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 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 legal application of the legal satisfaction God needs to forgive and continue to be just and holy.
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 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 immediately 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 a second text which teaches us that regeneration and
conversion immediately 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 forensic life but the life also 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.
Of course 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 inappropriate Arminian word). 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 imputer.
But here is the point I want you to see: 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.