Not Only Sovereignty—Justice Demanded the Death of Christ
John Owen, A Dissertation on Divine Justice, chapter 13 (book 10, 587) answers Twisse who wrote “it cannot be maintained that God cannot forgive sins by his power, without a satisfaction.”
“For,” says Twisse, “if God by his might or absolute power cannot pardon sin, then it is absolutely impossible for sin to be pardoned, or not…it is evident that man not only can pardon, but that it is his duty to pardon his enemies when they transgress against him.”
Owen’s Answer: “The non-punishment of sin implies that God is the Lord of mankind by a natural and indispensable right, but that mankind are not subject to him, neither as to obedience nor as to punishment, which would be the direct case if sin should pass with impunity. To hate sin, that is, to will to punish it, and not to hate sin, to will to let it pass unpunished, are manifestly contradictory.
“If you say that God hath it in his power not to hate sin, you say that he hath the contrary in his power, — that is, that he can love sin; for if he hate sin of his free will, he may will the contrary. This Scotus maintains, and Twisse agrees with him. But to will good and to love justice are not less natural to God than to be himself. ”
“But it is manifest,” says Twisse, “that man not only can pardon, but
that it is his duty to pardon his enemies; and, therefore, this does
not imply a contradiction.”
Owen’s Answer: The supposition is denied, that God may do what man may do. Divine and human forgiveness are plainly of a different kind. The forgiveness of man only respects the hurt; the forgiveness of God respects the guilt. Man pardons sins so far as any particular injury hath been done himself; God pardons sin as the good of the universe is injured.
Neither is it in the power of every man to let sins pass unpunished, yea, of none absolutely to whom the right of punishing is competent; for although a private person may recede from his right, which for the most part is of charity, yet it is by no means allowed to a public person to renounce his right, which is a right of government, especially if that renunciation should in any way turn out to the hurt of the public. Although a private person may, at certain times, renounce his right and dominion in certain cases, and ought to
do so, it doth not follow from that that God, whose right and dominion is natural and indispensable, and which he cannot renounce unless he deny himself, can do the same.
“But neither,” says Twisse, “can it be consistently said that God
cannot do this because of his justice, if it be supposed that he can
do it by his power. But Scotus reasons with more judgment and accuracy on this point. ‘The divine will is not so inclined towards any secondary object by any thing in itself,’ says he, ‘that can oppose its being justly inclined towards its opposite.”
Owen’s Answer: “We maintain that God from his nature cannot do this,
and, therefore, that he cannot either by his power or his justice. To Scotus we answer: The divine will may incline to things opposite, in respect of those attributes which constitute objects to themselves, but not in respect of those attributes which suppose a condition of God’s character.
For instance: God may justly speak or not speak with man; but it
being supposed that he wills to speak, the divine will cannot be
indifferent whether he speak truth or not.
God could not but create the world; but God did not create the world from an absolute necessity. It is necessary that God should speak truly, but he doth not speak from an absolute necessity; but it being supposed that he wills to speak, it is impossible that he should not speak truly. We say, therefore, that God necessarily punishes sin.
“But that necessity,” you will say, “of what kind soever it be, flows
from the nature of God, not his will or decree; but all necessity of
nature seems to be absolute.” “If, then,” says Twisse, “God must punish sin from a natural necessity, he must necessarily punish it to the extent of his power”.
Owen’s Answer: “That necessity from which God punisheth sin does not
require that he should punish it to the extent of his power, but so
far as is just. We do not conceive God to be a senseless, inanimate
agent, as if he acted from principles of nature, after a natural
manner, without a concomitant liberty. For God does all things freely, with understanding and by volition, even those things which by supposition he doth necessarily, according to what his most holy
nature requires. T
“God appointed a surety, and this surety being appointed, and
all the sins of the elect laid upon him, he in their room and stead is the proper object of this vindicatory justice,so far as relates to their sins. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him,” 2 Cor5:21.
But Twisse thus replies, “If God punish as far as he can with justice, — that is, as far as sin deserves, — then it must be either as far as sin deserves according to the free constitution of God, or without any regard to the divine constitution. If according to the divine constitution, this is nothing else but to assert that God punishes not so far as he can, but so far as he wills. If without any regard to the divine constitution, then without the divine constitution sin so deserves punishment that God ought to punish sin because of his justice. If disobedience deserve punishment in this manner, obedience will also, deserve a merited reward without the divine constitution.”
Owen’s answer: “God is brought under an obligation to no one for any kind of obedience; for ‘after we have done all, we are still unprofitable servants.’ But God’s right that rational creatures should be subject to him, either by obedience or a vicarious punishment, is indispensable. Obedience is due to God in such a manner, that from the nature of the thing he can be debtor to
none in conferring rewards; but disobedience would destroy all
dependence of the creature upon God, unless a recompense be made by
“The question is not,” writes Vossius, “whether it be just that a
satisfaction be received? but whether it be unjust that it should not
be received? for it doth not follow that if God be merciful in doing
one thing or another, that he would be unmerciful in not doing it.” Although mercy be natural to God as to the habit, yet because there is no natural obligation between it and its proper object, it is as to all its acts entirely free; for the nature of the thing about which it is employed is not indispensable, as we have shown before to be the case with regard to justice.”