A Response To The So-Called
"Unanswerable" Riddle For Arminians
Posited by the Esteemed Calvinist, Dr. John Owen
By Jeff Paton
To which I may add
this dilemma to our Universalists --
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for,
1. either all the sins of all men,
2. or all the sins of some men,
3. 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; for if God entered into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: "If the LORD should mark iniquities, who should stand?" [Ps. cxxx.2] We might all go to cast all that we have "to the moles and to the bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty." [Isa. ii. 20, 21]
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 for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment 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.
A Brief Background To The "Conundrum"
Through the centuries, the battle between the two great protestant theologies of Calvinism and Arminianism has raged on. At first, the Calvinists attempted to force their hand through an early persecution of Arminian believers. This however, did not succeed in silencing truth. In the 1600's, Calvinism ruled in England. John Owen was without a doubt the most staunch and prolific writer of Calvinism during this period, or any other period of history. While people were educated into Calvinism, it did not have the effect that was desired. Instead of fanning the fires of revival, it brought a stiff, formal, stifling, and oppressive form of Calvinism to the British Isles.
In 1703, there was born a man in due time named John Wesley. His entrance into the fray of religious history was during a period in England in which great sin and poverty ruled the people. The separation between the classes was great. The rich were very prosperous, and the poor were destitute. At one point, every fifth house in England was a gin establishment. There appeared a morbid passiveness among the people concerning what they believed was the "predestined" lot for their lives. There existed a great apathy towards religion and the elitist Church of England. In this environment, Arminianism had found a foothold, but not any widespread acceptance.
John Wesley saw the great need of the people and the stifling effect that Calvinism had upon them. He sought to have the people rise above the idea of passive acceptance of their deplorable condition, and to trust in God that He had a better plan for their lives. Thus, Arminianism was welcomed with great anticipation, resulting in great advancements for the Lord and for English society.
This short little history is placed here to give the reader an idea of the times and situation in which John Owen had written. As far as theology goes, Calvinism was king. John Owen was the most respected theologian of his day. The authority of his writings were rarely challenged. This was partly so because of his great learning and the dominance of Calvinism. But I would say that it was probably more so because of the great verbosity of his argument. You see, it will usually take more words to answer an argument than it does to make the initial argument. While I respect Owen's ability to be the most thorough writer that I have read, I would say that he is also the master of beating the proverbial "dead horse." To answer every claim that Owen made, whether great or small, would be an Herculean task. This is why I believe that most of his writings have not seen a rebuttal in print. Not because he is so "unanswerable," but that the mass of verbiage that would be required to answer his accusations and presuppositions would amount to too great of a loss of time.
Through the wonderful technology of the internet, we have the privilege to see where some people have done us a favor by isolating a singular argument from Owen for our approval, or disapproval. This argument is posted on Religious Forums, far and wide, as insurmountable proof that Arminianism cannot work. It is believed that this argument puts us into the corner, and that it cannot be answered. This I will prove to be nothing more than an assumption.
The Argument, The Presuppositions, and the Truth
The statement, "To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists," would have been considered a derogatory statement in the days of Owen. A "Universalist" was considered a rebel, a non-conformist, a theological liberal, an inferior. It is the same attitude that we see today in aggressive Calvinistic circles. Calvinism takes its theology, and appends the title "The Doctrines of Grace" upon it, then declares that anyone who opposes a single point of their theology is opposing "Grace." It is a false connection. The "Doctrines of Grace" are what the Scriptures say that they are, not what a narrow Calvinistic creed says that they are. Instead of Scripture, they choose to raise a false dilemma for their argument. They want others to work with their definition of terms. They want others to assume that by replacing or connecting the Five Points of Calvinism with the idea of "The Doctrines of Grace, " that Arminians are opposing "Grace" when they oppose any single point of Calvinistic doctrine. While they are somewhat effective in using this flawed logic in making their case, it will only get a pass from the most shallow of thinkers.
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ
underwent the pains of hell for,
1. either all the sins of all men,
2. or all the sins of some men,
3. or some sins of all men.
The Argument: Owen argues that God imposed His wrath upon the Son for our atonement. Christ underwent all the pains of Hell and atoned for "someone." The argument is, God's atonement must be applied to one of the three choices that Owen gives us. Not three out of three, or two out of three, but one singular choice.
The Presuppositions: As we progress, we will see Owen's connection to these choices. But for now, let's see what presuppositions underlie this argument. First, Owen says that the wrath of God was upon Christ in the atonement, resulting in the suffering of Christ in the pains of hell. What he hopes to establish is that this occurred at a singular point in history in which it is now a past event. The logic goes like this:
Point One: If Jesus was punished for the sins of all men, then God must acquit all men, for it is covered in the atonement. "If the FIRST, why then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? "
Point Two: If the
atonement of Christ does not save all unconditionally, then Christ must have
died only for some men, and not all. By this
argument, he seeks to arrive at the doctrine of a Calvinistic Limited Atonement.
"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." He continues his argument at the end. The
contention is that since "unbelief" is a sin, and that sin is atoned
for, then the result would be the inevitable salvation of the one who was atoned
for. Belief or non-belief has no bearing on salvation. "But this
unbelief, is it a sin, or not? ....If not, why should they be punished for it?
If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment 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." The conclusions is: Either Jesus
paid for your sins on the cross, or He did not. If He died for your sins, this
included unbelief. All are not saved, thus all are not atoned for. Only the
predestined elect are recipients of the death of Christ. All others are
reprobate, doomed to the torment of everlasting fire for their unbelief.
Point Three:The last preposition of, "or some sins of all men," is to lead us down a blind alley. "If the LAST, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God entered into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight." By this he is saying that if there is not a direct "payment" for all sins for those who are elect, then there is no real atonement at all. The result would be that we are all still in our sins, we are still under judgment for those sins that were unatoned for. Owen discounts option number three as hopelessly flawed and void of any serious consideration.
The Truth: To see if this irresistible logic holds water, we must first see if the presuppositions are Biblical ones or not. The center of his whole argument hinges upon whether the atonement of Christ is Penal or not. I fully admit that if we work from Owen's presupposition about the atonement, all of his conclusions are doubtlessly accurate and inevitable. If the Scriptures uphold that theory, we must follow its conclusions wherever they may lead.
To understand what is going on with this argument, we must acknowledge a fundamental truth, which is, that there are many theories of the atonement. Secondly, we must admit that from a historical perspective, the Penal Theory, or better defined as the "Calvinistic Theory" of the atonement, did not come into existence until after the formulation and systemization of Calvin's theory. You see, the popular theory of the atonement was created to support the conclusions of Calvin's predestination. It wasn't that this was the accepted atonement theory of the ages that Calvin drew upon to arrive at his fatalistic theory of predestination. In fact, he makes no allusion to any such formulated theory. To put it quite bluntly, the Penal Theory is a recent invention which is bent to support the theology of Calvinism. So, to use that which is invented to support another theory is nothing more than circular reasoning. Using a theory that was invented to support another theory is not proof that either theory is true. And in my opinion, this is the case with John Owen's argument.
Before we had mentioned the Calvinistic tactic of defining Calvin's theory as "The Doctrines of Grace." We saw how they see the term "The Doctrines of Grace" as synonymous with the 5 Points of Calvinism, and therefore, synonymous with the Gospel. Part of this Gospel would include the Penal Theory of the atonement. Calvinism must get you to assume that the statement, "Doctrines of Grace" means the 5 Points of Calvinism, and that to deny one point is to deny the grace of God and the Gospel. Included in that is to suggest that a denial of the Calvinistic view of the atonement is also somehow also a denial of the Gospel. Owen presents this theory in a matter of fact manner so you arrive at his conclusion. He does not let on that it is an invented theory, because Owen must get you to assume that the Penal Theory in an undeniable fact for all of his conclusions to be correct. Just as the Calvinist dogmatically assumes their interpretation of the "Doctrines of Grace" is correct, they assume that the theory they developed to support this system is also flawlessly correct. We should not be basing our decisions concerning eternal life upon theories and presuppositions, but upon Scripture. What does the Bible assert concerning the atonement of Christ?
I am going to make several observations about the atonement of Christ that may seem shocking to those that read them. The atonement is a subject that we have all been educated into to some degree. Most people are surprisingly dogmatic about the conclusions that they draw from the atonement, but have never really examined the Scriptures to see what is said, and what isn't said about the work of Christ on our behalf.
First, Owen presents, "God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for..."
The Scriptures never say that Jesus was the object of God's wrath, or that He was punished on the cross. These are assumptions, developed to support the Calvinistic system. Developed to support a theory, and not drawn from Scriptures to find the truth. The Scriptures never use the term "wrath" concerning what happened upon the cross. The Scripture consistently uses the term "suffered," not "punished." The difference is more than just semantics. In order to be punished, one must be guilty. It is never said that Jesus was guilty of our sin, or that He was punished for our sin. To "suffer" in our stead is an accurate and Biblical representation of what occurred upon the cross. A "guilty" man deserves the punishment that he gets. An innocent man can only suffer. You cannot punish the innocent, because they are not guilty. A judge can incarcerate an innocent man, and many will assume his guilt and call it punishment, but that is an inaccurate term. If he is innocent, then it is an injustice, he is not punished, but he suffers the penalty due to punishment. Jesus did suffer the pains of hell for us. He did so as a substitute for punishment. Because of this, there is no payment of sins, but a provision for sins. This coincides with the Scriptural truth that the atonement was for all, not just a select few. "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." 1 Jn. 2:2. "Who gave himself a ransom for all."1 Tim. 2:6. The scene of Golgotha was not an image of the lightening bolts of God's wrath falling upon the Son, but was a scene of the united purpose of the love of God, reconciling the world to Himself. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself." 2 Cor. 5:19
There was no divided interest, or division within the Trinity. No wrath, no punishment; just love. A provision is made for all who will cast their faith upon the One who suffered in place of their punishment. No payment, but the willingness of God to forgive us. All this due to the grace that is brought to us through Jesus Christ.
Some may argue from the idea of purchase and cost. Cost does not demand a tit-for-tat exchange. Some may smoke cigarettes for 20 years and get cancer. We would say that cancer is the "cost" of smoking. But others smoke for 50 years and never get cancer. You see, the "cost" cannot be reduced to "X" number of cigarettes is equal to cancer. The atonement is not calculated on the scale of 1 Jesus = "X" number of sinners. The Scripture tell us what the "X" in the equation is. "X" are those that are by grace, saved through faith. For without faith, it is impossible to please God. "X" are those that repent and believe that Gospel - not those who do not have faith, and do not believe. "X" in the equation are not just one of those lucky few that are saved regardless of conditions, or just because of some unscriptural atonement.
As it was stated at the beginning, it takes more explanation to answer an argument than to assert it originally. Due to the extensive nature of answering all of the questions that one may have concerning this subject, I have added links at the bottom of the page that go into greater detail on the subject. I do this not to evade an answer at this time, but to keep the initial answer concise and manageable.
So, what is our conclusion? Which choice is the Biblical one? 1. either all the sins of all men, 2. or all the sins of some men, 3. or some sins of all men. ?? It is #1 of course! Because the atonement is a provision, and not a payment that must be limited in any way. It is the Gospel, the good news to all that will hear and follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Stripped from all of John Owen's theological presuppositions, the Scriptural answer is easy to find. The difficulty resides in the presuppositions of the Calvinistic position, and not in the Scriptures or the Arminian position.
Unfortunately for John Owen, his logical argument raises a conundrum if its own. Owen's Calvinism destroys all scriptural injunctions to believe, or have faith to be saved. It destroys any and all injunctions to purity and holiness by making the greatest advancements in grace as a Christian to be as damnable as the most vile and obstinate sinner. This reduces the Gospel to a mere lottery of fatalism. John Wesley stated it this way, "Call it therefore by whatever name you please, Election, Preterition, Predestination, or reprobation, it comes to the same thing. The sense of all is plainly this: By virtue of an eternal, unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, one part of mankind are infallibly saved and the rest infallibly damned; it being impossible that any of the former should be damned; or that any of the latter should be saved. But if this be so, then all preaching is vain."
Another way that John Wesley stated the case was in his summary of Augustus Toplady's argument for predestination. I believe that he accurately narrowed the attitude of many Calvinists, and the inevitable result of their teaching. "The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate will be damned, do what they can. Reader believe this, or be damned."
Charles Wesley exposes the Calvinistic Conundrum in his words of poetry.
Oh Horrible Decree
Worthy of whence it came!
Forgive their hellish blasphemy
Who Charge it on the Lamb.
The righteous God consigned
Them over to their doom,
And sent the Savior of mankind
To damn them from the womb;
To damn for falling short
Of what they could not do
For not believing the report
Of that which was not true.
For more detailed discussions about the atonement of Christ, see:
Charles Stanley, Eternal Security, and the Bible, Eternal Security and Logic, Salvation, Choosing a Theology, Payment and Punishment in the Atonement.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? It Is Finished Redemption/Bought with a Price
ETERNAL SECURITY BIBLICAL THEOLOGY