John Owen


Book I        Book II        Book III       Book IV

John Owen's work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, is the classic text defending the purposeful and actual procurement of salvation for sinners in the death of Christ. While characteristically portrayed as a polemical work on the Calvinistic understanding of limited atonement this work is actually much more. In brief, it is a defense for the perfect work of Christ, which actually obtained salvation on the cross. It argues that the purpose of the triune God is to glorify himself and to save sinners.

Owen's thesis asserts that in the death of Christ salvation of sinners was actually accomplished. Christ came to the earth to seek and to save those who were lost. Through his oblation, being the entire humiliation of his life and death, he has secured perfectly the redemption of those for whom he died. Therefore the salvation of sinners was completely secured through the death of Christ. This stands in direct contrast to the Arminian and Amyraldian understanding of a universal redemption, which makes salvation only possible or hypothetical.

Owen divides his work into four books. The first book sets forth his thesis that the work of Christ on the cross was made for the full and complete salvation of those whom God intended to save. The work of salvation is a work of the triune God. God the Father stands as the author of salvation and the sender of Christ. He is the one who from before creation elects and chooses some to be saved. Christ is the sent one that became incarnate and offered himself up for death, was resurrected and intercedes in heaven for those whom he died. The Spirit was the helper to Christ in his earthly ministry and is the applier of salvation.

In the second book Owen argues that the supreme purpose of Christ's death was to bring glory to the Godhead. The subordinate purpose of his death was to bring salvation to sinners chosen by God. Scripture shows that in Christ's death God intended to save sinners and that the effect of his death actually secured their salvation and that those for whom Christ died are therefore chosen elect. Consequently, the impetration or securing work of salvation cannot be separated from the application of salvation. Christ's death (impetration) was intended for the elect only although being of infinite worth. His death brought about their salvation and the Spirit then applies that salvation to their account. Therefore Christ's death through the Spirit's application is a perfect and complete act of salvation.

In the third book Owen sets forth sixteen arguments against the doctrine of a general ransom. His arguments are primarily set against Arminians and Amyraldians who hold to a general or universal atonement, which claims that God makes salvation possible or hypothetical for the whole world. He debunks the view that the cross work of Christ only made salvation possible and sets forth positively the view that on the cross Christ made salvation effectual and actual. Owen also helpfully shows the logic of such a view of the atonement stemming from the biblical doctrine of election. If God chooses sinners from before the creation of the world then it is only those chosen sinners to whom Christ has died for and to whom the Spirit applies salvation.

In the last book Owen examines the various exegetical arguments set forth for a universal atonement. Owen exegetes at length several texts which speak of a general intent of the death of Christ, those which suggest that Christ's death was ineffective and lastly those which seem to declare a general offer of salvation. He also provides careful exegesis of Biblical texts, which use the words "world" and "all" along with texts, which seem to speak of those perishing for whom Christ died. Owen ends the work by taking Thomas More's work to task and then refutes various theological arguments proffered by universal redemptionists.

The most important point of this work is what is often missed in the present debate over unlimited vs. limited atonement. Owen's thesis is that Christ's death on the cross actually saved. The current debate focuses much on whether his death was for the elect or for the world, but I believe that the question is answered when it is framed in the matter of determining whether Christ's death actually saved or only made salvation possible. As Scripture shows, and Owen proves, the primary (sole?) emphasis is on the actual accomplishment of salvation. Those for whom Christ died are saved; they are regenerated, justified, sanctified, etc. Christ's work is perfect and that which he sought to accomplish has been fulfilled.

Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is in many ways the authoritative work on the effectual death of Christ. Through careful theological arguments and sound exegesis Owen establishes his thesis that the death of Christ actually saved sinners as opposed to the Arminian and Amyraldian schemes which only allow for a potential or hypothetical salvation. This work of Christ was primarily for the glory of God and secondarily for the salvation of sinners. Owen's work helps regain a better understanding of the Biblical Gospel, which truly exalts God and saves sinners. While nonetheless a polemical work, The Death of Death is written for the safekeeping of the gospel that God may truly be glorified and that the sinners may be confronted with the truth of the gospel and be saved. The preservation of the true gospel in Owen's work is therefore to be most appreciated.

Note: This review of the book was written by William E. Turner of New York.

Added to Bible Bulletin Board's "John Owen Collection" by:

Tony Capoccia
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