a offer. Like this: “If you get in a car you will find sufficient room.” Have I necessarily offered anything? No. But lets say, the car is a 4 seater, and I say to a crowd of 10, “If you all get in my car you will find sufficient room.” That would be a false statement. A limited provision cannot sustain an unlimited offer, or more strictly, the offer of the provision cannot be more extensive than the provision itself.

    A pie which can only feed 4 people cannot be offered to 20 as if it could feed all 20. Even saying to all 20, “If you come and sit at the table you will find sufficient pie,” that would be false.

    No provision has been made for the non-elect, so no provision can be offered to them. Even saying to them, “If you come to believe and repent, you will find sufficient provision for yourselves” would be false, as there is no provision for them, such that even if they were to believe, there would no possible forgiveness for them. A lot more could be said on this as it entails role of counter-factuals relative to simple statements of material condition.

    You say: but the intent of the Father and Son in the cross was to bear the sins of and be substitute for only the Elect, in dying the Son purchased faith and sanctification ensuring that those He died for would believe, and since all others are bound to their sin only they would believe,

    David: Of course dying for the elect only is the point of dispute. But as well, nowhere does it say faith, etc, is purchased. Do you know where it does?

    You say: [cut] I am reading some of the links on your site, I have to ask; have you read Owen’s book? Because most of their objections seem to be answered in his book

    David: Yes many times.

    You say: (for example, the argument in the article by Davenant about conditionality of Christ’s provision was brought up by the Amyraldians of Owen’s day and is explicitly and sufficiently dealt with in the book; Davenant’s, and I guess Hodge’s, basic position would seem to drift away from Penal Substitutionary Atonement in that it would deny an actual imputation of sin to Christ on the cross but merely

    David: Actually its Hodge who accepts truly penal satisfaction while Owen has a pecuniary-penal satisfaction. As Packer notes in his dissertation, the Puritans often blended civil and criminal law in their treatments of Christ’s death. In civil law, satisfaction is made by means of pecuniary restoration. In other words, Owen has the causalities of a commercial satisfaction operating in his nominal penal satisfaction. In my opinion, its penal in name only, but thats probably too strong of me to say that.

    You say: [implied, they definitely don’t say this] that the Cross gave God the ability to pardon sinners upon a condition), and where they lead to an ambiguity (it could be equally universal or limited on this point) the evidence produced by Owen, much of which has never been answered, tips the scale in favour of Limited atonement:

    David: Actually I think Owen has already been answered. There is a Th.M by Neil Chambers that gives a blistering refutation of Owen’s assumptions. I can send a long a pdf copy if you like.

    You say: for one the very nature of Christ’s priestly duties and the inseparable connection between mediation and the offering of sacrifice, which would seem to have, both on the basis of their Scriptural accounts and the nature of the role, the same recipients; namely, the elect, for it is only these that Christ mediates for both in Hebrews and in John 17 (where this sole object of mediation is made explicit);

    David: Actually there is no evidence that says or suggests that the scope of the expiation is limited to the scope of the intercession. Jn 17 only says Christ does not pray for the world, ie unbelievers, but he prays first for the 11, then for future believers, and then even for the world in some sense, vs21 and 23. Can you show where the two scopes are limited? Don’t just show an example where he does not pray for the unbelieving world. You should see that that is not enough.

    You say: also the ambiguity of the uses of “all” and “world” brought up in favour of universal atonement, but the clarity of the Scriptures where Christ is said to die for His church (eg. John 15, John 10, Ephesians 5:25) giving the apparent intention of His death. Shedd’s answer also falls into the conditionality talk and takes away from the definiteness of Christ’s payment. In this small space of a comment I am in no way able to accurately deal with what you have to say, but I highly recommend reading Owen’s book, at least to clarify what he believes, and if you have read it, re-read it with the articles on your site in mind

    David: You are just throwing everything out there. So the question is, For whose sins was Christ punished? The verses you cite actually do no answer this. For example, Davenant would say Christ suffered for the sins of all men, and yet also cite those same verses to prove a special intent to apply salvation to the elect alone.

    You say: I also struggle with what you say about original sin, I feel like we have differing understandings on what exactly original sin is. According to William Ames, a prominent Puritan theologian, Original Sin is “a habitual deviation of the whole nature of man, or a turning aside of the law of God” (120- Marrow of the Theology).

    David: Interesting. I am reading it now. Normally there is original sin and actual sin. What he is describing as the consequence of original sin: note he uses the equivalent phrase original corruption. If we all ourselves effect original sin, that would make us Pelagian.

    You say: [cut cut] The original sin is one sin, but we all have been imputed with guilt based of the fall and Adam’s federal headship; Christ did not need to bear the guilt for the sin Adam commited, for he did that (assuming Adam is a believer) in dying on the cross for Adam as an elect man. All Christ had to do was bear the punishment that was imputed to each of the elect from the fall;

    David: So he didnt die for Adam’s original sin, he only died for the consequences of that sin in with regard to the elect. That’s interesting. I am thinking of those confessions which speak of Christ making satisfaction for sins, original and actual.

    I think you are stretching it. Ames, like the confession speaks of original corruption as original sin, being its consequences, depravity and all that. But original sin is different as guilt is different from sinful nature. The one sin brings *guilt* to all men, as well. We are not talking about the nature derived from original sin. Did Christ make a satisfaction for the guilt of original sin? You would have to say the guilt of so many original sins, which is very problematic.

    You say: to make your argument justified you need to show from Scripture (which I do not think you can) that Christ bore the whole mess of imputed guilt for all man, which comes back to proving He died for all man

    David: Well I am not sure about that. There are two issues here, did Christ bear original guilt? Yes or no? I am not talking about the consequences of original corruption, but the guilt of original sin as per Romans 5. And then there is a separate issue of whether or not Christ bore the guilt of all the sins of all men; which I would not call a mess. 🙂

    You say: (which you can’t, because it is not taught in Scripture), and that “original sin” is an indivisible single entity imputed provisionally to each human being but remaining one body of guilt (which you can’t).

    David: I am not sure how it imputed provisionally? Death is not imputed provisionally. The original sin refers to the guilt of death. Christ made satisfaction for original sin, he made satisfaction for the guilt of death. And given that its indivisible, the satisfaction relates to all men equally. Not that all men are thereby saved, but the satisfaction is for it nonetheless: and here is where I might use the word provisional. 🙂

    You say: Also, applying a reductio ad absurdum to your argument, it nips itself in the bud; original sin contains both Ames’ Propogation of Sin and his Original sin, what was given to us as a result of the fall, intertwined, was both a total inclination to sin and actual condemning guilt.

    David: No because there is the guilt of original sin and the inherited corruption therefrom. This inherent corruption generates “actual sins.” Original and actual are distinguishable.

    You say: If you argue that Christ died bearing the whole package for each and every man then you have to conclude that no man is under slavish bond of depravity, as well as being free from inherited guilt, which is something that can only be said of the elect, those drawn by God and regenerated (John 6:37-45).

    David: No, you say that because you work on a pecuniary model of satisfaction. As Hodge says Christ could die for a man, and notwithstanding that death for that man, that man could suffer in is own person for his own sin: exactly because penal satisfaction does not function along pecuniary causalities, as the double payment assumes; indeed, must assume if it wants to get off the ground,

    You say: As for their counter, I don’t see how that helps any. If a man can suffer after Christ has born his sin then there is only two things he could be suffering for: either Christ only conditionally bore his sin (which leads to the satisfaction or moral theories of the Atonement, or even Governmental, as held by Hugo Grotius, the Socinians, and various others, but which all negate the strong biblical language of redemption, reconciliation, and propitiation: Christ did not potentially bear sins but actually died bearing the punishment for sins in a sinners place and taking the full weight of the wrath of God against said person one Himself), or Christ did not bear all his sins for he would be punished for the sin of unbelief, which could not have been covered in the Atonement or else the man could not be punished for it.

    David: No. Youve blended the penal satisfaction with pecuniary categories that you have no conceptual room for any other truly penal satisfaction, so you must lump dissenting views into the Grotian basket. And also, Grotius didnt teach a Socinian view, nor what now today is called Governmentalism in populist literature.

    So like this, the Reformed view, the post-pecuniary view, that is, is that Christ is treated as tho he had sinned. No sin is transferred to Christ. The elect, when born, were not born guiltless. Christ is reckoned (imputed) purely putatively, a sinner, all the while the living unbelieving elect remain sinners and guilty. Christ stands in and bears what is deemed as a just equivalent of the condemnation due to sinners. But nothing, neither sin, nor guilt, is actually transferred to Christ. There is a lot more to it, but that is a start.

    At heart, we have two versions of penal satisfaction–leaving aside the extent question completely at this point–you have a blended pecuniary-penal model, while folk like C Hodge, Dabney and others have a properly penal model. That is why folk like C Hodge reject the double payment argument.

    You say: What I have to say may be incoherent (sorry, I am a little tired and needing to get to working on a sermon), but I highly recommend that you read/re-read The Death of Death in the Death of Christ so that you both see the answers to your challenges as well as the tremendous positive scriptural case for the doctrine of limited atonement (preferably; particular redemption).

    David: Its always good to read both sides of an argument so I recommend: Chambers, N.A. “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in the Death of Death in the Death of Christ,” Th.M. thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998.

    • You said you had that in PDF, could you send it to me? I would really love to read it! I 100% agree that it is vitally important to read both sides. I thank you for giving me a lot to think about, you have obviously spent a lot more time studying this than I have and I appreciate the time you have taken to deal with my foolish ramblings, I don’t agree with you right now but I definitely will look into it further!
      Blessings,
      James

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