The Death of John Owen’s Argument


In the Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647), Dr. John Owen offers a famous argument for a limited atonement. This argument appears at the end of Book I, chapter 3 (link) and seems to force the reader to accept Dr. Owen’s conclusion that Jesus only died for the sins of some, rather than all, people.

To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists:—

God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either

(1) all the sins of all men, or
(2) all the sins of some men, or
(3) 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.

This argument seems to box in the opponent of limited atonement. But only because Dr. Owen presumes that another premise is true.

Jesus does not make salvation possible for all but actually saves those whom He specifically chose to die for.

This is stated clearly in chapter 1 of Book I800px-John_Owen_by_John_Greenhill.jpg

The sum of all is, — The death and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ hath wrought, and doth effectually procure, for all those that are concerned in it, eternal redemption, consisting in grace here and glory hereafter.

Owen goes on to argue that those who hold to a general ransom, in which Christ “died to redeem all and every one”, must deny “that any such thing was immediately procured and purchased by” Jesus death. Opponents of a limited atonement must hold that

no benefit ariseth to any immediately by his death but what is common to all and every soul, … until an act of some, … to wit, faith, do distinguish them from others.

Dr. Packer writing in the introduction in the 1958 reprint (link) writes more clearly and concisely that “the purpose of [limited atonement], as we shall see, is to safe guard the central affirmation of the gospel – that Christ is a redeemer who really does redeem.”

John Piper (link) agrees with Owen asking:

But what would it mean to say of an unbeliever in hell that Christ died for his sins? Would we mean that the debt for his sins was paid? If so, why is he paying again in hell?

The answer will be found as we explore Dr. Owen’s argument with one of our own. For the sake of argument, we will presuppose many Calvinistic premises.

Ed the Elect is born in 1970, at the age of 25 he places his trust in Christ.

When was Ed saved? It was either

1) when he was chosen before the foundation of the world as one of the elect, or
2) when Christ died for all of his sins (including unbelief) in 33 AD, or
3) when he placed his trust in Christ in 1995

If it is either (1) or (2), then we can rightly say that Jesus’ death immediately procured benefits for those whom He died for. But then we must ask when was Ed ever dead in his trespasses? For Scripture affirms that we are all dead in our trespasses (Eph 2:1, 5; Col 2:13; John 3:36) and need to be saved to avoid the wrath of God. And we know that Jesus came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), but it would seem that Ed was never lost.

If it is (3), which is what we affirm, that means that the death of Christ made Ed’s salvation possible but did not immediately procure anything at the time that Jesus died on the cross. Ed was lost and dead in his trespasses – all of his sins (even unbelief), despite being paid for already, were being held against him. The benefits achieved at the cross were not effective for Ed until, to wit, he acted in faith. In coming to Jesus by faith, Ed met the condition God established for all who would be saved (Acts 2:21; Eph 2:8-9; John 3:16-18; Rom 5:1, 10:9-10).  

I will end with a quote from Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge, a 19th century Calvinist (link). Disagreeing with Owen, Packer, and Piper, he affirmed a general atonement in which the possibility of salvation is achieved for all but is applied only to those who meet the condition.

There is no grace in accepting a pecuniary satisfaction. It cannot be refused. It ipso facto liberates. The moment the debt is paid the debtor is free; and that without any condition. Nothing of this is true in the case of judicial satisfaction. If a substitute be provided and accepted it is a matter of grace. His satisfaction does not ipso facto liberate. It may accrue to the benefit of those for whom it is made at once or at a remote period; completely or gradually; on conditions or unconditionally; or it may never benefit them at all unless the condition on which its application is suspended be performed. … What the Reformed or Augustinians hold about election does not affect the nature of the atonement. That remains the same whether designed for the elect or for all mankind. It does not derive its nature from the secret purpose of God as to its application.

3 thoughts on “The Death of John Owen’s Argument

  1. Pingback: The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 1) | Dead Heroes Don't Save

  2. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | The Death of John Owen’s Argument That a General Atonement Means God Failed to Achieve His Goal (Part 1)

  3. I appreciate the attitude of your writing. It seems humble, honest and more concerned with the glory of God than the winning of an argument. I tell people that I hope I am willing to die for the truth I believe, but I am unwilling to harm the least of Christ’s sheep with my tongue. Most Christians with your point of view are usually accused of works salvation, synergism, man is required for his own salvation. Perhaps that is true of you, that you think your work of accepting Christ is equally important or perhaps more important than the work of Christ on the cross for your sin. We serve the God who said, Let there be light and there was light. How do you explain that? This is the approach Jehovah uses to Job, Where were you when I….? We serve the God who calls those things which be not as though they were. My counsel shall stand and I will do all my pleasure. God does things that man cannot explain. God brings life out of death. Hodge’s Systematic Theology is an attempt to answer all the questions within a certain framework of assertions about scripture. I don’t think mankind is capable of building a framework that fully encompasses Jehovah. We can’t put God in our theological box. We are finite. We are fallen. We see through a glass darkly. One of those things which we can’t logically reconcile is man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty in salvation. God can. We can’t. From man’s standpoint, we know that we did something and then something happened. That is undeniable.. It is reality, is it not? But we also learn from scripture that God did something so we could/would do something. Most of us agree we don’t know who will, but God knows. From a personal experience view and a knowledge of scripture view there seem to be two necessary things for salvation. Which is more important? Is man’s work of belief or Christ’s work of atonement more important? I believe the premise you are really wrestling with is what did Christ accomplish on the cross? Your discussion accepts/affirms/assumes Jesus died for the sins of mankind, but not all mankind will be saved. As long as you view salvation from life on earth, and what man does in his life, I don’t think you will appreciate or place greater importance on what God did in eternity. It is kind of a chicken and the egg dilemma. Which came first? Creationists can answer that, the chicken. In salvation, which came first, what God did in eternity or what man does in his life? This question is not the same as the chicken and the egg, because the chicken only exists on this earth, not in eternity. My observation is that the Calvinist can’t get away from what the Bible says God did in eternity, and often tries to negate the responsibility of man. Likewise the Arminian can’t get away from the reality of the responsibility of man on this earth and tends to negate the works of God in eternity. Does life on earth determine life in eternity or does God in eternity determine life on earth and therefore life in heaven also? John Bunyan believed in saving election and damning reprobation. That both were active choices of God apart from any good or evil work of man. But John Bunyan said something like – “No man ever went to heaven because he was elect, but rather because he repented and believed on Jesus Christ as his Saviour. Like wise no man ever went to hell because he was reprobate, but rather because he refused to repent and believe.” There is a need for man to repent and believe to be saved. But God is the one who created everything, sustained everything, has preserved mercy and truth to our souls and orchestrated the fabric of eternity and time that we might be here now. God tracks the number of hairs on our heads. God’s providence brought me across your statements, in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I was looking for John Owen’s personal testimony of salvation. “Who put me to this hand? God did. Who put me to this mind? God did. Who took my soul from the sinking sand? God did. Free for all eternal days, I will sing in holy lays, God did!” May you rejoice in Jehovah. The LORD Bless you – Frank

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