Thursday, July 25, 2013

Response to John Owen's "The Death of Death" Book 1, Chapter 6

Chapter 6: The means used by the fore-recounted agents in this work.

Owen discusses the means which God uses to accomplish his intended goal of redemption in light of his previous discussion of the value of means and ends. He states:

"Now, this whole dispensation, with especial regard to the death and blood-shedding of Christ, is the means we speak of, agreeably to what was said before of such in general; for it is not a thing in itself desirable for its own sake. The death of Christ had nothing in it (we speak of his sufferings distinguished from his obedience) that was good, but only as it conduced to a farther end, even the end proposed for the manifestation of God’s glorious grace." (I.6)

Owen makes this point based on his previous contention that means are not good in themselves, but only as regards their ends. I would retort, first, that the premise is flawed. There is no particular reason to assume that a means is useless without a proper and effectual end. In Owen’s view, the obedience of Christ is necessarily good in that it is obedience to God’s will, but his suffering is not. He demonstrates this by speaking of the evil accomplished by the human agents such as Pilate and the people of Israel at the crucifixion. However, there are several reasons to assume that Christ’s death is a genuinely good act in and of itself, even without forcing his desired ends upon creation. First, it was the desire of God the Father. In that sense, one cannot separate the active from passive obedience. Obedience to the Father is valuable for its own sake. Second, self-giving is the greatest work a human person can accomplish. This self-giving is valuable, not simply because of the effect it has on another person, but because this is a reflection of God’s own self-donating character. An act of kindness performed for the sake of another person is a valuable action, regardless of whether the individual for whom that act was performed takes advantage of such an action.

Another problem with Owen’s contention here is that he assumes Jesus didn’t accomplish his intended goal if his atonement was universal. Jesus’ goal at the cross was to die for the sins of the human race, ransom all people, and justify humanity by his resurrection from the dead. All that Christ intended was accomplished. In a Lutheran view, God has universally and objectively justified the human race. This does not mean, however, that God could not allow humanity the freedom to reject the justification won for them through the atonement. Though we confess divine monergism in regard to one’s regeneration, justification, and perseverance, it is admitted that those who are damned have only their own resistance to blame. Though this paradox may not satisfy Owen’s intellect, it reflects Biblical teaching on this subject.

Throughout the remainder of this chapter, Owen continues his argument that Christ’s intercession and crucifixion are connected acts. They are both intended for the same group of individuals with the same end in view. Owen concludes:

"The sum is, that the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ are one entire means for producing of the same effect, the very end of the oblation being that all those things which are bestowed by the intercession of Christ, and without whose application it should certainly fail of the end proposed in it, be effected accordingly; so that it cannot be affirmed that the death or offering of Christ concerned any one person or thing more, in respect of procuring any good, than his intercession doth for the collating of it: for, interceding there for all good purchased, and prevailing in all his intercessions (for the Father always hears his Son), it is evident that every one for whom Christ died must actually have applied unto him all the good things purchased by his death." (I.6)

There are two aspects to this argument proposed. First is the contention that Christ intercedes for all those who he laid down his life for. As I mentioned previously, I think there is a connection between these two acts of Christ which cannot be severed. The book of Hebrews discusses Christ’s intercession in light of his atonement. However, it becomes apparent that both Christ’s crucifixion and intercession were made for all of the readers of the book of Hebrews, including those who would depart from the faith. Note the following texts:

"Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:14-16)

"We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:19-20)

"For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens." (Hebrews 7:26)

"Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (Hebrews 8:1)

"For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf." (Hebrews 9:24)

"And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Hebrews 10:10)

There is no qualification in this epistle; Jesus is both the high priest and sacrifice for those who this book is written to. This includes those who will remain in the faith, as well as those who the author fears will revert back to Judaism. Owen’s contention that there is a connection between the subjects of Christ’s intercession and atonement does not prove limited atonement, but simply that the intercession of Christ is universal in intent as is his atonement.

The second aspect of Owen’s argument is that there is a unity between the will of the Father and the Son. If the Son desires salvation for a specific group, then the Father must comply with such a request. To argue otherwise is to divide the Trinitarian persons against one another as if the Son desires the salvation of individuals while the Father doesn’t. The underlying assumption of this argument is that the Father’s salvific intent is not universal, but the Son’s is. However, it is my contention that the intent of redemption is universal on behalf of both the Father and the Son. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all desire the salvation of the human race, but for a reason unknown to us, allow certain individuals to reject such a salvation. Owen’s argument presupposes knowledge of the nature of the Son’s intercession, and inter-Trinitarian relations. Such information is not included in the pages of Scripture, nor is it necessary or helpful to speculate about.

1 comment:

Rich said...


From one ex-Reformed now Lutheran to another- thanks for doing this series. As you know, Owen is royalty for the Reformed on this issue. For quite some time I have hoped that a Lutheran would get down and dirty with Owen's book. It has been left unchallenged for too long, at least in the sense of a thorough and robust attempt to interact with it directly. I hope your attempts will inspire a more in-depth attempt from a Lutheran scholar someday soon. Owen is the Reformed strong point.