In John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ the English Puritan unfurls a dizzying number of arguments against universal redemption (the Arminian teaching that Christ died for the sins of all persons and every person without exception, not to be confused with ‘universalism’ in current parlance) and for particular redemption. One of the arguments he includes is one that perhaps most theology students encounter fairly early in the study of Christian doctrine: Christ is said in Scripture to die specifically for his own people (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:14). This argument can then be easily brushed aside when one observes that these texts do not explicitly say that Christ died for his own people only. However, Owen fills out the argument in such a way that makes things a bit more complicated for the Arminian respondent. He notes that throughout Scripture believers in Christ, the company of the saved, and unbelievers, alienated from God and from salvation in Christ, are clearly distinguished from one another. An obvious example is supplied by the parable of the sheep and the goats:
Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:32-34, 41).
Owen then says that, if there is a clear distinction between those who are in Christ and those who are not (and never will be), and if Christ is said to die for the sins of the former but never for the sins of the latter, then this is an indication that Christ’s sacrificial death is intended just for those who will come to faith in him. In this case, the Arminian doctrine of universal redemption is adrift from exegesis and stuck in the realm of speculation. At this point, the Arminian exegete might argue that Scripture does teach that Christ’s death is intended to atone for the sins of the reprobate in loci like John 3:16. However, in Owen’s judgment, John 3:16 and similar texts do not in fact indicate that Christ died for every human being without exception. For Owen, then, these texts are to be interpreted with the aid of the above line of reasoning in which the two camps are distinguished and Christ is said to die for the one without any indication that he dies specifically for the other. Interestingly, he also adds that, even if Scripture doesn’t explicitly use the word ‘only’ in directing the intention of Christ’s death toward the elect, Scripture often omits the ‘restrictive term’ where it is clearly implied (10:245). For example, in John 14:6 Christ does not say ‘I am the only way and the only truth and the only life’ in order to drive home his own uniqueness as the divine Son and Savior. Also, in Colossians 1:19 Paul can write that ‘in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ without having to say ‘only in [Christ]’ in order to confirm to us that we ought not to look elsewhere for the fullness of God revealed to us.
What do you make of this exegetical argument for particular redemption (or, in less felicitous terminology, limited atonement)?