John Owen on Effectual Atonement

I normally try and shy away from tackling tricky topics in something as short as a blog article, but . . . a) we just talked about this with our guided reading group so its fresh in my mind; b) these notes are really to help me put my thinking somewhere; c) Owen is just very good, and is simply the best case to engage with as far as I can see.

So I’m not claiming that what follows is the last word, and would request respectful engagement – this ain’t a hill I’m going to die on. That said, here, in a few hundred words is a few hundred pages of Owen from The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. 

  • Either Christ’s death pays for the elect or it pays for all.
  • If it’s the latter then why do some end up in hell? Is that double-payment?
  • No, says the Arminian – the benefits of Christ’s death are conditional.
  • Ok, so what’s the condition?
  • Answer: Belief
  • Interesting, says Owen . . . so . . .
    • Why belief? Is unbelief a sin? (implied answer is yes) So why should that particular sin be a hurdle to the saving benefits of Christ’s death? Why doesn’t Jesus’ death cover my unbelief?
    • Second, is belief not one of the benefits of Christ’s saving death, rather than a condition for reception of said saving benefits (cf. Eph 1:3)
    • Third, if we concede that faith itself is a blessing received as a fruit of Christ’s death is that faith received absolutely or conditionally. And if there’s a condition upon reception is that condition met absolutely or conditionally (etc etc etc!)
  • Conclusion: as unpalatable as it might seem, it is better to recognise that in God’s sovereignty the Redeemer is sent to redeem not the entire world, but his own bride.

Now, I’m very happy to hear arguments to the contrary, provided they’re put with the grace befitting the Christian. Anything else will be removed!


2 Replies to “John Owen on Effectual Atonement”

  1. Although I hold to effectual atonement, I can see a logical objection to Owen’s reasoning here, and this is why I’ve never really ‘rated’ it. The question is – when are my sins forgiven? At the point of believing, is the obvious reply. So at that point, I cease to be an ‘object of wrath’ and become a child of God. And only at that point are my former sins – all of them – forgiven because of the cross. Including my former unbelief. That one, actually, is the first to go, because it determines how I come to Christ. Conversely, if Owen’s argument stands, and non-believers must not be punished for the sin of unbelief, which has been paid for by Jesus, then neither can any of their other sins be punishable – they, too, have been paid for. And we’re back with universalism.

    I don’t, therefore, see that Owen’s argument works.

  2. Very simplistically instead of limited or unlimited atonement could we not have sufficient atonement. Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient and we can proclaim to the world, to whosoever, to all, while knowing that the effectiveness of the atonement is limited to the elect who are gifted saving faith. Although we may be eligible for the prize unless we claim it we are no better off and the unclaimed, in this case love, remains in the pot. Can’t it be about sufficiently as opposed to limit? I think at the moment I’m a T.U.S.I.P. may go back to T.U.L.I.P. next week but still a Christian relying on Jesus and not my understanding.

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