Provisional Atonement Part 1: Dealing With John Owen’s Arminian Dilemma

, posted by Ben Henshaw

I lifted this from Jeff Paton’s website. He gives an answer based on his commitment to the “sacrificial” view of the atonement, which allows him to bypass the force of Owen’s argument.

As I have stated before, I am not (at this time) dogmatic about views of atonement. I do, however, favor the penal satisfaction view which seems to be the view that Owen is describing as incompatible with Arminian soteriology. I reject any view that does not incorporate some form of substitution. Since I more or less hold to the view that Owen thinks incompatible with Arminianism, I thought it might be fun to take on his little “dilemma” (Owen’s argument is in blue).

“To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists -”

Of course Arminians are not Universalists in a strict sense. I hope that Owen wasn’t trying to paint Arminians in a negative light with this comment. Jeff Paton seems to think he was.

“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.”

I like #1 which Owen thinks incompatible with Arminianism.

“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]

I agree. #3 is no good.

“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.”

I disagree. #2 is incompatible with numerous Scriptures which must be made to undergo tortured exegesis to comport with this position. #2, therefore, is no good. Sorry John Owen.

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.””

That is a very good answer. Count me among those who would say that.

“But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?”

If by “unbelief” Owen means to reject Christ, then yes, unbelief is a sin.

“If not, why should they be punished for it?”

If it is sin, like all sins, then they should be punished for it. I personally think that sinners being condemned for unbelief creates serious problems for Owen’s Calvinism, but we will get to that in Part 3. For now I will agree and walk headlong into the “dilemma”.

“If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not?”

This seems overly simplified, but I will concede that Christ suffered even for unbelief.

“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.”

And now Owen sticks it to me, so to speak. What am I to do? If I say that Christ died for unbelief and believe that he died for all, then I must adopt universalism (real universalism, i.e. all will be saved). If I deny universalism, then I am stuck with a limited atonement. So, Owen points out below…

“Let them choose which part they will.”

I think I will choose a third option. An option that I believe best comports with the Biblical data. I will affirm that atonement is provisional “in Christ”. In other words, Christ’s death made provision for all sin, yet only those who come to be in union with Christ partake of that provision. I believe this view is supported by numerous Scriptures. Below are a few of them (emphasis mine):

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us [believers] with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Eph. 1:3

All spiritual blessings are found in Christ. I think this must include (if not be founded on) the benefits of the atonement. We find further evidence of this in Ephesians 1:7:

In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace…”

I think this passage confirms that the benefits of the atonement are provisional “in Christ”.

Look at Colossians 1:13 and 14:

“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Again we see that the benefits of the atonement are provisional in the “beloved Son”.

So how does one come to be in union with Christ and therefore benefit from the redemption and forgiveness provided in Him?

“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation- having believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Eph. 1:13

We come to be in union with Christ through faith.

As soon as we accept the Biblical teaching that forgiveness is provisional in Christ, Owen’s “dilemma” amounts to nothing. Unbelief is atoned for, but only “in Christ”. When we are placed in union with Christ by the Holy Spirit, through faith, our former “unbelief” is atoned for just as our other sins are atoned for. If we continue in unbelief, we cannot benefit from the forgiveness that is in Christ alone, and will therefore suffer condemnation. In other words, the moment we believe, our prior unbelief is forgiven, and not before. Since the atonement is provisional in Christ we can both affirm that He died for all and that only believers will benefit from this atonement. 1 Tim. 4:10 states this truth very well:

“For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men [provisional], especially of believers [conditional application].”

I think that this passage plainly teaches that the atonement is provided for all, while only believers will actually experience forgiveness on the condition of faith (which unites us with Christ and the benefits of His atonement).

Calvinists struggle to get around the implications of this passage. Some will suggest that the “all” has reference to the elect. That would reduce the verse to tautology as follows:

“…who is the Savior of all [elect men], especially of believers [the elect].”

Some reason that the “all” means simply “all people groups” or “all kinds of people”. There is no contextual warrant for this interpretation and it amounts to little more than the interpretation we just dealt with above:

“…who is the Savior of the elect [among all kinds of people], especially of believers [the elect].”

Still others note that “God” has reference to the Father as Savior, rather than Christ, as if this changes things. Does not the Father save through Christ?

Perhaps a last attempt should be added. Some Calvinists posit that “Savior” should be understood in a sense in which all of mankind, including the reprobates, enjoy certain divine blessings. Again, there is no contextual reason for assigning some other meaning to “Savior” other than the way Paul always uses the term in connection with God. This is truly a desperate attempt to avoid the Arminian implications of this text.

So, I think that we can safely conclude that Owen’s dilemma poses no difficulty at all for Arminians who hold to both a universal and penal satisfaction view of the atonement. All one has to do is realize that the atonement is provisional and applied only on the basis (condition) of faith union with Christ.

Owen, however, has some dilemmas of his own to account for in his #2 choice above. We will deal with those in Part 2.

Note: The first paragraph has been edited to reflect Paton’s dispute with my claim that he holds to the governmental view. While Paton wrote some articles that seemed to advocate the governmental view, he informed me that he actually holds to what is called the “sacrificial view” of atonement.

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