The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 4)


This is part 4 of a series of blog posts examining the arguments John Owen makes for and against a limited/particular atonement in his extensive work on the subject: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. 

In the last post, we explored Owen’s admission that there is a distinction between Christ obtaining spiritual blessings and the application of these blessings, which are given on the condition that a person believes. Owen’s solution, used to defend limited atonement, was to assert that faith is one of the many spiritual blessings obtained by Christ’s death.

faith itself, which is the condition of them, on whose performance [spiritual blessings] are bestowed, that he hath procured for us absolutely, on no condition at all

Faith, a condition of salvation, is acquired for the elect through the cross.  This faith is then unconditionally given to the elect so that the rest of the spiritual blessings can be given to them as well.

How does Owen understand Faith?

In a separate work, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677), Owen seeks to lay out the case that we are saved by faith alone.

faith alone is on our part the means, instrument, or condition … of our justification, all the prophets and apostles [taught this], and were so taught to be by Jesus Christ BoxerOwen

Owen, here admits, that faith is our part of salvation. A truth that is taught by the apostles, who learned it from Christ.

In this treatise he explores the answer to the question: what is saving faith.

the inquiry is, What is that act or work of faith whereby we may obtain a real interest or propriety in the promises of the gospel, and the things declared in them

This question is worth considering, given the assertions about faith, made by Owen, in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. 

Faith, for Owen, is more than “an assent of the mind” to the gospel.  Rather it is “a peculiar acting of the soul for deliverance”.  This peculiar act of our soul is a “trust in God”.

if all we have spoken before concerning faith may be comprised under the notion of a firm assent and persuasion, yet it cannot be so if any such assent be conceivable exclusive of this trust.

This act of trusting is an act of the heart.

believing is an act of the heart; … [it] is the heart’s approbation of, and consent unto, the way of life and salvation of sinners by Jesus Christ

Trust is also an act of the will.

… without an act of the will, no man can believe as he ought. … We come to Christ in an act of the will

This trust is placed in the Lord Jesus.

I shall farther confirm is, that the Lord Christ … is the proper adequate object of justifying faith.

This description of faith, articulated throughout the first two chapters of The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, as our trust in Christ, provides a good answer to the inquiry posed by John Owen: what is saving faith.

Owen’s thoughts on temporary Faith?

As part of the answer to the original inquiry, Owen considers what a faith that does not lead to justification might look like as well.

some, when they “hear the word receive it with joy, believing for a while,” but “have no root.” And faith, without a root in the heart, will not justify any.

A faith that involves the head but not the heart is not saving (or justifying) faith. Owen calls this faith a historical faith and a temporary faith, even though it accepts “the whole truth of the word”, including the “promises of the gospel”.

an assent of the very same nature and kind with that which devils are compelled to give; … is usually called temporary faith; — for it is neither permanent against all oppositions, nor will bring any unto eternal rest.

There are two ways that a person is able to apprehend and accept the truth of the gospel, even if it is temporary, according to Owen:

  • human motives and reason
  • enabled by spiritual illumination

These both lead to an assent that looks like the marks of a “true believer” but falls short of justification.

Conviction must precede saving Faith

In unpacking the answer to the question what is faith, Owen insists that genuine faith must follow conviction.

conviction of sin is a necessary antecedent unto justifying faith

This conviction includes “the opening of the eyes of the sinner, to see the filth and guilt of sin” and a “stopping of the mouth of the sinner” who recognizes their need for God.

Owen notes three important things regarding assent and conviction. The first (1),  a person may be illuminated and assent to the truths of the gospel without conviction. The second (2), a person can have their eyes opened and be convicted without this act always resulting in saving faith.

the motive unto it is not that thereon a man shall be assuredly justified; but that without [this conviction] he cannot be so.

Finally (3), a genuine saving faith, will always have both an acceptance of truth and a conviction of sin precede the heart’s trusting in God.

What is the purpose of God in enabling temporary faith?

Owen’s views on temporary faith opens up an interesting question. Can a person have a historical/temporary faith or be convicted of sin without receiving any divine aid (grace)? If no, then we must consider what a wise and powerful agent, such as the Trinity is, intended and accomplished when giving this grace but no more. Assuming unconditional election and a limited atonement, what purpose did God aim for and obtain in (1) giving enough grace to the non-elect person so that they were enabled to both be convicted of their guilt and accept the truths of gospel, while (2) withholding the additional grace needed to allow the “acquiescence of the heart” which results in salvation? If instead we answer yes, affirming that no divine aid (grace) is needed for these two things to occur, then one admits that people can be convicted of their sin without the work of the Spirit and that people can understand and intellectually accept the gospel without any divine aid.

In pointing this out, remember, that a major part of Owen’s case is based on assessing the wisdom and power of an agent based on whether their actions achieve what they intended (see part 1).

What does it mean for God to obtain faith through the cross?

With this understanding of faith, we must now wrestle with Owen’s two premises:

  • faith is acquired for us and given to us through Christ’s death
  • faith is an act, in our heart and our will, in which we trust in God

We can rightly understand that God obtains many spiritual blessings through the cross for us. Here are some of the amazing gifts that are promised:

  • He qualifies us to share in the inheritance
  • He transfers us into His Son’s kingdom
  • He forgives us and cancels our debt
  • He acquits us so that we are holy and blameless
  • He adopts us into his family
  • He reconciles us to Himself
  • He pays the ransom so that we can be set free

These gifts are all given to us upon the condition of faith.

But, Owen also contends that faith is a spiritual gift, and like these other gifts it is also obtained for us through Christ’s death. This faith is then given to the elect without condition.

If faith, defined as our trust in God, is a spiritual blessing, we could present this idea, using similar wording as above, in the following way:

  • God trusts in Himself for us

That idea should give us some pause.

We can envision the adoption process. The adopter walks into an orphanage, and seeing the plight of a child, signs the papers that legally join them to his family. The adopted person is given the gift of adoption by the adopter.

We can perceive how God can release us as captives. A just judge, can review the facts and cancel our debt. Then he can stride up to the gates of our cell and present the guard with a certificate pardoning us of all our crimes. The captive is given the gift of freedom by the judge.

But how does God give us trust in Himself?

God can give me reasons to trust Him.

He does this by showing that He is trustworthy. This is done when God makes and keeps His promises. And when He deals with sinners gracefully when they heed His warnings. But, just because God is trustworthy, does not mean I have to trust Him.

God can give me the ability to trust Him.

Through the working of the Spirit, God can illuminate my mind to comprehend the truths of the gospel. He can draw me toward Him and open my heart so that I am enabled to believe. He can convict me of my sin and my need for a Savior. But, just because God illuminates and convicts me does not mean, as even Owen admits, that I have to trust Him.

Giving me reasons to trust Him and the ability to trust Him is not the same thing as saying that God gives me trust in Him. Trust, like love and respect, is directed toward someone (or something). It can only be performed by us. It can’t be done for us.

when our will is most influenced by Grace it is still our will. And if what our will does is not ‘voluntary’, and if ‘voluntary’ does not mean ‘free’, what are we talking about

– C.S. Lewis

If God does give us faith as a gift, then, in what way is this trust an act of our heart and our will? If Owen wants to assert that “faith is on our part” and then claim that faith is effected and procured”, then, it is indeed difficult to know what we are talking about.

What would it look like to use similar terminology in explaining the gift of adoption, obtained by Christ, in this way. Do we say that God granting us adoption is our act flowing out of our heart and will. Of course not. We know the act of adoption flows out of the heart and will of the adopter. Why should we allow Owen to twist around language in order to describe the gift of faith if it makes no sense to do so for other spiritual gifts?

We might adapt Owen’s idea, asserting that God gives us a new heart so that we can believe. But then faith is no longer a gift. Instead, the new heart is God’s gift to us. This makes more much more sense out of the idea that faith is an act of our heart and will. 

Now, if we define this new heart as our nature being freed to have the ability to trust, then, it seems reasonable to ask, why must our new heart absolutely result in our trusting in God? 

Is the new heart able to resist the will of God after believing? If no, then, consider patience and impatience. Patience is something that God desires each of us to have (Eph 4:2) and makes it possible by the power of the Spirit (Gal 5:22; Colossians 1:11). What happens when a believer is impatient? It seems reasonable to conclude that, when committing an act of impatience, my new heart is resisting God. Or perhaps, the true believer is never impatient. If, instead we answer yes, the new heart can resist the will of God after believing, then why can’t it resist God’s will before believing. Is God any more or less sovereign when our new heart resists His grace before belief than when we do so afterwards. Let the reader judge.

One thought on “The Death of John Owen’s Argument: a General Atonement means God failed to achieve His goal (Part 4)

  1. Pingback: Society of Evangelical Arminians | Friday Files, 20 Oct 17

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