Evaluating John Owen’s Trilemma and Double Payment Argument for Limited Atonement

Comprehensive exams are coming up for me… but let’s talk theology! 🙂

Since I’ve written several times on what I believe to be the errors of limited atonement from biblical, logical, and practical standpoints, I have already addressed the double payment or double jeopardy argument before in passing.  I will try to discuss the argument here in more detail and further describe why it fails to be convincing.  Essentially, it relies on problematic assumptions while introducing serious problems regarding the importance of faith.  Thus, not only does it not suffice to overcome all of the other problems of limited atonement that I’ve talked about before, it’s not even a powerful argument in itself, no matter how straightforward it seems.

John Owen’s Trilemma

Most modern Calvinists hold to a view of limited atonement that is more or less inherited from John Owen.  I want to point out that not all 5-point Calvinists think the following argument is a good one (some people claim that neither Calvin nor Edwards held to such a view).  However, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that this argument is indicative of the most popular rendering of limited atonement by most these days.

Owen sought to back non-Calvinists in a corner with a trilemma that forced them to concede that limited atonement, the view that Christ only died for the elect, is the only possible view.  He gives three options for the Christian.  Christ died for:

1) all the sins of all men
2) all the sins of some men
3) some of the sins of all men

This is actually not exhaustive because one logical option is “some of the sins of some men,” but that isn’t exactly a choice most conservative Protestants would accept anyway.  Likewise, #3 can be quickly discarded because the major players in this argument aren’t advocating that, so we’re down to the first two options.

Owen then asks a simple question: Is unbelief a sin?  Most Christians would say yes.  However, if unbelief is a sin, why must anyone be punished for that if Christ died for all sin, including unbelief?  Shouldn’t non-Christians also be considered saved?  This is where the double payment argument comes in: If Christ died for all sin and there are nonetheless people whom he died for who are lost, then their sins (including unbelief) are being punished twice over, which seems unjust.  Owen and many Calvinists after him allege that option #1 logically leads to universalism, which is generally considered to be an unbiblical concept by the participants of this debate.

With #1 also discarded, Owen concludes that option #2, the view of limited atonement, is the only consistent view.  Thus, Christ only died for the sins of the elect and made absolutely no provision for everyone else.

Argument evaluated

Before I get to the argument itself, this needs to be pointed out: This is not a biblical argument but a philosophical/logical one.  I’ve brought this up before and I hate to belabor the point, but I only do so because of how common it is for many Calvinists to duck hard criticisms of their position by saying dismissively, “That’s a philosophical argument, not a biblical one.  I care about the Bible.”  Such Calvinists cannot have it both ways.  In any case, since I have no problem with philosophical arguments in themselves, let’s move on to responses to this trilemma.

Should You Question God?

This response is admittedly a bit snarky, but it is nonetheless applicable.  It is crucial to see that Calvinists perceive an injustice here of punishing sins twice over, thinking that a just God would never do that.  It is a bit ironic given how many respond to arguments that Calvinism makes God the author of evil with, “Well, it may sound that way, but who are you to question God?”  If that’s a legitimate path for them to take, then I don’t see why it wouldn’t be an option for someone to respond to this perceived injustice in the same manner: “Should you question God?”  Of course, I think there are far better responses than this one, but again it’s worth pointing out some common double standards.

The Tu Quoque Response

“Tu quoque” means “you also” in Latin, and tu quoque arguments are used to point out that, if a criticism applies equally to both sides of an argument, it cannot be used as a way to differentiate between the two.  It can be considered a fallacy in the sense that it does not necessarily mean that one position is true or false, but it can be a legitimate thing to point out if a criticism has similar or equal force on the one criticizing.

Where the tu quoque response comes into play is in the area of faith.  It is Owen’s contention that it is unjust for God to be wrathful over sins that were paid for by Jesus, necessitating that unbelievers could not be among those whom Christ died for.  However, someone may rightly ask: When is someone saved?  Calvinists will be quick to say that it is when he is regenerated and expresses faith.  After all, Scripture is clear that even Christians were under the wrath of God until the point of their salvation (Eph. 2:1-3).  That, however, creates a problem: Why is God’s wrath on those whom Jesus died for at any point if it is, in principle, unjust for God’s wrath to be over sins that have been paid for?  The only logical conclusion from Owen’s argument is not simply that the elect are justified but that they were always justified, for even in their unbelief before conversion they were forgiven at the cross.  Eternal justification, however, is not a biblical concept.  If Calvinists say that, yes, God’s wrath is upon all sinners up until conversion, then that is principally no different than what a non-Calvinist would say and then makes the double payment argument a problem for Calvinists as well.

Some Calvinists think that appealing to the logical order of God’s decrees solves this problem.  Basically, they argue that it’s perfectly fine within Calvinism to see God’s wrath being over even the elect before conversion because while God did elect them before creation, he also chose the time and means through which they would be saved.  This response, however, completely misses the point.  It’s irrelevant that Calvinism, broadly speaking, can account for the time interval between election and salvation; the problem arises because of this specific double payment argument that many Calvinists following Owen have used.  If the double payment argument is true, then that time interval where God’s wrath is on the elect becomes a problem for Calvinists as well, regardless if it was also planned by God.  Calvinists who do not use the double payment argument can merrily pass this problem by.

The Diminishing of Faith

A related problem with the one above is that this conception of the atonement diminishes the importance of believing faith.  Because of the fact that Owen’s logic starts leading towards eternal justification, the central place of faith in the salvation process is greatly reduced.  If Christ’s death “actually” accomplishes salvation, as many Calvinists like Piper will say, what’s the point of faith and calls by Christ for people to repent and believe?  This erroneously collapses propitiation with the blessing of propitiation, which is salvation.

Questionable Assumptions

One possible path for people who reject limited atonement is to reject the penal-substitutionary view of the atonement that is clearly presupposed in this argument.  This would not be a heretical move, no matter how many Calvinists might say it is; after all, penal-substitutionary atonement was not formulated until after the Reformation.  Some Protestants try to link it all the way back to Anselm’s satisfaction theory, and while there are similarities and penal-substitution was certainly developed from Anselm, it is doubtful that Anselm himself would have liked it based on his writings.  Thus, unless Calvinists want to state that everyone in the centuries before the formulation of penal-substitution was a heretic, this remains a possible option.

However, while I advocate a balanced view of the atonement, I do hold that penal-substitution is one important analogy for it.  How can non-Calvinists who do hold to penal-substitution respond?  They can critique another key assumption in the argument, which is a commercialist view of the atonement.  This is a presumption that has even been critiqued by other Calvinists because it misunderstands imputation.  What is key for advocates of double payment is that they conceive of specific sins being specifically applied to Jesus in a strictly quantitative or numerical manner.

The error here perhaps can be best seen by discussing the imputation of righteousness.  As Dr. David Allen points out, Christ’s imputation of righteousness does not mean that all of Christ’s particular acts of righteousness are imputed on the believer.  Even many Calvinists do not view it that way.  What is imputed instead on believers is the quality or character of Christ’s righteousness who lived a perfect moral life himself.  Likewise, what is imputed on Christ is not a bunch of specific sin acts but the quality of sin and the legal penalty that comes with that.  In fact, being the Son of God, the payment given by Christ is of such infinite value that it surpasses in value the payment that all the specific sins of man require.  To demand exact equivalence is not only unnecessary, it arguably diminishes the infinite intrinsic value of the sacrifice of the Son of God.

When imputation is properly understood, there is then no problem in distinguishing between the provision of Christ’s work on the cross and the more narrow application of it that is based on faith.  Christ was treated as though he were a sinner and paid the legal penalty for it, but it is on the condition on faith that such an infinite payment is applied to people.  If such a payment is rejected, there is nothing unjust about that person paying his own penalty because the condition of application was not met.


Owen’s double payment argument fails on a few levels; not only does it apply to the Calvinist’s own position if it is true, it is based on a flawed view of imputation and is therefore confused on substitution.  Calvinists who think that this is some sort of knockdown argument that necessitates their peculiar interpretations of texts such as 1 John 2:2 and 1 Timothy 2:4-6 are sorely mistaken.


7 thoughts on “Evaluating John Owen’s Trilemma and Double Payment Argument for Limited Atonement

  1. As much as I agree with John Owen against the idea of double jeopardy, I cannot agree with Owen’s trilemma about all the sins of all people, or all the sins of some people (the third hypothetical of course being some of the sins of some people).

    I cannot agree because the death (the righteousness) of Christ not only entitles the elect to justification (even before they are justified) but also Christ’s death because entitles the elect to conversion. Even before they believe the gospel, the elect are entitled (because of Christ’s work) to the converting work of the Holy Spirit. Christ bought both the forgiveness of sins and the application of this forgiveness.

    What does the application of Christ’s work mean? First, it means that God imputes that work (not only the reward, but the righteousness) to the elect. Before the cross, God imputed the work to some of the elect. After the cross, God continues to impute the work to some of the elect. So there is a difference (not only in time) between the work and the imputation of the work. For example, Romans 6 describes being placed into the death of Christ. There is a difference between the federal union of all the elect in Christ before the beginning of the world and the legal union of the elect with Christ when they are justified.

    Second, the application (purchased by Christ for the elect, and thus now their inheritance) includes the conversion which follows the imputation. We could go to every text in the New Testament about the effectual calling into fellowship, but let us think now of only two.

    Galatians 3:13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come…, so that we would receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

    And here’s the second text which teaches us that regeneration and conversion follow the imputation. Romans 8:10–but if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Because the work (righteousness) is imputed, the next result will be life, not only legal forensic life but life also as the Holy Spirit gives by means of the gospel, so that the elect understand and believe, and are converted. Because the elect are now in Christ (not only by election but by imputation), Christ is in the elect. Christ indwells the elect by the Holy Spirit.

    As II Peter 1:1 starts, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” The reason we need to be careful about John Owen’s trilemma is that Christ did not die to forgive any elect person of the final sin of unbelief of the gospel. Christ died to give every elect person faith in the gospel and conversion.

    Christians do disbelieve even in their faith, and Christ died for all the sins of all Christians including all those after they are converted. But no elect person dies unconverted, because Christ died to give them the new birth and the conversion which follows.

    I am not saying that John Owen did not know this or believe it. I am only saying that the trilemma (as it is often used) does not take into account the time between Christ’s work and the application and imputation of that work. Nor does that trilemma give us the necessary reminder that Christ died to obtain not only the redemption but also the application of the redemption. Christ did not need to die for final disbelief by the elect because Christ died instead that the elect will not finally disbelieve.

    Romans 5: 17 speaks of “those who receive the free gift of righteousness” and how they reign in life through the one man Christ Jesus. This receiving is not the sinner believing. It is not an “exercise of faith” (if you check the commentaries, Murray is right here about the passive and Moo is wrong).. The elect “receive” the righteousness by God’s imputation.

    The elect do not impute their sins to Christ. Nor do the elect impute Christ’s righteousness to themselves. God is the One who does the imputing. The receiving of the righteousness is not the same as the righteousness. The imputation is not at the same time as Christ earned the righteousness. God declaring the elect to be joint-heirs with Christ in that righteousness is not the same as the righteousness. There is a difference between imputation and righteousness.

    • Hi Mark, I apologize for the delay in responding. Thank you for the comment. Though I disagree with limited atonement and therefore much of your comment, I will merely agree that the confusion between righteousness and imputation is a problem for Owen’s trilemma. I will also point out, however, that the comment more or less misses the point. I address in the post that even if we take into account that God chooses the time and means of application, that still does not deal with the issue that during this time interval, God’s wrath is upon the sinner as Scripture teaches. If so, there is an unavoidable “double jeopardy” still in play, if double jeopardy is in fact a good argument.

  2. “The only logical conclusion from Owen’s argument is not simply that the elect are justified but that they were always justified, for even in their unbelief before conversion they were forgiven at the cross. ”

    No, even by your own assumption, this will not lead to eternal justification, but justification at the cross.

    Now, I’m sure you agree God justified Abraham before the cross. How do YOU account for that? Why is God just to justify Abraham before Christ died for his sins? This cannot be because faith is a condition – even you would agree faith by itself cannot justify without the death of Christ.

    I say the same reason why God is just to “delay” justification for the elect after Christ died for their sins. God can impute the righteousness of Christ’s death for the sins of the elect at the time he chose to do. In other words, your assumption is false.

    • Hi Alien, sorry for the late response:

      I find your comment problematic on many points. First of all, I have no idea what “assumption” you are referring to; I am merely drawing out the logical conclusions of Owen’s argument. If you have a problem with the lack of awareness of any “delay” of justification, you also have a problem with Owen as the previous commenter had.

      Second, Scripture itself confirms that Abraham was justified by faith (Rom. 4:9). There are, of course, many theories as to how the Old Testament fathers were justified by this faith. If you hold to covenant theology, you’re more likely to say that Abraham specifically knew ahead of time the sacrifice of Christ and had faith in that. If you’re more dispensational, you may say that it was Abraham’s faith in God and his promises that saved at that time, and because of his faith Christ’s death retroactively applies to him. Either way, the key is that Abraham had faith in the God who saves and was therefore considered righteous. That’s a far different scenario from an elect person who does not yet have faith and is still under the wrath of God as Scripture teaches.

      Third, I already addressed the issue of the time interval between Christ’s work and imputation. Crowing this completely misses the point; the fact of the matter is, Owen’s trilemma hinges on this idea that it is fundamentally unjust for God to have wrath over sins that Christ substituted for. If that is true, then even if God also chooses the time of imputation, there is still a time interval in which God has wrath over the elect sinner. If Owen is right, then this presents a problem for him and any who use this argument.

      • I don’t know why you think “the elect being unders GOD’s wrath” presents a problem for Owen or any Calvinist. In fact, Ephesians 1 and 2 mention that we “were by nature children of wrath”, even though, through this, GOD preserves his elect people and grants them faith and repentance. In conclusion, there is no problem for us Calvinists.

      • Hi Jorge:

        I think you missed the point of what I was saying. That Ephesians passage, which I allude to as well, confirms that we were all objects of wrath before conversion, but that is problem for Calvinists who rely on the double jeopardy argument because they allege that it is unjust for God to be wrathful for whom Jesus died for. If you are one of those Calvinists who reject the double payment argument, then this article is not about you.

  3. Pingback: Can Calvinists Make a Meaningful Distinction Between the Sufficiency and Efficacy of the Atonement? | leesomniac

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