The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series the dilemma that Owen poses to those who reject a limited/particular atonement was explored. According to Dr. Owen the options 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

We left off with Owen acknowledging that others interpreted key passages differently than he did. Those who disagree argue that there is a distinction that must be made between Christ procuring spiritual blessings for all and applying them only on those that believe.

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

Owen vehemently rejects this view citing several reasons in Book II, chapter 4. Several of these seem to be begging the question as they are restating Owen’s conclusions.

  • this distinction (between the procurement of the blessings and the application of them) hath no place in the intention and purpose of Christ.
  • whomsoever Christ obtained any good thing by his death, unto them it shall certainly be applied.
  • [all the spiritual blessings] must be applied to all for whom they are obtained; for otherwise Christ faileth of his end and aim


A quick aside

I found this article, by Andy Naselli, summarizing and evaluating Owen’s work (link). Highly supportive of the work and it’s conclusions, Naselli admits that:

Owen’s writing style is frustratingly cumbersome to the modern reader. Owen employs flowery phrases and elaborate sentence structures that tend to prevent readers from discerning his point as they trip over his verbiage. …  it addresses a thick, deep, and heavy subject in a dense, complicated, exhausting, repetitive way

Naselli also grants the following:

Owen’s [systematic] conclusions, which are superb, are often based on the assumed meaning of proof-texts rather than proven exegesis

In noting these things, this post will attempt to summarize and survey some of the main ideas presented in Book II that Owen offers in support of his argument. The hope is that this will provide clarity in understanding Owen’s points. There will also be a brief response, given with the awareness that there is much more that could be said and explored.

A General Atonement means it is possible none would be saved

Owen poses a hypothetical argument to those who hold to a general atonement. If faith was a “free, contingent act” rather than something that God “absolutely procures” and bestows on the elect then it is possible that no one would believe or be saved. Therefore we should not separate “the obtaining” from the application.

if it were otherwise, and Christ did not aim at the applying of them, but only at their obtaining, then might the death of Christ have had its full effect and issue without the application of redemption and salvation to any one soul

On this point Owen is correct, though his conclusion does not follow. If Christ died so that “a door of grace might be opened to all”, making salvation “only a possibility” that waits for a “free, contingent act”  of faith, then it is logically possible that no one would believe.

Admitting that this is possible is, for Owen, a “blasphemous” attack on the “wisdom, power, perfection, and sufficiency” of the Trinity.

In contrast, C.S. Lewis notes, given the reality of free will, this was a risk that God was willing to take:

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or joy or goodness worth having. … Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. … If God thinks this [is] a price worth paying… then we may take it it is worth paying.”

A General Atonement makes God uncertain

Related to the argument above is the idea that; God, “in that action of sending his Son” would have been uncertain as to whether anyone would benefit from His death. This idea is restated in chapter 5:

although he hath obtained all the good that he hath purchased for us, yet it is left indifferent and uncertain whether it shall ever be ours or no

For Owen to argue that a general atonement would mean God was uncertain about what would happen is to deny the clear teaching of Scripture that God has foreknowledge and is certain of the future.

A General Atonement means Christ died for those that perish

In numerous ways, Owen argues that he can’t imagine God sending Jesus to die to remit sins for someone who then ends up perishing, “as the greatest part are, and certainly shall be.”

It is contrary to reason that a ransom should be paid for captives, upon compact for their deliverance, and yet upon the payment those captives not be made free and set at liberty … that the greatest number of these captives should never be released, seems strange and very improbable.

As presented this seems to make sense. Once the ransom is paid, the captives should be set free. But there is another way to see this transaction. Jesus in paying the ransom doesn’t offer our immediate release. Instead he purchases the right to release us. He then extends the offer of freedom to us upon the condition of faith. If we choose to reject the offer, Jesus can rightly let us remain in prison.

Furthermore, we find in 2 Peter 2:1, an example of people who are at the “point of denying the Master who bought them” an act which will “bring swift destruction on themselves.” This verse can be understood as teaching that even those who will perish were bought by Christ and thus can be saved if the have faith.

A General Atonement means God loves everyone

Owen is pretty straightforward in admitting that a limited atonement means God does not love everyone:

We deny that all mankind are the object of that love of God which moved him to send his Son to die;


The fountain and cause of God’s sending Christ is his eternal love to his elect, and to them alone

Jumping ahead (Book IV, chapter 3), Owen contends that if God loved all that we must accept “these blasphemies and absurdities”

  1. Some to be beloved and hated also from eternity
  2. The love of God towards innumerable to be fruitless and vain
  3. The Son of God to be given to them who, first, never hear word of him; [and], have no power granted to believe in him
  4. That God is mutable in his love, or else still loveth those that be in hell
  5. That he doth not give all things to them to whom he gives his Son, contrary to Romans 8:32
  6. That he knows not certainly beforehand who shall believe and be saved

In these reasons, (1) and (4) amount to the same thing. That God must both love and hate the same person. This is something that Owen clearly thinks is “absurd”.

Scripture does make it clear that God “hates all evildoers” (Psalm 5:5). But, Scripture also is unambiguous: we are all wicked and face the wrath of God (Rom 3:23; Eph 2:3). It seems safe to conclude that we are all hated in this sense.

Now consider, in Ezekiel 18:10 we read about a wicked man who “sheds blood” among many other sins. This is someone that is explicitly listed among those that are hated according to Proverbs 6:16-17. However, in 18:21-22, we read that when the “wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed” that “he will surely live”. We know, and Owen agrees, that, God clearly loves those whom He grants eternal life. Thus we can conclude that this person was both hated and loved. We see this same idea expressed in Colossians 1:21-22.  And it is played out in Jonah chapter 3 when God spared “wicked” Nineveh after they repent.

Regarding “blasphemy” (2), we can simply reply that a person’s failure to believe does not make God’s offer useless. It only means that a genuine offer of salvation was not accepted (see part 1). This was part of the risk described above by C.S. Lewis. On the third point (3), Owen must, in order to avoid the problem in limited atonement, assume that all those who never hear the gospel are reprobate. He also wrongly assumes that those who hear the gospel and reject it are not enabled by the Spirit to respond. Though it is a challenge to think through the fate of those that never hear, Romans 1 gives some insight, and Romans 10 explains the importance of God entrusting us to bring the good news to all.

As Owen notes in point (5), we do learn that God will give all things to whom he gives his Son, but this does not exclude the clear teaching that all things are only given upon the condition of faith (Rom 3:24-25; 4:5; 5:1; Eph 1:13).

Owen’s 6th absurdity regarding the uncertainty of God is addressed above.

Wesley offers this harsh rebuke and a dilemma of his own

Owen presents dilemmas throughout this work, but in the sermon Free Grace, John Wesley offers one of his own to those who argue God does not love everyone.

this doctrine represents our blessed Lord, “Jesus Christ the righteous,” “the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth,” as an hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity. …

You cannot deny that he says, “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.” If, then, you say he calls those that cannot come; those whom he knows to be unable to come; those whom he can make able to come, but will not; how is it possible to describe greater insincerity? You represent him as mocking his helpless creatures, by offering what he never intends to give. You describe him as saying one thing, and meaning another; as pretending the love which his had not.

Wesley, never one to mince words, hits even harder, taking the idea that God never loved some people where it ultimately seems to lead.

[this doctrine] represents the most holy God as worse than the devil … because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, “He willeth all men to be saved:”

… one might say to our adversary, the devil, “Thou fool, why dost thou roar about any longer? Thy lying in wait for souls is as needless and useless as our preaching. Hearest thou not, that God hath taken thy work out of thy hands; and that he doeth it much more effectually? … Thou fool, why goest thou about any longer, seeking whom thou mayest devour! Hearest thou not that God is the devouring lion, the destroyer of souls … For God, even the mighty God, hath spoken, and devoted to death thousands of souls


As this has gotten long, we will pick it up in another post…


1 thought on “The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 2)

  1. 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

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