The Death of Death: Intro

March 2, 2010 — 10 Comments

Death of Death

[This post is part of the Atonement series]

For the 2nd week in a row, one of my students asked me what I was giving up for Lent. I had thought we had gone over it last week, but it get me thinking somewhat. He of course is giving up sweets, and may or may not really understand the significance of the event, although I would suspect he could give at least a decent explanation.

I had told him that at our church Lent was not mandatory, which of course is true. Lent is purely optional, and I don’t necessarily think it is worth debating whether or not as a Reformed Christian I should observe it in the first place. I think it falls under a Romans 14 banner to be honest. Specifically I think of v.5-9 which talks of some observing days and others restraining. That could be the start of some healthy dialogue, but if nothing else, that is my conviction on the matter.

I did start thinking though that in the spirit of Lent I should participate in some preparation of heart and mind for Easter. Lent usually involves giving something up, ostensibly to then meditate on Christ and his work in its place. I thought I would be a little more direct and give up a portion of my time to study the atonement more thoroughly. Most people I would think don’t necessarily think of giving up time as “giving something up” but time is just as precious a commodity as coffee or fried foods, or sweets. In fact, giving up time is probably a bit more intentional and therefore a little harder to do.

So, outside of teaching, studying, going to class, and spending time with Ali, I’ve decided to devote time I could use elsewhere to work through Volume 10 of the Works of John Owen, specifically the section entitled, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.” I had read a good bit of it last year while I was taking Soteriology, but just didn’t finish. Thanks to my good friend Yuce, I now have the whole volume, so I’ll start my going back over what I’ve already read before pushing forward into new ground.

Now, for anyone not familiar with this particular work, or John Owen in general. Here’s a brief intro. For a background on John Owen himself, see my paper, Trinity in Owen and Edwards which includes a brief bio.

The part entitled “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,” is basically a treatise on limited atonement. In Owen’s own words,

I shall, by the Lord’s assistance, declare what Scripture holds out in both these things, both that assertion which is intended to be proved, and that which is brought for the proof thereof; desiring the Lord by his Spirit to lead us into all truth, to give us understanding in all things, and if any one be otherwise minded, to reveal that also unto him.

If that is not entirely clear what Owen is talking about, “these things” is referring to the idea of general ransom and the two conclusions that that idea leads to, namely that either God in Christ failed to accomplish salvation, or that in the end everyone will be saved. In other words, Owen surmises that if you believe the Christ died for everyone, then either the atonement that he provided fails to atone for everyone since some go to hell, or else no one goes to hell and everyone’s sins are atoned for and therefore in the end, all are saved.

Neither of these are Biblical conclusions on the matter. Universalism (all are saved) is pretty clearly denounced elsewhere. And the idea of God in Christ failing to accomplish something that He purposed to do is likewise un-Biblical. However, in spite of those conclusions flowing from the premise of a general ransom, most people tend to bristle at the idea of a limited atonement. People who are otherwise Calvinistic in their thinking about salvation will tend to deny this letter in TULIP (the L). Of the pillars of Calvinistic soteriology, the L is probably the most attacked as well as the one that is most tentatively held.

So, this will probably then make for an interesting series of blog posts. Much like the progression of other studies, I’ll keep you posted on my thoughts as I read through Owen, and offer insights as I find them. Hopefully we can all come to a clearer understanding of the atonement as we move closer to Easter and grow in both our appreciation of what Christ has accomplished, but also grow in our worship of Him.

This should be an interesting ride…


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10 responses to The Death of Death: Intro

  1. Hey there,

    If you are interested, you might want to read:

    Chambers, N.A. “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in the Death of Death of Christ.” Th.M. thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998.

    This work is a Reformed evaluation and critique of Owen’s theology.

    You can buy a pdf copy of this from www. tren. com.

    All of us who have read it have found it very helpful.


    • Have any substantial scholars corroborated his critique?

      A lot of Th.M thesis go unnoticed so it doesn’t necessarily count against his critique if no one of more scholarly stature has agreed with his arguments. I’m just wondering if anyone in print agrees with Chambers assessment.

      Thanks for the link!


  2. hey Nate,

    It is a fairly recent thesis as far as academic interests go. And there are not a lot of scholars working on Owen right now, Trueman, and a few others. But no, it has not received a lot of attention. I would nonetheless encourage you to get the pdf. If you cant get it from Tren or cannot afford it, I can supply a pdf copy we’ve made.

    A friend of mine is doing a Ph.D on Owen right now, and he too would recommend Chamber’s work.


    • Yeah I noticed there wasn’t much work on Owen last semester when I did an independent study on Owen’s Trinitarianism in comparison/contrast with Jonathan Edwards.

      I’ll definitely look into his thesis once I actually finish Death of Death, or at least once the semester is over. Right now, I’m just working my way through it a bit more slowly than I usually would in a more devotional manner. It is doesn’t quite fit in with my other academic studies right now, so I can’t devote too much time to it until I get some of these papers out of the way. But again, thanks for the link and for letting me know that someone has interacted with Owen’s work on atonement. It was my understanding there had been little in the way of a critique of his arguments there. Glad to know that someone has finally tried!

      Thanks for stopping by,


  3. No worries, Nate.

    Just one thing thing tho, I think when you read Chamber’s work, you will see that he has more than tried to critique Owen. His critique is actually quite substantial.

    And keep in mind that Chambers is a Calvinist and the work was part of his Reformed Theological Seminary Th.M. Chambers is not an Arminian taking pot-shots.

    Thanks for your time and patience,

    • I’ll keep that in mind, my skepticism probably only arises from being a Th.M student myself and writing a thesis this coming fall. I would want my work verified my someone with more years and experience reading Owen, especially if I found a substantial critique of part of his work that by and large has been un-critiqued for quite some time.

      I’m assuming he does it in good faith, since as you pointed out, he did his thesis at RTS, which I’m assuming is the Orlando campus down from where my wife grew up, since as of now at least that’s the only campus offering a Th.M (which makes more sense since it’s in Reformation Studies). I realize he did his thesis several years ago, but nonetheless, I hold RTS in high regard and actually listen to a lot of the class lectures that they’ve made available on iTunes.

      I’ll look forward to digesting more in the coming months.


  4. Hey Nate,

    The thesis is a good work on a number of counts.

    On a related note: It was Jackson RTS Campus. Ligon Duncan, among others, was one of the readers/supervisors. I am not saying that he and they agreed with Chambers when I mention Duncan by name; I mention it to point out that his supervisors were solid exponents of Calvinism.

    Also, of all the campuses, the Jackson RTS campus is by far the most conservative campus, in terms of systematic theology.

    Owen’s Death of Death has a number of critical problems. And I think its fair to say, that quite a few of Owen’s critical assumptions and conclusions were rejected by a good section of later England and New England Calvinists in the later 17th, and into the18th-19th centuries.

    Anyway… its probably best if I leave it at that.

    If at any time you want to chat or want to hear a different perspective, you can email me anytime.

    Thanks again,

    • Interesting about Duncan and the Jackson campus. Some of the lectures I have are from there, the others are from the Orlando campus. I don’t doubt Chambers work is good/solid, any more than I doubt the papers that I produce here are usually solid. I haven’t really broken any new ground though, but if/when I do, I would hope to find outside verification of my conclusions.

      I think Chambers thoughts will be helpful in assessing Owen on atonement. I lean toward a view of limited atonement, I just don’t have a very robust defense of it covering all the topics that crop up in that discussion. I’ve never heard a strong argument against it though. It is interesting that Owen’s work is fraught with critical problems, maybe you’d like to follow the posts I have on here and point any out if they crop up. It would certainly help stretch my thinking on the topic.

      Thanks again for commenting and pointing me to further reading,


  5. Hey Nate,

    Sure I will check back in.

    Its been my experience that when someone appears to give a sort of unqualified rejection of something or someone, my normal reaction is to be skeptical-to-dismissive. Having been on the receiving end of that myself, I am trying to not come across with sweeping and blanket comments. Negative public reactions are sometimes the hardest to recover from for many of us, pride and all that.

    The problem is further complicated by the tone Packer set in his Intro, when he suggests that Owen’s argument is unassailable. Unfortunately, even some of Owen’s contemporaries, Calvinists, had rejected some of his foundational syllogisms and exegesis, even as the ink was drying on the press. <–light-hearted hyperbole. Packer presents Owen "argument" as if it was born out of a historical vacuum. The modern reader can also fall into that same mistake (of reading Owen in historical isolation. I should say, tho, Chambers does not really touch on the history, but on the conceptual-categorical side as well as the exegetical.

    If you would like me to give something of a brief outline of where I think (building on Chambers) Owen's polemic is vulnerable at points, feel free to email me.


    • David,

      I think I read Packer’s intro back last year, but this time I skipped it and went straight to the text. I may email you for that outline, and keep it in mind as I read.



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