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.
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.
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.