Unbelief as a sin atoned for.

At the conclusion of the triple choice argument Owen, to rule out the possibility that there could be any sense in which Christ could be said to have died for all men, asks the general redemptionists why, if Christ did die for all men all are not saved?

You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this 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 If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will.77

Clifford has made a number of criticisms of this argument in relation to its impact on the guilt of unbelief, its depriving “general exhortations to believe of all significance,” and the tension it establishes with Owen’s commitment to common grace which need not be repeated here.78 What needs to be seen is that Owen’s argument defeats itself by proving too much. If, in Owen’s terms, Christ died for all the sins of some people, the elect, then he must also have died for their unbelief, where ‘died for’ is understood to mean having paid the penalty for all their sins at Calvary. If this is the case, then why are the elect not saved at Calvary? If Owen replies that it is because the benefits of Christ is death are not yet applied to them, then I would ask what it means for those benefits not to be applied to them? Surely it means that they are unbelieving, and therefore cannot be spoken of as saved. But they cannot be punished for that unbelief, as its penalty has been paid and God, as Owen assures us, will not exact a second penalty for the one offense.79If then, even in their unbelief, there is no debt against them, no penalty to be paid, surely they can be described as saved, and saved at Calvary. That being the case, the gospel is reduced to a cipher, a form of informing the saved of their blessed condition.

These last two conclusions are positions that Owen would deny, for he is committed to the necessity and integrity of the universal gospel call and the indissoluble bond between faith and salvation.80 There is then a real tension in Owen is position brought about by a number of factors. The first is what might be called polemical reductionism in his consideration of ‘unbelief’ here, for unbelief is not just an offense like any other, it is also a state, which must be dealt with not only by forgiveness but by regeneration. Owen recognizes this in relating the cross to the causal removal of unbelief as a state, but unbelief regarded as a sin and unbelief regarded as a state bear a different relation to the cross. Sin bears a direct relation to the cross, which is the enduring of the penalty for sin; the change of state an indirect relation, dependent upon preaching and regeneration by the Spirit. To acknowledge that reality Owen would have to say that Christ died for all the sin, including the unbelief, of those who believe, and for none of the sins of those who won’t believe. But for polemical force he ignores the distinction which might seem, in its introduction of belief and unbelief, to place too much weight on human response and exposes his argument to criticism.

The second is his desire to refuse to acknowledge ‘savability’ as an intentional outcome of the cross. But if the elect are not saved at the cross, then they at least must ‘on a temporal’ historical plain, be regarded as salvable, having been made able to be saved, and this according to the intention of God. Thus historically it must be true that there are some people for whom Christ died that they might be saved, even if, from the perspective of eternity and Christ’s of purchase of faith in the covenant of redemption, their salvation is inevitable.81 But who are those people for whom Christ died, historically considered? None who can be regarded as elect, for that cannot be known before the event. Then sinners, and therefore, historically considered anyone (viewed distributively) and everyone (viewed collectively). This being the case, then on the historical plain, the plain upon which we live and the gospel is preached, it is correct to say that Christ died for all and any that they may be saved. Owen cannot say this, but there is a stubborn temporality in the application of the gospel which insists on the maintenance of the prominence of the sufficiency of salvation.

The third factor, observed in the above, is the attempt to accommodate what is an essentially historic and temporal process (coming to faith) to the perspective of eternal intention/causality, where that eternal perspective is being read off an historical record, the scriptures. This will become more prominent when we consider the covenant of redemption, but already we have seen that the language of sufficiency is the language of the temporal plain, the language that accommodates well to the historical realities of coming to faith through gospel preaching and the work of the Spirit, to the universal indefiniteness (which is an inclusive indefiniteness) of the gospel offer and promises, and many statements of the intent of Christ’s coming (e. g. for sinners). Owen, however, because of the nature of seventeenth century theological debate, has his primary starting point in eternity, the intention of God. He embraces this viewpoint and seeks to explicate all through the covenant of redemption, a covenant made in eternity. But access to eternity is tenuous, and its relation to the text more distant, often by way of projection and inference. As long as the language of effective redemption is confined to the eternal plane it is both self evident (for an almighty God who determines to save will save) and abstract. The tension and the potential for distortion arises when the two planes intersect, either in history, at the cross, or in theory, in the consideration of the atonement. Where the starting point is eternity it is the temporal, in this case the sufficiency of Christ’s death and what flows from it, the response of repentance and faith, that will be subordinated, for the heuristic power of an eternal construct is great, being not just explanatory but by its nature determinative.

Thus Owen’s insistence that unbelief is atoned for at the cross and therefore cannot be invoked by universal redemptionists as a cause of some for whom Christ died not enjoying the benefits of Christ’s death has rhetorical but not logical force, for it proves too much. As his argument stands the elect are saved (spared from God’s wrath) whether they believe or don’t believe, and all that is left is to bring them into the subjective realization of their blessing through the preaching of the cross, a position that is not unlike the one arrived at by K. Barth with his doctrine of election. Owen’s reluctance to grapple with this inherent problem is a direct result of his commitment to Christ’s death necessitating the salvation of the elect and the concomitant diminution of the significance of the human temporal response, his desire to deny salvability, and his subjugation of the temporal to eternal causality.

Chambers, N.A. “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in the Death of Death in the Death of Christ,” (Th.M. thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998), 233-239. [Some reformatting; some spelling Americanized; footnotes and values original; italics original; and underlining mine.]

[Note: Chamber’s critique of Owen’s Death of Death is outstanding and demonstrates the fundamental and undeniable flaws in Owen’s polemics. An inexpensive PDF copy can be purchased here: And for more on faith as a purchased condition, see here.]


7710: 174. The argument reappears at 10: 249.

78Clifford Atonement pp. 112 – 113.

79E.g. “That a second payment of a debt once paid, or a requiring of it, is not answerable to the justice which God demonstrated in setting forth Christ to be a propitiation for our sins.” 10:161.

80E.g. for the gospel call: 10:89-90, 297-8, 300, 376 (“the promiscuous proposal”); for the necessity of faith and the elect being “brought home” through the gospel: 10: 343, 313-4. See Owen’s response to the misunderstanding of the relation of election to satisfaction 10: 274-279. “In brief, the Scripture is in nothing more plentiful than in laying and charging all the misery and wrath of and due to an unreconciled condition upon the elect of God, until they actually partake of the deliverance by Christ.” 10 :278.

81In fact Owen’s presentation of the cause of that inevitability adds nothing except a cumbersome and speculative mechanism, for the elect by definition are those whose salvation is inevitable.

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2 comments so far

Bryan Cruz

I agree that the John Owen argument on the sin of unbelief is invalid. I consider a good number of arguments againist unlimited atonement to be special pleading at times. The arguments of Dr. Owen is taken at face value very much downplays the necessity for faith in Jesus Christ though he willl only affirm this for his own position and not for those who hold to unlimited atonement. You should add Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dr. W.H. Griffith Thomas, Dr. John F. Walvoord, Dr. Charles Ryrie and Dr. Robert Lightner as dispensationalist who hold to ” moderate Calvinism ” or four point Calvinism. They hold total depravity, unconditional election, efficacious calling of the elect by the Spirit and eternal security yet hold that Jesus’s work of propitiation, redemption and reconciliation is provided for all the lost provisionally and applied only to the elect. They expressly reject the doctrine of election based on God’s prescience and prevenient grace in their writings.

September 30th, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Hey Bryan,

I think we have met before on another forum. Good to see you again. I agree. The constant refrain one years from limited satisfaction advocates is the implied idea that the death of Christ itself saves because in itself it has an inherent causal efficacy. Smeaton in the 19th century really tried hard to play up the idea that the satisfaction carries within itself its own application. But to get that, one must assume that the satisfaction works either like a fine payment, or like a debt payment, where it buys things. But Scripture never describes the death of Christ as something which buys things.

Thanks for stopping by,

October 3rd, 2012 at 1:00 pm

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