Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Response to John Owen's "The Death of Death" Book 1, Chapter 4

Expounding upon the unity inherent in the nature and will of the persons of the Trinity, Owen expounds upon the Son’s role in redemption. As the Father sent forth the Son into the world to procure the salvation of his elect, so the Son acted in accord with the Father’s desires for this same end. Christ lived, died, rose, and intercedes for the elect and them alone. One of the primary points Owen makes here is that there is unity between the acts of death and intercession. He argues: “Thirdly, His intercession for all and every one of those for whom he gave himself for an oblation. He did not suffer for them, and then refuse to intercede for them; he did not do the greater, and omit the less.” (I.4) Christ’s actions were means to the same end, namely the salvation of God’s elect. Therefore, all of his actions word in accord with one another. Owen purports,

"His being a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins, is the foundation of his interceding, the ground of it; and, therefore, they both belong to the same persons. Now, by the way, we know that Christ refused to pray for the world, in opposition to his elect. “I pray for them,” saith he: “I pray not for the world, but for them thou hast given me,” John 17:9. And therefore there was no foundation for such an interceding for them, because he was not a propitiation for them." (I.4)

The assumption of Owen that there is an equation between the group of those who Christ died for and the intercession which he offers is correct. There is a connection between intercession and propitiation which will be explored in Owen’s discussion of the book of Hebrews. However, the fact that intercession occurs on behalf of an individual does not necessitate the final salvation of that person. There are two sections of Scripture which demonstrate this fact.

First, there is an instance of Jesus interceding for those who are not finally saved. At his crucifixion, Jesus prays for those who were instrumental in his death crying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24) Since Owen argues that prayer is an aspect of intercession, as is the case in John 17, it must be admitted that intercession for one who is not elect is possible and even occurs in the Gospels. Here is a direct instance of Christ asking the Father’s forgiveness upon sinners who do not believe, and who in fact even killed the Messiah. Owen responds to this text in a later chapter, and as will be shown in a future post, his arguments are not convincing. Secondly, the book of Hebrews demonstrates that intercession can be unfruitful due to the unbelief of the one for whom intercession is made. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the argument is made that these particular believers should not abandon the faith they had been brought into for Judaism, because to do so is to abandon the greater reality for the lesser, that which is only a type and shadow. In this context, the author of Hebrews discusses the nature of Christ’s intercession. In his argument, he points out the superiority of the intercession of Christ over that of the Levitical priesthood. He writes:

"The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." (Hebrews 7:23-24)

The argument made is that Christ’s intercession is greater than that of the Levitical priests, because of Christ’s eternal nature, and the fact that “he is able to save to the uttermost.” The author is arguing that those to whom he is writing should not revert back to Judaism, because to do so is to abandon the greater reality for the lesser. The assumption is that Jesus is the mediator for these people, and that there is a real possibility of their abandoning this mediator for the Levitical priesthood. In Owen’s model, this argument becomes nonsensical. Either the author of Hebrews is arguing that they shouldn’t abandon the greater mediator, who isn’t actually their mediator because he only makes intercession for the elect, or he is arguing that those who do have Christ as their mediator shouldn’t abandon him, even though that is an impossibility.

Finally, Owen’s argument once again depends largely on his exegesis of John 17 as a discussion of the elect believers in opposition to the non-elect world. As was demonstrated above, the contrast is not between the elect and non-elect (there is no mention of election or reprobation in this passage), but between the apostles and the rest of the world. The fact that Jesus states that he is not praying for the world is not an indication that he doesn’t pray for non-believers (as is evidenced by the intercession he makes for his persecutors), but simply that the intent of that specific prayer was for the apostles.


Richard W. Daniels said...

You disagree with Luther, then? For Luther says on this, "Let us return to Chrysostom. In the first place, He did not make a testament for all, because “He disinherits some,” as He says in John 17:9: “I am praying for them, not for the world.” Likewise in John 17:20: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who are to believe in Me through their word.” Likewise because He did not say “for all” but “which will be shed for many” (Mark 14:24; Matt. 26:28). And here (Heb. 9:15) we read: “So that those who are called may receive the promised eternal salvation.” But this touches on the subject of predestination, which is either too difficult or too harsh for our feeble intellect to be able to grasp."

Jordan Cooper said...

I assume this is from Luther's Hebrews commentary? A citation would be helpful. This is an early writing of Luther's, prior to the great reformation discovery and so I'm not sure what validity this would have for his later theology. Either, way, no I would not agree with this utilization of John 17.

Bruce Zittlow said...

The farther Luther got from Rome, the farther he got from the medieval Catholic predilection for limiting the atonement. After 1525 I don't think it's possible to find one Luther quote that would even hint at it, and there are several that would mitigate against taking his comments in Bondage of the Will in an extreme manner. Regarding Jesus' prayer in John 17, it's not like that is the only prayer that Jesus prayed. And Paul, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit urges us to pray for 'all men.' (ARe we not to pray for women?)