John Owen: All the Sins of Some Sinners

As much as I agree with John Owen against the idea of double jeopardy, I cannot agree with Owen’s trilemma about all the sins of all people, or all the sins of some people (the third hypothetical of course being some of the sins of some people).

I cannot agree because the cross-work (the righteousness) of Christ not only entitles the elect to justification (even before they are justified) but also because entitles the elect to conversion. Even before they believe the gospel, the elect are entitled (because of Christ’s work) to the converting work of the Holy Spirit. Christ bought both the forgiveness of sins and the application of this.

What does the application of Christ’s work mean? First, it means that God imputes that work (not only the reward, but the righteousness) to the elect. Before the cross, God imputed the work to some of the elect. After the cross, God continues to impute the work to some of the elect. So there is a difference (not only in time) between the work and the imputation of the work. For example, Romans 6 describes being placed into the death of Christ. There is a difference between the federal union of all the elect in Christ before the beginning of the world and the legal union of the elect with Christ when they are justified.

Second, the application (purchased by Christ for the elect, and thus now their inheritance) includes the conversion which follows the imputation. We could go to every text in the New Testament about the effectual calling into fellowship, but let us think now of only two.

Galatians 3:13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come…, so that we would receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

And here’s the second text which teaches us that regeneration and conversion follow the imputation. Romans 8:10–but if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Because the work (righteousness) is imputed, the next result will be life, not only legal forensic life but life also as the Holy Spirit gives by means of the gospel, so that the elect understand and believe, and are converted. Because the elect are now in Christ (not only by election but by imputation), Christ is in the elect. Christ indwells the elect by the Holy Spirit.

As II Peter 1:1 starts, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” The reason we need to be careful about John Owen’s trilemma is that Christ did not die to forgive any elect person of the final sin of unbelief of the gospel. Christ died to give every elect person faith in the gospel and conversion.

Christians do disbelieve even in their faith, and Christ died for all the sins of all Christians including all those after they are
converted. But no elect person dies unconverted, because Christ died to give them the new birth and the conversion which follows.

I am not saying that John Owen did not know this or believe it. I am only saying that the trilemma (as it is often used) does not take into account the time between Christ’s work and the application and imputation of that work. Nor does that trilemma give us the necessary reminder that Christ died to obtain not only the redemption but also the application of the redemption. Christ did not need to die for final disbelief by the elect because Christ died instead that the elect will not finally disbelieve.

Romans 5: 17 speaks of “those who receive the free gift of righteousness” and how they reign in life through the one man Christ Jesus. This receiving is not the sinner believing. It is not an “exercise of faith” (if you check the commentaries, Murray is right here about the passive and Moo is wrong).
It certainly is not “appropriating” (an ugly ambigous Arminian word which ought never to be used in any context). The elect “receive” the righteousness by God’s imputation.

The elect do not impute their sins to Christ. Nor do the elect impute Christ’s righteousness to themselves. God is the One who does the imputing. The receiving of the righteousness is not the same as the righteousness. The imputation is not at the same time as Christ earned the righteousness. God declaring the elect to be joint-heirs with Christ in that righteousness is not the same as the righteousness. There is a difference between imputation and righteousness.

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16 Comments on “John Owen: All the Sins of Some Sinners”

  1. mark Says:

    We who believe in definite atonement have not done a good job of talking about the time between Christ’s death for the imputed sins of the elect and when God places the elect into that death. So folks like Clifford argue that, if justification is by the blood, then there can be no time-gap in which these
    elect are still under God’s wrath. Or as the southern baptist David Allan says, Calvinism has no need for faith and conversion.

    This is a real problem, not only among the Protestant Reformed paedobaptists but also among the primitve baptists and folks who teach eternal justification (or at the cross). And even many Calvinists who don’t go with Gill and Crisp end up saying that God sovereignly regenerates apart
    from the gospel and leaves some of the elect justified but with no gospel.

    But, as you know, the greater problem is on the other side. The Fullerites (Piper) may sometimes say that Christ purchased faith for the elect, but
    they do not talk about the sins of the elect being imputed to Christ by God at the cross. So they do not have the time gap problem: they have
    justification by faith and not justification by the blood. They even say that the blood was for everyone, at least to make them an offer or to condemn them. They make sinners the imputers!

    So I am not sure how many people can respond very well to the challenge about the time between the death and the imputation of the death. Owen uses
    the word “impetration”, but that concept can be mis-used also, like everything else.

    Oh well, I am obsessed with these questions. I have been a Christian for ten years now, and my hope is not in any progress I am making. My wife
    Linda is 62 today and I am so thankful for her and her patience. My only hope in this life is freedom from sin in the same sense that the Lord Jesus
    became “free from sin” (Romans 6:7) Whatever the content of God’s law for me, my hope is that the requirement for me has been fulfilled in the flesh
    of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:3-4).

  2. markmcculley Says:

    aj: Galatians 3 gives further exposition to Genesis 15 which is quoted in Romans 4. “Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” [Galatians 3:6] Justification in this context is referring to the declaration of righteousness which is made known by the hearing of faith through the Spirit.

    mark: Reducing it to what we hear will not work. Who is the accounter? Who is the one imputing? God is the imputer. What is God imputing? You seem to be saying that God is imputing the sinner’s act of faith to be the righteousness.

    Of course I know that according to you this is not the real objective righteousness. It is only righteousness #2, a justification before conscience. But this is one of your biggest problems. The Bible does not know anything about two justifications, and it is your system which is telling you that there are two different kinds.

    God does not account faith as the righteousness. Faith is not the righteousness. So God does not count it to be so. What God counts as righteousness is righteousness, ie, Christ’s work, which is the object of faith.

    This is the meaning of Gen 15:6. So you don’t need to invent a second kind of justification (before the conscience) to avoid the error of making faith the righteousness.

    “And the Writing having foreseen that by faith God doth DECLARE righteous the nations did proclaim before the good news to Abraham.” [Galatians 3:8 ]

    “that to the nations the blessing of Abraham may come in Christ Jesus, that the promise of the Spirit we may RECEIVE through the faith.” [Galatians 3:14]

    mark: faith in these texts is not a condition or instrument of receiving justification (not even your justification #2). “By faith” is the exercise of faith (given by God in regeneration) which is the result of justification (imputation).

    Faith is not imputed. God does not impute faith. God declares based on the object of faith, ie, what Christ got done.


    Money You Can Return, but not Christ’s Death

    John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification, 5:217—” A man may lay down a great sum of money for the discharge of another, on such a condition as may never be fulfilled; for, on the absolute failure of the condition, his money may and ought to be restored unto him, whereon he has received no injury or damage. But in penal suffering for crimes and sins, there can be no righteous constitution that shall make the event and efficacy of it to depend on a condition absolutely uncertain, and which may not come to pass or be fulfilled; for if the condition fail, no recompense can be made unto him that has suffered. Wherefore, the way of the application of the satisfaction of Christ unto them for whom it was made, is sure and steadfast in the purpose of God…/john-owen-on.


    Garry J Williams, p 511—How does John Owen avoid the accusation of Richard Baxter, that satisfaction would have to be applied immediately upon being made? For John Owen, the gift of faith is itself a certain result of the work of Christ, produced by it ipso facto, BUT NOT “in am immediation of time but causality.” John Owen argues for the compatiblity of identical satisfaction and delayed application on the basis of covenant (that stipulates how the satisfaction will be applied).

    Owen, volume 10, p 450—Of the Death of Christ, the Price He Paid, and the Purcahse He Made

    Charles Hodge rejects the term “ipso facto” in relation to satisfaction, but it is clear that he equates it with temporal immediacy, ST 2:472


    Jacobus Andreae, Acta Colloquij Montisbellogartensis, 1613, 447

    “Those assigned to eternal destruction are not damned because because they sinned. They are damned for this reason, because they refused to embrace Jesus Christ with true faith, who died no less for their sins than for the sins of Peter, Paul and all the saints.

    Beza—p448–”To me what you say is plainly new and previously unheard–that men are not damned because they have sinned….

    Garry J Williams, p 513—The notion that the lost will be punished for the sin of unbelief and not for sin in general allows Lutherans to hold that Jesus died for every general sin of every individual, and yet not all must be saved, because unbelievers may still be justly condemned for their unbelief since Christ did not die for it. This reply limits the sins for which Christ died..

    The Lutherans have created a difficulty with biblical texts referring to the sins for which Christ died. Every affirmation that sins have been borne by Christ must now be understood to contain a tacit restriction—except the sin of unbelief….If a sinner believes and becomes a Christian at age forty, and the Lutherans teach that Christ did not die for the sin of unbelief, this means that Christ did not die for this man’s sin of unbelief committed over forty years.

    Psalm 130: 3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?

    II Corinthians 5: 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.

    mark: Most people have not heard the true gospel. Most people do not believe the true gospel because most people have not heard the true gospel.


    the ransom metaphor evokes both pecuniary and judicial images.

    William Cunningham, Historical Theology 2:352—“A righteous judge will not twice inflict the penalty which a given crime has deserved.”


    the death of Christ as satisfaction for specific sins, and the imputation of that death
    are two different things

    this is different from a salvation conditioned on faith, even if that condition is met by God’s gift of faith, unless this gift of faith was purchased by the death of Christ itself

  8. markmcculley Says: not good from Charles Hodge—
    What was suitable for one was suitable for all. The righteousness of Christ, the merit of his obedience and death, is needed for justification by each individual of our race, and therefore is needed by all. It is no more appropriate to one man than to another. Christ fulfilled the conditions of the covenant under which all men were placed. He rendered the obedience required of all, and suffered the penalty which all had incurred; and therefore his work is equally suited to all.

  9. markmcculley Says:

    Hanko–By making faith the condition of salvation, faith is set outside the benefits of the atonement. if the atonement is for every sinner, but faith is not for every sinner, then faith cannot be a blessing given by means of the atonement. Then faith is not one of the blessings of Christ’s death, but becomes a condition for making Christ’s death effective. One cannot have it both ways. Faith is either part of salvation or a condition to salvation; but both it cannot be.

  10. markmcculley Says:

    We need to be careful about explaining that Christ “actually atoned” for the elect alone and not “potentially” for everybody. We need to be careful because Christ did not die to forgive any elect person of the final sin of unbelief of the gospel. All the elect will believe the gospel.

    The elect will believe the gospel, as soon as the actual atonement is imputed to them. “Actual atonement” does not mean that the atonement is justification. The very real legal record of the very actual atonement is not imputed to all the elect at one time. Even though the sin of Adam is imputed to all humans, that imputation is not at one time. And even though Christ died to give every elect person faith in the gospel, the propitiation Christ made for each elect person is not legally imputed until immediately before their conversion.

    No elect person dies unconverted, because Christ died to give them the new birth and the conversion which follows. In our thinking and preaching, we need to take into account the time between Christ’s actual work of reconciliation and God’s legal imputation of that reconciliation which the elect receive. Romans 5:11 and 17 teach us that the elect receive not only by faith but first of all by imputation.

    Christ died to obtain not only the redemption but also the legal application of the redemption. Christ did not need to die for final disbelief by the elect because Christ died instead that the elect will not finally disbelieve.

  11. markmcculley Says:

    John Owen, comments on Hebrews 8:6-13—No man was ever saved but by virtue of the NEW COVENANT, and the mediation of Christ in that respect. The Sinai covenant thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. The old covenants were confined unto things temporal. Believers in the gospel were saved under the old covenants but not by virtue of the old covenants

  12. markmcculley Says:

    Tioanqi WuppSome Arminians are smart. They point out a hole in Owen’s trilemma.

    They say, Christ did not die for the sin of final unbelief. So Christ died for all sin of Christians (those who will not commit the sin of final unbelief), but only some sins of non-Christians (those who will commit the sin of final unbelief).

    They quote the verse on “unforgivable sin” – all other sins are paid for, but this is the one sin that is not forgiven, and Christians are not condemned because they don’t sin this sin.

    Of course, such a view completely subverts everything the Bible says. Christ’s death is conceived in a piecemeal fashion that paid halfway, didn’t propitiate, didn’t take way condemnation, didn’t sanctify, didn’t redeem. Faith in the gospel is now about keeping oneself from committing the one sin for which Christ did not die. God doesn’t judge anybody’s sins except their unbelief

  13. markmcculley Says:

    Perhaps the most common objection to universal atonement is Owen’s double jeopardy or double payment argument, which says: if Jesus died for everyone without exception, then either (a) everyone is saved, or (b) those in hell pay for sins which were already paid for once on the cross. The former is obviously unbiblical—not everyone will be saved (Matthew 7:13–14)—and the latter is plainly unjust—and shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right (Genesis 18:25)?

    In this way, unlimited satisfaction seems to be skewered effectively on the horns of a dilemma. In the past, when I was an Owenist, I formulated the argument as a reductio ad absurdum like so:

    The satisfaction Jesus rendered on the cross was sufficient to save all people from sin.
    Unbelief is a sin.
    Therefore, the satisfaction was sufficient to save all people from unbelief.
    But unbelievers are not saved.
    Therefore, the satisfaction does not save all people from unbelief.
    Therefore, the satisfaction was not sufficient to save all people from sin.
    The problem with this argument is that it presupposes a pecuniary view of the atonement—that is, a view which treats penal substitution as if it were like a commercial transaction, as I discussed in part 1 of this series. Aside from the issues which I canvassed there, there are two obviously fatal defects with this presupposition:

    It begs the question against unlimited satisfaction, which presupposes a judicial view and rejects the pecuniary model. The double jeopardy argument therefore misrepresents—or at best misunderstands—the view it attempts to refute, and so does not actually interact with it at all.
    It proves too much, since the implication follows unavoidably that, were the argument to succeed, God’s elect would never have been under his wrath, having been justified by the cross—a view which most Owenists rightly reject.
    the argument examined
    Premise (1) is sound; certainly, the view I’m defending has it that the satisfaction was, and is, sufficient to save all people from sin. Premises (2)–(4) are also entirely indisputable under the unlimited view: unbelief is a sin, the atonement covers it, and yet unbelievers aren’t saved. And premise (5) is not in question either.

    The problem is (6). Notice the obvious non-sequitur. What does the fact that the atonement does not save all people have to do with whether it can not save all people? Plainly, there is a connection in the Owenist’s mind—but that connection doesn’t reflect anything in the unlimited view, which admits no such connection because it does not suppose that specific sins were imputed to Jesus at the cross. Rather, it recognizes that such a notion leads to real problems, both in terms of the mechanism of federal headship, and in the mechanism of justification.

    James Anderson, an Owenist, once explained to the Reformed Baptist Discussion List that:

    the double-jeopardy argument only assumes that for any person S, S’s sins will be atoned for if and only if (i) S’s sins are imputed to Christ and (ii) Christ suffers a punishment for those sins sufficient to fully satisfy the demands of divine justice. (requires a login).

    But of course, I reject (i): I deny that imputation occurs in this way at all. For one thing, acts are not imputed as the argument assumes; rather guilt. For another, such imputation takes place at the moment of justification—that’s what justification is: the imputation both of our guilt to Jesus and his righteousness to us. This occurs when we exercise faith; not on the cross.

    So I reject the conclusion of the double jeopardy argument as a non-sequitur. It merely presupposes the Owenist’s view of imputation, and tries to tacitly impose this on me. (Needless to say, if I accepted the Owenic view of imputation, I wouldn’t hold to unlimited satisfaction in the first place, because then it would entail either universal salvation or double payment for sins!) By contrast, if the argument is corrected to no longer beg the question, (6) might look something like this:

    Therefore, the nature of the satisfaction was not such that it actually saves all people from sin.
    Which, of course, says nothing necessarily about the limited scope of the satisfaction, and everything possibly about its limited application. And since it doesn’t entail a limited scope, it isn’t contradictory with the premises I’ve accepted. So the argument does not select for the Owenic view once it is reworked to be fair: it merely selects for a limited view of satisfaction—whether in scope or in application.

    Given what I’ve shown in this series, I think the limited application is far more reasonable. In other words, the atonement, in and of itself, does not justify anyone: it only provides the grounds of justification, so that it may then be applied by faith. But this leads into the final objection I’m going to consider: that an unlimited satisfaction doesn’t accomplish actual redemption for anyone.

  14. markmcculley Says:

    none for whom Christ died will commit the sin of ignorance and/ or unbelief of the gospel

    Christ’s death imputed does not make regeneration and faith in the gospel not necessary

    regeneration and faith in the gospel are necessary results of Christ’s death imputed

    if you do not yet know and believe the gospel, this means that Christ’s death has not been imputed to you yet (even if Christ did die for you)

    John 16: 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

    John 3:16 says “He gave His only Son, that as many as believe in Him would not perish but have lasting life.” God did not give His Son, so that everybody “could” believe in Him. God gave His Son, so that THE INDIVIDUALS WHO DO BELIEVE in Him will NOT PERISH. . God did not give His Son for them because they would believe in Him. Nor is the only thing going on in the giving of the Son the purchasing of faith for the elect, even though that is one of the great blessings of the Son’s death. . I Peter 1:21, “who through Him are believers” and II Peter 1:1, “to those who have been given a faith as precious as ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

    Romans 8: 10 The Spirit is life BECAUSE OF righteousness.

  15. Mark Mcculley Says:

    Owen–“I do not doubt but that many men do receive more grace from God
    than they understand or will own, and have a greater efficacy of it in
    them than they will believe.”

    Owen—For my part, I must say, that notwithstanding all the disputes
    that I see and read about justification…I do not believe but that
    the authors of them, (if they be not Socinians) do really trust to the
    mediation of Christ for the pardon of their sins, and acceptance with
    God, and not to their own works or obedience. Nor will I believe the
    contrary, until they expressly declare it.”

    When you question someone’s faith based on an argument that most
    educated Christians, including many preachers, cannot comprehend, then
    there is a serious problem. Presbyterians and Reformed folk can go at it over things most of the Christian world can’t even understand.”

    owen–The elect must seek salvation not only by faith but also by
    works, seeing that without doubt salvation is to be given by way of
    reward, by which God will reward not only our faith but also all our
    works. Indeed justification, namely the remission of sins, we seek by
    faith alone, not at all by works. But after we are justified, we seek
    salvation not only by faith but also by good works. For God will repay
    everyone according to their works.”

  16. Meeks Says:

    email this to me

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