Sunday, May 12, 2013

Owen's Trilemma and Double Payment argument

High-Calvinists are quick to use a form of Owen's double payment argument when discussing their view of limited atonement. Their view is the strict limited atonement view - i.e. that the atonement is limited in terms of the sins expiated and in the intent to save certain ones.
Owen's Trilemma:    
God imposed His wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either
all the sins of all men, or
all the sins of some men, or
some sins of all men.
If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; ...
If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.
If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?
You will say, "Because of their unbelief; they will not believe."
But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins!
 Let them choose which part they will.
(John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Book 1, end of Ch. 3)
There are a number of problems with this argument:
  • It makes saving faith moot. According to the argument against the answer to the first option people are saved from punishment apart from belief. This works for other options as well. It cannot be selectively applied to one option and not the other. So, those under option 2 are saved apart from belief as well according to this argument. But, this contradicts scripture that teaches that the benefits of the atonement must be applied by faith.

  • The unbelieving elect could never be considered children of wrath like the rest. If these cannot be punished for whom sins have been expiated then these could never be exposed to God's wrath. Yet scripture plainly teaches that the elect are children of wrath just like the reprobate prior to regeneration and faith (Eph. 2:3).

  • The argument assumes a quantitative view of the sins expiated. This is an unspoken assumption in the double payment argument of Owen's. For the sins for which Christ atoned are the exact individual sins of those under consideration... even their unbelief. This is also the assumption of high-Calvinists and leads to significant problems, like the ones mentioned above.
There is a better way to understand the atonement. One that harmonizes the teaching in scripture that Christ's atonement is sufficient for all and the teaching that Christ's atonement is efficient for the elect alone. That is that the sin expiated by Christ's sacrifice was qualitative - i.e. all types and manner of sin. As such scripture speaks of this as being applicable to all mankind objectively (Jn. 1:29; Jn. 3:14-18; 2 Cor. 5:18-21). It does not become quantitative until the atonement is applied subjectively upon faith.
This is how men like Calvin (see his commentary on Jn. 1:29) and the Reformers (see the Heidelberg Catechism Q: 37); C. Hodge; RL Dabney; and WGT Shedd understood the atonement.
The atonement is unlimited in its expiation and receives its limitation from its intent to save the elect.

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