John Owen on Preaching the Gospel to those whom Christ did not die for


This is part 5 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. 

John Owen was well aware of the arguments against limited atonement regarding the preaching of the gospel. Particularly that the gospel, preached to the non-elect (or reprobate), was vain and useless. Opponents make this claim, Owen rightly admits, because it asks people to believe something that was not true; specifically that Christ died for them.

our adversaries pretending that if Christ died not for all, then in vain are they exhorted to believe, there being, indeed, no proper object for the faith of innumerable, because Christ did not die for them; (Bk IV chap 1)

800px-John_Owen_by_John_Greenhill

Preaching to all is not in vain

Owen will argue that “this offer [of the gospel] is neither vain nor fruitless” when presented to those whom Christ did not die for. Why, you might be asking, should I accept Owen’s premise.

And if any ask, What it is of the mind and will of God that is declared and made known when men are commanded to believe for whom Christ did not die?

Owen provides several reasons in answer to the question (his words in italic).

  1. every man may conclude his own duty, which is to believe in Christ even if it is not God’s purpose to do, or his decree that it should be done
  2. every man may know the sufficiency of salvation that is in Jesus Christ to all that believe on him
  3. every man may know the certain, infallible, inviolable connection that is between faith and salvation (or put more simply that salvation is conditioned on faith)
  4. every man may know that whosoever performs the one [faith] shall surely enjoy the other [salvation]

All people have a duty to believe even if God never intended to save them

One of the purposes of sharing the gospel with the reprobate is making sure that they are informed of their duty to trust in Christ (point #1). But does informing a person that they can be saved if they meet the condition of faith, a condition that can’t be met without divine aid that they will never receive, actually make sense?

Oddly, Owen, arguing against Amyraldism (Calvinists that reject a limited atonement), asks a similar question. What would be the point in Christ dying for someone that He has no intention of saving?

[There view is that] God gave Christ to die for all men, but upon this condition [of faith], that they perform that which of themselves without him they cannot perform, and purposed that, for his part, he would not accomplish it in them.

Now, if this be not extreme madness, to assign a will unto God of doing that which himself knows and orders that it shall never be done, of granting a thing upon a condition which without his help cannot be fulfilled, and which help he purposed not to grant, let all judge. (Bk III, chap 2)

It does seem that Owen fails to grasp how his argument could also apply to the preaching of the gospel to reprobates if one holds to a limited atonement. In one case, it is considered madness for Christ to die for someone that God has no intention of saving. But it would seem equally mad to invite someone to believe when they can’t do it without aid that God is never going to provide. As Owen often exclaims, let the reader judge.

The blood of Christ is sufficient for all

One of the reasons it is not useless to proclaim the gospel to the reprobate is because the death of Christ is sufficient (point #2) to cover the sins of everyone on a “thousand worlds”.

It was, then, the purpose and intention of God that his Son should offer a sacrifice of infinite worth, value, and dignity, sufficient in itself for the redeeming of all and every man, if it had pleased the Lord to employ it to that purpose; … If there were a thousand worlds, the gospel of Christ might, upon this ground, be preached to them all, there being enough in Christ for the salvation of them all

Owen will get no argument here. Together, we can all affirm the “worth of [Jesus’] death and blood-shedding” and its ability to save everyone. Now, one might ask, if Christ’s blood was sufficient to save all, then why is it wrong to assert that Christ died to make salvation possible for all?

That [the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice] should be applied unto any …  merely depends upon the intention and will of God. It was in itself of infinite value and sufficiency to have been made a price to have bought and purchased all and every man in the world. That it did formally become a price for any is solely to be ascribed to the purpose of God, intending their purchase and redemption by it.

This seems to leave us with the following good news for the reprobate; God could have saved you if he wanted to, but it didn’t please Him to do so. It is unclear how that can be seen as anything but cruel.

Amazingly, Owen, comes to this same conclusion when trying to make the point that it is foolish for God to have Christ die for someone, whom He wasn’t willing to bestow faith upon. First he gives the following illustration (Bk III, chap 2) :

If a man should promise to give a thousand pounds to a blind man upon condition that he will open his eyes and see,–which he knows well enough he cannot do,- were that promise to be supposed to come from a heart-pitying of his poverty, and not rather from a mind to illude and mock at his misery?

He goes on to admit that this amounts to God saying:

“I do will that that shall be done [ie believe] which I do not only know shall never be done, but that it cannot be done, because I will not do that without which it can never be accomplished” Now, whether such a will and purpose as this beseem the wisdom and goodness of our Saviour, let the reader judge.

Here again, it seems Owen fails to grasp how this illustration also applies to the preaching of the gospel to those whom God does not want to save. In one case God’s wisdom and goodness is called into question. God would be mocking people if He were to have Christ die for them and then not help them come to faith, which they can’t do on their own, so that they benefit from that death. But in another case, it is wise and good to inform one of the duty to believe. An act that they must perform to avoid God’s wrath, which can never be accomplished because God will not supply the necessary grace. Again, let the reader judge.

The preacher does not know who the elect are

Owen adds another reason later in the chapter. The proclamation of the gospel to all people is not vain because the elect and the reprobate are grouped together and cannot be distinguished from each other.

The mixed distribution of the elect and reprobates, believers and unbelievers, according to the purpose and mind of God, through, out the whole world, … is another ground of holding out a tender of the blood of Jesus Christ to them for whom it was never shed

If we assumed unconditional election and a limited atonement, it would be true that the elect and reprobate would be mixed together. But that would not change the fact that the gospel proclaimed to the reprobate would be vain and even cruel.

Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice

Despite holding to a limited atonement, Owen saw it as the duty to proclaim the gospel to all people.

The ministers of the gospel, who are stewards of the mysteries of Christ, and to whom the word of reconciliation is committed … are bound to admonish all, and warn all men, to whom they are sent; giving the same commands, proposing the same promises, making tenders of Jesus Christ in the same manner, to all…

Paul found joy that the gospel was proclaimed even if it was for the wrong motives and reasons (Phil 1:18). We can share in that joy, as Owen encourages preachers to share the gospel, even if we are  left mystified at the logic behind it.

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