John Owen Concerning the Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ

Puritan John Owen (1616 – 24 August 1683) proposed the following concerning Christ’s substitutionary atonement for the sins of all for whom Christ died.

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:

  1. All the sins of all men.
  2. All the sins of some men, or
  3. Some of the sins of all men.

In which case it may be said:

  1. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
  2. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth (according to Owen).
  3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?

You answer, “Because of unbelief.”

I ask, is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!”

Of course, if you do not believe in Jesus Christ’s death as our substitute, for our sins,  but subscribe to another view of the atonement, what John Owen proposed is not a matter of discussion you are interested in. But if you do believe in Christ’s substitutionary atonement, you might find Owen’s three possibilities worthy of thoughtful consideration and discussion. 

A Question of Logic?

IF it is true that God sends no one to Hell, but they send themselves by rejecting Christ (damn themselves), is it also true that by accepting Christ the sinner sends himself to Heaven (saves himself)?

Please note that I posed a hypothetical question relating to consistent logic and could be relaying a question I was asked by an atheist.

Who Seeks Whom?

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10

“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.” – Psalm 14:2-3

“as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.” – Rom 3:10-11

Any Questions?

“. . .snatching them from the fire. . .”

17 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” 19 It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. – Jude 1:17-23 (emphasis mine)

Jude 1 is a call to perseverance in the midst of false teachers and scoffers who arise from within the church. It is also a call to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (v. 13)

The emphasized portion above tells us how to treat others. The call to ‘snatch them out of the fire’ describes the condition of unsaved unbelievers. It might be the perfect biblical description of the familiar ‘burning building’ analogy we are familiar with, but that is seldom used these days in our evangelistic efforts. We would rather ‘attract’ people to a Jesus they will surely love because of all of the blessings afforded the believer. The truth of the matter is that they are already in the fire, according to the above passage.

We aren’t called to help people with their self-esteem, promise them their ‘best lives now’, a wonderful plan, or their special purpose. We are called to ‘snatch them from the fire of the wrath of God under which they live and breathe, and which offers a gloomy eternity. .

The Gospel Mandate

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.“” – Mark 1:14-15 (Emphasis mine)

According to any good dictionary the word ‘mandate’ is defined as an official order or commission to do something. We are told in the Gospel of Mark that after Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, and after John was arrested, Jesus entered Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God. We are even given the words of Jesus’ initial proclamation:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Here we have Jesus saying at the beginning of his earthly ministry “repent and believe in the gospel”. Since Jesus said it, let’s agree that it’s ‘official’. Since Jesus is telling listeners to ‘do’ something, let’s agree that what we have is an ‘order. Therefore, the gospel mandate is simply to repent and believe it. That’s it.

Interestingly, and perhaps sadly, most of today’s evangelism no longer follows Jesus’ simple mandate, but we have substituted all sorts of other ‘methods’. We have hand raisings (with all eyes closed of course) an altar calls. Have you ever wondered why everyone is asked to close their eyes but everyone is watching and applauding folks heading toward the altar?

To spark their interest in Jesus we tell people that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for them. Cool! Well, I love me to and have a wonderful plan too! God and I are on the same page!

Since God has such wonderful plans for folks, we ask them if they wouldn’t like to ‘ask Jesus into their heart’ or we ask them to just ‘give their heart to Jesus’. Those two seem to get great results at any Christian kids’ camp or VBS. For older types who might be more thoughtful about the whole thing, we tell them that Jesus is ‘knocking at the door of their heart”, pleading to get in and the only doorknob is on their side, Never mind that the passage in question has Jesus knocking on the door of the church.

We might even pull out our little cards or Bibles and walk them through the Romans Road, ask for a simple ‘decision’ (and perhaps a signature in the little Bible), and pronounce them ‘saved’ when a decision is made and a dated signature properly inserted.

No matter what method we use, and we use them all, we hardly ever use the simple ‘mandate’ that Jesus used. We never begin where Jesus began. Why do you think that is? Is it because the word ‘repent’ is outdated and politically incorrect? After all, it might make someone feel bad. Are we hesitant about telling people to ‘believe the gospel’ because we are uncomfortable explaining it, or because we ourselves don’t know or aren’t sure what it is? ,

Whatever the reason(s), we needn’t be afraid of just proclaiming what Jesus proclaimed. After all aren’t we fond of the expression “What would Jesus do?” Although I can think of occasions when WWJD becomes rather cliché, this isn’t one of them. At the same time, we need only remember that God saves his sheep and we can’t/don’t ‘help’ God save anyone. Remember Jonah and what he proclaimed after having been tossed into the sea, after being swallowed by a great fish and being barfed onto the beach?

“…with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!”Jonah 2:9 (Emphasis mine)

Our mission isn’t to obtain ‘decisions for Jesus’, it’s to be faithful in prayerfully presenting the gospel. Our prayer is that God will open hearts to hear and the gospel is that Christ died for our sins. There is great encouragement in knowing that all I have to do is be able to discuss what it means to repent and believe. And if I have faced my own sin head on and believed in the One who took my place on Calvary, it’s not a hard thing to do.

A wise man once said:

“Long ago I ceased to count heads. Truth is usually in the minority in this evil world. I have faith in the Lord Jesus for myself, a faith burned into me as a hot iron. I thank God, what I believe I shall believe, even if I believe it alone.” C.H Spurgeon, October 16th, 1887