If “Owenites” Are Right, There is No Need for Faith?
Romans 5:11 “We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the atonement.”
Fullerites teach that the “atonement” which really matters is the application of Christ’s death. Therefore, no double jeopardy, they say, unless somebody for whom Christ died has been “united to Christ.” In other words, they teach that Christ died for some who will perish.
There are also many who sincerely believe that God only intended Christ to die for the elect, and that all of these elect will be saved, but who still did not understand the nature of the atonement.
It’s one thing to say that Christ’s death will be effective, and another to say WHY Christ’s death must be effective. Christ’s death saves not only because of God’s sovereign will but also because of God’s justice.
The difference between the Fullerites and those they dismiss as “Owenites” is not for the need of the Spirit’s work or faith in the gospel. Even though at the end of the day, we have different gospels (objects of faith), we do not disagree about justification being through faith. We who are called “Owenites” do not teach eternal justification, or justification apart from faith, even though our accusers claim that this makes us inconsistent.
We do NOT teach that the elect are free from condemnation before being “baptized into Christ”. Although John Owen taught that God only imputed the sins of the elect to Christ, John Owen did not teach that all the elect were justified as soon as Christ bore those sins. Owen taught with Romans 6 that the elect must come into legal union with Christ’s death. Until the elect are placed into that death, they remain under the wrath of God.
But those who accuse us of thinking there is no need for faith claim that it is not logical for us to teach such a need for faith. If the substitution has already been made, then all for whom it was made should logically already be justified. If the righteousness has already been obtained, then all for whom it was earned should logically already be justified by it. This is the claim made by those who follow in the wake of Andrew Fuller and the Torrance brothers.
Notice two details. One, it’s clear that Owen did not teach justification apart from faith. It’s also clear that Owen did not teach that faith was a mere recognition that we were already justified. (See Carl Trueman’s various books and essays on John Owen).
But two, what is it that those who make the accusations are teaching about the atonement? Some like the Torrances think that saying that Christ died only for the elect leads to this error. Some like Andrew Fuller agree that Christ only died to gain faith for the elect, but they make this purchase of faith to be what it is limited about the intention of the atonement.
Fullerites do not want to teach that Christ’s substitution under God’s wrath was limited only to the sins of the elect. They can rightly say they teach “limited atonement” but they do not think that the propitiation is limited.
The Fullerites teach that the atonement is unlimited in its ability to condemn everybody. (Andrew Fuller himself regarded the transfer of the sins of the elect to Christ as figurative and as not legally possible.) The Fullerites teach that the atonement is unlimited in its proclamation of God’s offer to love everybody. But despite that general love, and general propitiation, they add that Christ’s death did not purchase faith and “union with Christ” for everybody.
Of course there are all kinds of sophisticated (sneaky and subtle) ways to say such a thing. Listen to this one: “Owenites must argue that substitution for the elect logically requires that God regenerate elect sinners.” But that objection ignores Owen’s careful distinction between the atonement and the legal application of the atonement.
One, it ignores that the application of the atonement is a legal placement of the elect by God the Father into Christ’s atonement. The objection jumps ahead to “regeneration” and the work of the Spirit. But Romans 6 never tells us that “regeneration” places the elect into Christ’s death. Romans 6 never tells us that it’s the work of the Spirit that puts the elect into Christ’s death.
Two, the objection fails to define the difference between “substitution” and obtaining (the Torrances would never say “earn”– too legal, too contractual) the blessing of “regeneration”.
Of course “substitution” and “regeneration” are not the same thing. Substitution has to do with “all died” (II Cor 5:15) when this means that Christ alone died for the elect, without the elect being there, so that His death legally counts for them to take God’s wrath away from them. But those who leave “substitution” undefined cannot define the difference between it and the application of “substitution”.
Our accusers claim that we who teach substitution only for the elect should agree that the elect can go free before they are converted and believe the gospel. They want to put us in that box, so they can then deny that the death of Christ is the effective difference between saved and lost. Thus they accuse: if no efficacy to set free before faith and without faith, then no legal efficacy by itself.
But notice where our accusers locate the efficacy: not in propitiation, not in Christ’s bearing the sins of the elect, but only in the efficacy of “regeneration” and “union with Christ”.
And we would could answer back: what do you need the death for, if the real thing is the new birth and the indwelling? And it’s a good question, but I am sure that they think the incarnation (if not the death) is a necessary prelude to “union with Christ” and “sacramental fellowship” with the humanity of Christ.
But this is their argument: you can’t say that there’s double jeopardy until after a person has been married to Christ by faith. Then, and only then, they say, could you say that a person was dying for the same sins twice. But otherwise, it is claimed, you can teach everybody that “Christ is dead for you” without that meaning that Christ has died for your sins, because according to them, Christ’s death for sinners is not the same thing legally as Christ’s death to pay for the sins of sinners.
How can they say that Christ’s death for sinners is not enough payment for the sins of these sinners? Listen carefully, think seriously, to their answer: “Baptism into Christ’s death is what makes Christ’s death the death of the sinner”.
This is their answer to Romans 6. Unless we want to say that Christ’s death is legally effective without faith, then they tell us that something after Christ’s death is what makes Christ’s death legally effective.
I hope you think that through. Unless we want to go the way of those who teach eternal justification (or justification of all the elect at the time of the death and resurrection of Christ), we must agree that many of the elect (all those born after Christ’s death) for whom Christ died are nevertheless born in their sins, under the sentence of death. Of course we would stipulate that God’s justice demands that they will not die in that unjustified state. But how can we explain that temporary legal condemnation when we are also teaching a substitution by Christ for their sins?
It depends on what you mean by “union with Christ”. The Torrances (also the Fullerites) think of the baptism as either a water sacrament or as the “binding by the Spirit of the elect to Christ by means of faith”. In other words, they think of being placed into Christ as identical to “Christ in us”.
But the Holy Spirit’s indwelling is not taught in Romans 6. It is God the Father’s legal imputing of the death to the elect which is in view. NO, the word “imputing” is not there. But neither is the word “Spirit” or the words “regeneration” or “indwelling”. As I Cor 1:30 teaches: because of God you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
Previously I wrote: it’s one thing to say Christ’s death is effective, and another to say WHY Christ’s death must be effective.
The death saves not only because of God’s sovereign will but also because of God’s justice. It’s possible to teach that Christ died for everybody or that Christ died only for the elect, and still not teach the justice of God revealed in the gospel.
One of the better discussions in print on this topic is by Tom Nettles in By His Grace and For His glory and his chapter on “Christ Died for our Sins, According to the Scriptures”. Nettles quotes Andrew Fuller: “We could say that a certain number of Christ’s acts of obedience becomes ours as that certain number of sins becomes his. …His one undivided obedience affords a ground of justification to any number of believers; His one atonement is sufficient for the pardon of any number of sins or sinners.”
Nettles explains that Fuller “misconceives the biblical relation of imputation. Justification should not be considered as analogous to atonement but rather to the imputation of Adam’s sin”.
Andrew Fuller is identifying the application of the atonement with effectual calling , and then on top of that he is identifying the application of the atonement with the atonement. What he really means by definite atonement is that the difference is not in the legal substitution but that Christ obtained only for the elect the Spirit’s work of calling.
Listen carefully to Abraham Booth’s Divine Justice Essential to the Divine Character, book 3:60
“While cheerfully admitting the sufficiency of Immanuel’s death to have redeemed all mankind, had all the sins of the whole human species been equally imputed to Him, we cannot perceive any solid reason to conclude that his propitiatory sufferings are sufficient for the expiation of sins which he did not bear, or for the redemption of sinners whom he did not represent. For the substitution of Christ, and the imputation of sins to him, are essential to the scriptural doctrine of redemption by our adorable Jesus…
Romans 5:11 “We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the atonement.”
This receiving is not the sinner believing. It is not an “exercise of faith” . The elect receive the atonement 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.
The legal receiving of the atonement is not the same as the righteousness. The legal imputation is not always at the same time as when Christ accomplished the atonement. God declaring the elect to be righteous in Christ is not the same thing as Christ’s righteousness. There is a difference between imputation and righteousness. There is a difference between justification because of the atonement and the atonement.
John Owen is not doing the Torrance double-talk about a difference between redemption and atonement. Rather, Owen explains the biblical difference between the atonement and justification. The difference is not that the elect do something to get justified. The difference is that, in justification, God credits the atonement to the elect. That atonement was already made for the elect before God legally placed the elect into the death.
Even before they are justified, the elect are entitled by Christ’s work to justification. But the elect are not justified until God imputes the righteousness to them.
Well, all this sounds logical enough, but what does it practically mean? Is not the safest answer to those who accuse us of denying the need for faith to deny the need for faith? Is it not safest to teach eternal justification and to say that conversion does not matter?
I have continually challenged the notion that the best way to counter salvation conditioned on the sinner is to teach eternal justification, so that conversion becomes only knowing that you were converted. (In other words, the idea is that since I was always elect, I was always “saved”, I was never not converted.)
The safest and best place to be is not the most extreme away from what the Arminians say. The safest and best place to be is what the Bible says.
I have no big problem with saying that the elect were “in some sense” always saved, but only if this “sense” is that they are elect. In other words, from God’s perspective, the elect are never in danger of perishing. But before we heard the gospel, we didn’t know know we were elect, and we were not justified. It wasn’t only an epistemological problem we had; we were under the wrath of God.
The gospel does not tell anyone: you are elect. The gospel tells everyone: God loves the elect and Christ’s death will save the elect.
Where the Arminian wants to tell every unconverted person that God loves them, those who teach eternal justification (or presumptive regeneration, which of course is not taught by all who teach eternal justification) want to tell SOME of the unconverted that God loves them.
I Thessalonians 1:4 “For we know, brothers, loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
We can and should insist on the necessity of conversion without falsely confusing the atonement with the application of the atonement. It would be an injustice if the death of Christ were sufficient for those for whom it will not be applied.
Arminians, along with Andrew Fuller and the Torrances, rejoice in the idea that they “have been died for”, but they reject any kind of “logical completeness” which would point out that their false gospel teach that even those who perish have been died for.
Some Calvinists make the imputation of Christ’s death and resurrection a second blessing, subsequent to “union with Christ”. Other “Calvinists” ( NT Wright, Don Garlington) teach that the Spirit’s continuing work of uniting some to Christ makes any talk of “imputation” redundant.
To this end, the accusers often use the same Calvin quotation from 3:11:10 “As long as Christ is outside us…” The priority of the Spirit in applying the atonement functions as an unexamined given. Nobody, except Bruce McCormack in What’s at Stake in Justification (p104-116) (also Mike Horton and John Fesko), seems to have examined the possibility that Christ is outside us as long as we are outside Christ forensically.
Legal imputation is that aspect of union with Christ which results in Christ’s gift of the Spirit, because Christ’s death has justly purchased both that legal application and the resulting work of the Spirit in the elect.