I am beginning a series of posts in response to John Owen's book "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ" which is often cited as the most convincing work on the doctrine of limited atonement. Here is part 1.
Chapter 1: In general of the end of the death of Christ, as it is in the Scripture proposed.
In his introductory chapter, Owen outlines what he believes to be the benefits attained by the death of Christ. These benefits, he purports, are only attained for and given to a specific group of people, namely the elect. He utilizes texts such as Matt. 20:28 which speaks of Christ giving “his life a ransom for many” and “He loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27) which supposedly speak of a specific group who receive the benefits of the atonement as distinct from the world. These texts lead Owen to the conclusion that,
"Thus clear, then, and apparent, is the intention and design of Christ and his Father in this great work, even what is was, and towards whom—namely, to save us, to deliver us from the evil world, to purge and wash us, to make us holy, zealous, fruitful in good works, to render us acceptable, and to bring us unto God; for through him 'we have access into the grace wherein we stand Rom.5:2.'"
The argument made by Owen in this introductory section is that the death of Christ has a specific intent for a specific people. This would negate a universalist approach to the atonement.
The first part of Owen’s argument, that texts speak of a specific group such as the church or the elect as beneficiaries of the cross, and thus non-Christians are negated from the soteric benefits of the atonement, is unconvincing. First, examine the phrase “many” which is used in Matthew 20:28. It is argued that if Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many, then he does not give his life as a ransom for all. The phrase “many” necessitates that not all are included. Though at first glance, this argument may appear convincing, there are clear evidences that the phrase “many” does not always have a particular intent. Πολλων, the Greek term for “many” used in this text is also used in reference to the effect of Adam’s transgression in Romans 5. Paul writes that “if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many (πολλοί).” (Romans 5:15) The fifth chapter of Romans has historically been used to define the effects of original sin, which states that the entire human race is under the dominion of sin due to the transgression of Adam. If many can never refer to “all” but instead has reference to a particular group, then the spiritual death brought upon the human race as discussed by Paul must also have particular intent. In other words, not all die in Adam. It becomes apparent then that Owen is left with either one of two conclusions. 1. The phrase “many” is not necessarily exclusive in nature, or 2. Original sin does not have a universal effect. Bauer defines the terms “πολύζ, πολλή, πολύ” as “much many… large, great extensive, plentiful.” Thus, the intent of Jesus’ phrase is simply that there is an extensive number of people for whom he lays down his life. Whether this includes or excludes certain individuals is not relevant to the text and is beyond the scope of what Jesus is trying to say.
Texts such as Ephesians 5:25-27 which speak of Christ’s death as given for the church also fail to prove limited atonement. When encouraging the church, Paul is telling them of the benefits of Christ’s work, giving them assurance of their salvation and of the blessings that God has given them. There is no reason in this context to assume that Paul is, by doing this, excluding the “non-elect” from the intent of Christ’s atonement. It certainly is the church who has been given a particular message of Christ’s redemptive act, because it is those in the church who have taken hold of the benefits therein. Owen’s interpretation is also negated by the fact that the Pauline epistles, in other sections, clearly affirm the universal intent of Christ’s redemptive acts, though exegesis of the relevant texts will have to be put off until further in this discussion.
Owen reaches the following conclusion at the end of this section which serves as a thesis statement for the primary argument throughout this book. If universal atonement is true,
"Then one of these two things will necessarily follow:--that either, first, God and Christ failed of their end proposed, and did not accomplish that which they intended, the death of Christ being a not fitly-proportioned means for the attaining of that end (for any cause of failing cannot be assigned); which to assert seems to us blasphemously injurious to the wisdom, power, and perfection of God, as likewise derogatory to the worth and value of the death of Christ;--or else, that all men, all the posterity of Adam must be saved, purged, sanctified, and glorified."
If Christ died for all, then all are necessarily saved, unless one is willing to say that Christ failed in his mission by not saving those for whom he died. This is the essence of Owen’s argument. Though convincing to those who determine their theological conclusions from what they perceive to be the nature and character of God (namely, a Calvinistic conception that God’s sovereignty and glory are his primary attributes), this argument simply fails to take the Biblical evidence into account. There is ample exegetical evidence—as will be demonstrated—that Christ indeed did lay down his life on behalf of the entire human race; this coincides with several texts that purport that not all are saved. The fault, however, for damnation is never the will of God but the sin of the human creature.