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John Owen's "trilemma" argument is often used as a defense for Limited Atonement, but it appears to have an underlying difficulty:

To which I may add this dilemma to our universalists: God imposed his wrath, and Christ underwent the pains of hell, either for all the sins of all men, or for all the sins of some men, or for some of the sins of all men. ... If it was the first, then why 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 is, then Christ either underwent the punishment for it, or he did not. If he did, then why should that sin keep them from partaking of the fruit of his death more than their other sins for which he died? If he did not undergo the punishment for it, then he did not die for all their sins. (The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [modernized edition by William H. Gross], Book I, ch III)

He argues that Christ dying for sins means that unbelief (itself being a sin) should not prevent unbelievers from being saved. But if the atonement would save even those who never believe, then that seems to imply that faith is immaterial to salvation.

Is it possible to reconcile this line of reasoning with salvation by faith?

Clarification

To summarize the problem and the question:

  • Owen argues that Christ dying for a person means that unbelief would not stop that person from being saved, viz, "...why should that sin keep them from partaking of the fruit of his death more than their other sins for which he died?"

  • If, as Owen argues, the atonement means that unbelief doesn't disqualify someone from salvation, that seems to imply that faith makes no difference in whether one is saved.

  • The question then is how can faith making no difference in whether one is saved be reconciled with salvation by faith?

  • This question has an "unclear" close vote, but I think it's good. Perhaps there's a bit here that you think could be better, to preempt any further close votes. – 3961 Oct 2 at 20:00
  • @fredsbend, thank you. I added a clarifying edit to summarize the issue. – BoneBreaker Oct 2 at 21:51
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    Very good. I'd upvote again if I could. Welcome to the site and hope to see you posting again in the future. – 3961 Oct 2 at 22:00
  • I understand the question and I share fred's puzzlement with the unclear close vote. – KorvinStarmast Oct 4 at 18:29
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It is a fact, which is experienced and observed, that the unbelief of some does not exclude them from salvation, but their unbelief is overcome and they are saved from it :

Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart. [Mark 16:14, KJV.]

It is a fact, which is experienced and observed, that some do not believe and they are left to themselves and they perish in their sins :

And he [Judas] cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.[Matthew 27:5, KJV.]

Thus it appears to be a fact, witnessed by observation and by experience, that salvation is of the Lord (Psalm 3:8, Psalm 62:1, Jonah 2:9) and that Jesus Christ died for the sins of a great multitude (bearing them in his own body on the tree, I Peter 2:24) - a multitude whom no man can number, Revelation 7:9, there being nothing at all 'limited' about this breath-taking atonement.

Thus it is also clear that salvation is by faith and clear that this faith is not derived from the self - it is God-given :

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. [Ephesians 2:9, KJV.]

So it becomes clear, by observation, by experience, by divine revelation and by irrefutable logic, that the difference between the two aforesaid types of persons above, is not in and of themselves, but lies within the eternal Deity.

So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.. [Romans 9:16, KJV.]

Which clear and plain truth is expressed by Dr Owen in his book 'The Death of Death in the Death of Christ' originally published in 1647.

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    @Nijel J, thank you for the feedback. I'm familiar with Owen's Calvinistic beliefs, I was asking how the logic of the trilemma argument itself can be reconciled with salvation by faith. – BoneBreaker Oct 2 at 2:54
  • @Nijel J, I believe I have understood the structure of his trilemma argument: 1.) Owen poses the question that if Christ died for all, then why are not all saved? 2.) He anticipates the answer "because of unbelief" 3.) he points out that unbelief is also a sin (which Christ died for) 4.) then asks why unbelief should hinder anyone from "partaking of the fruit of his death" (i.e. being saved). Arguing that a sinner would still be saved despite not believing (as Owen does) seems incompatible with salvation by faith. Is there a way to reconcile those two concepts? – BoneBreaker Oct 2 at 4:53
  • @NigelJ Of course there is no contradiction in your answer, since what you propose sounds a lot like the Limited Atonement John Owen's is defending. I don't feel like your answer adresses the question very well. The question is "How to reconcile an atonement of every sin for everyone with salvation through faith." Your answer is "Faith is god-given so the contradiction is resolved because God only has mercy on those he chooses.". I see this as support of Limited Atonement, not of universal atonement and salvation through faith which the question is about. I think your answer is good, ... – kutschkem Oct 2 at 7:06
  • @NigelJ ... but for a different question. – kutschkem Oct 2 at 7:06
  • @kutschkem, to clarify, my question is not about the extent of the atonement. Owen argues that universal atonement would save even those who don't believe; but for that he has to assume the atonement saves apart from the sinners believing. By that reasoning, particular redemption should also save apart from the [fewer] sinners believing. How can that premise square with salvation by faith? – BoneBreaker Oct 2 at 13:32
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Eph 1:13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise...8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;

Hebrews 7:26 For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; 27 who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.

  1. Is salvation through faith? Yes.
  2. Did Christ die for all sins of all people? Yes.
  3. Are all saved? No.
  4. Why? Because salvation is a gift that is received by faith. A person rejecting a gift speaks nothing to the existence of the gift. Someones rejection of this gift does not mean that the gift is inadequate or insufficient.
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I think the OP is right. Owen is being uncharacteristically sloppy in his argument. But the result is really the same... Christ died only for his elect.

Owen is often pretty hard to understand, and often needs to be read four or five times before the penny drops. Once you have understood him you then have to try and work out if he is being Biblical or not. He is a bit of a slog and not recommended when you are tired, easily distracted, or tipsy.

Permit me to guess what Owen actually means by a "Universalist". What we mean today is a person who believes that literally all will be saved by the work of Christ, whether they believe in Christ or not, even if they have never heard of Christ all the days of their life. Owen is not using this definition of Universalist.

By "Universalist" Owen means those Christians who believe that the death of Christ was in every way you care to consider effective and intended for all men so that it truly makes possible the salvation of anyone: God has done all that he is able to do by giving his Son, and now He is waiting (helplessly as it were) for men to respond to His love in Christ.

In other words, most Christians today who are not Calvinist are "Universalists" using Owen's 17th century definition.

With this definition we can now consider what Owen is saying.

To get the force of his argument it might be better to consider the whole quote rather than the trnucated form in the question:-

God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for 1) either all the sins of all men, or 2) all the sins of some men, or 3) some sins of all men.

If the last (3), some sins of all men, then all men have 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. 130:3. 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. 2:20, 21.

If the second (2), 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 (1), (all the sins of all men) 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 it is not sin, why should they be punished for it? If it is sin, then either Christ underwent the punishment due to it or he did not. If he did, then why must that hinder them from partaking of the fruit of his death more than their other sins for which he died? If he did not undergo the punishment do to the sin of unbelief, then did he not die for all their sins.

Let them choose which part they will.

Owen himself believes in option 2 - that Christ died for all the sins of some men, i.e. the elect.

What Owen is arguing is that the other options, 1 and 3, are untenable.

So what Owen is saying is that the Christian who is not a Calvinist (i.e. the typical Christian today) has got a problem: if Christ died for all the sins of all men then why are not all saved? The typical believer today will answer "Because of unbelief, they do not trust in Christ", to which Owen argues "But unbelief is a sin, and you are saying Christ died for all the sins of all men (otherwise the problem of option 3 arises), so why is there still a punishment for this sin (of unbelief), when you are saying that Christ died for it (because you claim Christ died for all their sins)?"

The OP's question is justified, there appears to be an inconsistency in Owen's line of argument, even though in the final result it makes no difference. The elect are not saved without any faith: but the elect have not saving faith the second before they are saved, and they are forgiven that unbelief and saved by being given faith from above. And why are they forgiven for their previous unbelief? Because Christ paid the penalty for that sin and all the sins of the elect.

What Owen should have said was that if Christ died for all the sins of all people then that would include the unbelief of all people which means there must then be nothing in the way to prevent God fully forgiving everyone and giving everyone faith and salvation, in just the same way as he gives faith to his elect despite their previous unbelief.

  1. Is salvation by faith? Yes.

  2. Did Christ die for all sins of all people? NO!! says Owen.

  3. Are all saved? No.

  4. Why? Ultimately, because Christ did not die for all, but only for His elect.

  5. How do we know this? Because if lack of faith in every individual is one of the sins for which Christ died, then every individual should come to faith and salvation. If everyone's unbelief is paid for by the death of Christ then their unbelief will not disqualify them and everyone of necessity will come to faith and salvation. The fact that multitudes never come to Christ is proof that their sins were never paid for in the first place.

If I live in unbelief for the first 20 years of my life then nothing I do can pay for that sin, it is a sin worthy of everlasting condemnation. But God gives me faith and salvation because Christ took the punishment for that unbelief on the cross. But if Christ took the punishment for that unbelief for all men then there is no reason why God should not give faith and salvation to all men.

  • @ Andrew Shanks, I wasn't asking about the conclusion of Owen's argument, but his premise for arguing against "option 1." His argument is that if Christ died for all men's unbelief, it means they would be saved even if they continue in unbelief. How can that be reconciled with salvation by faith? – BoneBreaker Oct 7 at 17:02
  • @BoneBreaker - But he is not arguing that at all. He means if Christ died for all the sins of all men then there remains no sins unforgiven, not even unbelief, therefore all men should be saved. If Christ has paid for the unbelief of all men (as the Universalist/Arminian claims) then there is nothing hindering God from giving faith to all men and saving all men, and therefore all men will necessarily come to faith & salvation. The fact that not all are saved proves that Christ did not die for all the sins of all. For the elect only, their unbelief is forgiven & they receive faith. – Andrew Shanks Oct 7 at 17:28
  • @ Andrew Shanks, you said, "He means if Christ died for all the sins of all men then there remains no sins unforgiven" So if all the sins Christ died for are already forgiven, then why would faith be necessary for forgiveness to begin with? – BoneBreaker Oct 7 at 18:01
  • @BoneBreaker - The way of salvation can be looked at from the human or the divine perspective. Divine: we were dead in our trespasses and sins, and God imparted to us spiritual life and faith by the command to believe. Faith is not what we bring to get salvation. Faith is part of the salvation we receive when we were dead in unbelief (Eph 2:8,9). From the divine persepctive faith isn't needed for forgiveness, faith and forgiveness are all part of the package called salvation given to the dead in sin. – Andrew Shanks Oct 7 at 18:30
  • @ Andrew Shanks, I dare say faith is needed for forgiveness no matter whose perspective we're looking at it from. "...since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith." (Rom 3:30) Saying that God doesn't require that a sinner believe so he may be forgiven is effectively denying salvation by faith. – BoneBreaker Oct 7 at 18:36
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It is important to understand that Owen believes that faith is instrumental for God in uniting the elect to Christ in His death. He does not see faith as a meritorious work that makes someone earn salvation. The ones for whom Christ died are saved because He died for them, and they have faith because He died for them, which is God's instrument - not, He died for them because they have faith.

Owen's point is that if Christ died for all, then all would be saved. He believes that it is Christ's death alone (not our faith) that saves us. He is making this argument on the grounds of someone who thinks that Christ can die for someone, without that person coming to faith. According to Owen's own understanding, if Christ died for all, then all would come to faith, since faith is the instrument by which God applies Christ's death to the elect. His belief that all for whom Christ died come to faith is a different debate though, and not included in his argument above.

There is a similarity to the concept of the protestant concept of being "saved by faith alone" apart from works. Does this mean that salvation is not accompanied by good works? No, because good works are the result of faith. Likewise, Owen believes that no sin can stop us from being saved, if Christ died for us (including unbelief). Does this mean that faith does not accompany salvation? No, faith always accompanies salvation for the reason described, but that's not the point in question he is discussing.

If you'd ask the question if your good works save you before God, his answer might sound like he believes "good works are not part of salvation", which is not what he believes. Likewise, if you ask "if Christ died for me, can my unbelief make me unsaved" his answer might sound like he believes salvation is apart from faith

While it is true that Owen believes Christs atoning death is what saves the elect, not their "believing", the conclusion that he believes that "faith makes no difference in someones salvation" is false and cannot be inferred from the text, in light of a broader understanding of his teachings.

  • Owen asks of unbelief, "...why should that sin keep them from partaking of the fruit of his death more than their other sins for which he died?" That does seem to imply salvation apart from faith. – BoneBreaker Oct 16 at 13:43
  • No, because believing is not some meritorious work that makes you earn salvation. Owen's point is, if Christ died for you, then you must be saved. Owen also believes that faith is instrumental (!) for God in this salvation. But that's a different debate, and he does not include it in his argument that Christ's death alone is what saves us. So Owen believes that faith always accompanies salvation, but what he is saying is "if Christ died for all, then their unbelief would not stop them from being saved." – ig-dev Oct 16 at 22:21
  • Updated for clarity – ig-dev Oct 16 at 22:35
  • I wasn't speaking of Owen's broader teachings, but the trilemma argument in particular. His argument is not, "if Christ died for all, then all would come to faith," but that unbelief would not hinder one from salvation any more than any other sin, which does seem to indicate that faith is irrelevant as to whether one is saved. – BoneBreaker Oct 17 at 13:08
  • I understood your question, but I think you missed the point of my answer. I even mention that "if Christ died for all, then all would come to faith," is not part of the argument in question. – ig-dev Oct 17 at 13:41

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