Further comments here.


Under the influence of Aristotle’s teleology and the commercial theory of the atonement, Owen proposes a ‘dilemma to our universalists’ in a powerful piece of reasoning. After stating that there was a qualitative and quantitative ‘sameness’ in the sufferings of Christ and the eternal punishment threatening those for whom he died, Owen affirms, ‘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 of the sins of all men’. This is Owen’s famous ‘triple choice’ position, which, in his view, conclusively settles the controversy in favour of a limited atonement. The last choice is quickly ruled out: if the atonement fails to deal with all sins, then the sinner has something to answer for. The first choice invites Owen’s question, ‘Why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?’ He therefore concludes that the second choice alone fits the case; the atonement is exclusively related to ‘all the sins of some men.’

Owen anticipates the universalist objection that men are only lost through an unbelieving rejection of the atonement. He asks:

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 which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all the sins.

For all its apparent cogency, this compelling argument raises some important problems. It is clear that unbelievers are guilty of rejecting nothing if Christ was not given for them; unbelief surely involves the rejection of a definite provision of grace. It also makes nonsense of the means of grace, depriving general exhortations to believe of all significance.

A further objection arises from an unexpected quarter. 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. But Owen’s pastoral experience taught him that even true believers–or those who have grounds to regard themselves as elect–continue to be plagued with unbelief. Should this be the case if Christ had died to purchase faith for them, or are they perhaps deceived? Owen certainly denies that lapses of unbelief in the elect are not sinful if Christ has paid the penalty for them. Neither would he question the fact that doubting believers fail to participate fully in the subjective blessings Christ’s death has purchased for them. In other words, his 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.

Basic to Owen’s argument is his theory of the nature of the atonement, which will be discussed in the next chapter. Suffice it to say that making the sufferings of Christ commensurate with the sins of the elect in a quantitative, commercialistic sense explains and reinforces his teleology of the atonement. This was the consideration which led him to modify the sufficiency-efficiency distinction. His apparent acceptance of it is really little more than lip-service; his deliberate redefinition of it means that the atonement is only sufficient for those for whom it is efficient. In other words, if the atonement is strictly limited, then the ‘credit facilities’ of the gospel are only available to the elect.

This prevented Owen from seeing that there was an alternative way of dealing with his ‘triple choice’ challenge. For earlier generations of Calvinists the solution was a simple one. Viewing the sufficiency of the atonement in terms of a universal provision of grace, they would embrace the first choice (all the sins of all men) with respect to the atonement’s sufficiency, and the second (all the sins of some men) with respect to its efficiency. As an earlier chapter has demonstrated, the sixteenth-century Reformers taught–both in their writings and in their confessions of the faith–that the atonement was relevant and applicable to all, though it was applied only to the elect. This much is clear: Calvin and his companions believed that the sufferings of Christ were related to the sins  of the whole world; men are lost, not for lack of atonement, but for not believing. Unlike Owen, the Reformers had little difficulty in establishing the basis of human guilt. While guilt is undoubtedly defined in terms of transgressing the law, a very significant component of it arises from ungrateful neglect of the gospel remedy. But on Owen’s account, if the atonement relates only to the sins of the elect, then it is doubtful justice to condemn anyone for rejecting what was never applicable to them.

Owen’s acceptance of common grace is surely in conflict with his view of the atonement’s sufficiency, for it implies a broader view than his narrower theory will allow. As a corollary, his acceptance of the ‘free offer’ of the gospel is embarrassed by his strict commercialist position. He does indeed assert that the gospel is to be preached to ‘every creature’ because ‘the way of salvation which it declares is wide enough for all to walk in’. But how can this be if the atonement is really only sufficient for the elect? Calvin and his colleagues had no difficulty in speaking like this, but Owen cannot consistently do so. Not surprisingly, Gill and his fellow hypercalvinists employed the very kind of commercialism espoused by Owen, but did so to deny the validity of universal offers of grace.

Alan C. Clifford, Atonement and Justification (Oxford: Charendon Press, 1990), 111-113.  [Footnotes not included; italics original; and underlining mine.]

[Note: I have taken my discussion of Clifford’s arguments in relation to an objection posted elsewhere on the web, edited an inserted them as comments to this comment from Clifford; see below.]

Credit to Tony for the find.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 17th, 2010 at 7:37 am and is filed under Double Jeopardy/Double Payment Fallacy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 comments so far


Repost from Theology Online

Here is something interesting. Over there at PuritanBoard, which can be found here, Gomarus posted an extended quotation from Alan Clifford, which I assume he found here. The point of Clifford’s polemic is to refute the trilemma Owen posits. The key argument Clifford posits can be summed up in this paragraph from that extract:

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.

Now what’s is interesting is one response. Matthew Winzer has argued that Christ only purchased the invisible benefits of salvation. Winzer asserts two propositions that are very intriguing. Firstly, Winzer says that Christ did purchase all the blessings of salvation for all for whom he died. What is more, he adds that all for whom he died shall indeed enjoy the fullness of these blessings. Then Winzer adds, which is very problematic that though, that the blessings purchased by Christ are unseen, spiritual and heavenly blessings, they are not temporal but eternal. He goes on to say that the temporal condition of the saints is no balance to weigh the fruit of Christ’s death. And further, Christ died for all their unbelief, and in no way will the saint fail to obtain the fullness of all the eternal blessings Christ purchased for them.

That’s certainly an interesting argument. I am not sure how that refutes what Clifford says. Let’s go back and let’s turn Clifford’s rejoinder around a little. Let us not focus on unbelief hindering the purchase. Let us focus on the positive here first. What is unbelief, but non-faith? Owen said that Christ infallibly purchased faith for the elect. So far so good. And as Winzer has conceded, the elect shall not fail to enjoy the fullness of all that was purchased. This must include faith. But now, we must ask ourselves, is the faith purchased by Christ, an “unseen” benefit? Can I really begin to describe saving faith as an unseen, non-temporal blessing and benefit? I could hardly imaging saving faith being categorized as a non-temporal blessing and benefit. It is spiritual, but not at the negation of the temporal and even corporeal in some way (as a human corporeal entity is the agent which expresses faith).

Immediately I sense that Winzer’s artificial bifurcation is problematic, so let us extend this. We can distinguish between initial saving and justifying faith, one the one hand, and say, sanctifying and perservering faith on the other. Sanctifying and persevering faith would be the faith expressed by the believer every day throughout her life. If the faith that saves and justifies is part of the “visible”(whatever that means exactly) benefits purchased, who can say that sanctifying and perservering faith is not? I really do think this refutes Winzer’s implausible counter.

And if all the benefits Christ purchased shall be infallibly and fully “enjoyed” by the believer, then we come back to the problem: How is it that moments of faithlessness can happen? It gets more problematic when one realizes that the key proof-texts Owen would adduce for his argument include texts which do not make a distinction between initial saving and justifying faith, but include sanctifying and persevering faith, eg Phil 1:29: ‘Our believing,’ present tense, has been ‘granted.’

What Clifford does prove is this: the issue is not as simple as Owen sets out. Unbelief can void some of the applied benefits of the redemption in some sense. And if it can in this sense, perhaps it can in other senses. And so, one cannot make the simplistic argument that if he died for all unbelief, then belief cannot fail to be obtained, for all whom he died. And remember, belief, aka faith, has the enjoyed fully if it is part of the package of goodies purchased by Christ (Winzer could just assert that perservering faith is not part of the purchased goodies, but that would be very odd). Clifford’s counter shows us something, at least, that the biblical model does not quite work like that. If belief has to follow from Christ’s dying for all my unbelief, then how is it a Christian can have any unbelief?

The causality here is not that simplistic. Given that it seems that sanctifying and persevering faith cannot be relegated to another class or category, an unseen one, then we have a problem in that, it is not true as Winzer says, that all that Christ purchased for the elect shall be infallibly and fully enjoyed by the elect. Else, did Christ purchase my fallible persevering faith? Therefore, it would seem that Clifford’s counter still holds. Now whether one agrees with Clifford in all this is one thing. It is possible that Owen’s dilemma still may hold good at the end of the day. But what I can say is, it seems to me that Winzer’s counter to Clifford is specious because of what it does to the nature of Christian faith. In actual fact, it does seem that Winzer has missed Clifford’s point almost entirely. Does he really want to imply that not all our faith was purchased by the death of Christ?


June 17th, 2010 at 7:39 am

Comment #1

So now we can actually move forward with the argument. In response to my counter to Winzer, over there at PB land, this rejoinder to me has been tabled by Robert Paul Wieland:

Christian is not fully sanctified (Glorified) until he/she reaches Heaven. Until then, the old heart of unbelief will always strive against the new heart of faith.

Now this is a better response. It was where I was heading as I was working through Clifford’s rejoinder. Basically, given that we are talking in terms of multiple levels, such as God’s efficacy in salvation, and man’s own hindrance of that efficacy through unbelief, any answer to Clifford has to come to something like this.

When confronted with a similar issue, Owen said there can be a delay between the death of Christ on the cross and the application of salvation/justification upon the believer. We have to grant him that qualification I think if we want to argue on the terms of his own argument, and not on our terms (whether that is plausible or not is not what I want to engage here and now). Owen would then simply add that likewise there can be a delay in full application of the benefits of Christ’s purchase of faith upon or in the life of the believer in this world. We might call that the already-not-yet problem.

The critical sentence from Clifford is still this, as I see it:

“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.”

At the end of the day, Owen would have say that just as God sovereignly delays the justification of a given elect, he sovereignly delays the full impartation of the blessings in Christ in the life of the believer. Of course that gets tricky too, as on the surface it makes God looks a little mean and it would destroy the person’s culpability for unbelief, even as a Christian. But then we all have to come back to the point that God sovereignly permits sin, and in some cases wisely chooses not to overcome sin in the life of a given person.


June 17th, 2010 at 7:41 am

Comment #2

I want to pick some of this up again. I have been thinking now, how would one reply to the sort counter tabled by Wieland, and which I expanded upon?

Having thought through some more, I think Clifford would just return to the same point he has made, and perhaps add some of the force from Chambers.

If we go back to the original trilemma posited by Owen, the point is that for all whom Christ died must infallibly be saved, because Christ purchased for them, all the means and conditions by which they must be saved. He purchased faith for them.

Owen may help crystalise this in our minds:

Thirdly, 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; for what condition soever can be proposed, on which the Lord should bestow faith, I shall afterward show it vain, and to run into a circle. Works 10:223-224.

So the faith is the condition, which is absolutely bestowed. The condition is itself unconditioned. Owen wants to posit a simple linear and infallible causality. Full saving faith cannot fail, and so its manifestation cannot be contingent upon anything. Clifford is trying to show is that, that last clause can be falsified by way of a counter-factual.

Here is the problem. Owen has not thought this through. He was a genius, for sure, but he was a little screwed up at points. Clifford is highlighting a fact that what he says does not hold for persevering faith, so why should one say it holds for initial saving and justifying faith? If the causality mechanism Owen outlines does not hold with regard to the faith that sanctifies, then how should we assume it holds for the faith that justifies? Its not that simple.

Now, to say God can sovereignly delay the full impartation of persevering faith (Ponter building upon Wieland, above), seems to be gratuitous in the end. No one can deny that the delay here of the application of full persevering faith is caused by the sinner’s sinning unbelief. Else are forced to admit that God arbitrarily withholds persevering faith from the Christian. If one wants to assert that, then there is not I can say for to me that’s a very unbiblical kind of god. And unless one can give me good direct evidence, I reject that at this point. So while what Wieland says is true, its not enough. For it does not explain how the reality he described can exist and/or be true given Owen’s controlling assumptions regarding salvific causality here. Wieland is spot on to describe what actually happens, but he cannot account for it given Owen’s grand claims. Owen’s tri-lemma involves, at best, a paradox, or, at worst, a contradiction. Clifford’s counter shows us that one cannot speak in such simplistic terms.

Now to the second part. Matthew Winzer, over there at PB land, has essentially just retabled his first assertion, just using different words. He does however add some interesting things which I believe prove too much for his case. In his second post, and if I put the ideas from the two key sentences together, he reasserts that the perfect faith is not to be enjoyed in this life. I should state, this does seem to be his intention here and so I am reading these sentences to this end.

Yet let us be clear here. I am not sure anything Clifford said requires that sanctifying and persevering faith be a perfect faith (either as to some quality or degree), but simply that there is faith, as opposed to times of faithlessness. There can be no faithlessness. Winzer also says here that the fact that perfect faith < ?> is not enjoyed in this life, makes it no less real. I wonder if that could apply to initial and saving faith as well? Could one suggest that a man has the reality of justification without having the reality of justifying faith? I know that sounds absurd. I insert it because one again it is clear that Winzer has missed the point and continues to miss the point. And to show that we are not talking about the quantity/quality of justifying faith, as Winzer alleges by misdirection, but its reality and presence as opposed to its non-presence.

Its best to let Owen deal with this claim regarding ‘unseen’ benefits purchased any confusion some of us may be labouring under. Owen:

Now, both these consist in a communication of God and his goodness unto us (and our participation of him by virtue thereof); and that either to grace or glory, holiness or blessedness, faith or salvation. In this last way they are usually called, faith being the means of which we speak, and salvation the end; faith the condition, salvation the promised inheritance. Under the name of faith we comprise all saving grace that accompanies it; and under the name of salvation, the whole “glory to be revealed,” the liberty of the glory of the children of God, Romans 8:18, 21,—all that blessedness which consisteth in an eternal fruition of the blessed God. With faith go all the effectual means thereof, both external and internal;—the word and almighty sanctifying Spirit; all advancement of state and condition attending it, as justification, reconciliation, and adoption into the family of God; all fruits flowing from it in sanctification and universal holiness; with all other privileges and enjoyments of believers here, which follow the redemption and reconciliation purchased for them by the oblation of Christ. A real, effectual, and infallible bestowing and applying of all these things,—as well those that are the means as those that are the end, the condition as the thing conditioned about, faith and grace as salvation and glory,—unto all and every one 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 every one 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; or (which is all one), the end of Christ’s obtaining grace and glory with his Father was, that they might be certainly bestowed upon all those for whom he died, some of them upon condition that they do believe, but faith itself absolutely upon no condition at all. All which we shall farther illustrate and confirm, after we have removed some false ends assigned. Works, 10: 202-203.

It is more than apparent that Owen meant to include all the saving graces in the life of the Christian, not merely the “unseen” ones. The condition, faith, as the means for obtaining all these ends, is itself unconditioned and absolute.

So while Winzer may assert what he wills to assert, the argument between Clifford and Owen is on Owen’s terms, not Winzer’s. For sure, Winzer may rework Owen’s argument, and re-table another version, but that is not the one Clifford is dealing with. And I have already shown that if the faith that saves is purchased infallibly applied (because faith, the condition, is absolutely unconditioned), how can one say that the faith that perseveres is not part of the purchased salvation by Christ? The misdirection into perfection of faith is irrelevant to the counter in my opinion.

Having considered the counter from Clifford from as many angles I have could, I do consider that it does demonstrate that the causality Owen posits is too simplistic and therefore unrealistic. Salvation is not applied by way of a simple linear causality like that. I conclude by noting that I think Clifford has made his point, and that though what Wieland says is true, he cannot account for it, given Owen’s premises.


June 17th, 2010 at 7:42 am

Comment #3

To try and wrap this up one more time. I missed this other reply from Wieland over there at the PB land. Wieland, who is trying to deal with the delemma, has further argued that God treats the unbelief of his children as a matter of discipline.

But that again only describes what actually is happening. It does not account for what actually does happen on the terms Owen lays out.

We can know that God disciplines unbelief; this can be taken as a biblical given. However, given that God never causes, by way of direct efficiency, any unbelief, but only sovereignly permits it, it does seem that unbelief is a condition which conditions Owen’s unconditioned absolute. If the condition for faith and salvation is itself unconditioned and absolute, the presence of this condition cannot fail to come to pass. But in some cases we know it does fail to come to pass. Therefore faith is not an unconditioned absolute in the way Owen posits. That seems to be the heart of Clifford’s counter and so far I have not seen it refuted.

So while I respect Wieland’s attempt to describe what happens in biblical reality, it does not account for that reality if Owen’s premises are presupposed: that I can see. It may be that Owen’s trilemma and subsidiary arguments may be sustained on some other grounds. But on the grounds tabled so far, I see nothing that sustains it. Each counter either proves too much, is arbitrary, or misses the mark.

Its more probable that Owen just over-spoke and was not consistent either to Scripture or to his own later assumptions about discipline and unbelief, and that he posited an argument that cannot be sustained rationally.


June 17th, 2010 at 7:42 am

Clifford becomes unbiblical when he says “It is clear that unbelievers are guilty of rejecting nothing if Christ was not given for them” .

Paul clearly handled this objection in Romans 9:19-24.

October 22nd, 2010 at 7:55 am

Hey Michael,

I don’t think Clifford means, at all, that the unbelievers, if not guilt of any sin absolutely, if Christ is not given to them. It would seem very probable that he means they would not be guilty for any sin of rejecting Christ, if Christ is not given to them.

I will email Clifford and ask for confirmation.


October 22nd, 2010 at 8:27 am

Hey Michael,

I emailed Clifford setting out the line you drew attention to, your comment, and then my comment to you, exactly like that. Here is his reply:

Yes, David, you correctly grasp my point, viz. I mean they would not be guilty for any sin of rejecting Christ, if Christ is not given to them.

Best wishes, Alan

Hope that helps,

October 22nd, 2010 at 12:19 pm

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