John Owen’s Argument Against Unlimited Atonement

Atonement Nails

When limited atonement is discussed, John Owen’s argument in The Death of Death (see Owen’s argument and  Prayson’s treatment of the argument) is often evoked. The argument shortly stated is that if Christ died for the sins of all people (unlimited atonement), what about the sin of unbelief? Doesn’t this make God unjust because Christ Jesus can’t pay the penalty for unbelief and yet let unbelievers pay it again in hell? And since universalism (Christ died effectually for all people securing their salvation) is unacceptable, this leads many to say that atonement has to be definite and limited in scope in order for it to be effectual. Christ dies and pays the penalty for the sins of the elect.

There are plenty of exegetical discussions on the relevant texts (e.g 1.Tim 2:4, 2. Peter 2:1, 1.John 2:2 etc.), so I will rehearse here.  I do, though, want to present a principled objection that John Owen’s argument proves to much (Jordan Cooper, a Lutheran minister makes this point in the podcast “limited atonement part 5”, which I am here summarizing). If unbelief is a sin which Christ atoned for, for the elect, then that sin was also paid for before the elect was regenerate. This means that the elect had atonement for the sin of unbelief which would make faith unnecessary, which leads to the view called eternal justification. Some hyper-Calvinist would bit the bullet argue for this but most Calvinist would still maintain that justification happens in time by faith. The elect appropriate the benefits of the atonement by faith they would say. But in making this step Owen’s argument collapses because this this is exactly what the Lutheran and the Arminian would say, that the atonement is only applied by faith. So Owen’s argument proves to much.

About Guest Contributor

SorenSøren D. Øhrstrøm is 24 years, lives in Aalborg, Denmark. He hold B.A. in Social Sciences from Aalborg University with Study of Religion as a supplementary subject from Aarhus University. He is currently enjoying life at a Bible school in Israel with his wonderful girlfriend Miriam.

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10 thoughts on “John Owen’s Argument Against Unlimited Atonement

  1. Rightly defined in the FRAMEWORK of the irrevocable terms, scope and seal in the “new covenant” (Jer. 31: 31-34; Luke 2: 25-35; 22: 19-20; 23: 40-49), there is no doubt that Christ died for the sins of unbelief by all people.

    • Unbelief is a sin.

      “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. John 3:17-18

      • You misunderstand God. God has not fixed the outcome of the agenda. God’s will always presupposes our own considered involvement. After all, God gave us a mind and a personality. God treats us as adults and wants our full adult cooperation – which demands deliberation rather than unquestioning compliance.

        As the Good Shepherd, Christ give his life for you. “No one takes my life from me, not even the Father. I give it myself” (John 10:11-18). The Father accepted Jesus’ act of love as the sacrifice that reconciled humankind to himself. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “The Father did not force Jesus to be killed, which would have been cruel indeed. No, the Father inspired Jesus with love so that he freely died for us.”

        The same applies to us Christians today. Through the Gospel we receive guidelines. These present the ideal. They contain precious advice and helpful suggestions. They are not rigorous laws to be executed in blind obedience. Rather, they are road signs that help us when, on the strength of our considered judgment, we discern God’s will for us in our specific circumstances.

        Christians do not live under law, but under grace and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6). “For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!” (Galatians 5:1). “I do not call you slaves”, Christ said, “for slaves do not know their master’s intention. I call you friends, because I have told you all I have heard from my Father. The one command I give you from him is this: love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12-15).

        • Jesus’ postdated promise (John 3: 14-16) does not yet tell the WHOLE STORY of what is and what is not the rationale behind believing and Atonement before its maturity at “the kind of death he suffered” on our behalf, viz.: Spirit-active, perfect and diacritical including a point of change for the world (Ibid. 19: 30-37).

  2. The atonement is both unlimited and limited. Unlimited becuase of the nature of the sacrifice, which is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The lamb is God, Jesus and whatever he provides, even atonement, has to be infite, or else he is not God. But there is a difference between what is available and what is appropriated. The limitation is in man, some will reject and some will accept grace, others may not even be aware and so will not appropriate the grace. That does not reduce the infiniteness of the grace on offer. I think it is an insult on God that anything about him can be limited, he is the constant, man is the variable. So let us stop this argument about unlimited and limited atonement. The atonement is both limited and unlimited, depending on the whether you are referring to what is appropriated of made available respectively.

    • If we simply look to Scripture for the answer to the question if the Atonement is limited or unlimited, we find it would have to be limited. How is it limited? Jesus’ statement in John 3:16 provides the answer: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but see everlasting life.” In this passage, the necessary condition that limits the atonement is found: “whosoever believes” (literally in the Greek: “all the believing ones”). In other words, the atonement is limited to those who believe and only those who believe.

      The next question, “Who limits the Atonement, God or man?” can also be answered from Scripture. Since forgiveness and salvation is made available to everyone then it must be man.

      There are many Scripture verses to support the position that humanity, and not God, limits the atonement. Here are a few…

      “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:2,
      “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29
      “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” John 6:51
      “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” John 12:32
      “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6
      “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” Hebrews 2:9
      “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.” 2 Peter 2:1

    • Not believing that Jesus is “I Am Who I Am”, i.e., life-giving Spirit, a.k.a., Almighty God in person, as perpetually revealed in “the kind of death he suffered”, actually ends in death in one’s sins on charges of idolatry. (John 8: 21-32)

      Be very careful Christians!

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