The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 1)

In the Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647), Dr. John Owen offers a famous argument for a limited atonement. That was explored in another post. In chapter 1 of Book I there is another challenge presented to those who hold to a general atonement, in which Christ “died to redeem all and every one”.

The dilemma for those rejecting a limited atonement

Anyone holding the view that Christ died for “all the sins of all men”, according to Owen, should logically arrive at an unsatisfying conclusion, thus demonstrating that the view is incorrect.

In a nutshell:

if he died for all, all must also be justified, or the Lord failed in his aim and design, both in the death and resurrection of his Son (Book I 7.1)

800px-John_Owen_by_John_GreenhillAt the end of opening chapter, he also argues:

Wherefore, to cast a tolerable colour upon their persuasion, they must and do deny that God or his Son had any such absolute aim or end in the death or blood-shedding of Jesus Christ, … but that God intended nothing

According to Dr. Owen my options, should I hold that Christ died “for all the sins of all people”, are:

  • Universalism
  • Accepting that God had no purpose or intention behind the cross
  • Accepting that God had a purpose behind the cross but failed to achieve it

Way to box someone into a corner.


If we are to understand the purpose of the cross than, according to Owen, we must address both the intent behind the plan and the outcome as the plan was put into action.

By the end of the death of Christ, we mean in general, both,

  • first, that which his Father and himself intended in it; and,
  • secondly, that which was effectually fulfilled and accomplished by it

How does Dr. Owen understand the intent and the outcome of the death of Christ?

In chapter 3 of Book II, Owen offers a summary of his “thesis”.

Jesus Christ … did offer himself upon the cross, to the procurement of [every spiritual blessing]; and maketh continual intercession with this intent and purpose, that all the good things so procured by his death might be actually and infallibly bestowed on and applied to all and every one for whom he died,

In the next chapter, Owen describes the purpose of the cross even more succinctly:

whomsoever Christ obtained any good thing by his death, unto them it shall certainly be applied

For Owen a distinction between the obtaining of spiritual blessings and the application of them “hath no place in the intention and purpose of Christ”.

When we read that Christ came to “save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), a favorite passage for Owen, we are not to understand this to mean that Jesus came to save all sinners without exception. But that He came to “actually” save only those whom He died for (those that were unconditionally elected).

the end of our Saviour’s coming, … [was] namely, to “save sinners;” — not to open a door for them to come in if they will or can; not to make a way passable, that they may be saved; not to purchase reconciliation and pardon of his Father, which perhaps they shall never enjoy; but actually to save them from all the guilt and power of sin, and from the wrath of God for sin: which, if he doth not accomplish, he fails of the end of his coming… (Book II, chapter 3)

Owen contends that Christ’s death does not make salvation possible. It actually and infallibly applies the benefits of the cross to everyone that Christ died for, because that is the intention God had in the cross. In Owen’s view, it logically follows, that anyone who does not receive these benefits was someone that Christ did not die for. If Christ died and purchased salvation for anyone that did not receive the benefits, then God would be a failure because His plan was not accomplished.

Wise and powerful agents don’t fail to accomplish what they intend

Why does Owen understand the plan in this way? In Book I, chapter 2 he verbosely lays out the following argument:

  • The end of any thing is that which the agent intendeth to accomplish
  • The end is the first, principal, moving cause of the whole. It is that for whose sake the whole work is.
  • No agent applies itself to action but for an end
  • That which the agent doth for the compassing his proposed end, is called the means

The majority of Book I goes on to describe the Trinity  as the “agent in, and chief author of, this great work of our redemption”.

When an agent fails to accomplish what it intends it is the result of lacking either the wisdom or the ability to carry out the plan.

unless it be either for want of wisdom and certitude of mind in the agent, in choosing and using unsuitable means for the attaining of the end proposed, or for want of skill and power to make use of and rightly to improve well-proportioned means to the best advantage, these things are always coincident; the work effecteth what the workman intendeth. (Book II, chap 1)

Owen emphasizes that God can never “have any end attend or follow his acts not precisely by him intended”. To argue that God failed to accomplish what He intended is to “blasphemously ascribe want of wisdom, power, perfection, and sufficiency in working”.

God is all-wise and all-powerful and would certainly have the means of insuring that any plan He proposes would be carried out so that it fulfilled and accomplished the ends that He intended by it. Owen is on solid ground here, as far as that goes.

However, the question is, what did God intend to accomplish through Christ’s death on the cross? Does Owen correctly understand the purpose of the cross?

Did God intend to have Christ die to make salvation possible?

In order to make his case Owen presents a Scriptural argument presenting numerous passages in which Christ is said to have died to “save many” not “all”.

I say …. that Christ affirming that he gave his life for “many,” for his “sheep,” being said to die for his ” church,” and innumerable places of Scripture witnessing that all men are not of his sheep, of his church, we argue and conclude, by just and undeniable consequence, that he died not for those who are not so. (Book II chapter 3)

In Book II, chapter 4, Owen notes that not all agree with his interpretation of these passages. Some provide a “general answer which is usually given to the places of Scripture produced, to waive the sense of them”.

Some of them say that Christ, by his death and passion, did absolutely, according to the intention of God, purchase for all and every man, dying for them, remission of sins and reconciliation with God, or a restitution into a state of grace and favour; all which shall be actually beneficial to them, provided that they do believe

Not surprisingly Owen rejects this view.

But as this post has gotten to be quite long, let’s stop and consider this view in relationship to the dilemma posed by John Own.

If the intention God had in the cross was to make salvation possible for all people, and to apply the benefits only to those who believe then we can assess things quite differently from Owen. We could hold that Christ died for “all the sins of all people” and avoid having to accept one of the following:

  • Universalism
  • God had no purpose or intention behind the cross
  • God had a purpose behind the cross but failed to achieve it

First, God as a purposeful agent would have intended the cross to be the means by which all people may be forgiven of sins, adopted as sons, and reconciled to Him. This intention is clear for He desires that none would perish but all would repent and be saved (Ezek 18:32; 33:11; John 1:29; 1 Tim 2:4; Titus 2:11; 2 Peter 3:9).

Second, God’s purpose in sending Jesus was to save sinners, not only the unconditionally elect. Because Jesus dealt with the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 John 4:14) He made salvation possible for all (1 John 2:1-2; 2 Cor 5:19) through faith (John 3:16; Eph 2:8) just as He intended.

Third, by making salvation possible to all sinners through faith, God can sincerely provide good news for all the people (Luke 2:10).  If the atonement is limited and Jesus only obtained salvation for some then the gospel is not good news for most. There is no hope for anyone whose debts were not cancelled on the cross (Col 2:14). They remain as strangers and aliens, excluded from the promises of God (Eph 2:12, 19).

Fourth, God being all-wise and all-powerful would successfully accomplish His plan just as He intended even if many, whom Christ did die for, do not have the benefits of the cross applied. When people resist the Spirit (Acts 7:51), it is not God that is lacking in wisdom or power. Nor is He the one that fails to accomplish to save sinners through the cross. The failure is on the person because they chose to remain in unbelief and thus not meet the condition of faith (John 3:36).

Fifth, God does effectually and actually saves (ie applies all spiritual blessings) every person that is found in Christ, having been placed in Him through faith (John 1:12; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:3-14; Rom 6:23; 8:1)

How does Owen respond to this understanding of the purpose of the cross?

[to be continued]

7 thoughts on “The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 1)

  1. For those interested in this topic, there are two great articles on SEA that deal with a provisional atonement

    1) this article examines the parable of the wedding feast exploring how it relates to the question whom Christ died for.

    2) this article examines the third point made in the OP but in much greater detail. The sincerity of the gospel offer to all is not possible if the atonement is limited as Owen and Calvinists claim.

  2. Pingback: The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 2) | Dead Heroes Don't Save

  3. Pingback: The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 3) | Dead Heroes Don't Save

  4. Pingback: The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 4) | Dead Heroes Don't Save

  5. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | Mike Barlotta, “The Death of John Owen’s Argument That a General Atonement Means God Failed to Achieve His Goal (Part 3)”

  6. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | Mike Barlotta, “The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal” (Part 4)

  7. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | Friday Files, 16 August 2019

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s