Is saying that faith is a gift of grace equivalent to a belief in the purchase of faith?

In Owen is view this is clearly the case. It is his contention at the beginning of the work that

the death and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ hath wrought, and doth effectually procure, for all those that are concerned in it, eternal redemption, consisting in grace here and glory hereafter,64

and, as we saw, his first premise in relation to the purchase of faith states that

whatever is freely bestowed upon us, in and through Christ, that is all wholly the procurement and merit of the death of Christ.65

Not only does he expand the category of faith in his discussion of means to include grace, as we have seen, but he insists that access to and experience of the covenant of grace is only by purchase.66 Grace itself is merited for us by Christ.67

Is this then just a quarreling over words, when we suggest that the acknowledgment that faith is a gift of grace is no support for the notion of the purchase of faith?68 To this we must respond with three observations.

Firstly, the acceptance of the distinction within grace is itself moot, and it is not a feature of modern studies of grace, which tend to emphasise the underlying unity of its varied uses in the New Testament, especially in the Pauline use, which is the major and determinative New Testament use.69 Even were it accepted it could be well argued that where grace is related to faith it is referring to God’s electing, sovereign grace [especially Eph. 2:8-9, Phil. 1:29, 2 Pet. 1:1, Acts 11:48, 14:23, 18:27], grace which cannot be thought of as ‘purchased‘, unless it is to be the cause of itself. Secondly, the words are different in that they set the participants in salvation in different relationships in respect to one another. In Owen’s understanding, purchase is from God, for the elect, by Christ. By contrast, the gift of faith is given by God, to the elect, through Christ. While Christ is the mediating agent in both, the initiating agent has changed from Christ to God, and thus the nature of the role of Christ in relation to people’s coming to faith also changes. Thus faith seen as the gift of God’s grace, a phraseology more consistent with the New Testament terminology, does not allow Owen to draw the causal links he desires and needs between the death of Christ and subjective faith, especially where the context suggests Paul is referring primarily to the Father, as in Eph. 2: 8-9 and Phil. 1: 28-9.70 Thirdly, Owen’s making these terms equivalent in effect further highlights his dependence on the construct of the covenant of redemption. They can only be equivalent if one accepts his initial premise.

In fact, Owen’s talk of ‘purchase’ could well be seen as having a distorting effect on the biblical idea of faith, by reifying it, making it a thing or object or commodity, instead of a relational response. The phrase ‘purchase of faith’ is a category confusion, for trust, like love, can only be given by the subject, not bought, and arises in the subject. While, of course, it is bought for us, and not from us, even that suggests a passivity that is not a feature of the New Testament is portrayal. While the trusting attitude itself can be conceptualised as passive and receptive in relation to the reception of righteousness, we are not passive but active in that trusting, we are those who believe.71 It is this active responsibility that talk of the purchase of faith has the potential to undermine, and which the New Testament’s portrayal of faith in relation to the temporal realities of the preaching of the gospel and renewal by the Spirit do not. Nor does seeing faith as a gift of grace suggest passivity to the same extent, for the realisation of that gift again focuses on God is gracious work in history, on the preaching of Christ, whereas purchase emphasises determined causality. Gift continues to be the language of grace, but purchase moves into the language of rights.72

We have spent some time examining the concept of the purchase or procurement of faith and associated ideas. Why the labour? To stress that the ‘purchase of faith,’ is not a self evident biblical idea that can be read off the text of scripture. Rather it is a theoretical causal construct dependent on the covenant of redemption. Owen could argue that he would in no way seek to undermine anything that the scripture has said about faith and its relation to the cross. It is just that he, with his talk of the purchase of faith by the cross, is revealing the relation of the cross to believing as seen from the perspective of eternity. But Owen would have to say more. It is revealing it as seen from eternity where the viewpoint of eternity is the relation of the Father and the Son in the one work of redemption as conceptualised in the covenant of redemption. The whole legitimacy of Owen’s insistence on the purchase of faith is dependent on the legitimacy of that covenant, and it is that covenant which we shall explore after we have examined its temporal foundation, Owen’s understanding of ‘redemption’ in scripture.

This dependency is seen in the other four proofs Owen advances for the purchase of faith in Argument Nine, which we will briefly examine. Owen’s first proof is from the reality of the sanctification of believers. The death of Jesus “purchased holiness and sanctification for us,” as he demonstrated in Argument Eight. But faith, as a grace of the Spirit, is “formally a part of our sanctification,” and therefor Christ purchased faith for us. One wonders at the convicting power of this proof. What is under debate is faith as the indispensable necessity to salvation.

Sanctification is the fruit of salvation. Is sanctification now the cause of itself? Or, in Owen’s terms, faith is the “instrumental” cause of sanctification, in being the instrumental cause of pardon of sin, without which sanctification is impossible.73 The presence of the word ‘formal’ cannot alleviate the impression that Owen is being inconsistent here. Secondly, Owen asserts that “all the fruits of election are purchased for us by Jesus Christ.” [Eph.1:4] Faith is a fruit of election, and therefor Christ purchased faith. But if election is not purchased for us, why must its fruits be, for such a purchase is not on the surface of Eph. 1: 4. The notion of the purchase of the fruits of election comes from the interposition of the covenant of redemption between God is choice and its outworking. In the third proof Owen returns to the new covenant [Argument One],74 claiming that all its blessings, of which he has already demonstrated faith to be one, are “procured and purchased by him in whom the promises thereof are ratified, and to whom they are made.” Thus Christ purchased faith by inaugurating the new covenant by His death. Finally Owen contends that if Christ is really our Saviour, “fully and effectually” saving us, then that without which salvation is impossible must be procured by Him, “for he is the author of our salvation by the way of purchase.”75 Turning to the scriptures Owen shows that faith is a necessity [Heb. 11: 6] and that Christ saves [Mt.1:21, Heb.9:12], and that therefor Jesus procures faith. However, Owen appears to have assumed the issue under debate, which, in one form, is what it means to say ‘Jesus saves’. He is really saying that if Jesus is to be the kind of Saviour I conceive him to be, then he must save in the way I conceive him to save. His conclusion is in his premise.76 The second, third and fourth proofs are all dependent on the acceptance of the commercial language they contain and the presupposition of a covenant between the Father and the Son, which is the foundation of the thought of benefit by purchase, for their force in support of the ‘purchase of faith’.

For Owen’s argument the importance of the purchase of faith cannot be overestimated. If faith is procured absolutely by the death of Christ and if faith is not common to all, then Christ did not die for all. If both premises are true, the conclusion is true and the general ransom theory is overthrown for if the necessity and reality of the purchase of faith is established then the universal redemptionist position must lead to either the salvation of all [where God’s provision of the means of salvation through the death of Christ is accepted, and Christ is said to die for all], or the possibility of no-one being saved [where the attainment of the means of salvation through the death of Christ is rejected, and faith is thus left to human effort]. Both outcomes are destructive of universal redemption, as both plainly contradict scripture which teaches that not all will be saved, but some will be certainly saved. However our examination has demonstrated that the purchase of faith is not a self evident scriptural concept, and is an unhelpful way to conceptualise both the relation of faith to the cross and to grace, with potential to encourage passivity in response to the gospel and distort the perception of the character of faith. Further, it has also shown its dependence both as a concept and a way of speaking on Owen’s consistent use of commercial terminology in relation to the death of Christ, with an underlying reliance upon the covenant of redemption for its establishment in the face of the silence of scripture in its support.

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), 224-233. [Some minor reformatting; old style title emphasis converted to italics; inline italics original; underlining for side-headers original; and inline underlining mine.]


6410: 159.

6510: 253.

6610: 236-8.

67Cf. Owen Display, Chapter IX.

“The proper counsel and intention of God in sending his Son into the world to die was, that thereby he might confirm and ratify the new covenant to his elect, and purchase for them all the good things which are contained in the tenure of that covenant, – to wit, grace and glory. ” Works 10: 90

Owen is here referring to the efficacious grace of salvation, not to predestinating grace. cf the table THEOMACHIAS AUTEXOGSTIKES on p. 10 of the Display. Turretin makes the distinction clear

“Now it is usual to understand it (grace) principally in two ways: either affectively (as they say), i.e. ‘with respect to the “internal act” in God; or effectively, with regard to the effects which it produces outwardly in creatures. The former is towards us, and we stand objectively related to it; the latter is in us, and we stand subjectively related to it. In the former sense, it denotes the favor and benevolence of God (or his benignant and disposed will) bestowing all things liberally and gratuitously, not from our merit or desert. Again, this implies either the favor by which he loved and elected us to life from eternity (in which sense election is called “the election of grace” [Rom. 11: 5], and we are said to be “predestinated to the praise of the glory of his grace” [Eph. 1:6], i.e., of his glorious grace] or that by which he regards us as graceful and accepted in the Son of his love [in which sense, most especially, the apostle often invokes “grace and peace” upon the believers to whom he writes, i. e., both the favor and benevolence of God and its effects on every kind, which are signified by the word “peace”, according to the Hebrew idiom].” Elenctics, vol. 1 First Through Tenth Topics, Third Topic, Q.20:VII, 1: 242-3.

68That faith is a gift of grace we have seen above, especially footnotes 51 and 53.

69E.g. William Manson, “Grace in the New Testament”, in W. T. Whitley Ed. The Doctrine of Grace [London: SCM, 1932] pp. 33-60; DNTT Vol. 2: 115-123 – Esser states that “For Paul charis is the essence of God’s decisive saving act in Jesus Christ, which took place in his sacrificial death, and also of all its consequences in the present and future.” He then proceeds to relate all its uses to this basic understanding. J. Murray, after noting that there are various senses of grace in the NT says: “But so closely related are these shades of meaning, and so dependent are they upon the primary import, that it is often difficult to be certain what particular thought is being expressed. We are always pointed back to the disposition of favour, of loving kindness in God as the source, and as that which gives character to all grace in exercise.” Collected Writings 1: 120.

70While not, of course, excluding the eternal Word, “Jesus Christ electing and elected” Muller, Christ and the Decree, p. 173.

71“For as regards justification, faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack.” Calvin, Institutes III: XIII: 5, 1.768. J. Murray “Faith is the activity of the person and of him alone.” Collected Works, 2: 263.

7210; 203. “Everyone for whom he died and offered up himself hath, by virtue of his death or oblation, a right purchased for him unto all there things.” cf. 10: 224.

7310: 252.

7410: 236-8.

7510: 257.

76All four proofs are found at 10: 256-7.

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