A Critical Review of “He Died for Me: Limited Atonement & the Universal Gospel” (part 4 of 7)

by | Aug 8, 2017 | Book Reviews, Reformed Theology

part 1, part 2, part 3

Johnson, Jeffrey. He Died for Me: Limited Atonement & the Universal Gospel. Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2017.  201 pp.

Critical Evaluation (Continued)

Owen forgot about election?

Two of Johnson’s statements are particularly well suited to make the jaws of his readers drop to the floor: “However, there is something Owen did not consider. In fact, it is a crucial element that changes everything. Owen failed to factor in the one gift that God has given His people that was not procured by the death of Christ—election” (172), and then, “Though Owen was right when he said faith was procured by the death of Christ, he did not consider that the cross did not procure election, which is the reason that the saving benefits of the cross, including faith, are only efficaciously applied to the elect in time” (176).  But once I got past the shock of someone accusing John Owen of failing to consider election in his arguments for why the atonement of Christ is only effectual for the elect, I gave the idea a great deal of thought.  But I came to the opposite conclusion.

Rather than failing to consider the role of election that Johnson sees in making the atonement effectual to the elect, Owen could not fathom any sense in which there could be an atonement apart from election.  Johnson may be comfortable with the idea that “In its relationship to Christ as Mediator the atonement is universal, but with reference to his work as his people’s Surety, his redemption is particular” (179, 180), but Owen never could be.  Owen recognized first and foremost, that Christ’s sacrifice was the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace offering Himself up for those whom the Father had given Him.  While His mediatorial sacrifice certainly had repercussions on the reprobate, there is no sense in which that sacrifice could be considered to be made “for them.”

For Johnson, (actual) universal sufficiency means that Christ died for all men.  So in that sense he is correct when he states, “Owen could not embrace (actual) universal sufficiency because that which brings about the application of the atonement—saving faith—was effectually procured by the death of Christ” (117).   But that was not Owen’s only argument against the idea of Christ dying for all men. It was not even his primary argument, as is evident: “it is denied that the blood of Christ was a sufficient price and ransom for all and every one, not because it was not sufficient, but because it was not a ransom.”[1] For Owen, all things associated with the death of Christ—ransom, satisfaction, reconciliation, redemption—could only be understood biblically if they were comprehended with direct reference to the elect.  The Bible everywhere speaks of Christ’s death as substitution, satisfaction, reconciliation and redemption with regard to His chosen people, the church.  But the Bible nowhere speaks of Christ as a sufficient but ineffectual Surety, Mediator or Savior for the non-elect.  Scripture is equally silent regarding a sacrifice that is a sufficient but ineffectual ransom, a sufficient but ineffectual propitiation or a sufficient but ineffectual redemption.  Johnson is correct when he asserts, “according to Owen, there cannot be two intentions for the death of Christ—one intention designed to save the elect and another intention designed to provide a way of salvation for the non-elect” (63, 64).  Owen could not fathom a second intention designed to provide a way of salvation for the non-elect, because Scripture nowhere reveals such an idea.

Before moving on from the subject of John Owen, we must recognize that he did not altogether deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice to pay for the sins of all men.  Johnson admits as much on page 119.  But what is not found in Johnson’s book is the fact that Owen was actually in agreement that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient and it does have implications for the indiscriminate publication of the gospel.

Now, this fulness and sufficiency of the merit of the death of Christ is a foundation unto two things:– First, The general publishing of the gospel unto “all nations,” with the right that it hath to be preached to “every creature,” Matt. xxviii. 19; Mark xvi. 15; because the way of salvation which it declares is wide enough for all to walk in. There is enough in the remedy it brings to light to heal all their diseases, to deliver them from all their evils. If there were a thousand worlds, the gospel of Christ might, upon this ground, be preached to them all, there being enough in Christ for the salvation of them all, if so be they will derive virtue from him by touching him in faith; the only way to draw refreshment from this fountain of salvation.[2]

And again,

Secondly, That the Scripture sets forth the death of Christ, to all whom the gospel is preached [unto], as an all-sufficient means for the bringing of sinners unto God, so as that whosoever believe it and come in unto him shall certainly be saved. Thirdly, What can be concluded hence, but that the death of Christ is of such infinite value as that it is able to save to the utmost every one to whom it is made known, if by true faith they obtain an interest therein and a right thereunto, we cannot perceive. This truth we have formerly confirmed by many testimonies of Scripture, and do conceive that this innate sufficiency of the death of Christ is the foundation of its promiscuous proposal to elect and reprobate.[3]

So, we find disagreement with Johnson, not in his insistence that Christ’s sacrifice must be sufficient for all if we are indiscriminately to preach the gospel to all men, but rather in his insistence that in order for Christ’s sacrifice to be sufficient for all men, it must have in some manner been offered for all men.

Part 5

[1] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10 (1850-1853, reprint, Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 296.

[2] Owen, Works, vol. 10, 297.

[3] Ibid., 376.

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