Continued from part 1, on headship and imputation
It is a truth universally recognized that a sinner under God’s wrath must be in want of the gospel. See, for example, Romans 1:16. This is why it is called the gospel—the god spel, Old English for “good news,” as translated from the Greek euangelion.
This is “the good news about Jesus;” namely, that because he now reigns, we can have peace with God, since “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” if they should “repent and turn to God” (Acts 8:35; 10:36,43; 26:20). Though the ESV Study Bible characterizes the lopsided evangelical focus on moralism, it is nonetheless fundamentally on point in its commentary of 2 Corinthians 5:18–20, “ ‘Be reconciled to God’ is a summary of the gospel message Paul proclaims to unbelievers; it is a call to receive the reconciliation that God has wrought (Rom 5:11).”
The gospel promises reconciliation to the sinner via fealty toward Jesus—receiving and relying on his righteousness, and then enacting and living it out in obedience.
This is certainly prima facie good news to every sinner to whom the gospel is proclaimed. And we know it is to be proclaimed to every sinner (Matthew 28:19) because it is for every sinner (Acts 17:30). Some Christians see it as an invitation, but while it is that, it is also more—for it places the invitee under obligation to respond favorably. It is thus a universal call to bow the knee to Jesus, even though few are chosen to do so (Matthew 22:14).
Now, Owenists would say that this universality in proclamation does not reflect the scope of the satisfaction made on the cross. Since Jesus did not die for all, the promise of salvation through his death cannot actually be extended to all. Rather, it is extended only to the elect, but is proclaimed indiscriminately to all people because we don’t know who the elect are. (Some would add that another reason for it to be proclaimed indiscriminately is to further condemn those who reject it.)
God’s sincerity impugned
However, if this is the case, then how can a sinner trust the gospel as genuinely good news? If I am such a sinner, I can see that I should bow the knee to Jesus—but how can I trust him to justify me if I do? The promise of salvation is part and parcel of the gospel—but to preach the promise to everyone is to imply that it is actually made to everyone. A universal call to take hold of the promise seems to imply a universal applicability of that promise (though not necessarily a universal application).
The problem is, the Owenist says that the promise of salvation is only actually extended to the elect. How, then, can God call everyone indiscriminately to trust it? Just what exactly are they being called to trust? If Jesus died for the elect exclusively, then there is no sense in which the promise of salvation can be extended to the non-elect, whether as an invitation, or purely as a command. Consider what exactly the sinner is being called to trust in with respect to his right standing before God. Is it not what Jesus did on the cross? Is that not how the sinner can thereby be reconciled to God? And is the command not, in fact, to thereby be reconciled to God? Certainly it is. The promise refers, at least in part, to the atonement, to the satisfaction of sin—and so if someone (anyone) is called to trust it, he needs to know that there is something to trust. If satisfaction was made only for the elect, and the promise is thereby commensurately only for the elect, then a sinner would have to first know that he was elect before he could trust the promise. It does no good to say to him, “Trust the promise and you will know that you are elect,” because the very issue at hand is whether there is anything in which he can trust. What is he being asked to rely on for his justification? On the work of Jesus? For whom? For the elect? But he doesn’t know he’s elect! So how can he be asked to trust the promise?
Simply put, God cannot promise to save someone for whom Jesus did not die.
Such a promise would be empty; insincere; a lie—and it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Therefore, if the Owenist is right, he cannot say to all people without exception, “Be reconciled to God”—because God has not made provision for all people to be reconciled to him. He cannot say to the reprobate sinner, as the ESV Study Bible would have it, “Receive the reconciliation that God has wrought”—for no such reconciliation exists for that sinner. He cannot tell a non-elect man, “Believe and you will be saved.” That would be, quite flatly, a lie. He can only say these things to the elect. The moral inability of the reprobate sinner to respond to the call is irrelevant because the reality, the satisfaction which would save him, does not exist. There is nothing for him to trust.
In this way, the universal gospel call is utterly undermined and shown to be without basis under Owenism. In fact, if Owenists follow their view of the atonement through to its logical conclusion (most do not), they find themselves forced into the most extreme hyper-Calvinism to avoid misrepresenting God, and they become crippled in their evangelism.
God’s justice impugned
Not only is the gospel call undermined, but so is God’s justice in condemning those who refuse it. Just as a non-elect sinner cannot be asked to take hold of a satisfaction which was not made for him, so he equally cannot be punished for failing to do so. Owenists agree that disbelieving the gospel is culpable—after all, it is a command, and defying God’s commands carries a penalty. But how can we say a reprobate man is “defying” the command to take something—when there is nothing for him to take? What sense is there in speaking of “rejecting” something which was never sincerely offered him to begin with? May he not actually turn around and, without any impertinence, point out that God is manifestly dishonest to call everyone to believe a promise which is not made to everyone, and manifestly unjust to punish those who disbelieve when there is nothing for them to believe in? Yet John says, to the contrary, that:
…whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” 1 John 5:10–12
Eric Svendsen further expands this point by bringing to bear passages which describe the additional condemnation of those who profess the faith, but later fall away. In part 1 of his dialog with James White he asks, why are they condemned if the gospel was not for them? But Peter says that they deny the Master who bought them (2 Peter 2:1). [ Eric Svensen, When Does Our Union With Christ’s Death Occur? The Ongoing Dialogue on Limited Atonement (Part 1).]
Given these two considerations—the impugning of both God’s sincerity, and his justice, by removing the grounds for the universal call to reconciliation—the Owenist ought to concede that the satisfaction just wasn’t limited in its scope. However, there is also another problem which flows directly from what I’ve outlined above. I’ll explain it in the final argument of this series—before moving on to deal with objections to my view.