John Owen on Limited Atonement

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

Christopher D. Bass (Ph.D. in New Testament, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church planter and pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church in the Boston area.  I am currently reading his work on the doctrine of assurance as seen in 1 John.  In his excursus on the “whole world” of 1 John 2:2, he quotes John Owen at length.  The quote, Bass calls, the “definitive statement on the issue” of limited atonement and states that to his knowledge “no one has adequately refuted” Owen’s argument.

In his book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Owen says this:

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or 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 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 his 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…?  If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.  Let them choose which part they will.”

That passage was written in the 1600’s.  It is one of the strongest arguments in favor of Limited Atonement and one of the logical reasons I fall in this camp. 

  1. Christopher Pope says:

    The counter-argument I’ve heard most often for Owen’s point is that rejecting Christ’s forgiveness is by definition unforgiveable. My sins, including my rejections of Christ prior to accepting Him, are forgiven because I eventually believed and asked forgiveness. Christ’s death covers such sins, but (the Arminian would say), forgiveness is not applied unless and until we believe.
    That Arminian argument depends on a disconnect between the atonement and faith, that there is forgiveness waiting that is never received, atonement made that is never applied. But this assumes what the Arminian is trying to prove, that everyone including those who die in unbelief had atonement made for them.
    I think the best way to confront this assumption is to show biblically that faith (i.e., one’s acceptance of Christ) is a work of the Holy Spirit that is itself secured by Christ’s death. Those Christ atones for are the same set of individuals who are granted faith and repentance. Any other scheme either affirms universal salvation or else leaves people “falling through the cracks” somewhere along the way. Read the context in which Paul says, “He who did not spare even His own Son, but instead gave Him over for us all – how will He not grant all things to us, along with Him?”
    But it makes sense that Arminians will reject limited atonement, since their system is built on the real possibility of rejecting forgiveness regardless what God has done. For God to respect “free will,” He can never do so much that a person MUST believe and can therefore never secure a person’s salvation, and so anything determinative and final about the cross is ruled out from the beginning. What I do not understand, and have yet to see argued in light of Owen, is how a “4-point Calvinist” can affirm unconditional election and effectual calling and still argue for a universal atonement.

  2. Christopher Pope says:

    Gosh, could I have used any more jargon in that post? One thing I’ll say for Owen is that he writes more simply and clearly in King James English than I can in today’s language. (At least I didn’t say “hermeneutic.”)

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