From the outset I want to make it clear that I’m not asserting that Calvinism is heresy, as I consider most Calvinists to be genuine brothers and sisters. This post is rather about a serious error that has subtly crept up in the teachings of many Reformed Theology proponents and teachers. It is not one of the five points of Calvinism itself, but is no less integral to the theology of many Calvinists.
The First Warning Signs
Many Calvinists I’ve spoken to over the years have been great to talk to. Some just seem to be evangelicals with a stronger emphasis on predestination than most. For others, something just seemed…off. Very off. I started noticing a troubling tendency with some of the things they said: much stock was put into unconditional election and predestination, so much so as to mitigate the need for faith altogether. I would hear the occasional Calvinist friend talk about being “saved before they were born,” but I also knew that many Reformed preachers taught salvation by grace through faith, so I initially wrote it off as people misunderstanding their tradition’s theology. Little did I know….
A Tumorous Trilemma
I’ve come to believe that the real issue has been hiding in plain sight for a long time. In his ponderous polemic, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Puritan theologian John Owen poses the following trilemma to we who believe Christ tasted death for everyone (per Heb 2:9).
To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists:– 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; for if God enter 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. 3. 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.
(John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Book 1, ch 3; emphasis and spacing mine)
A Premalignant Presupposition
Read the bolded portion of the argument carefully. Closer observation reveals a far graver issue. Parsing out what Owen is saying,
But this unbelief, is it a sin or not? If [unbelief is] not [a sin], why should [unbelievers] be punished for it? … If [Christ did die for the sin of unbelief], then why [would the sin of unbelief] hinder [the unbelievers from being saved any] more than their other sins for which [Christ died]?
The answer to the trilemma is fairly trivial: While refusal to believe is indeed a sin, the reason it keeps one from salvation is not due to it being a sin, but because unbelief, by definition, precludes belief in Christ, without which no one can be saved (Heb 11:6). As with all sins Christ died for, forgiveness for unbelief is only obtained through subsequent belief in Him.
While Owen’s argument is trifling at best, his sophomoric reasoning isn’t the biggest problem here. While unstated, there is a premise both insidious and heretical that one must hold to make this argument without duplicity or cognitive dissonance: If one is seriously arguing that unbelief would not stop a person from being forgiven any more than any other sin, that is effectively saying that Christ’s death brings about salvation whether or not one believes. Or to put it succinctly,
If Christ died for one’s sins, then faith isn’t necessary for salvation.
Note that he is not arguing that all for whom Christ died must eventually believe and be saved, no, he is saying they would be saved despite not believing! Any Bible-believing Christian should be horrified by such a godless and contra-scriptural idea. That faith is absolutely necessary to be saved is all over the New Testament (in John 3:16, Acts 13:39, Romans 3:22, 5:1, 10:9, Galatians 2:16, 3:22, to give a few references). How in the world can an allegedly Christian theologian be arguing that lack of faith wouldn’t stop someone from receiving forgiveness?
If such a premise were true, it would entail that whether one believes has no bearing on whether he obtains salvation.
And if having faith has no bearing on obtaining salvation, then one can only conclude that salvation is not by faith.
While Owen’s trilemma and the similar arguments derived from it may seem superficially persuasive if one doesn’t spot their weakness, examination of their underlying ideas reveals more than was intended. One who argues that the atonement would save even those who never believe necessarily (except for reason of ignorance or sheer cognitive dissonance) holds a view of redemption that not only lacks scriptural support, but violates one of the central tenets of Christianity in denying salvation by faith altogether.
The Cancer Spreads
If the mutation was confined to just a small band of loonies in a corner, it would be of little concern. Sadly, a great many Christians of the Reformed theological persuasion have fallen for this unscriptural line of reasoning. Owen isn’t some isolated edge-case Calvinist predicting the timing of the second coming on the radio or protesting funerals. To the contrary, he’s widely regarded among Calvinists, and the book his trilemma was written in is considered one of their finest classical defenses of Limited Atonement.
It is to those who share this readiness that Owen’s treatise is now offered, in the belief that it will help us in one of the most urgent tasks facing evangelical Christendom today – the recovery of the gospel. (J.I. Packer, introduction to the 1958 reprint)
The trilemma itself is widely referenced and quoted by many prominent Calvinists:
- James Montgomery Boice & Philip Graham Ryken (The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel)
- Steve Lawson (Foundations of Grace)
- Robert Reymond (Ten Lines of Evidence for the Doctrine of Particular Redemption, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition)
- Dr. Christopher David Bass (That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John)
- Jonathan D. Moore (The Extent of the Atonement)
- Dr. Manuel Kuhs (British Reformed Journal, Issue 59)
- Phillip G. Kayser (Ransom Paid: Does the Bible Limit the Atonement?)
- Joseph R. Holder (Romans: Theological Masterpiece [Volume 1])
- Sam Storms (For Whom Did Christ Die?)
- Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th. M. (How to Handle So-Called Problem Passages on the Extent of the Atonement)
- Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
- Dr. Joel Beeke (Problems with Arminian Universal Redemption)
- Dr. Gary D. Long (Definite Atonement)
- Dr. Roger Nicole Th.D., Ph.D. (The Case for Definite Atonement)
- James White (Was Anyone Saved at the Cross?)
- Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., of Third Millennium Ministries
- The Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanted)
- Erik Raymond of The Gospel Coalition
And it’s not people just mindlessly parroting Owen without realizing what he’s saying. Many of the authors make the argument in their own words, laden with the same repulsive premise:
The Arminian will answer: “because they refused to believe in Jesus Christ. They are guilty of unbelief.“ But this unbelief, is it a sin or is it not a sin? If unbelief is not a sin, then why should anyone by punished for it? If unbelief is a sin, then Christ was punished for it in His death. If Christ paid for this sin as all others, then why must this sin stop anyone from entering heaven more than any of the other sins (e.g., murder, adultery, homosexuality, etc.). Furthermore, if Christ did not die for the sin of unbelief, then one cannot say that He died for all the sins of all men. The Arminian cannot escape from the horns of this theological dilemma. (Brian Schwertley, Limited Atonement)
Belief in an unlimited atonement, on the other hand, presents many logical and biblical problems. First of all, if the atonement was truly unlimited, then every person would be saved as all of their sins, including the sin of unbelief, would have been paid for by Christ on the cross. (S. Michael Houdmann of GotQuestions.org)
If God propitiated His wrath towards me in a truly substitutionary and penal sacrifice, how can He still be angry at me? Did God in Christ actually redeem, reconcile, and propitiate His anger against us on the cross? Then I cannot and will not ever experience that anger. (Sam Waldron, The Biblical Confirmation of Particular Redemption)
But God is angry at men for their unbelief,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Rom 1:18)
If, however, Jesus died to make atonement for generic guilt, for human guilt in general, then culpable unbelief is covered by the atonement. So I don’t see how a qualitative paradigm circumvents the force of Owen’s dilemma. If refusing to believe in Jesus is culpable, and Jesus paid the penalty for human guilt, then culpable unbelief is included in the atonement. The category of guilt includes all instances thereof. (Steve Hays)
But you really need to qualify what you mean when you say that “He laid down His life for all of humanity.” Such a statement is unnecessary and may be misunderstood. I could say, “so why aren’t they all saved then?” “If he already paid for their sins then there should be no condemnation.” But unbelief is one of the sins He died for. (John Hendryx, Monergism.com)
No condemnation for people who have no faith? John writes,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18)
Yet a heartbreaking number of Calvinists all but flatly deny that very truth.
If ALL the sins of ALL men were laid upon Christ, then the sin of unbelief was too. That unbelief is a sin is clear from the fact that in 1 John 3:23 we read, “And this is His commandment, That we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ.” Refusal to believe in Christ is, therefore, an act of flagrant disobedience, rebellion against the Most High. But if all the sins of all men were laid upon Christ (as it is now asserted), then He also endured the penalty for the Christ-rejector’s unbelief. … For if unbelief is a sin and Christ did not suffer the penalty of it, then all sin was not laid upon Christ. Thus there are only two alternatives: a strictly limited Atonement, availing only for believers; or an unlimited Atonement which effectually secures the salvation of the entire human race. (A.W. Pink, The Atonement)
Again; if Christ died for all; then he made expiation for all their sins. He therefore must have made atonement for the sins of unbelief and final impenitence; which prevent man from applying to himself the redemption provided for him: and thus they will no longer stand in the way of such an application: for on the supposition of satisfaction having been made for them; they must be pardoned. (Francis Turretin, The Extent of the Atonement)
However, if the sins of every individual are actually taken away, then why do any go to hell? After all, aren’t all the sins taken away? “Ah,” but you say, “they are taken away only if that person believes.” The only problem with that is that Jesus’ blood is sufficient to cleanse of all sin, even the sin of unbelief. Therefore, even that sin is covered. Remember, it says that the sins were taken away by the cross of Christ, not made possible to be taken away. (Matt Slick)
If Christ died for all of the sins of all people, that must include the sin of unbelief. If God’s justice is totally satisfied by Christ’s work on the cross, then it would follow that God would be unjust in punishing the unrepentant sinner for his unbelief and impenitence because those sins were already paid for by Christ.” (R.C. Sproul, Biblical Scholasticism)
“If Christ died for all of the sins of all people, that must include the sin of unbelief. If God’s justice is totally satisfied by Christ’s work on the cross, then it would follow that God would be unjust in punishing the unrepentant sinner for his unbelief and impenitence because those sins were already paid for by Christ.” (R.C. Sproul, The Design and Scope of the Atonement)
Paul speaks of our fallen state apart from life in Christ,
“…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)
If, as Sproul argues, it would be unjust for God to punish us solely due to what Christ did, then would it not also be unjust for Him to hold us under His wrath (and thus under the sentence of condemnation) to begin with?
The third statement is what the Arminians would say. Christ died for all the sins of all men. But then why are not all saved? They answer, Because some do not believe. But is this unbelief not one of the sins for which Christ died? If they say yes, then why is it not covered by the blood of Jesus and all unbelievers saved? If they say no (unbelief is not a sin that Christ has died for) then they must say that men can be saved without having all their sins atoned for by Jesus, or they must join us in affirming statement number two: Christ died for all the sins of some men. That is, he died for the unbelief of the elect so that God’s punitive wrath is appeased toward them and his grace is free to draw them irresistibly out of darkness into his marvelous light. (John Piper, For Whom Did Christ Die?)
How do they reconcile these mutually-exclusive ideas? Salvation can’t be obtained both by faith and apart from faith, yet many of these authors claim to believe in salvation by faith while making an argument that effectively denies it. Do they truly not understand the implications of what they’re saying? Are they surreptitiously redefining “salvation by faith” to mean something else (e.g. “You were always saved, you just realize you’re saved by faith”)? I cannot judge, I can only say that such a premise is diametrically opposed to the gospel and destructive. It’s not going to take the next bright young generation of Calvinists long to understand where these arguments must eventually lead and go full-on cultic.
Hope for Remission?
Thankfully some Calvinists have shown discernment enough to see past this heresy.
Owen is right to think Christ’s work atones for all sin, unbelief included. But he is mistaken in thinking that if Christ’s work atones for all human sin, including the sin of unbelief, there is no impediment to the salvation of all human sinners. Faith is a condition of the application of the redemption accomplished by Christ. This, as Davenant and Dabney make clear, is a perfectly just arrangement; in which case, even if UA obtains, there is not doctrine of double payment to answer. (Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, p. 233)
Tony Byrne at Theological Meditations posted a series that quoted several authors refuting such an error. A sample quote from Dabney,
Nor would we attach any force to the argument, that if Christ made penal satisfaction for the sins of all, justice would forbid any to be punished. To urge this argument surrenders virtually the very ground on which the first Socinian objection was refuted, and is incompatible with the facts that God chastises justified believers, and holds elect unbelievers subject to wrath till they believe. Christ’s satisfaction is not a pecuniary equivalent, but only such a one as enables the Father, consistently with His attributes, to pardon, if in His mercy He sees fit. The whole avails of the satisfaction to a given man is suspended on His belief. There would be no injustice to the man, if he remaining an unbeliever, his guilt were punished twice over, first in his Savior, and then in Him. See A. A. Hodge on Atonement, page 369. (R.L. Dabney)
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. (Neil Chambers)
Those for whom it was specially rendered are not justified from eternity; they are not born in a justified state; they are by nature, or birth, the children of wrath even as others. To be the children of wrath is to be justly exposed to divine wrath. They remain in this state of exposure until they believe, and should they die (unless in infancy) before they believe they would inevitably perish notwithstanding the satisfaction made for their sins. (Charles Hodge)
I would recommend any God-fearing Calvinist give his posts on the subject a read. Sadly, the Reformed believers who have seen past Owen’s smokescreen have gone largely unheeded by their peers, who have let a heretical idea in through the proverbial back door. Some may not like hearing it from a guy with more Arminian leanings, but please hear me out. We’ll always have disagreements (as all major denominations and movements do), and probably never resolve them all this side of eternity. There are things in the Bible that are less essential to the Christian faith which are often less clearly explicated, and on which some disagreement is natural. Salvation by faith is not one of those things we can disagree on. No matter what our positions on secondary issues, we must not adopt forceful or clever-sounding rhetoric that compromises the gospel. God sent His Son into the world so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish. It is no longer Christianity if that message is lost. Sine Fide is not an option.