The Extent of the Atonement

Is a “Purchase of Faith” Taught in the New Testament?

Is faith our response to the gospel, or a substance given? 

A hallmark of definite atonement is the view that what God requires of people to be saved, he has provided to them. That is, that the faith which brings us into a right relationship with God has been purchased for us at Calvary. The atonement includes the purchase of faith, but only for the elect. How sure is the exegetical ground for this teaching? This purchase of faith is critical to John Owen’s position on the atonement, and in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, he attempts to make this case.

“Christ hath purchased remission of sins and eternal life for us, to be enjoyed on our believing, upon the condition of faith. But faith itself, which is the condition of them, on whose performance they are bestowed, that he hath procured for us absolutely, on no condition at all.”[1]

Owen returns to this position repeatedly, to reinforce the idea that all that is necessary for salvation, Christ has purchased at the cross for the elect. But Owen’s reliance on logic, on the Aristotelian syllogistic reasoning inherited from Reformed Scholasticism, plays a large part in his argument. This allows him to presents his conclusion as an inevitable outcome. If Christ has died to save us, then it must be that for those he saves he has done everything required. It is critical to see that Owen begins with this logic and afterward works to fit his exegesis of Scripture into it. This is not to say that God has left us something to do, or to perform, in order to be saved. That is a false dichotomy.

Is Faith an Object?

Central to John Owen’s argument of the purchase of faith for the elect is to see faith as a thing, an object, something that is reified. It is a substance that is transferred, bestowed upon the elect. But is this a valid way to understand faith in Scripture? Owen does marshal several verses to support his point.

Phil. 1:29 “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

Several commentators suggest that the primary emphasis here is on the suffering that the Philippians are enduring, that it is this Paul emphasizes as the thrust of what is granted to these believers.  “With the words οὐ μόνον τὸ εἰς αὐτὸν πιστεύειν Paul introduces the fresh thought of believing in Christ. Such a gracious gift from God (ἐχαρίσθη) is clearly a magnificent blessing, yet in a sense the mention of it here serves to highlight the great privilege of suffering on behalf of Christ.”[2] Lightfoot even suggests that to read “not only to believe in him” with a primary reference to “to you it has been granted” is mistaken. The main emphasis is on the granting to the Philippians the privilege of suffering for Christ. “God has granted you the high privilege of suffering for Christ; this is the surest sign, that he looks upon you with favour. The sentence is suspended by the insertion of the afterthought, οὐ μόνον τὸ εἰς αὐτὸν πιστεύειν, and resumed in τὸ ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ πάσχειν.”[3]

Whether one is convinced by this view of the passage, nothing in the verse supports Owen’s claim of a purchase of faith at the cross by Christ. Chambers notes “Owen clearly takes the verse, in the form he has cited it, to indicate we are granted the gift of faith ‘for Christ’s sake’, that is, as a reward for Christ’s obedience on the cross. This understanding is not argued, but assumed.”[4] All sorts of assumptions are behind Owen’s understanding, chiefly a covenant of redemption made in eternity past between the Father and the Son, by which certain things would be granted to the Son (including faith for the elect) upon his discharge of the terms of it. As Chambers shows, these assumptions do not rest on exposition of Scripture, however.

Eph 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” (KJV)

Here Owen again assumes that if blessings are spoken of as “in Christ” it equates to purchase of faith at the cross for the elect only. But Owen must by logic import his conclusion into the verse. Faith is a spiritual blessing; therefore, it must have been purchased for us at the cross. Yet this verse does not mention faith at all, nor does it speak of a causal link between the cross and faith. As he frequently does, Owen assumes what he seeks to prove.

Surprisingly, Owen does not include Eph 2:8 in his proofs for faith purchased at the cross, and given as a gift. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Many surmise that Paul clearly states in this verse that faith is a gift. But it is too restrictive to see it in this way. It is the whole of salvation Paul speaks of, as Arnold observes. “When Paul then says, ‘this is not from yourselves’ (τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν), some interpreters have thought that Paul is referring to faith as the gift from God, but that is clearly not the case. He is referring to the entire preceding clause as the gift, that is, salvation by grace. If Paul were referring to faith (ἡ πίστις), the demonstrative pronoun would need to agree with its antecedent in gender and number; it would have needed to be αὕτη (feminine singular) and not τοῦτο (neuter singular). It is not unusual for the neuter demonstrative pronoun to have an entire clause (or even more) as its antecedent.”[5] Moreover, in Romans 3, we find a parallel idea, where Paul says we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 3:24) Justification is a synonym for our right standing, our salvation before God, and Paul calls the whole of it a gift. Even if one sees Eph 2:8 as teaching faith as the gift, there is again no causal link drawn by the apostle to the cross and a purchase with a subsequent transfer to the elect.

The other passage Owen rests on is Hebrews 12:2 “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” In The Death of Death, there is very little to support the claim, it is referred to a few times, but the main defense of it is found in Owen’s commentary on the book of Hebrews. For the purposes Owen wants it to serve, the verse is obscure. It does not include the possessive pronoun in the Greek, thus, “Looking to the Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” rather than our faith. Owen apparently finds in “author and perfecter” the grant of faith to us, but that is by no means clear. F. F. Bruce says that “in Jesus we have one who is par excellence the ‘faithful witness’ (Rev 1:5). He is faith’s ‘pioneer and perfecter.’ …Jesus, that is to say, is presented as the one who has blazed the trail of faith and as one who has himself ran the race of faith to its triumphant finish.”[6]

Bruce’s interpretation carries added weight if we consider the context of chapter 11 and of all the many exemplars of faith the author has provided. It makes sense to present Jesus as the culmination of all.  Hughes concurs with this, finding “the incarnate Son is himself the man of faith par excellence, and this seems to be the primary sense intended by the Greek original of the expression, which reads literally, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of faith,’ faith, that is, absolutely and without qualification. His whole earthly life is the very embodiment of trust in God. (Heb 2:13).”[7]

In none of the verses Owen appeals to do we find his claim of faith purchased at the cross substantiated. While they variously speak of faith, the commercial terms of purchase are missing from each of them. Owen’s argument in The Death of Death is a holistic one. That is, each piece depends on the other. If there is no purchase of faith, it calls into question the covenant of redemption which Owen believes the Father and Son agreed to, and it calls into question the inevitability of his syllogistic logic for the atonement. Chambers summarizes Owen’s challenge with his view.

“The brief conclusion is that there is no reference which speaks of the purchase of faith by Christ in the New Testament. The references predominantly speak of faith as a human activity and a human responsibility, and demonstrate a reluctance to speak in a way which would undermine that sense of responsibility or encourage a passivity or fatalism in relation to believing. Thus references that speak of directly of faith as a gift are few. This does not mean that salvation is regarded as human work.”[8]

Chamber’s final sentence touches ever so briefly on a topic that is an exceedingly large one. If faith is not a purchase, contra John Owen’s claims, does this mean it is a human work? Many have posited this as a strict binary, but this is too facile an explanation. It is a topic for a future post, because it is so multifaceted.

[1] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1967), 111-112.

[2] Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2014), 160.

[3] J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (New York, Macmillan, 1868), 104-105.

[4] 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), 205.

[5] Clinton Arnold, Ephesians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010), 139.

[6] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2014), 337.

[7] Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987), 522.

[8] Chambers, 218-219.

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