The Arminian Conundrum

John Owen, seventeenth-century Calvinist theologian who insists that Arminians are "tares in the field" of God's kingdom, emissaries and mouthpieces of Satan, who "by their words, which are smoother than oil, [an individual can] taste the poison of asps that is under their lips,"1 constructs, in his mind, and the mind of his Calvinist followers, an Arminian conundrum, the likes of which are intended to entirely undermine the whole of Arminian theology, thus bringing "the faulty humanistic philosophy" tumbling to its knees, never again to recover. Owen fails miserably.

Rhetorically, and typical of the character of Owen, he begins defaming the Arminians by calling them Universalists, since Arminians insist, with the authors of Scripture, that the atoning death of Jesus Christ concerns all people universally (cf. John 1:29; 6:51; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 John 2:2). Arminians, however, are not strict Universalists: suggesting that all could be saved by the atoning death of Christ is not tantamount to insisting that all will be saved because of the atoning death of Christ. Even his preliminary concept is problematic. Owen's rhetoric fails miserably.

Owen, typical of many Calvinist theologians, assumes himself the proper framer for creating this narrative against Arminian theology -- the anachronistic theology of the early Church fathers.2 He conveniently frames the matter of the atonement thusly: God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for,
  1. either all the sins of all men,
  2. or all the sins of some men,
  3. or some sins of all men.
Arminians maintain the first biblical truth but with a caveat; Calvinists maintain the second principle; while the third option has never been a universally-accepted teaching by any Christian group. By conveniently framing the matter of the atonement in this fashion, Owen thinks that he has conceived of a conundrum for the Arminian, for which there can be no consistent or biblical answer. He writes:
If the LAST, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God entered into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight . . .

If the SECOND, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the [unconditionally] elect in the world.

If the FIRST, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?
Here is Owen's conundrum: If Christ died to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and died for all (2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 1 Tim. 2:6; 4:10; 1 John 2:2), and yet, Jesus, upon a Calvinistic presumption, died only for the unconditionally elect, then all people without qualification are unconditionally elected unto faith and final salvation. In this, then, Calvinism promotes Universalism. Owen's error should be obvious to any theological novice: he wrongly assumes that the atoning death of Christ automatically atones for the sins of those for whom Christ died; when, in fact, St Paul teaches us that it is only effective through faith (Rom. 3:25 ESV). Owen's conundrum fails.

Owen then presumes to answer for the Arminian to his last clause: "If the FIRST, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You [the Arminian or non-Calvinist] will say, 'Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.'" The answer is orthodox. After all, a person is not "freed from the punishment of all their sins" apart from the atonement of Christ, nor will such avoid the wrath of God (John 3:36). But, again, Owen assumes that the atonement is automatically effective when it is not; and that the atonement automatically frees someone from the punishment of all their sins when it does not; but such occurs only by grace through faith in Christ.



Owen then believes to have cornered the Arminian with his rebuttal: "But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?" The so-called sin of unbelief is nowhere in Scripture noted as such; however, we may infer that unbelief is a sin since Jesus commands people to believe (John 6:27, 28, 29), and any command of God that is not obeyed is considered a sin. Yet what is unbelief, non-belief, but at best a sin of omission? The concept of unbelief, or non-belief, is the lack or absence of faith or trust or belief. Owen intends to corner the Arminian regarding the "sin of unbelief." He answers: "If not [i.e., if unbelief is not a sin], why should they be punished for it?"

But are they punished for non-belief? St John frames the matter of the non-believer abiding under the wrath of God already and not necessarily punished for non-belief. (John 3:36) As a matter of biblical fact, he explicitly states, "Those who believe [present active participle: who are believing and continue to believe] in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe [present active participle: who are not believing and continue not to believe] are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:36 NRSV, emphasis added) Those who remain in the state of non-belief are already condemned, meaning, they already exist within the context of condemnation. They are not further condemned, nor further punished, for their non-belief. But Owen presses the matter further:
If it be [if unbelief be a sin], then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will. (emphasis added)
His final comment even betrays his own deterministic Calvinist theology. For, clearly, God has decreed, from eternity past nonetheless, rendered necessary and even brought to fruition that Arminians adhere to Arminian theology. "Let them choose which part they will" contradicts his own beliefs about the so-called sovereignty of God (outlined within the framework of theological determinism). But I digress.

The so-called sin of unbelief -- in what sense does Owen contend that this sin hinders the unbeliever "more than their other sins" for which Christ died? He is repeating a fallacious philosophical argument that is lodged in his cognition: he thinks that the atonement automatically atones those for whom Christ died; and, since this is the case, then the "sin of unbelief" should free all if Christ died, in fact, for all. We understand that unbelief renders a person under the wrath of God. We clearly understand the depravity of fallen humanity and the inability of all mortals to believe in Christ apart from the inward work of the Holy Spirit. This is why Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Arminians today insist on the truth of prevenient grace.

In my opinion, this exchange of Owen's is rather sophomoric, to say nothing of unbiblical. If unbelief is a sin then Christ also died for that sin. But Owen betrays his own logic by failing to consider one pillar concerning the atonement of Christ: the "sin of unbelief" is only atoned, like all other sins, by grace through faith in Christ. A grace- and Spirit-induced faith in Christ is the condition required for God to effect the atonement of Christ for "the sin of unbelief." By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the very element that instrumentally effects the direct application of the atonement for the sin of unbelief is belief in Christ, thus rendering Owen's entire argument utterly moot. As long as the application of the atonement of Christ is biblically framed within the explicit condition of a grace-induced faith in Him then there is no, has never been, and never will be any such notion as an Arminian conundrum.

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1 John Owen, A Display of Arminianism: Being a Discovery of the Old Pelagian Idol Free Will, With the New Goddess Contingency, Advancing Themselves into the Throne of the God of Heaven, to the Prejudice of His Grace, Providence, and Supreme Dominion Over the Children of Men; Wherein the Main Errors by Which They Are Fallen Off From the Received Doctrine of All the Reformed Churches, With Their Opposition in Divers Particulars to the Doctrine Established in the Church of England, are Discovered and Laid Open Out of Their Own Writings and Confessions, and Confuted by the Word of God (Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1989), 8.

2 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.