I recently posted about the Top 10 Best Books on the Atonement. There I mentioned my favorite book outside the Bible, The Death of Death by John Owen. This is Owen’s treatise on Limited Atonement. The entirety of the third section (book) is devoted to 16 arguments in support of Limited Atonement. Now each one may not be sufficient by itself (although some are) to prove the doctrine, but by the end we see that the overarching theme traced throughout the whole Bible is undeniable. Below is my summary of them. As the title implies, I’ll try to keep with Owen’s thought and Bible references, although I may at times fall for the temptation to add my own take and flare. All page numbers are from the 1983 reprint by Banner of Truth. Again, there is a free PDF version on CCEL
Argument 1: The New Covenant, which was inaugurated by His death, is not made with all.
The covenant was intended for the house of Israel, i.e. the people of God. That is clear enough proof that the atonement was only for the elect. Surely not all men ever have the law written on their hearts, etc. If it be objected that the New Covenant is made with all upon condition that they believe, may it be noted that faith itself is one of the blessings of the covenant! God promises through Jeremiah, “I will put the fear of Me in their hearts,” and because of that, “they will not turn away from Me” (32:40), and elsewhere, “I will keep you from straying,” and, “for they will all know Me” (31:34). God promised through Ezekiel that He will move them to follow His ways (Ezek. 36:27). Were this ability to meet the terms not given to us, the new covenant would be no easier than the old, for it is as hard to repent and believe as it is to obey the law fully.
Argument 2: The gospel is not published to all men.
This is perhaps the weakest of his arguments. However, the question is still important. It doesn’t make sense that Christ died for all and every man, yet knowing that they will never even hear that such a ransom was made. What is more important for this case is that several places mention God specifically preventing the message from being heard in places. God’s message was made known specifically to Israel (Ps. 76:1-2), and uniquely to Israel and not others (Ps. 147:19-20). All other nations He let walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16). Jesus praised the Father that He hid the message from the wise (Matt. 11:25-27). During Paul’s ministry, the Holy Spirit at times forbade the preaching to certain places (Acts 16:6-10). Although this does not prove Limited Atonement, it surely does not fit well with the “God loves everyone the same” model.
Argument 3: Dilemmas in saying that God’s intention in Christ’s death was to redeem every man.
“Christ procured salvation for us, to be bestowed conditionally, if we do believe; but faith itself, that he hath absolutely procured, without prescribing of any condition” (p. 129).
Assuming for a second the unlimited model. The salvation made by Christ at the cross is given to every human being ever either absolutely, or upon condition. If absolutely, then all are saved. No Christian would think that. So there is a condition: faith. But as we saw above, Christ procured faith at the cross also. So we must go further and ask whether Christ procured this faith absolutely or under a condition. If we say that He gives faith, the condition for salvation absolutely, then again, all for whom He died must be saved. If faith, which He procured, is given by condition, we would be searching a long time to find what that condition is.
Therefore, He died for the salvation of those for whom He died, as well as to purchase the gift of faith, that they may meet the condition to obtain salvation. He is a complete Savior: “Christ hath obtained salvation for men, not upon condition if they would receive it, but so fully and perfectly that certainly they should receive it” (p. 131).
Argument 4: Man is divided into two classes: Elect and Reprobate. Jesus is only said to die for one, but never the other.
In God’s grand plan, mankind is split into two groups, elect and reprobate. Jacob was loved, but Esau was hated; men are either vessels of glory or vessels for wrath (Rom. 9). While God chose some from before the foundation of the world to be saved, the elect, beloved, foreknown, there are others ordained to condemnation (Jude 4), who were made to be taken and destroyed (2 Pet. 2:12).
Now in regards to the extent of Christ’s atonement, we only see references to one side. He dies for His people, friends, and sheep, but is never said to die for the reprobate.
Sometimes when studying the Bible we think they talk differently than us. But if I say, “I bought a gift for my son,” nobody will assume that the gift is for my daughter also, or for another man’s son. I need not vocalize my exclusion of others for my point to get across. And truly this is how we read the Bible on other occasions. Owen lists two examples: John 14:6, Jesus says He is the way, but not the only way, yet nobody would question that; so also Colossians 1:19, nobody says there are multiple Gods because it says the fullness of deity dwells in Christ, but not Christ alone. So, the Bible does not need to say (although it does) that Jesus died for His people and not others. I would flip it around to them and ask to provide a passage that says He does die for them.
Argument 5: The Scriptures never say that Christ died for all men.
The Bible uses many terms for the group for whom He died. He died for His friends (John 15:13-15), His bride (Eph. 5:25), for many (Mark 10:45), the people (Matt. 1:21), the children of God (John 11:50-52), and collection from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 5:9-10). And so when we come across the term all, we would have to prove that these same authors, who themselves assert a more limited scope, did not have that same group in mind.
Argument 6: Christ died in the place of those died for, so for God to require more satisfaction would be unjust.
The idea of substitution with regards to the atonement is throughout Scripture. Jesus “died for us” like a man would die for his friend (Rom. 5:6-8). He was “made a curse for us” in our place (Gal. 3:13), and was “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). From these passages as with others, the point is that Christ bore in Himself the punishment for our sins with the intention that we ourselves would not have to bear that punishment ourselves.
So the question naturally follows: “How can the justice of God require satisfaction of them for their sins, if it were before satisfied for them in Christ? To be satisfied, and to require satisfaction that it may be satisfied, are contradictory” (p. 135).
Argument 7: As their Priest, Jesus is the Mediator of those for whom He died.
The author of Hebrews describes the roles of a priest as offering sacrifices, interceding for the people, procuring good things for them, and making sure those things are applied to the people (Heb. 9). To say that Jesus is a priest in this way to all human beings past, present, or future, is certainly a stretch. To divide up the responsibilities of a priest and say that Jesus is the sacrifice for all, but intercessor only to some is Scripturally unwarranted, and would make Jesus an insufficient Savior, a half mediator.
Argument 8: Jesus died to wash, purge, cleanse, and sanctify those for whom He died, but not all are sanctified.
Jesus’ blood cleansing and sanctifying His people is likened to the Old Testament sprinkling of animal blood. Hebrews 9:13-14 says: “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” While it is true that there is a difference between the shedding of blood and the sprinkling of blood, to set up a distinction of extent (shed for all, sprinkled for some) cannot fit into this type-antitype relationship.
The Scriptures say that Christ’s death actually sanctifies all for whom it was done. To Owen, the two most clear passages are Titus 2:14 and Ephesians 5:25-26. These passages, as well as the others he cites, prove that, “Sanctification and holiness is the certain fruit and effect of the death of Christ in all them for whom he died; but all and every one are not partakers of this sanctification, this purging, cleansing, and working of holiness: therefore, Christ died not for all and every one” (p. 140).
Argument 9: Faith was procured by Christ’s death.
Again, is faith purchased at the cross? If the Arminian says yes, then we must as whether this procured faith is given upon condition or not. If there is no condition, then we must ask why all men don’t have faith. This would rather result in a universal salvation, which all Christians deny. If faith was procured by only granted to those who fulfill some sort of condition, then what can that condition possibly be?
But, if the Arminian says that faith is not a product of Jesus’ death, then other difficulties arise. First, we must then say, contrary to Scripture, that man is basically good and has the ability in and of themselves, apart from God’s grace, to believe. Second, our will is what gives Jesus’ blood power, for God would be helpless to save us without our help.
None of these problems are necessary, however, if we accept the biblical testimony that Jesus’ death did indeed procure faith in those for whom He died. He offers 5 reasons and classes of Scriptures for why this is so. The best and most definitive of those is what we saw above, that faith is one of the New Covenant blessings. Within Jeremiah 31 is the promise that “they will all know Me” (v. 34), and later, that God will put the fear of Him into the people (32:40), and God says through Ezekiel that He will give His people a new heart and cause them to walk in His ways (Ezek. 36:25-27).
Argument 10: The deliverance of Israel from Egypt is a type of Christ’s saving work.
Israel’s deliverance from bondage and entrance into Canaan is most certainly a type of the church and not the whole world. So also were their priests and sacrifices types and shadows of Christ’s work. Those who believe are true Israel (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Heb. 8:8; John 1:47; Rom. 2:27-29, and many other places), and not the entire world. Israel is never a type of the whole world, but always the church. So there is a large burden of proof on the other side to prove that the sacrifices of Israel, which were a type of Christ’s sacrifice, were for the entire world and not just the church.
May I add a note in regards to a common objection today. Many are convinced that because the Old Testament sacrifices were for all Jews, even those who didn’t believe, that Jesus therefore died for all, even those who don’t believe. This objection really holds no water, however, for it misses the point completely that the sacrifices were for the people of God alone!
Argument 11: Jesus redeemed (bought back at a price) those for whom He died.
Christ’s death is said to be a “ransom” (Matt. 20:28; 1 Tim 2:6). Another way of putting it is that “in Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). The idea of substitution is present in every ransom/redemption. When a ransom is paid, there is an exchange for the ransomed item. How then can we remove this inherent idea from the word’s very definition when we apply this to the context of the cross?
Owen begs the question, “Can it possibly be conceived that there should be a redemption of men, and those men not redeemed? that a price should be paid, and the purchase not consummated” (p. 149)?
Argument 12: Jesus reconciled those for whom He died back to God.
The enmity between God and man is mutual, and both due to sin. We are hostile towards God, and He is hostile towards us. Both would consider the other their enemy. But although we were hostile towards God, we were reconciled by the cross and our hearts changed (Col. 1:21-22). God’s anger was turned from us, and we were reconciled by His blood (Rom. 5:10). The reconciliation on both ends, therefore, is a product of the cross.
Now certainly many are yet to set aside their anger toward God, and likewise God is still angry towards a large portion of the world’s population. If men do not believe, God’s wrath remains on them (John 3:36). Therefore, Christ must not have shed His blood for all and every man, unless we come up with a theory that men are reconciled, but then unreconciled again when they die.
Argument 13: Jesus made satisfaction for the sins of those for whom He died.
“Satisfaction” in our normal use of the term can be defined as, “a full compensation of the creditor from the debtor” (p. 153). Although it is not used in our English Bibles, surely the picture is that Christ took care of all the debt I owed. The wages of sin is death, but Christ did instead; I was under a curse, but Christ took that curse upon Himself; I deserve to be abandoned by God, but Jesus was abandoned instead; and so forth. Truly all of the demands of justice against me were satisfied completely by Him.
How this cannot possibly line up with a Universal Atonement scheme is clear. At the cross, the full debt due all for whom He died was paid to the utmost. Being that this debt was paid in full, it is only just that God should release those debtors. This payment was not made for only certain sins, but for all of the sins of the debtor. For God to require a second payment from the debtor goes against all justice we know.
We must ask ourselves, “If the full debt of all be paid to the utmost extent of the obligation, how comes it to pass that so many are shut up in prison to eternity, never freed from their debts” (p. 161)? It truly comes down to an issue of justice: How can God require payment when payment has already been made?
Argument 14: Jesus’ death merited the blessings of salvation for those for whom He died.
These blessings of salvation include: negatively, He delivered us from our enemies (Luke 1:74) and the wrath to come (1 Thes. 1:10), the power of death (Heb. 2:14), the devil (1 John 3:8), the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13), the present evil age (Gal. 1:4), and our sins (Heb. 1:3); positively, He reconciled us to God (Rom. 5:10), appeased His wrath (Rom. 3:25), made peace (Eph. 2:14), and saved us (Matt. 1:21).
Christ merited and purchased all of these blessings of salvation, and “so procured them of his Father that they ought, in respect of that merit, according to the equity of justice, to be bestowed on them for whom they were so purchased and procured” (p. 176).
Therefore, based on the merit of Christ’s person and work, God would be unjust to withhold these blessings from those for whom He bought them.
Argument 15: Implications from the terminology that He died for men.
When Christ is said to have “died for us” it is meant that “in the undergoing of death there was a subrogation of his person in the room and stead of ours” (p. 177). Again, the idea of substitution cannot be missed. Other cases of men dying for other prove this (Gen. 44:33; 2 Sam 18:33; Rom. 5:7).
Argument 16: From other various texts.
1. Genesis 3:15 divides the human race into two classes: the seed of the serpent, and the seed of the woman. Now to the woman it is promised a Messiah to come, whereas the serpent is only promised enmity. Those who are ruled by the devil (Matt. 3:7; 23:33; John 8:44; Acts 13:10; 1 John 3:8) are certainly not promised the Savior.
2. Jesus will say to many false Christians on Judgment Day, “Depart from Me, I never knew you” (Matt. 7:33. But Jesus says that He knows His sheep and dies for them (John 10). Further, if He paid their debt, they should be let into heaven anyways based on that merit alone, whether He knew them or not.
3. In Matthew 11:25-26, Jesus thanks God concerning the fruits of His disciples’ first missionary journey. He mentions that God, according to His own purpose, hid the message from many. Now, logic shows that God would not send His Son to die for those whom He intentionally hardens.
4. In John 10 Jesus talks about how He is the Great Shepherd, and believers are His sheep. He says that those who do not believe are not His sheep. And so with that distinction made clear, when He says, “I lay down My life for My sheep,” He is obviously excluding all non-sheep from His death.
5. Romans 8:32-34 lists other things that God does for those for whom He died. He also gives them all things (v. 32), and Jesus intercedes for them (v. 34), neither of which are true of the non-elect. From this “it is undeniably apparent that the death of Christ, with the fruits and benefits thereof, belong only to the elect of God” (p. 181).
6. Ephesians 1:7 links our redemption with the forgiveness of sins. If Christ’s blood, which brings redemption, was shed for all, then all would be forgiven.
7. 2 Corinthians 5:21 describes what is famously called “The Great Exchange.” Our sins are placed on Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is placed on us. The extent for one is equal to the extent of the other, however. So if the sins of all and every man were placed on Christ, then all and every man would have the righteousness of Christ imputed to them.
8. In John 17 Jesus is praying for those whom the Father had given Him, and all who would believe in the future. He even specifies that He is not praying for unbelieving world. Therefore, when He says, “For their sakes I sanctify Myself” (v. 19), the same scope is in mind. Just as He prayed for the elect and not the reprobate, so also He sanctified Himself (set Himself apart for he service as priest and dying) for the elect only.
9. Ephesians 5:25 says that He loved His church and died for her. Were there others for whom He died, who were not a part of His bride, then this would make for awkward implications for marriage.