Provisional Atonement Part 3: The Integrity and Justice of God in the Gospel Offer

In this post we will defend the premise that only a universal provisional atonement view can maintain the integrity of God in the gospel offer and the universal command to repent. The Bible is clear that God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). But what is the basis for this repentance? Repentance means for us to change our minds and hearts from one direction to another. With regard to spiritual repentance it is a total spiritual reorientation. It is coupled with faith in Scripture because it is essentially the same motion of turning away from sin towards God viewed from two different perspectives. Repentance focuses on the turning from and faith focuses on the turning to, or the end goal of repentance, faith in Christ (Heb. 6:1; Acts 3:19, 26). So when the Bible says that God commands all men everywhere to repent, it is speaking of spiritual repentance which issues in faith towards God in Christ.

The problem for the Calvinist is that spiritual repentance is impossible without atonement. No one can effectively turn from sin and towards Christ in faith outside of the provision of atonement which provides the means for the forgiveness of sins. This is clearly highlighted in Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:12-19. Notice especially the language being used in verses 18, 19 and 26. In verse 18 Peter speaks of Christ suffering death according to prophecy, and in verse 19 he says, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Repentance is directly tied to Christ’s death and the consequent possibility of “returning” to God on the basis of that death. So if God commands all men everywhere to repent, then Christ must have died for all as noted above. But more than that we see in verse 26 that Peter tells these Jews that Christ was raised that everyone of [them] would be turned from their wicked ways (another way of describing repentance). So it looks like this,

18 “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.
19 “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; . . .
26 “For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.” (NASB emphasis mine)

Forgiveness, then, is provided for all through the death and resurrection of Christ, but only those who repent and believe receive that forgiveness. That describes the Arminian position of universal provisional atonement perfectly and makes sense of the gospel offer while preserving the integrity of the message and the one making the offer (ultimately, God). Also, it seems clear that the command to repent can only make sense against the backdrop of the atonement and the universal provision of forgiveness resulting from the shed blood of Christ. Unless Christ’s blood was shed for all then there is no basis for commanding all to repent.

Repentance is useless outside of the genuine provision of forgiveness in Christ. But because of the universal forgiveness provided for in the atonement, repentance becomes a genuine means to attaining life and avoiding eternal death (Acts 11:18; 2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, it really only makes sense to command anyone to repent and believe if the reality of the provision of atonement and forgiveness stands behind that command. For this reason Peter instructs all of those within the sound of his voice that Christ’s death and resurrection was for the purpose of “all” of them turning away from their wickedness towards faith in God, that “times of refreshing might come from the Lord” (Acts 3:18, 19, 26). Here we find a clear Biblical mandate, in accordance with Peter’s expressed language directed to “all” who were listening, for telling anyone that Christ died for him or her so that one might repent and be saved, something that would be impossible if the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement truly represented the Biblical view [1].

But there is much more than this in Scripture to support the necessity of universal provisional atonement in connection with the command to proclaim the gospel offer to all mankind without qualification. It is important to note that the main issue in the New Testament concerning forgiveness and life versus condemnation is that of faith versus unbelief. Forgiveness and salvation result for those who obey the gospel and put faith in Christ while condemnation results for those who refuse and reject the gospel offer. John makes this clear repeatedly in his Gospel, most notably,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God… Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John. 3:16-18, 36, ESV)

It would seem that the primary reason that one is condemned in the New Testament is because he or she rejects the provision of forgiveness offered in Christ. Paul makes it clear that one finds justification and redemption “through faith in His blood” (Rom. 3:25). So it is not just a matter of refusing to believe that Christ is the Son of God. Rather, it goes much deeper in that one is essentially rejecting the all important testimony of God concerning His Son, that one is saved through faith in His blood and that through His blood life abides in His Son as a provision for all (1 John 4:9, 10, 14; 5:10, 11; John 5:26; 6:32, 33, 51, 53-58). The one who rejects Christ is primarily condemned by God for that rejection (John 3:16-18, 36; 5:24, 39, 40; 2 Thess. 2:10-12; Acts 14:36). That person will be judged for all of his sins because he has refused the way of escape and the genuine offer of forgiveness provided by God in Christ. For that reason the unbeliever heaps condemnation on himself in his rejection of Christ. As Dr. Robert Picirilli notes,

Unlimited atonement is the view that best accounts for the blame attached to men for rejection of Christ. The point is that Scripture condemns people not just for their sins but also for not putting faith in Christ and thereby being delivered from their sins. Any sinner – having heard the gospel or not – can justly be condemned for his sins; but if the death of Christ made no provision for the salvation of the non-elect, he cannot be justly charged with unbelieving rejection of Christ.

In other words, the Bible is not saying, “You have sinned and will remain in your sins without hope or atonement and receive your just reprobation in hell”- which would certainly be just. But the Bible says again and again, in effect: “You sinned and on that account deserve hell. Worse still, you have rejected the atonement made for your sins by the death of Christ, the atonement that could in fact be your deliverance. Your reprobation in hell is therefore all the more tragic and deserved.” (Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 118)

This point was likewise forcefully made in The Opinion of the Remonstrants, one of the earliest Arminian confessions concerning universal provisional atonement:

Only those are obliged to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has died. The reprobates, however, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to such faith, nor can they be justly condemned on account of the contrary refusal to believe this. In fact, if there should be such reprobates, they would be obliged to believe that Christ has not died for them. (emphasis mine)

This same point is powerfully driven home by the explicit language of the apostle in 1 John 5:10-13 where John says that believers are those who accept the witness (or testimony) of God concerning His Son and unbelievers are those who reject that witness, effectively making God a liar. And what is that witness?

“And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His Son.”

So the testimony that unbelievers reject is the testimony that eternal life has been provided in Christ (which certainly is grounded in the atonement). By rejecting this testimony (that God has provided life for them in Christ), they have “made [God] a liar”. This can only be true if the testimony concerning provision of life in Christ is true for them. They have made God out to be a liar by rejecting this testimony of God’s provision in Christ (this is the same thing being expressed in John 3:16-18, 36). But if Christ did not die for them nor provide eternal life for them then they have not rejected that provision and God is not made out to be a liar since the testimony would not, then, apply to them, but would in fact be a false testimony. They should therefore rather be commended for refusing to believe falsehood and God’s “testimony” concerning His Son would in fact prove to be a “lie” after all, contrary to the plain teaching of 1 John 5:10-13. Picirilli, citing William S. Sailer, puts it well,

In perusing [the argument that one is condemned for their rejection of Christ’s provision of atonement], Sailer comments specifically on 1 John 5:10, 11, which explains the condemnation of the unbeliever as because he has not believed the witness that God has borne concerning His Son: namely, the witness that God gave eternal life in His Son. He then asks: “If Christ died only for the elect and for no one else, why should these non-elect souls believe this witness concerning Christ? If, on the other hand, Christ has indeed died for them and yet they refuse to believe on Him- then their refusal is a heinous thing.” (Picirilli, 118,119)

Only through the atoning blood of Christ are we saved. We are called on to trust in Christ but Christ can only save because of the shed blood; to trust in Christ for salvation is to trust in His shed blood (Rom. 3:35). We must therefore believe the testimony concerning the provision of life in Christ and His atoning blood is part of what renders that testimony valid. But one cannot put faith in His atoning work if His blood was not shed for that person. In order for the testimony to be valid, Christ’s blood and the life that results from it must be provided for all. Otherwise, God has provided a false testimony for most of humanity, and then condemns them for rejecting that false testimony. It is at this point that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement reveals itself as wholly absurd and in opposition to any semblance of integrity or justice in God. The command to repent and believe the gospel becomes a stunningly cruel act of divine mockery and falsehood on the part of a perfectly just God who defines Himself as truth and love. This is compounded further when we consider it in the context of the Calvinist doctrine of total inability as Picirilli again notes,

Calvinists don’t deny that the Bible offers salvation to all and that we are accountable to preach the gospel offer to all. But I think they have failed to be logically consistent here: salvation cannot be truly offered to any for whom Christ did not die. Suppose I said to a paralyzed child, “If you’ll just reach out your hand and take it, I’ll give you this candy.” That sounds to me more like mockery than an “offer”! (The Extent of the Atonement)

This is a good analogy, but I do not think it goes far enough. In Calvinism, not only are the non-elect incapable of responding positively to the gospel due to their depravity and God’s refusal to make a faith response possible, but also condemned for rejecting an atonement that was neither provided for them nor intended for them! So it would be more like offering a paralyzed child a bottle of pills with the promise that they will cure his paralysis on the condition that he would just reach out and take it, all the while knowing that there is nothing in the bottle to cure his disease even if he could reach out and take it!

Thankfully, the Bible does not present us with such a scenario at all, but rather teaches us that Christ’s atoning death was provided for all on the condition of faith in His blood and that God, truly desiring for all to be saved, enables all who hear the gospel to respond positively to that provision and receive forgiveness (1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 2:4; John 12:32). The offer is genuinely well meant and a live option after all. In view of this wonderful Biblical truth the message of the gospel truly presents good news to all since provision has been made for all and all can truly embrace that provision through faith. Therefore, the integrity, justice, and character of God are preserved and God is magnificently glorified in His love, grace, and mercy for all mankind through the giving of His Son for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2; 4:14; John 3:14-18, 36; 6:32, 33, 51; 12:32; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; 4:10; Heb 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9; Rev. 22:17; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Titus 2:11; Rom. 1:14-16; 5:6, 17, 18; Mark 16:15; Matt. 24:14; 28:19; Acts 1:8; 17:30, etc.).

Conclusion: We have seen in this series that there is every reason to accept the plain meaning of the universal language of those passages which speak directly to the scope of the atonement, and no reason to submit such passages to tortured exegesis. We have seen that provisional atonement in Christ stands up to Calvinist objections. We have seen that the Calvinist limited atonement view suffers from numerous theologically and exegetically fatal difficulties. The Arminian view alone can accept, without reservation, the testimony of Scripture with regards to the extent of the atonement and the universal gospel offer. The Arminian can also maintain a penal-satisfaction view of the atonement conditioned on faith union with Christ in whom alone satisfaction has been made for the forgiveness of sins, and through whom alone the benefits of the atonement can be imputed to the believer on the basis of the believer’s subsequent union and identification with Christ and His death [2].


[1] I am indebted to New Testament scholar Brian Abasciano who pointed this implication of Peter’s sermon out to me during personal correspondence. Another excellent passage which gives such clear Biblical mandate is 1 Cor. 15:3, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” Paul’s declaration that “Christ died for our sins” was the substance of his initial gospel message to the Corinthians which they received and on which they “have taken [their] stand” (vv 1-2). Therefore, Paul saw nothing inaccurate in telling unbelievers, without reservation, that Christ died for their sins (as “your sins” is naturally included in “our sins”).  For more on that passage, see here.

[2] Again, it was pointed out to me in personal correspondence with Dr. Brian Abasciano that within the context of faith union with Christ joining us to the benefits of the atonement which are found only “in Him” (Eph. 1:3, 7; Col. 1:13, 14, 20-23; 1 Cor. 1:30; see Part 1 for more on this), we can even fully affirm those texts that Calvinists hold up in defense of limited atonement, even according to the particular emphasis they assign to such passages (i.e. passages which state that Christ died for His sheep, the church, his friends, etc.). This is true because there is a sense in which Christ’s atonement was made only for the “elect” (i.e. believers) since one becomes elect through faith union with Christ, the elect One. So satisfaction was really only made for those who will come to be joined to Him, but since anyone can be joined to Him through faith, it is still true that Christ’s death serves as a universal provision for “all”, “every man” and “the world”, etc, in accordance with God’s desire for all to be saved. Since Christ (and the satisfaction that resides in Him through His death) is available for all we can truly say that Christ’s death was specifically for the sins of the church (His body) and yet fully affirm that anyone can benefit from that death and atonement by becoming a part of Christ’s body through faith (which God makes possible for all who hear the gospel, as demonstrated above), at which point the death of Christ, and God’s satisfaction with that death, is imputed to the believer so that God’s wrath towards that individual is fully averted.

Provisional Atonement Part 2: Provision is Consistent With Foreknowledge

As we noted in our last post [Part 1] Arminians see the atonement of Jesus Christ as being provisional in nature.  Not only is the atonement provisional but it is more specifically provisional in Christ Jesus.  Only those who come to partake of Christ partake also of the atonement available through union with Him.  Since we come to be in union with Christ by faith we also come to benefit from the atoning benefits of His blood through faith (Rom. 3:25).  The atonement is one of those gracious spiritual blessings that we come to share in when we are united to Christ by faith  and is probably foundational to all of the other spiritual blessings in Christ (Eph. 1:3, 7).  When we understand the atonement as provisional in Christ we can accept all the universal passages concerning Christ dying for all or making propitiation for all while avoiding full blown universalism (the belief that all will be saved).

We saw in “Part 1” that this answered John Owen’s argument concerning unbelief being atoned for by Christ’s sacrifice, and the supposed implication of universalism for the Arminian.  We noted that since atonement is provisional in Christ the unbeliever’s unbelief is atoned for only when the unbeliever turns to Christ in faith and is therefore joined to Him, thereby partaking of the provision of atonement that resides in Christ alone (Eph. 1:3, 7, 13; Col. 1:13, 14; Rom. 3:25; 5:1, 2; 8:1).  Furthermore, Owen’s Calvinism falls to the same objection.  If unbelief is atoned for unconditionally for the elect as Owen suggests, then the elect would be born saved.  They would be saved even in their unbelief since their unbelief was atoned for at the cross (according to Owen).  This leads to theological absurdities and is plainly contradicted by passages like Ephesians 2:1-3 which make it clear that we are all under God’s wrath (and therefore not saved) prior to being justified by faith in Jesus Christ.  As soon as it is seen that Scripture presents the atonement as provisional, all of Owen’s cherished arguments fall to the ground.

Calvinists like puritan John Owen also object to the atonement being provisional on the grounds that if the atonement only “provides” salvation then it ultimately saves no one.  This is clearly false since this provisional atonement has saved countless thousands throughout the ages.  The provisional nature of the atonement does not mean it doesn’t save nor does it mean it can’t save.  It means only that those who come to be in union with Christ by faith will alone benefit from that atonement.

The Calvinist objection is further defeated when we realize that even for the Calvinist the atonement must be provisional in nature.  If this were not the case then anyone whom Jesus died for would be born saved [1].  Most Calvinists rightly reject this as unbiblical based on those passages which tell us that we are all born under God’s wrath (as noted above).  While the Calvinist believes that the atonement will infallibly be applied to those God unconditionally elected from eternity, it still remains that the atonement is provisional until that time when it is actually applied to the sinner.  Since Calvinists must acknowledge the provisional nature of the atonement this leaves the door wide open for the Arminian view.  The issue cannot be provision but the certainty of application.  For the Calvinist it is a certainty that God will apply the atonement to all those whom He has unconditionally pre-selected and for the Arminian it is a certainty that God will apply the atonement to all those who will trust in His blood (Rom. 3:25; 5:1, 2).  Both hold that the atonement is provisional and both hold to the certainty of application.  The only difference is that the Calvinist holds that this application is unconditional while the Arminian holds that it is conditional.

Calvinists will sometimes appeal to the hypothetical possibility that not a single person would have benefited from the atonement if it were both provisional and conditional.  But this is plainly to deny God’s foreknowledge.  Even before God created the universe He foreknew those who would trust in Christ’s blood and so be saved.  But even if no one ever put trust in Christ His sacrifice would still serve as a means of provision and the outworking of God’s amazing love and grace.  If all rejected that blood it would be truly tragic but neither God’s love nor His grace would have failed as a result.  That man rejects God’s love and grace does not make His love and grace void in any way.  To think that it would seems to be far too man centered, especially for those who hold to Calvinism and claim to disdain “man centered” theology.  It would make the significance of God’s love and grace dependent on the creature’s reception.  But God’s justice would be vindicated and His love and grace fully displayed even if every one of His creatures turned their nose up at the provision of Christ’s shed blood.  But again, such a “hypothetical” is hardly relevant since it simply has no basis in reality and God always knew what the reality of the situation would be.

Still others object that Christ would not shed His blood for those He foreknew would reject that provision.  The first problem with this suggestion is it presumes to know what God would and would not do.  This is again a surprising objection coming from those who hold to God’s sovereign freedom to do just as He pleases (and of course Arminians believe God has the freedom to do as He pleases as well).  But if God has indeed revealed that He provides atonement for those He foreknows will reject that provision, we might simply respond with the favorite Calvinist response to such objections, “Who are you O’ man to talk back to God?”  But no such response is necessary.  We can see from Scripture that God makes provisions even for those He knows will ultimately reject those provisions and this alone defeats the objection.  This truth can be seen in the parable of the banquet described by Jesus in Matt. 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24 [2].

In both of these accounts, it seems obvious that the feast was prepared for those who would refuse the invitation (specifically the Jews). The invitation went out to them and the invitation was genuine. They refused the invitation and angered the king (not specified as a king in the Luke account). Now if the feast was not intended or prepared for these Jews, then why was the king angry with them when they would not come? According to the Calvinist objection, he never intended for them to come and made no provisions for them. Look at Matt. 22:4. After the initial invitation was refused, the king sent his servants a second time saying,

“Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”

Those invited refuse again and mistreated the servants. The king is enraged. He then says,

“The wedding banquet is ready; those I invited did not deserve to come.”

Notice the reason why the guests were refused was not because the dinner was not provided for them, but because they refused the invitation, and thereby proved unworthy to attend.

If the banquet had not been provided for them, then the king had no right to be angry with them for not attending. After all, according to Calvinism, the king never intended for them to attend, and was therefore being dishonest when he told the guests that the dinner had been prepared for them.

The issue, then, is not foreknowledge, but the genuineness of the offer and the integrity of the One making the offer.

The Arminian understanding of foreknowledge is that God knows as certain all future events without necessarily causing those events. This does not mean that those events foreknown by God become artificial or meaningless because God knows them. They are still very real, and God’s interactions with us are still very real and completely genuine.

The king made the dinner even for those who (since the king represents God) he had always known would reject it (see Matt. 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29 and note that the “sons of the kingdom” are “thrown out”.  This is a reference to the Jews who reject Christ and they are called the “sons of the kingdom” because the kingdom and the feast were intended for them, and yet they will not receive the kingdom nor partake of that feast). God is just, however, and because He is just He cannot condemn men for refusing something that was never provided for them.

The argument from foreknowledge falls flat in the face of the parable of the wedding feast.  One could argue that the parable does not reference the atonement specifically but it is hard to conceive of anyone having genuine access to the feast if not for the atonement (especially considering Matt. 22:10-13, cf. Rom. 5:1, 2). Nor do I see how the feast could have even been provided without the atonement in view.  It might serve as an interesting parallel to John 6 where Christ calls himself the bread of life that gives life to the world (verse 33), while only those who eat and drink of that provision (by faith) receive the life that resides in Him (John 5:26; 6:47-58).  But even if it could be demonstrated that the atonement is not in view in these passages, the principle of genuine provision comporting with foreknowledge is still fully expressed.  So again, the objection to provisional atonement based on God’s foreknowledge loses all force.

But what of the way that Matthew closes the parable in verse 14 with the words, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”?  Does this teach Calvinism and undermine the usefulness of the parable in defense of provisional atonement?  Not at all.  It conforms perfectly to the Arminian conception of universal provisional atonement that is received and applied by faith.  The feast was prepared and provided and the invitation went out to all (starting with the Jews and then going out to the Gentiles).  All of those who are invited are therefore the “called” while those who respond are the “chosen”.  They did not respond to the call because they were already “chosen”.  Rather, they are chosen because they responded to the call (invitation).  This is the natural way to read the text.

The idea that the response was the result of being already chosen needs to be read into the text and conflicts with the fact that the feast was prepared for all those to whom the invitation went out (even those who rejected that invitation).  Therefore the designation of “chosen” is reserved for those who respond to the invitation.  In other words, election is conditional just as Arminianism has always contended.  Not only is it conditional, but it is conditioned on faith since it is by faith that we receive Christ (John 1:12) and come to be joined to Him (the elect one) by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3, 4, 13).  This is probably the meaning behind the man not dressed in proper wedding clothes (Matt. 22:11, 12).  The man was rejected and thrown out because he did not attend the banquet under the right conditions.  He tried to make his way in on his own terms (“works” or the assumption of unconditional election as a descendent of Abraham, cf. Matt. 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29; Rom. 9:30-33; 10:3) rather than on God’s terms (“faith”, cf. Rom. 1:16, 17; 4:1-16; 10:6-13; 11:17-23).

In “Part 3” we will take a closer look at the necessary connection between provisional atonement and the integrity of the gospel message.


[1] F. Leroy Forlines has an excellent treatment of the provisional nature of the atonement in his book, The Quest for Truth, pp. 206-207.

[2] I am indebted to puritan John Goodwin for recognizing the significance and relevance of the parable of the marriage feast in relation to the intention and provisional nature of the atonement.  He treats the subject in Redemption Redeemed, pp. 128-131, ed. by John D. Wagner.

Provisional Atonement Part 1: Dealing With John Owen’s Arminian Dilemma

I lifted this from Jeff Paton’s website. He gives an answer based on his commitment to the “sacrificial” view of the atonement, which allows him to bypass the force of Owen’s argument.

As I have stated before, I am not (at this time) dogmatic about views of atonement. I do, however, favor the penal satisfaction view which seems to be the view that Owen is describing as incompatible with Arminian soteriology. I reject any view that does not incorporate some form of substitution. Since I more or less hold to the view that Owen thinks incompatible with Arminianism, I thought it might be fun to take on his little “dilemma” (Owen’s argument is in blue).

“To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists -”

Of course Arminians are not Universalists in a strict sense. I hope that Owen wasn’t trying to paint Arminians in a negative light with this comment. Jeff Paton seems to think he was.

“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.”

I like #1 which Owen thinks incompatible with Arminianism.

“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 LORD should mark iniquities, who should stand?” [Ps. cxxx.2] We might all go to cast all that we have “to the moles and to the bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty.” [Isa. ii. 20, 21]

I agree. #3 is no good.

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

I disagree. #2 is incompatible with numerous Scriptures which must be made to undergo tortured exegesis to comport with this position. #2, therefore, is no good. Sorry John Owen.

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.””

That is a very good answer. Count me among those who would say that.

“But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?”

If by “unbelief” Owen means to reject Christ, then yes, unbelief is a sin.

“If not, why should they be punished for it?”

If it is sin, like all sins, then they should be punished for it. I personally think that sinners being condemned for unbelief creates serious problems for Owen’s Calvinism, but we will get to that in Part 3. For now I will agree and walk headlong into the “dilemma”.

“If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not?”

This seems overly simplified, but I will concede that Christ suffered even for unbelief.

“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.”

And now Owen sticks it to me, so to speak. What am I to do? If I say that Christ died for unbelief and believe that he died for all, then I must adopt universalism (real universalism, i.e. all will be saved). If I deny universalism, then I am stuck with a limited atonement. So, Owen points out below…

“Let them choose which part they will.”

I think I will choose a third option. An option that I believe best comports with the Biblical data. I will affirm that atonement is provisional “in Christ”. In other words, Christ’s death made provision for all sin, yet only those who come to be in union with Christ partake of that provision. I believe this view is supported by numerous Scriptures. Below are a few of them (emphasis mine):

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us [believers] with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Eph. 1:3

All spiritual blessings are found in Christ. I think this must include (if not be founded on) the benefits of the atonement. We find further evidence of this in Ephesians 1:7:

In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace…”

I think this passage confirms that the benefits of the atonement are provisional “in Christ”.

Look at Colossians 1:13 and 14:

“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Again we see that the benefits of the atonement are provisional in the “beloved Son”.

So how does one come to be in union with Christ and therefore benefit from the redemption and forgiveness provided in Him?

“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation- having believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Eph. 1:13

We come to be in union with Christ through faith.

As soon as we accept the Biblical teaching that forgiveness is provisional in Christ, Owen’s “dilemma” amounts to nothing. Unbelief is atoned for, but only “in Christ”. When we are placed in union with Christ by the Holy Spirit, through faith, our former “unbelief” is atoned for just as our other sins are atoned for. If we continue in unbelief, we cannot benefit from the forgiveness that is in Christ alone, and will therefore suffer condemnation. In other words, the moment we believe, our prior unbelief is forgiven, and not before. Since the atonement is provisional in Christ we can both affirm that He died for all and that only believers will benefit from this atonement. 1 Tim. 4:10 states this truth very well:

“For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men [provisional], especially of believers [conditional application].”

I think that this passage plainly teaches that the atonement is provided for all, while only believers will actually experience forgiveness on the condition of faith (which unites us with Christ and the benefits of His atonement).

Calvinists struggle to get around the implications of this passage. Some will suggest that the “all” has reference to the elect. That would reduce the verse to tautology as follows:

“…who is the Savior of all [elect men], especially of believers [the elect].”

Some reason that the “all” means simply “all people groups” or “all kinds of people”. There is no contextual warrant for this interpretation and it amounts to little more than the interpretation we just dealt with above:

“…who is the Savior of the elect [among all kinds of people], especially of believers [the elect].”

Still others note that “God” has reference to the Father as Savior, rather than Christ, as if this changes things. Does not the Father save through Christ?

Perhaps a last attempt should be added. Some Calvinists posit that “Savior” should be understood in a sense in which all of mankind, including the reprobates, enjoy certain divine blessings. Again, there is no contextual reason for assigning some other meaning to “Savior” other than the way Paul always uses the term in connection with God. This is truly a desperate attempt to avoid the Arminian implications of this text.

So, I think that we can safely conclude that Owen’s dilemma poses no difficulty at all for Arminians who hold to both a universal and penal satisfaction view of the atonement. All one has to do is realize that the atonement is provisional and applied only on the basis (condition) of faith union with Christ.

Owen, however, has some dilemmas of his own to account for in his #2 choice above. We will deal with those in Part 2.