Reflection on John Owen’s Arguments for Limited Atonement

In J.I. Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death (1648), he makes the astounding claim that nobody has been able to refute Owen’s argument for limited atonement. While I know I am not the intellectual equal of either Packer or Owen, I would like to give some reasons why Owen’s arguments fall flat.

I also know that I am not alone in finding flaws in Owen’s claims. Even many committed Calvinists I have read and spoken with find some of Owen’s arguments for limited atonement implausible. Despite Owen’s legacy and towering intellect, I am convinced that Owen’s argument is far from impregnable. Those, like myself, who are dedicated to the doctrine of unlimited atonement have good reasons for their commitment. These are my major problems with this work:

Owen’s exegesis is selective.

Owen has rightly been recognized as a Protestant scholastic. While I appreciate both medieval and early modern scholasticism’s commitment to logical precision, Owen’s logical argumentation sacrifices the meaning of Scripture texts. His method of using individual verses out of context rather than reading a text in its proper literary context is problematic. He would have benefited greatly from the more humanist approach of Luther, Melanchthon, and even Calvin. Unlike the humanists, Owen doesn’t look at literary context or the theology of books of the Bible. Instead, he presses individual verses into his theological presuppositions. Maybe the most egregious example of this is his use of 1 John 2:2.

Early in the book, Owen sets up his argument that Christ is a propitiatory sacrifice only for the elect. He quotes the first half of 1 John 2:2 as evidence: “He is the propitiation for our sins…” (64). Owen conveniently ignores the second half of the verse that says, “not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Later in the work, Owen deals specifically with texts that are used to support universal redemption. He asserts that the use of the “world” in this verse means the Gentiles as well as the Jews. (219) In Owen’s reading, Christ is the propitiation for the sins of Jews and also for the sins of Gentiles.

There are good reasons to disagree with Owen’s exegesis of 1 John 2:2. This work has been associated with John’s later years. According to the best church tradition, apostle John ministered in Ephesus. John’s ministry among the mostly gentile population of Ephesus was widely known in Owen’s time. Assuming that John was writing to a mostly Jewish audience is a stretch. More importantly, Owen built his foundation for limited atonement based on an intentional distortion of 1 John 2:2. When he finally deals with the text in its entirety, he reads it in light of his faulty foundation. 

Owen seems to interpret nearly every other text of Scripture through his understanding of Christ’s prayer in John 17. Owen is convinced that because Christ explicitly does not pray for the world (John 17:9) he is not the mediator for the world, but only for the elect. Is there any exegetical reason to assume that “world” in John 17 is not the same “world” that God loved so much in 3:16 or the same “world” for which he gave his Son?

Owen correctly insists that the word “world” can have different meanings based on usage, but he doesn’t seem to recognize that an author uses the same word repeatedly to establish a certain concept. “World” in John is the system opposed to God, the system that is in darkness. This is the same system that the “light of the world” has broken into, the same system in which he placed his disciples to transform.

In John 17, Christ was praying for his disciples and not the world. This is beyond dispute. Yet, Christ’s prayer for his disciples in this instance, does nothing to establish that he is a mediator only for his disciples. After all, at other times in his ministry, Christ taught his disciples to pray for their enemies and even prayed for those who crucified him. Challenging Owen’s interpretation of John 17 goes a long way in combating many of Owen’s arguments. 

As Wordsworth said of Enlightenment-era scientists, “we murder to dissect.” In dissecting various verses of Scripture, Owen murders a major theme of the New Testament–the universal grace of God.

Owen’s arguments undermine the Great Commission.

Throughout the work, Owen circles back to the argument that Christ could not have died for all people because of the many people all over the world who do not know Christ. He states, “Doth it become the wisdom of God to send Christ to die for men that they might be saved, and never cause these men to hear of any such things?” (126) A version of this argument is repeated throughout Owen’s lengthy work. This is where Owen’s argument is weakest.

Did Christ not establish his church to proclaim the gospel to the nations? Owen is using the church’s failure to obey Christ’s Commission as evidence that Christ did not die for the nations. This logic is so convoluted that it’s hard to know where to start. 

Granted, Owen lived before the modern mission movement. He is not unique in being blind to the doctrine of God’s mission to all nations. I don’t want to judge him by modern standards. I will, therefore, judge him by the standards of his time. Owen’s contemporaries, the General Baptists Thomas Lambe and Henry Denne argued that universal atonement was THE foundation for universal gospel proclamation.

Additionally, the Spanish Dominican Friar and missionary, Bartolome de las Casas argued against the cruel treatment of the Native Americans on the basis that Christ had died for these oppressed people. Las Casas made this argument over a hundred years before Owen. Owen, of course, would have good reason to be dubious of Spanish Catholic missions, especially, their extreme sacramentalism and lack of biblical gospel proclamation. Still, Las Casas gives us a good example of the missiological and human rights implications of a belief in universal atonement. 

At the end of the day, it is fair to argue that Owen’s theology undermines the Great Commission because I am evaluating his theological arguments. While I can make some historical allowances for Owen, Packer claimed that his argument cannot be defeated. Yet, if this argument attacks the clear teachings of the Scripture concerning the church’s global mission, it is not a good argument. While always shaped by context, good theology should transcend its historical situation. Owen may be a good theologian in many ways, but this argument is not a good theology. 

Owen’s theology contradicts the consensus of the universal church.

One of the strengths of Owen’s work is its classical Trinitarianism and Christology. Owen possessed an impressive command of complex topics like the triune nature of God and the union of the two natures of the Son. Owen is at his best when he grounds his proposals in classical theism. On the other hand, Owen’s main argument–that Christ did not die for all–is out of step with the Great Tradition of the church. 

At the end of the book, there is a section that attempts to prove that limited atonement was the teaching of the ancient church. Owen quotes various Church Fathers to support this argument. This use of quotations is irresponsible. It is widely recognized by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant historians that the early church believed in unlimited atonement. David Allen’s lengthy study on this issue, The Extent of the Atonement, has provided mounds of evidence to confirm this. Even in Owen’s time, it was not widely believed that the early church held to limited atonement. 

Not only was limited atonement historically rejected by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, it also didn’t gain consensus among Protestants. Death of Death was written in response to a Puritan named Thomas Moore who advocated for universal atonement. Moore roots his argument in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. This 1571 Protestant document clearly states: “The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.” (Article 31) Owen does not attempt to align his argument with this classic Protestant doctrinal statement. 

Outside of England, the Lutheran churches had established in 1592 “that Christ died for all men, and, as the Lamb of God, took away the sins of the whole world.” (Saxon Visitation Articles, IV) Even the Reformed churches that condemned Arminianism at Dort were not as hard-lined as Owen. John Davenant, an English delegate to the Synod of Dort famously advocated “hypothetical universalism”–Calvinism without limited atonement. Over in France, Protestant theologians like Moses Amyraut were attempting to maintain the Calvinist emphasis on monergism with the Church’s traditional view of unlimited atonement. 

The point is this, unlimited atonement was the teaching of the early church, the medieval church, and a significant portion of the Protestant movement. While Owen was an excellent classical theologian in his understanding of the nature of Christ and the Trinity, his argument for limited atonement was eccentric. It was innovative in all the wrong ways. 

Defeating Owen in a blog post?

I can safely say that Owen’s nearly 400-page argument will not be overturned by three arguments in a blog post. I have little interest in “destroying” Owen’s system. My interest, instead, is in dispelling the myth that Owen’s doctrine of limited atonement is unassailable. This line of thinking goes along with the false notion that Calvinism is, as a whole, more intellectually respectable than Arminianism. Calvinism is, in fact, more intellectually cogent than the total lack of theology found in many churches. This fact says nothing about the superiority of Calvinism to actual theological systems found in the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, or Lutheran traditions. 

Note: All references to Death of Death come from John Owen, Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1959).

David Lytle

David Lytle

Current history teacher, former missionary and youth pastor, grieving widower, father of the three cutest faces in creation, and giddy husband of a radiant bride. I also sang "I'm too sexy" for karaoke once. There was a crowd. My only comfort is that phones didn't make videos back then.

One thought on “Reflection on John Owen’s Arguments for Limited Atonement

  • January 22, 2024 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you, David. Well-reasoned and well-stated, courteous and irenic, and not belittling or condescending.


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