In honour of the scholarship of Dr David Allen, of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary , who graced us in Malaysia with his presence at the Truth Matters Alliance conference 2018 , we will be taking a look at John Owen’s Double Payment argument which Dr Allen has addressed extensively. Other cogent responses to the argument will also be presented alongside Dr Allen’s work.
The Double Payment Argument
John Owen put it as follows, “… God imposed His wrath due unto [Christ], and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no men be saved …
If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent due to it or not.”
Responses to the Argument
i) It conflates the provision and application of the atonement
The provision and application of the atonement must be distinguished. After all, “Eph. 2:1-3 makes clear that even the elect are under the wrath of God, “having no hope” (v.12) until they believe.” However, “the moment the debt is paid the debtor is free, and that completely. No delay can be admitted, and no conditions can be attached to his deliverance.”.
What can be deduced is that the atonement is only applied upon the profession of faith. “… as 2 Cor. 5:18-21 makes clear, reconciliation has an objective and subjective aspect to it. The death of Christ objectively reconciles the world to God in the sense that his justice is satisfied, but the subjective side of reconciliation does not occur until the atonement is applied when the individual repents of sin and puts faith in Christ.”
Consider the Day of Atonement. It was for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year (Leviticus 16:34). An Israelite applied the benefits of the annual atonement by humbling his soul and not doing any work on that day (Leviticus 16:29). If a person will not humble himself on that day, he will be cut off from his people (Leviticus 23:29). As for a person who does any work on that day, he will be destroyed from among the people (Leviticus 23:30).
For more on this point, see “Feedback: Arminians Limit the Power of the Atonement” by Cartwright Other biblical examples wherein the provision and application of the atonement are distinguished, are examined.
ii) It confuses a commercial understanding of sin as debt with a penal satisfaction for sin
Carl Trueman recognises this point when he said, “It is… true that [John Owen’s] point here seems to rely on a crudely commercial theory of the atonement, but we must beware of misunderstanding this in crudely quantitative terms.”
David Allen argues that “the metaphor [of debt] is pushed beyond its legitimate point of analogy and becomes, for Owen and Williams, the actual mechanism whereby sin is paid for. Williams’ dependence upon Owen’s treatment of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matt 18 leads him to misinterpret the point of the parable. The context of the parable is not atonement but forgiveness between brothers by way of a commercial debt metaphor. The point of the parable is the mechanism for forgiveness, not the mechanism for satisfaction of sins …
The mistake is viewing God as a creditor from the fact that sin is metaphorically described as a debt (490-93). Sin as debt is about obligation, not about the death of Christ being a payment to a creditor (God). Nowhere in Scripture is God ever viewed as “creditor” who is paid a debt via the death of Christ.”
For R. L. Dabney, A. A. Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd and Charles Hodge’s agreement with this critique, see “Double Jeopardy?” by Tony of Theological Meditations.
iii) It quantifies the imputation of sin to Christ as if there is a ratio between all the sins of those Christ represents and the sufferings of Christ
According to R. L. Dabney, “… sacrifice, expiation, is one-the single, glorious, indivisible act of the divine Redeemer, infinite and inexhaustible in merit. Had there been but one sinner, Seth, elected of God, this whole divine sacrifice would have been needed to expiate his guilt. Had every sinner of Adam’s race been elected, the same one sacrifice would be sufficient for all. We must absolutely get rid of the mistake that expiation is an aggregate of gifts to be divided and distributed out, one piece to each receiver, like pieces of money out of a bag to a multitude of paupers.”
For more on this, see also “Double Jeopardy?” by Tony of Theological Meditations.
iv) What about original sin?
“[Garry] Williams’ tacit dependence upon Owen’s trilemma argument faces some insurmountable problems, not the least of which is the issue of original sin. Notice it is not original “sins” but original “sin.” If Christ died for original sin, then he died for at least one of the sins of the non-elect. If this is the case, then Owen’s argument is defeated for Owen must admit that Christ died for some of the sins (original sin) of all men.
It seems that either Owen must say that Christ died for some of the sins (original sin) of all men, or he must take the view that Christ only underwent punishment for some of the sins of some men (a position not listed in his trilemma).”
James Daane also argues this exact same point in his journal article “What Doctrine of Limited Atonement?” The Reformed Journal 14:10 (December 1964), p.16.