Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Response to John Owen's "The Death of Death" Book 1, Chapter 1

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.

26 comments:

Bruce Zittlow said...

Assume for a moment that Owen's second premise is true. What would be the need for faith? What would be the need for Word or sacrament? What would be the need for theologians to muddle things up as he has?

Jordan Cooper said...

I think you point to one of the primary issues with Owen's argument. He essentially denies that faith has any necessary place in one's reception of salvation. That's something I will be dealing with as I go through this.

David Cochrane said...

I am constantly asked if Jesus failed. My response is he came to bear the sin of the world so no he successfully did the whole job.

J. Dean said...

This is going to be an interesting read, as I have never read Owen and will be very curious to see the points made.

David Gray said...

Assume for a moment that Owen's second premise is true. What would be the need for faith? What would be the need for Word or sacrament?

I'm not a huge fan of the Puritans but could you please expand on that because I don't see where your conclusions are warranted.

J. Dean said...

Question, Jordan: have you read the Missouri Synod's position on predestination/election during the 19th century when they had the argument with the Ohio synod about the matter? At first blush, it looked as if the Missourians didn't sound too different from the Reformed on the topic. Here's the link: http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=31278

It's frustrating at times talking to Reformed about this, because if you deviate from their doctrine of predestination you'll either be called a universalist (in the sense that all are saved) or an Arminian.

Bruce Zittlow said...

@David Gray,

I was questioning this concept, "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."

If only Christ's death saves those he died for, what is the need of preaching the gospel, or what difference would it make whether one believes it or not? Is it only my admittedly crazed mind that leaps to such a conclusion?

David Gray said...

Bruce,

My reply to that is we should not be rationalists and pretend to understand the workings of the sovereign God.

Preaching the Gospel is not a purely utilitarian task. God has commanded it. It brings glory to God and life to us. It is water in the dry wilderness. That is like saying why receive Christ's body and blood in the Supper if we're already forgiven.

All who call upon the name of the Lord in repentance will be saved. Nobody will be saved without faith in Christ. Only those whose name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life, written before the foundation of the world, will persevere in saving faith. How do we square all this? We should not be rationalists, we should accept what the Scriptures teach even if we cannot reconcile it in our finite minds and we should give thanks for God's mercy.

It is like asking why pray if God is sovereign. Understood rightly it should be said why pray unless God is sovereign.

Does that make any sense to you?

Bruce Zittlow said...

@David Gray

No. And I didn't know asking a question any five year old would ask was rationalism.

I guess I'm not used to the idea that Christ might not have died for me, and so I react with questions that Calvinists have learned to live with.

Bruce Zittlow said...

Given Owen's viewpoint, can he preach the gospel to me? Can he come to me and tell me that Jesus died for my sins and rose for my justification? It seems to me that his view changes the very nature of the proclamation.

The scriptures teach that Christ died for all, and we are the messengers of the grace and mercy of God shown through the forgiveness of sins. Since Jesus died for the world, he died for me. When the gospel comes to me it gives me faith and hope. I guess I am not sufficiently versed in Owen's view to see how it could be good news, so I ask questions that make complete sense to me, but to a person immersed in Owen's theology probably sound just plain wrong.

David Gray said...

No. And I didn't know asking a question any five year old would ask was rationalism.

Five year olds are fallen too.

I guess I'm not used to the idea that Christ might not have died for me, and so I react with questions that Calvinists have learned to live with.

You don't have to embrace limited atonement to think that Owen isn't making the proclamation of the gospel to be irrelevant.

Bruce Zittlow said...

David

Perhaps you can help me. How would the proclamation of the gospel sound in Owen's mouth?

David Gray said...

Perhaps you can help me. How would the proclamation of the gospel sound in Owen's mouth?

I thought I'd already posted that but I don't see it.

The Lord will not turn away anyone who calls on Him in repentance. Repent, trust in the finished work of Christ and He will save you.

A bit bare bones but I think can get the idea.

Bruce Zittlow said...

David, where's the good news?

Jordan, is that how a Lutheran would present the gospel?

David Gray said...

David, where's the good news?

You don't think it is good news that any who call on the Lord and repent will be saved? That is the best news that exists. How else will you be saved if you do not call upon the Lord? Nobody will place their trust in Christ's work and be disappointed or denied. Nobody. How is that not good news?

Bruce Zittlow said...

The good news is that I must do something? I must repent and believe?

I always thought that the good news was nothing else than the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins. I thought it was an unconditional proclamation. Maybe I've got this whole thing wrong.

Jordan Cooper said...

There is a genuine difference in the presentation of the Gospel between a Lutheran and Presbyterian. We can proclaim indiscriminately "Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins", whereas a Reformed presentation always has to qualify this.

David Gray said...

I must repent and believe?

Well Christ said if you won't repent you'll be destroyed.

Luther said "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

We are saved by Christ's works not ours and Christ said "it is finished" a very long time ago. Yet no one will enter heaven in unbelief and devoid of repentance. We are utterly unable to believe and repent without being enabled by God so even this is the gift of God.

I always thought that the good news was nothing else than the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins.

Yes but not all receive mercy and not all receive the forgiveness of sins as they are in rebellion and will not believe and repent (which we could not either save for the work of God).

I thought it was an unconditional proclamation. Maybe I've got this whole thing wrong.

Possibly. Christ and Luther seem to be saying things which make you uncomfortable.

David Gray said...

And we have Peter in Acts:

"Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."

He seems to be on board with this repentance thing.

Jordan Cooper said...

This article by Phillip Carey helps explain the differences in gospel proclamation between Luther and Calvin. http://www.templetonhonorscollege.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Sola-Fide.pdf

David Gray said...

Maybe it is because he's an Anglican but he seems to confuse Puritan (and even modern Baptist) thinking with Calvin's thinking in spots. I think he really winds up putting words in Calvin's mouth and the notes tend to confirm this. I think he has some good insights but as a balance it should be noted that Calvin believed there was real apostasy which clashes with some of the article's assertions. Or he describes what a number of modern Calvinists would say about salvation but those modern Calvinists are unwittingly at war with Calvin.

To go back tot he original point even this article shows that the claim that Owen dispenses with the need for faith, Word or sacrament is not a well thought out notion.

Jordan Cooper said...

Owen certainly doesn't exclude the need for faith, but some of his arguments do. The classic "if Jesus died for all sins including unbelief, therefore unbelief can't negate the effects of the cross" argument essentially does do away with the necessity of faith, though Owen is thankfully inconsistent on this point.

Bruce Zittlow said...

David

My little quote that 'the gospel is nothing else than the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins' is an exact quote from Luther, which you can find in the Solid Declaration or the Smalkald Articles. So, trying to pit me against Luther is not gonna work. What I've done is highlighted the distinction between law and gospel. The law is conditional (do this, don't do that; then I will bless you). It's an if/then bad news because I can never keep it.

The gospel, however, is utterly good news with no bad mixed in. I never said that repentance and faith are unnecessary as you suggest I did, but that they are not part of the gospel.

If the gospel is 'repent and believe,' how is that different from what Arminians proclaim? Owen has written an entire book to declaim a position that he, in fact, holds?

David Gray said...

My little quote that 'the gospel is nothing else than the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins' is an exact quote from Luther, which you can find in the Solid Declaration or the Smalkald Articles. So, trying to pit me against Luther is not gonna work.

So we have a Luther vs Luther smackdown. OK.

You asked " How would the proclamation of the gospel sound in Owen's mouth?" When the gospel is proclaimed it should be preceded by the Law. My response "
The Lord will not turn away anyone who calls on Him in repentance. Repent, trust in the finished work of Christ and He will save you" is Law and Gospel.

Bruce Zittlow said...

David,

You would agree with me that if you were to just define the gospel itself, without the preceding law, it would look like this, "Your sins are forgiven!" Or Christ died and rose for your sins. Or he was delivered for your transgressions and raised for your justification. Or some variation of same, right?

David Gray said...

"Your sins are forgiven!" Or Christ died and rose for your sins. Or he was delivered for your transgressions and raised for your justification. Or some variation of same, right?

Placed in the proper context I would be fine with that.