John Owen’s Case for Particular Atonement
Dr. John Owen’s work titled “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” is, by the admission of many Calvinists, the most extensive work on the doctrine of Limited Atonement, or better named, Particular/Definite or Atonement/Redemption. Therefore, it is beneficial for us to take a brief look at his case for Particular Atonement over against Universal Atonement. Dr. Owen is aware and acquainted with the material of the opposing position and he interacts with them and answers their objections. He is not writing against caricatures of the opposing side but has researched the materials and arguments of the opposing side and, in my opinion, utterly refutes their arguments.
Almost everyone who has any reasonable knowledge of the debates concerning limited or unlimited atonement must have heard of Owen’s trilemma, which we have presented above. The trilemma is really forceful, but it is merely one argument out many more from Dr. Owen’s arsenal. The trilemma is not his only argument for Particular Redemption. But it may be an accurate summary of his case. He argues each of his points biblically. For a good summary of his arguments see here.
Dr. Owen’s book is divided into four books and various chapters dealing with the issues related to the atonement.
- Book 1 (8 chapters) deals with the purpose of the Trinity in the design of the atonement.
- Book 2 (5 chapters) deals with the effects and application of the work of Christ.
- Book 3 (11 chapters) presents 16 arguments against Universal Atonement and for Definite Atonement.
- Book 4 (7 chapters) answers various interpretations and objections to Particular Atonement.
Note: All biblical references in the quotes are modernized (e.g. John i. 1 to John 1:1 for the ease of reading and the recognition by the Scripture Tag).
First, he enquires about the “general of the end [i.e., purpose] of the death of Christ” (book I, chap. 1). What does the big picture of Scripture say about the death of Christ? What is indisputable there about it? He divides this question into two sections:
- “that which his Father and himself intended in it” (book I, chap. 1):
- Luke 19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
- 1Tim. 1:15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
- Matt. 20:28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- Gal. 1:4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,
- Eph. 5:25-27 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
- Titus 2:14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
After citing and alluding to the above-cited passages, Owen says:
Thus clear, then, and apparent, is the intention and design of Christ and his Father in th...