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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 this great work, e...
- Total Depravity (see chapter 6)
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement (see our case in chapter 8)
- Irresistible Grace (see chapter 10)
- Perseverance of the Saints (see chapter 17)
There is a logical direction toward which these doctrines move. First, people are depraved, cut off from the life of God and are unable to come to Him. That’s the way that God sees them and He has chosen them as fallen sons in Adam. That is unconditional election. Then comes the Son who pays their debt. The Spirit applies the work of the Son and they are kept forever for and by God. Total Depravity is defined as:
Because of the Fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free; it is in bondage to his evil nature. Therefore, he will not –indeed, he cannot—choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ. Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not salvation, but itself a part of God’s gift of salvation. It is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.
The five points go from one who is utterly, radically depraved, to one who is made holy and blameless because of Christ’s atoning death and kept safe forever in the arms of God. So, in thinking about election we must presuppose the depravity and fall of man. When God chose, He chose those who would by Adam’s Fall, fall into sin, misery, and depravity. We are told that He chose them to be “holy and blameless” (Eph. 1:4), presupposing that we were not holy and blameless. When thinking and speaking of Unconditional Election, we do not have in mind the election of people who were good, but the election of people who were fallen in Adam and on their way to Hell, if God did not intervene. If there was no election, no one would be saved, because man cannot and desires not to come to God, without the special and gracious work of God in his heart. This point is taken into consideration in the 6th chapter of the Confession.
Unconditional Election From Scripture
After laying the basis for man’s utter depravity, for the fact that He cannot and will not come to God (Rom. 3:11; 8:7-8), the Five Points of Calvinism move to Unconditional Election, which as I have pointed out above by quoting some theologians, it is God’s free decision to choose out of the fallen race of Adam, before creating the world, some who would not receive their just punishment, but instead will be saved from God’s righteous wrath on the basis of Christ’s work. While a case for absolute divine election can be made if one goes to church history, but that is not much of interest to me. The Scripture teaches it, Church history confirms it. The Scripture is the only standard for the truth and we should go into this inquiry about election to the God-breathed Scripture as the highest and infallible authority (see chapter 1). There should be humility to submit to the Word of God in what it teaches about election and reprobation and to no other authority than God Himself in the Word.
There are others who, when they would cure this disease, recommen...
The purpose of Christ's death was that the group for which He died, the “all”, may no longer live for themselves, i.e. in sin, but live for and in Him who for their sake died and was raised. Unless we want to say that God is frustrated in His purposes, which is impossible (Job 23:13; 42:2; Prov 19:21; Isa 14:27; Isa 46:10; Dan 4:35; Eph 1:11) we must accept that the group for which Christ died were the elect, i.e. the believers united with Him on the cross.
Many are the texts which speak of Christ specific and atonening death for the believers and that we will discusses when I try to present my case for Limited Atonement. But that verse 15 says that not only died the Lord Christ died for us, but He was raised for us. As He died for us and we were united with Him in His atonening death, so likewise we will share with in Him in a resurrection body like His (Rom 6:5). See above for Romans 4:25.
In verse 17 Paul concludes based on what was said in verses 14-15 that if we indeed are in Christ, i.e. in the group of the “all”, therefore we a new creation. Each of us. We have been made new by the death of Christ. Our old stony heart was destroyed and replaced by a heart of flesh which loves God and His Law.
Verse 18: All this blessing that we have received is from God, and therefore not from man. It is He that has reconciled us to Himself. It is not we who have approached God and were reconciled to Him. He, the offended party has come to us thanks to the death of Christ and forgiven us and brought us into a loving relationship with Him, our Redeemer. It is He who has received us into His favor. It is a thing done by Him based on Christ's death in our behalf. God imputed our sin to Him and His righteousness to us.
Not only has God reconciled us to Christ, but He has given the ministry of reconciliation to the believers, that through them God may reconcile the world to to Himself.
Verse 19: Paul speaks of Christ's reconciliation of the world to Himself as a past action. God was reconciling the world to Himself. He did that on the cross of Calvary. The way in which He did reconcile the world to Himself was to not count their trespasses and sins against them, i.e. forgive them of their wickedness.
Now we should pay attention to the word “world.” It is here that the non-Calvinists see universal rather than particular atonement. This is the reason that I did not start the exegesis of verses 18-19 which is the subject at hand in verse 18, but went back to verse 14.
I believe that I fairly demonstrated the particularity of the death of Christ in verses 14-15. It is not for every single human being that was made. His death was particular which is the basis of this reconciliation. For God to be righteous and not count our sin against us means that He has counted them against a Substitute and punished them in Him (2Cor 5:21).
Unless we believe that Paul contradicts himself within a few sentences we must throw away the very simplistic understanding of the word world meaning the whole humanity. The same group which was made a new creation, for whom Christ died is still under discussion, but now Paul speaks in the context of evangelism. We have the message that God on the cross reconciled the world to Himself and that is the basis that we plead with people and God makes His plea through us that people should be reconciled to Him.
The use of the word “world” gauds against the ...
1 John 2:2
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2 (ESV)
(For a better and more recent defense see here.)
The first word to examine is propitiation. Propitiation (ἱλασμός, G2434) means the appeasement of (divine wrath of) God. Thus it means the forgiveness of sins as seen for example in Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 4:10. If we take the “sins of the world world” to mean the sins of every single individual who has ever lived, then we have Universalism on our hands, which is not consistent with the whole testimony of the Bible. Second, we know from the Bible that we have to believe to be saved, we need to have faith to be redeemed (Rom 10:9-10; c.f. “Repentance and faith are necessary for salvation”).
There is a passage in the Gospel according to John that is very similar to 1 Jn 2:2 and I believe it will help us understand what 1 Jn 2:2 is talking about. The passage is Jn 11:51-52.
|1 John 2:2||John 11:51-52|
|He is the propitiation for our sins,||…he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation,|
|and not for ours only||and not for the nation only,|
|but also for the sins of the whole world.||but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.|
John, as a Jew apostle of Jesus was talking to fellow Jew believers and telling them that God not only has a special love for Israel, but also for people/nations outside of Israel. That, Jesus didn’t only die for His people according to the flesh, but also for those who were not Jews, which was shocking to the Jews. This is almost the same message of love that God has for people/nations other than Israel in Jn 3:16.
So, when we put 1 Jn 2:2 and Jn 11:51-52 together to understand 1 Jn 2:2 better, we see that the Apostle is using the word “the whole world” in 1 Jn 2:2 not as every individual who lives or has lived, but more as the “children of God who are scattered abroad.“ And those are the ones for whom Christ died, the Gentile elect and the Jew elect.
The ESV Study Bible explains: 
1 John 2:2 Propitiation (Gk.hilasmos) here means “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor,” and that is also the meaning of the English word “propitiation.” (See note on Rom. 3:25.) As the perfect sacrifice for sin, Jesus turns away God’s wrath (see also 1 John 4:10). For the sins of the whole world does not mean that every person will be saved, for John is clear that forgiveness of sins comes only to those who repent and believe the gospel (see 2:4, 23; 3:10; 5:12; cf.John 3:18; 5:24). But Jesus’ sacrifice is offered and made available to everyone in “the whole world,” not just to John and his current readers.
The ESV MacArthur Study Bible explains: 
Propitiation. C.f. 4:10. The word means “appeasement” or “satisfaction.” The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross satisfied the demands of God’s holiness for the punishment of sin (cf. Rom. 1:18; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph 2:3). So Jesus propitiated or satisfied God. For the sins of the whole world. This is a generic term, referring not to every single individual, but to mankind in general. Christ actually paid the penalty only for those who would repent and believe. A number of Scripture i...
Limited Atonement, Definite Redemption
Since it is God’s purpose to save a special people for Himself, and He has chosen to do so only through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Christ came to give His life “a ransom for many” so as to “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The intention of Christ in His cross-work was to save His people specifically. Therefore, Christ’s sacrifice is perfect and complete, for it actually accomplishes perfect redemption.
Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ’s redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith, which unites them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, thereby guaranteeing their salvation.
For a defense of this doctrine see here.
Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.
Isa 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Isa 53:12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Rom 3:21-25 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
2Cor 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Gal 3:13-14 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Heb 9:25-28 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:1-6, ESV)
(For a better and a more recent defense of 1Tim 2:4 see here.)
This is one of the “Arminian Big Three” which you will get almost in every conversation about Calvinism in real life or online. Usually verses 3-4 are just quoted to make the case that God wants to save every single individual. The question is, does “all” in context really mean “every single individual in the world”? Or is this talking about God’s desire not His sovereign decree?
Will of Desire interpretation
There are some people who understand this passage and other passages like 2 Pet 3:9 to refer to God’s will of desire. God’s will of desire being, God’s desire that people should not murder, lie, steal, commit adultery or have other gods before Him (Ex 20), but He doesn’t decree that it should be done so. It is also called His will of precept.
So God’s will of desire refers to the things that God has not decreed in His sovereign plan before the foundation of the world, yet desires. In this interpretation, God would desire that all be saved, but He has not decreed that all should be saved, because He wants to show the full measure of His glory (Rom 9:22-24). I don’t find this interpretation compelling and I believe the following interpretation is more compelling.
The “all kinds of people” interpretation
The major Reformed interpretation takes the position that the word “all” in this context means “all kinds of people,” not every single individual, why do we say that? Because there are times in Scripture when “all” is used in the sense of “every single individual in the world”, but there are times which it isn’t used like that, but limited according to the context. Let’s look at a few verses, shall we? The portion we’re going to look at is in Titus 2. Here we see that Paul is telling Timothy to teach “sound doctrine.” Then we see him list types/groups of people:
2. Older men are to be sober-minded…
3. Older women likewise…
4. so train the young women to love their husbands and children
6. …urge the younger men
11. For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people,
12. training us to renounce ungodliness…
13. waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,
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.
We see that Paul in verse 11 says that salvation has been brought for all people, but considering the context we can safely say that it means “all kinds of people,” since in the previous verses he was talking about kinds of people (men, women, slaves, etc..). We can reasonably say that what Paul is saying through “all people” is “all kinds of people,” (as we understand that in our individualistic society) just as those kinds...
Eph 1:3-6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
Jn 1:11-13; Rom 9: 10-13, 15-16, 22-24, 10:20; Phil 1:29-30
Jn 10:14-18 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
Jn 11:49-52 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. Irresistible Grace Preservation of the Saints
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved....