The Extent of the Atonement

The Double Payment Argument and Definite Atonement

One of the more popular arguments for definite atonement—that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved, and not for mankind as a whole—is the double payment argument. John Owen, in his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ makes this argument. In that Owen’s work is commonly held to be an unanswerable defense of definite atonement, we may regard his position as emblematic.

“If the full debt of all be paid to the utmost extent of the obligation, how comes it to pass that so many are shut up in prison to eternity, never freed from their debts? Secondly, If the Lord, as a just creditor, ought to cancel all obligations and surcease all suits against such as have their debts so paid, whence is it that his wrath smokes against some to all eternity? Let none tell me that it is because they walk not worthy of the benefit bestowed; for that not walking worthy is part of the debt which is fully paid, for (as it is in the third inference) the debt so paid is all our sins. Thirdly, is it probable that God calls any to a second payment, and requires satisfaction of them for whom, by his own acknowledgment, Christ hath made that which is full and sufficient?”[1]

Briefly stated, if Christ died for the sins of all mankind, it is not possible that any would be held guilty for their sins. According to God’s justice, the same sin cannot be twice punished. Yet, since all affirm that not everyone will be saved, it presents a logical impossibility to say Christ paid for the sins of all.

Arguing that Extent and Application are One

Does the argument have merit? Is this an irrefutable proof that Christ did not die for all? Several things are behind Owen’s claims, several assumptions that he makes, and it is a whole-cloth kind of argument. One of the chief aspects of Owen’s argument is that there is an inevitable link between impetration (Christ’s death) and the application of the atonement. There is not just a link, but an exact correspondence. Another way to say this is that those for whom Christ died are one and the same as those to whom his death will be applied; there is no difference between these two. But this is one of the many cases where Owen assumes what he tries to prove.

Owen presents the death of Christ as that which secures the pardon of all the elect. Application of the atonement through faith is reduced to a detail of implementation. While he would say that faith is needed, he would also say that faith is provided for the elect, purchased for them in the death of Christ. Therefore, those for whom Christ died, will inevitably believe.

But even advocates of definite atonement acknowledge there is a separation between the death of Christ and the application of the atonement. None are pardoned except those who come to Christ in faith. The elect themselves are in this position. They, too, are among the “sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2) before faith. The apostle goes on to say, and to include himself “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Eph 2:3) The elect, before they believe, would be indistinguishable from any other sinner, and as John 3:36 notes, “the wrath of God remains on him.”

Thus, we can well ask, “If Christ died for the sins of the elect, why are they not all immediately saved? The answer can only be that they do not yet believe. And indeed, Owen himself uses language of this kind at several points. “Scripture sets forth the death of Christ, to all whom the gospel is preached [unto], as an all-sufficient means for the bringing of sinners unto God, so as that whosoever believe it and come in unto him shall certainly be saved.”[2] In one sense, then, Owen does admit a breach between the Christ’s sacrifice and application. It is not applied until faith.

Faith a Condition of Salvation

The double payment argument is therefore a slightly different one than is commonly thought, for Owen acknowledges a condition of faith. None are saved until and unless they believe. The elect have their sins counted against them until they come to faith in Christ.  To turn the double payment question around, how would the sins of the elect be counted against them if Christ has paid for their sins at the cross? Neil Chambers frames the difficulty of Owen’s position, and the double payment argument as it’s usually set forth.

“If, in Owen’s terms, Christ died for all the sins of some people, the elect, then he must also have died for their unbelief, where ‘died for’ is understood to mean having paid the penalty for all their sins at Calvary. If this is the case, then why are the elect not saved at Calvary? If Owen replies that it is because the benefits of Christ’s death are not yet applied to them, then I would ask what it means for those benefits not to be applied to them? Surely it means that they are unbelieving, and therefore cannot be spoken of as saved. But they cannot be punished for that unbelief, as its penalty has been paid and God, as Owen assures us, will not exact a second penalty for the one offense. If then, even in their unbelief, there is no debt against them, no penalty to be paid, surely they can be described as saved, and saved at Calvary. That being the case, the gospel is reduced to a cipher, a form of informing the saved of their blessed condition.”[3]

The double payment argument, then, has two edges. How can the elect have their sins counted against them, since their debt was paid at Calvary? Owen’s position may not unfairly be characterized as an over-realized soteriology, for in one sense he sees them saved at Calvary, in another sense, not.  For advocates of both sides of the question, there is a distinction between the extent of the atonement and the application of the atonement. John Owen, as an advocate for the definite atonement view, has his distinction as do those who hold to unlimited atonement. An appeal to the double payment argument does not in fact decide the matter. Owen’s underlying claim is really that those for whom Christ died also had faith purchased for them at the cross. This is itself a claim that is fraught with many problems, which I will deal with in a future blog post.

[1] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1967), 161.

[2] Owen, 264.

[3] Neil Chambers, “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,’” (ThM thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998). 234-235.

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