This post is an excerpt from the book review of Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
The topic of Justice is central to Owen’s view of the atonement. Book 3, chapters seven, eight and nine primarily deal with justice. The general idea with justice and the atonement is that we broke God’s law and therefore are due punishment.
Justice gives one what is due him, so our punishment for sin is just. Punishing sinners simultaneously upholds God’s law and gives the sinner what is due him. (Revelation 16:5, Romans 6:23) The controversy is 1) how Christ’s death satisfies God’s justice and 2) how the atonement relates to justification and imputation.
Owen built his model off his idea of the sin-bearer. His view was:
1) God shows mercy to the elect by transferring their sins to Christ
2) God punished Christ for our sins on the cross, which satisfies justice
3) When an individual believes, he realizes what Christ has already done
In contrast, my view is:
1) Christ died on the cross desiring everyone’s salvation
2) An individual believes
3) Christ intercedes for the believer, asking the Father to accept His death in their place
4) The Father mercifully accepts Christ’s death as a substitute for punishing us, which satisfies justice
I would like to highlight the primary point of contrast. When is justice satisfied? Owen says on the cross, before individuals believe. I say it’s based on the cross, but after individuals believe. The problem with Owen’s view is that the elect are born justified. Sure, they might not realize it yet, but God owes them heaven. This contradicts passages which say we were by nature the children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
Owen’s view also contradicts the doctrine of justification by faith. Based on Christ’s blood, God counts [or imputes] faith as righteousness and declares us righteous. (Romans 4:5) Christ’s righteousness is ours by imputation. Justification is based on the cross, but does not happen the moment of the cross. (Romans 5:1) Imputation happens when one believes, not before.
So Owen’s view cannot explain how the elect, prior to faith, are the children of wrath, nor can he explain imputation. But I see a third difficulty in Owen’s view. In Owen’s view, God’s mercy is before the cross, not based on the cross. But this point is less than clear, so I will provide two different analogies to draw out the issue.
Owen’s analogy for the atonement was this. If a man owes 100 dollars and someone else pays it for him, he’s free. (Book 3, chapter 7)
My analogy is: If a man murders someone, he must die for his crime. Even if someone offers to die in his place, the judge doesn’t have to accept the offer. He could demand the death of the murderer. But the judge is merciful to the murderer and accepts the substitution.
In Owen’s analogy, the payment is a matter of strict justice. The creditor isn’t merciful in freeing the debtor. He’s been paid. In my example, the “payment” is specific to the individual. Allowing a substitute is an act of mercy to the murderer. The substitute is penalized with the penalty that the murderer would have gotten.
The wages of sin is death, but not just any death. (Romans 6:23, Romans 9:3, Exodus 32:32-33) It has to be the death of the soul that sins. (Ezek 18:4, 20) The Father forgives us by allowing a substitute. Owen has God’s act of mercy preceding the cross. (I.E. mercy is in step 1, but the cross is in step 2). But everywhere in scripture we see forgiveness based on Christ’s blood and never as preceding Christ’s blood. God, for Christ’s sake, forgives us. (Ephesians 4:32) In Christ, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Ephesians 1:7)