No Elect Person Dies Not Knowing the Gospel
As much as I agree with John Owen against the idea of double jeopardy, I think we need to be careful about how we use 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).
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
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
So there is a difference between Christ’s work and the imputation of
Christ’s work. 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
And here’s a second text which teaches us that regeneration and
conversion is a result of 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. I am only saying
that the trilemma (as it is often used by Cavinists) does not take
into account the time between Christ’s work and the application and
imputation of Christ’s work.
The trilemma in itself does not 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). 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: the receiving of the righteousness by
imputation 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 Christ’s righteousness and God’s imputation of it to the elect.