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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Lutheran Challenge to Calvinist’s Assurance

Luther im Kreise von Reformatoren

What can a Calvinist say to a person who struggles with his assurance of salvation (this also applies to evangelism)?  From reading and pondering some Lutheran blogs’ posts for some time now,  I could not help but wonder what one as a Calvinist could say to this question. The objection goes to the application of limited atonement to assurance of salvation (all though one’s view on whether the means of grace confers salvific grace also have a say in this question).

What can Calvinist respond to this? A Calvinist can’t say consistently that a person struggling with assurance of salvation should look to Christ and his vicarious dearth because his dearth only paid for the sins of the elect. This is the same kind of objection as the ”free offer of the gospel”: If salvation ultimately is only meant for and provided for the elect, is it then really genuine?

A Calvinist may want to say to a person struggling with assurance that he should believe in the gospel. But this is in my opinion a non-starter because as said above he would have to know in advance that this atonement was ”for me”, which he only knows if he already knows he is elect.

Another answer a Calvinist could provide is that one should look for assurance in inner transformation by looking for the fruits of the spirit and the ”tests of faith” in 1.john. And certainly there is verses that make very strong connections between faith and works (like James 2, Matt 7:16 etc.). But it is also true that as long as we live, we are still sinners, although progressing in holiness. Jesus says that “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23 ESV). Out of the heart of the sinner flows deceit which means that a unregenerate can cheat people into thinking that he is not a believer (1.john 2:19) and a true believer can be genuinely saved even though he struggles with sin. On top of that, out of the heart of a sinner also flows pride so if he is encouraged to look to inner transformation, then this easily ends up comparing works between brothers which again causes envy. (maybe I am painting with a very broad brush here, sorry).

A Lutheran answer would be that inwards, there is no assurance but only condemnation. This is the law’s work, to drive us to despair and wanting of any hope of salvation in ourselves. Then thereafter to give us the gospel. That is the universal declaration that Christ lived the perfect life and fulfilled thereby the law, died and atoned for the sins of the whole world and rose there days later for our justification. And this gospel is objectively and sincerely given in word and sacrament*. So grace is certainly offered (opposite the reformed view where God only offers his special grace to the elect) but still this has to be received in order to lead to salvation.

One could then ask if this gives any better assurance if salvation ultimately can be lost as Lutherans and Arminians teach. That is for another blog post maybe.

* I’m not completely a Lutheran but I am considering it.

Links to Lutheran blogs: Jason Harris’ From Geneva to Wittenberg & Jordan Cooper’s Just & Sinner

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.