Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Owens Trilemma

God imposed His wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved ... If the second, 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, 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 not, why should they be punished due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins!

Spend any time with a theologian who holds to strict limited atonement and it won’t be long until you hear Owens Trilemma. Although the argument cannot be properly separated from its defense, for clarity’s sake it has been arranged into halves:
P1: Only one of the following can be true:
Jesus paid for all the sins of all men,
Some of the sins of all men,
Or all of the sins of some men.
P2: Option A and B are unbiblical. (A is universalism and B means nobody is saved.)
  C: Therefore all of the sins of the elect (some men) are paid for.
At this point a someone might try to defend part A of the first premise, “The Bible says non-believers are lost because they refuse to believe, not because there’s an insufficient atonement for them. Therefore it’s still possible Christ has died for all since sins are forgiven upon belief.”
But Owen has anticipated this, and counters with the second half of his argument:

P1: According to you, Christ paid for all men’s sin.
P2: But unbelief is a sin just like any other.
C: Therefore, Christ paid for unbelief and men cannot be condemned for it.
 And since the conclusion is still universalism, the first premise must be false.


The trilemma works only if the atonement is so effectual that it goes into effect immediately for those whom it was purchased for, regardless of anything else. We’ll cover the general form of that argument in a subsequent chapter, but for now it’s enough to point out that only by assuming this is Owen able to argue that only the elect were atoned for.  

It's a terrible assumption, since it has the effect of making faith superfluous, both in the negative form (damnation) and in the positive one (reconciliation). The Bible is clear that men are lost because of their unbelief, not just because of their sin, (Mark 16:16, John 3:18, 2 Thess 2:12) just as a refusal to take the cure held out by the doctor kills a sick man. And it’s also clear that faith is necessary, since men are saved upon belief (John 6:29, Eph 2:8, Acts 2:38), and not until. Because of this, point A from the first syllogism is still a valid possibility.

Owen clearly sees this weakness however, and adds his second argument to prove that regardless of faith, part A is universalism. He does this by decoupling faith from salvation, and in so doing eliminates the need for faith altogether. Even for the elect. If the Trilemma is true then it doesn’t matter if the elect believe or notthey’re already saved because Christ has already paid for their sins completely. 

Thus the argument proves too much. A pardon purchased from the cross gets around the need for faith, but it also results in an eternal justification for the elect who would never be under wrath, contrary to Eph 2:3. So in an attempt to prove strict limited atonement Owen backs into a very unbiblical stance.

The other problem is with premise 2 of the second half. Unbelief isn’t a sin like any other, but is something far worse, since willful, continued unbelief is the one sin whose presence can’t be forgiven. Unlike other sins which can be absolved if a Christian dies while committing them (say for example someone gets into a car crash and dies breaking the speed limit law) unbelief can't be pardoned. It's the one that makes all the difference. The Spirit applies the atonement to the account of the believer, to the one who has faith, so to blaspheme the Spirit with unbelief is to commit the unpardonable sin. As Spurgeon says,
Observe the heinous nature of unbelief in this—that it is the damning sin. There is one sin for which Christ never died; it is the sin against the Holy Ghost. There is one other sin for which Christ never made atonement. Mention every crime in the calendar of evil, and I will show you persons who have found forgiveness for it. But ask me whether the man who died in unbelief can be saved, and I reply there is no atonement for that man. There is an atonement made for the unbelief of a Christian, because it is temporary; but the final unbelief—the unbelief with which men die—never was atoned for. You may turn over this whole Book, and you will find that there is no atonement for the man who died in unbelief; there is no mercy for him. Had he been guilty of every other sin, if he had but believed, he would have been pardoned; but this is the damning exception—he had no faith.

It’s at this point, faced with defending eternal justification against the need to have faith, that most strict limited atonement advocates abandon the trilemma (as Owen does) and instead appeal to the necessity of faith, adding that Christ purchased faith from the cross for the elect. So it is to this argument that we go next.

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