Neil Chambers on the Death of Christ and the Purchase of Faith: An Analysis of John Owen’s Arguments (Part 5: Faith and Christ’s Death)
The relation of faith to Christ’s death in Scripture.
From our brief survey we see that when faith is related to Christ’s death that death is predominantly presented as an object of faith, as trust is placed in Jesus the Christ who was crucified.55 Where it is related causally to people’s coming to faith it is as the content of what is preached, not as a guarantor of a right purchased from the Father.56 Faith comes through hearing and what is heard is the gospel of Christ crucified for sin, buried, and risen.57 The gospel of the cross is also the focus of the Spirit’s illuminating work.58 Coming to faith seems to occur in the creation of a compelling relational context in which, by the presentation of the object of faith, Christ clad in the promises of His gospel,59 and the revealing of the certainty of the reality of that object by the Spirit, the illuminated hearer can do no other than freely turn to God in the genuinely and thoroughly human response of believing.60 Thus the scriptural mode of relation contrasts with that of Owen whose talk of the purchase of faith stresses the eternal and efficient in the causation of faith. The Scriptures, however, are seen to stress the sufficiency of Christ’s death as presented in the gospel and its temporal application by the Spirit in relation to coming to faith.
Some of the references to faith contained in scripture create positive difficulties for the notion of purchase. These are those references which indicate the weakness or incompleteness of the faith of believers. If the faith which is purchased is a weakness of faith [Rom. 14: 1 who in context are specifically those for whom Christ died, 14: 15] or a lacking in faith [1 Thess. 3: 10] is that the result of a deficiency in acquisition or application? Is it because He dies for some or applies to some in ways different to others? This Owen cannot allow. He specifically rejects the idea that Christ can die for some in one way and for others in another, and he insists that what is obtained must be applied, for that is the purpose of its obtaining.61 Owen’s language has difficulty in accommodating itself to the reality of Christian faith as it is presented in the scriptures. Making a slightly different point, Clifford elaborates on the consequences of this variability of the subjective Making a slightly different point, Clifford elaborates on the consequences of this variability of the subjective experience of faith amongst Christians for Owen is position.
First he observes that
in Owen’s view the sufferings of Christ not only deal with the guilt of the believer’s pre-conversion unbelief, they are causally related to the removal of unbelief.62
Then, noting that
doubting believers fail to participate fully in the subjective blessings Christ’s death purchased for them
he concludes that Owen’s
argument applies as much to supposed believers as it does to unbelievers, with interesting consequences. For if partial unbelief in a Christian hinders him from enjoying the fullness of those blessings Christ has died to purchase for him, this is no different in principle from saying that total unbelief in a non-Christian hinders him from ‘partaking of the fruit’ Christ’s death makes available for him too.63
That is, if Christ can be said to have died for one who has a relative lack of the subjective benefits of that death, why can He not be said to have died for one whose lack of those benefits is greater, when the barrier in both to fullness of blessing is unbelief.
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), 221-224. [Some reformatting; old style title emphasis converted to italics; italics original; underlining for side-headers original; and inline underlining mine.]
55E.G. The narratives of the Last Supper, and the Lord’s Supper which proclaims His death until He comes; The whole structure of John’s gospel indicates that the one in whom we are asked to believe (20: 31) is the one whose death brings salvation, but specifically In. 1: 27 (even in the light of studies of Jesus as the apocalyptic lamb this saying cannot be divorced in the gospel narrative from Jesus’ death as the Passover lamb 19:31-37), 3:14-15, 3:16, 6:41-59, 12:31-32; Acts 8:32-35;. Rom. 3:25, 4:23-25, Gal. 2:20-21, 6:14
56“Saving faith is the faith that is elicited by, and is the response to, the overtures and claims of the gospel.” J. Murray Collected Whitings of John Murray, vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theoloqy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977) p.254. cf. the priority of the word in Luther’s understanding of faith. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, pp. 43-53.
57Rom. 10:14-17 (cf.3:2SJ, 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 2:2-5, 15:1-4 , Gal. 3: 1 – 5 .
581 Cor. 2:6-16, in the context of Christ crucified as the wisdom and power of God. 1 Thess. 1:5-6, Gal. 3:1-5.
59Calvin: “We enjoy Christ only as we embrace Christ clad in his own promises.” Institutes II:ix:3, p.426.
60Note Murray’s observation: “Faith is a state of mind induced by what is considered to be evidence, presented to the understanding and evaluated by the judgement as sufficient. . . . Faith is forced consent. That is to say, when evidence is judged by the mind to be sufficient, the state of mind we call l faith’ is the inevitable precipitate. It is not something we can resist or in respect of which we may suspend judgment.” John Murray Collected Writings 2: 237.
61Note Owen’s stress on both the unity of oblation and intercession in regard to their objects [Book 1, chapters VII & VIII], and the unity of impetration and application [Book 2, chapters iv & V]. See also Book 3, Argument III, especially 10: 243.
62This causal removal of unbelief also makes the interpretation of the question of Lk. 18:8, a difficult verse, even more difficult.
63Clifford, Atonement, p. 112 .