The soul can do without anything but the word of God; and apart from the word it has no means of help. When it has the word, however, it has no need of anything else.1

Owen’s presentation confronts the reader with two issues in relation to faith. Firstly, is faith properly conceived as ‘purchased’ for believers on the cross, and, secondly, is unbelief a sin like any other, the penalty for which Christ suffered on the cross? As was seen in the summary of Owen’s argument both of these assertions are important to Owen’s position and each will be considered in turn.

The purchase of faith.

Owen introduces the idea of the purchase of faith, considered as the essential means of salvation, early in the second book.2 In chapter one, considering the intermediate end of Christ work which is work, which is “bringing many sons to glory”, he tells us that this subservient end can be “considered distinctly in two parts, whereof one is the end and the other the means for attaining of that end.” He is insistent that both, “the one the condition, and the other the thing promised upon that condition”, are

equally and alike procured for us by Jesus Christ; for if either be omitted in his purchase, the other would be vain and fruitless.3 [my italics]

The means are characterized as grace, holiness, and faith; the ends as glory, blessedness and salvation. Owen focuses on faith as the means and condition, salvation as the end or promised inheritance, and, demonstrating what Muller calls “the Ramist tendency to delineate exhaustive and inclusive categories,”4 expands faith to be a category that comprehends “all saving grace that accompanies it,” that is “all the effectual means of faith, both external and internal”, “all advancement of state and condition attending it,” and “all fruits flowing from it”5. Salvation is likewise taken to encompass “the whole ‘glory to be revealed.’.” He concludes the chapter thus

A real, effectual, and infallible bestowing and applying of all these things (that is faith and all that accompanies it N. C. J . . . unto all and everyone for whom he died, do we maintain to be the end proposed and effected by the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ, with those other acts of his mediatorship which we before declared to be therewith inseparably conjoined: so that everyone for whom he died and offered up himself hath, by virtue of his death or oblation, a right purchased for him unto all these things, which in due time he shall certainly and infallibly enjoy.6

While some of these things are bestowed “upon condition that they do believe” Owen is insistent that faith itself is bestowed “absolutely upon no condition at all.”7 Thus the elect have a right to the means of salvation purchased for them by Christ, and faith is seen as the principal of these means whose bestowal is guaranteed unconditionally by the purchase of Christ. Owen recognizes the

absolute bestowal of faith upon the elect by the bloodshedding of Christ is central to his case, for if Christ is to effectively save His people (those for whom He died) by His death, then that death must be the source of that which in the scriptures is stated to be the condition of salvation, faith. It is the language of purchase which allows Owen to present the elect’s coming to faith as directly, causally, and thus intentionally, brought about by Christ’s death. He thus returns to it frequently at significant parts of his argument,8 and directs arguments three and nine of Book III to proving its reality. While the matter of Argument three is important, being a consideration of the implications of both affirming and denying the purchase of faith for us by Christ and a defense of his assertion that the condition of faith must be bestowed absolutely,9 especially from the charge that such a position makes a mockery of the preaching of the gospel, it is in argument nine that he sets himself

to prove that faith itself is a proper immediate fruit and procurement of the death of Christ in all them for whom he died,10 and it is to this proof we now turn.

Realizing the centrality of this assertion which if it be true, it utterly overthrows the general ransom, or universal redemption; and if it be not true, I will very willingly lay down this whole controversy. . . , for go it which way it will, free-will must be established,11

Owen seeks in Argument nine to put his claim beyond doubt. He opens his case with two premises, the first of which demonstrates the centrality of the covenant of redemption to his position, and is given at length.

Whatever is freely bestowed upon us, in and through Christ, that is all wholly the procurement and merit of the death of Christ. Nothing is bestowed through him on those that are his which he hath not purchased; . . . for the covenant between his Father and him, of making out all spiritual blessings to them that were given unto him, was expressly founded on this condition, “That he should make his soul an offering for sin.”12

This premise, that all we receive in Christ is procured by Christ’s death because of the foundational role of the covenant of redemption, if accepted, makes a limited atonement outcome inevitable, as Owen himself has already demonstrated.13 As the promise to the Son is the bringing of many sons to glory (which promise includes both means and ends), that is, the effective salvation of the elect, and it is on the basis of this promise that Christ undertakes the work, then only those who are effectively saved can be encompassed in the intent of the Father and the Son in the cross. It is this premise which will remain to be proven, as our examination of the ‘proofs’ of the purchase of faith will demonstrate. The second premise is that faith is the absolute, indispensible necessity for salvation, and that thus the cause of faith will

be the prime and principal cause of salvation, as being the cause of that without which the whole would not be, and by which the whole is, and is effectual.14

With these two premises stated the key question is now posed, “whether faith be a fruit and effect of the death of Christ, or no?” We note that while Owen poses that question in open terms [” fruit and effect” being susceptible to several ways of understanding how the cross may relate to belief] he rapidly returns to the language of commerce [“I demand whether Christ procured15 faith for all for whom he died absolutely, or upon some condition on their part to be fulfilled.’16 My italics.], and in so doing specifying the nature of the causative relation between the cross and faith. Owen outlines the possible answers and their consequences before presenting the proof for his position.

If the answer to the question is yes, then they must answer whether this faith is procured absolutely or conditionally.

If absolutely, then Owen’s point is granted. If conditionally, then what is the condition? If they say that it is not resisting the grace of God, what is not resisting the grace of God but believing? That is, those who say that faith is procured conditionally are in effect saying that they are granted to believe if they believe, for the bible knows of no other condition. But to say that people are granted faith on condition that they have faith is clearly circular. They must still answer, is this faith granted conditionally or absolutely? In effect, to say that faith is procured conditionally is to either grant Owen his point or to take refuge in an avoidance of the question.

But if they say ‘no’ then they must face the consequences. These are, firstly, that, on the basis of his first premise which tied all our experience of grace to Christ’s procurement of it on the cross [“nothing being bestowed upon us by free grace, in and through Christ, but what by him, in his death and oblation, was procured.”], they must say that faith is an act of our own wills not worked in us by grace, and it is wholly within our power to perform it. But such a position on the will is contrary to scripture, the nature of the new covenant, the glory of God’s free grace, the bible’s teaching about original sin, total depravity, and spiritual inability, and “right reason.” Secondly, they must also say that ultimately we ourselves are “the sole cause of our salvation,” having it in our power to make God’s work effectual.

Clearly these consequences are unsustainable, and the way is now cleared for Owen to bring forth his five proofs

that faith is procured for us by the death of Christ; and so , consequently, he died not for all and everyone, for ‘all men have not faith’.17

Following the general schema of the book Owen starts with four deductive proofs before turning to the Scriptures in proof five. In line with our own general approach we will start with this last proof, to see whether the scriptures do teach a purchase of faith. Owen himself is confident:

The Scripture is clear, in express terms, and such as are so equivalent that they are not liable to any evasion,18 citing Phil. 1:29, Eph. 1:3, and Heb. 12:2. We will examine each of these in turn before considering the rest of the New Testament references to ‘faith,’ asking whether scripture does teach a purchase of faith, whether the language of purchase can be reckoned equivalent to the language of ‘gift’, whether there are more adequate ways of relating the cross to faith, and the impact of such language on our conception of faith. It is our suggestion that the language of the purchase of faith finds no support in the New Testament, has the potential to obscure the nature of faith and the relation of the cross to faith in time, and, because it is language that finds its justification in the language of a covenant alleged to be made in eternity, contributes to the blurring of the distinction between the cross viewed from eternity and the cross as a temporal work which underlies the subjugation of the sufficiency of Christ’s cross-work to its efficiency in Owen, with the consequent distortions to exegesis.

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), 195-204. [Some reformatting; old style title emphasis converted to italics;  italics original; underlining for side-headers original; and inline underlining mine.]


1Martin Luther, quoted in Paul Althaus, The Theoloqy of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p. 42, fn. 25.

2This is not the first mention of the idea. In Book I, chapter one, he has said that his opponents erroneously maintain that

“no benefit arises to any immediately by his death but what is common to all and every soul, though never so cursedly unbelieving here and eternally damned hereafter, until an act of some, not procured for them by Christ, (for if it were, why have they it not all alike?) to wit, faith, do distinguish them from others.” (italics mine) 10: 160.

Owen had already referred to this purchase in his A Display Against Arminianism, chapters IX and X (Works, 10: 87-108). It is also noted in Dort, that “He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death.” Second Head, Art. VIII in Schaff, Creeds, III: 587. See also Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, Eleventh Through Seventeenth Topics, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Denison (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1994), Q. XIV: XXX – XXXII, 2:468 – 470.

310: 202

44This bifurcating method is very clear in Book II, chapter one already. Thus:


End                                                                                                                        End



Muller is commenting on Polanus. Muller, Christ and the Decree, p. 134.

510: 202-3.

610: 202-3.


8For example:

“That all the things which Christ obtained for us are not bestowed upon condition, but some of them absolutely. And as for those that are bestowed upon condition, the condition on which they are bestowed is actually purchased and procured for us, upon no condition but only by virtue of the purchase. For instance: Christ hath purchased remission of sins and eternal life for us, to be enjoyed on our believing, upon the condition of faith. But faith itself, which is the condition of them, on whose performance they are bestowed, that he hath procured for us absolutely, on no condition at all.” 10: 223 -224.

Again, at the close of Book II he presents one of the issues to be decided between his position and that of the universalists thus:

“Thirdly, This condition of faith is procured for us by the death of Christ, or it is not. If they say it be not, then the chiefest grace, and without which redemption itself is of no value, doth not depend on the grace of Christ as the meritorious procuring cause thereof. “ 10:234-5.

He sums up his position at the close of Book II:

“Christ did not die for any upon condition, if they do believe; but he died for all God’s elect, that they should believe, and believing have eternal life. Faith itself is among the principal effects and fruits of the death of Christ; ., . Salvation, indeed, is bestowed conditionally; but faith, which is the condition, is absolutely procured.” 10: 235

9“For so we affirm, in this very business: Christ procured salvation for us, to be bestowed conditionally, if we do believe; but faith itself, that he hath absolutely procured, without prescribing of any condition.” 10: 241.

1010: 253.

1110: 253.


13310: 168-171. Note page 170: “This then, our Savior certainly aimed at, as being the promise upon which he undertook the work, – the gathering of the sons of God together, their bringing unto God, and passing to eternal salvation; which being well considered, it will utterly overthrow the general ransom or universal atonement, as afterward shall appear.”

14410: 254. Paradoxically the focus on the causation of faith threatens an inflation in the role of faith, that empty vessel that can receive the grace of Christ. J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 volumes, L. C. C., trans F. L. Battles (Philadelphia; Westminster, 1960), III: XI: 7 l5.

15That ‘procure’ has the commercial overtones of the sense of ‘acquire’ rather than the rarer sense of ‘to bring about by care or pains‘ [O.E.D.] is supported by its constant association with ‘purchase’ and its use in a ‘covenant of redemption’ context where redemption is portrayed in terms of the payment of a price. Note also the words with which Owen associates the application of the work of Christ in 10:225:

“The very sense of the word, whether you call it merit, impetration, purchase, acquisition, or obtaining doth bespeak a right in them for whose good the merit is effected and the purchase made.”

1610: 254.



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