This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

On the atonement, part 5: universal salvation, or double payment

Part 5 of 6, in which I refute the objection that unlimited satisfaction entails either universal salvation, or a double payment for sins.

Continued from part 4, on whether God’s desires are frustrated

Perhaps the most common objection to universal atonement is Owen’s double jeopardy or double payment argument, which says: if Jesus died for everyone without exception, then either (a) everyone is saved, or (b) those in hell pay for sins which were already paid for once on the cross. The former is obviously unbiblical—not everyone will be saved (Matthew 7:13–14)—and the latter is plainly unjust—and shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right (Genesis 18:25)?

In this way, unlimited satisfaction seems to be skewered effectively on the horns of a dilemma. In the past, when I was an Owenist, I formulated the argument as a reductio ad absurdum like so:

  1. The satisfaction Jesus rendered on the cross was sufficient to save all people from sin.
  2. Unbelief is a sin.
  3. Therefore, the satisfaction was sufficient to save all people from unbelief.
  4. But unbelievers are not saved.
  5. Therefore, the satisfaction does not save all people from unbelief.
  6. Therefore, the satisfaction was not sufficient to save all people from sin.

The problem with this argument is that it presupposes a pecuniary view of the atonement—that is, a view which treats penal substitution as if it were like a commercial transaction, as I discussed in part 1 of this series. Aside from the issues which I canvassed there, there are two obviously fatal defects with this presupposition:

  1. It begs the question against unlimited satisfaction, which presupposes a judicial view and rejects the pecuniary model. The double jeopardy argument therefore misrepresents—or at best misunderstands—the view it attempts to refute, and so does not actually interact with it at all.
  2. It proves too much, since the implication follows unavoidably that, were the argument to succeed, God’s elect would never have been under his wrath, having been justified by the cross—a view which most Owenists rightly reject.

The argument examined

Premise (1) is sound; certainly, the view I’m defending has it that the satisfaction was, and is, sufficient to save all people from sin. Premises (2)–(4) are also entirely indisputable under the unlimited view: unbelief is a sin, the atonement covers it, and yet unbelievers aren’t saved. And premise (5) is not in question either.

The problem is (6). Notice the obvious non-sequitur. What does the fact that the atonement does not save all people have to do with whether it can not save all people? Plainly, there is a connection in the Owenist’s mind—but that connection doesn’t reflect anything in the unlimited view, which admits no such connection because it does not suppose that specific sins were imputed to Jesus at the cross. Rather, it recognizes that such a notion leads to real problems, both in terms of the mechanism of federal headship, and in the mechanism of justification.

James Anderson, an Owenist, once explained to the Reformed Baptist Discussion List that:

the double-jeopardy argument only assumes that for any person S, S’s sins will be atoned for if and only if (i) S’s sins are imputed to Christ and (ii) Christ suffers a punishment for those sins sufficient to fully satisfy the demands of divine justice.

But of course, I reject (i): I deny that imputation occurs in this way at all. For one thing, acts are not imputed as the argument assumes; rather guilt. For another, such imputation takes place at the moment of justification—that’s what justification is: the imputation both of our guilt to Jesus and his righteousness to us. This occurs when we exercise faith; not on the cross.

So I reject the conclusion of the double jeopardy argument as a non-sequitur. It merely presupposes the Owenist’s view of imputation, and tries to tacitly impose this on me. (Needless to say, if I accepted the Owenic view of imputation, I wouldn’t hold to unlimited satisfaction in the first place, because then it would entail either universal salvation or double payment for sins!) By contrast, if the argument is corrected to no longer beg the question, (6) might look something like this:

  1. Therefore, the nature of the satisfaction was not such that it actually saves all people from sin.

Which, of course, says nothing necessarily about the scope of the satisfaction being limited, and everything possibly about its application being so. Subsequently, since it doesn’t entail a limited scope, it isn’t contradictory with any of the prior premises which have been accepted. Thus, the argument, fairly reworked, does not select for the Owenic view: it merely selects for a view wherein the satisfaction is limited either in scope or in application.

In light of my previous arguments in this series, I think it far more reasonable to take the latter view. In other words, the atonement, in and of itself, does not justify anyone: it only provides the grounds of justification, so that it may then be applied by faith. But this leads into the final objection I’m going to consider: that an unlimited satisfaction doesn’t accomplish actual redemption for anyone.

Continued in part 6, on whether unlimited satisfaction fails to accomplish redemption

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