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Friday, August 20, 2010

John Owen on Penal Substitution--Part Two

John Owen (1616-1683) is generally regarded as one of the premier Calvinist theologians. According to J. I. Packer:
Owen was by common consent the weightiest Puritan theologian, and many would bracket him with Jonathan Edwards as one of the greatest Reformed theologians of all time. Born in 1616, he entered Queen's College, Oxford, at the age of twelve and secured his M.A. in 1635, when he was nineteen. In his early twenties, conviction of sin threw him into such turmoil that for three months he could scarcely utter a coherent word on anything; but slowly he learned to trust Christ, and so found peace. In 1637 he became a pastor; in the 1640s he was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and in 1651 he was made Dean of Christ Church, Oxford's largest college. In 1652 he was given the additional post of Vice-Chancellor of the University, which he then reorganized with conspicuous success. After 1660 he led the Independents through the bitter years of persecution till his death in 1683.

In a prior post, I discussed John Owen's (1616-1683) position regarding retributive justice and sacrifices. In this post, I want to deal with his position regarding how man's sins are imputed to Jesus. He discusses the matter in his series of essays on the doctrine of Justification (The Works of John Owen, vol. 5, ed. William Goold; recently published in a volume entitled, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith).

He writes:
The principal foundation hereof is, that Christ and the church, in this design, were one mystical person; which state they do actually coalesce into, through the uniting efficacy of the Holy Spirit He is the head, and believers are the members of that one person, as the apostle declares, 1 Cor. xii. 12, 13. Hence, as what he did is imputed unto them, as if done by them; so what they deserved on the account of sin was charged upon him (p. 176).

Owen argues that due to a "mystical union" between Christ and the church, they somehow become one "mystical person." Apparently this is a "spiritual union" and a "spiritual person," since, according to him, it is brought about by the Holy Spirit.

I have several problems with this idea of a "mystical person." First, the word "mystical" means:
1. Of or having a spiritual reality or import not apparent to the intelligence or senses.
2. Of, relating to, or stemming from direct communion with ultimate reality or God: a mystical religion.
3. Enigmatic; obscure: mystical theories about the securities market.
4. Of or relating to mystic rites or practices.
5. Unintelligible; cryptic.

I guess Owen is using the word "mystical" according to gloss #1 above. This would mean that the "mystical union" is not apparent to the intelligence or sense or as #5 says, "unintelligible." If that is correct, then one is wasting his or her time trying to understand it because it is unintelligible.

Second, the "mystical person" created by this "mystical union" seems to be a creation of Paul's mind. It is at best an abstract entity that really has no parallel. Thus, I fail to see how it can explain how the guilt of man's sin of man could be transferred to Jesus.

Third, even if one plays along with Paul's and Owen's imaginary "mystical person," the problem of how the guilt of man's sin could be seen as belonging to Jesus is still not resolved. According to Owen and other defenders of the PST, only the guilt of man's sin is transferred to Jesus not the actual demerit or sin itself. In this way, they protect the sinlessness of Jesus while finding some way for him to justly bear the punishment that man's sins are said to deserve. However, if the guilt is shared due to the "mystical union," why isn't the demerit or the sin itself also shared? How is it that only the guilt or liability to punishment is shared? This is also an artificial distinction because guilt cannot be separated from the actual crime. Guilt only makes sense if there is something of which to be guilty. In addition, if for some reason the demerit of sin is not shared by this "mystical union," then how is the merit of Jesus' righteousness shared by the believer? It seems that Owen and others are merely making up the rules as they go. What they claim can be shared and what cannot be shared are merely their own dictates based on the imaginary "mystical union" their creative imaginations have invented.

Owen continues:
How then did he make our sins to be his own, and how did he bear our iniquities? Is it not from thence, that we are said to be his body? as the apostle speaks, "You are the body of Christ, and members for your part, or of one another." And as when one member suffers, all the members do suffer; so the many members sinning and suffering, he, according unto the laws of sympathy in the same body (seeing that, being the Word of God, he would take the form of a servant, and be joined unto the common habitation of us all in the same nature), took the sorrows or labours of the suffering members on him, and made all their infirmities his own; and, according to the laws of humanity (in the same body), bare our sorrow and labour for us. And the Lamb of God did not only these things for us, but he underwent torments, and was punished for us; that which he was no ways exposed unto for himself, but we were so by the multitude of our sins: and thereby he became the cause of the pardon of our sins, namely, because he underwent death, stripes, reproaches, translating the thing which we had deserved unto himself, and was made a curse for us, taking unto himself the curse that was due to us; for what was he but (a substitute for us) a price of redemption for our souls (pp. 177-78)?

Once again Owen's imagination is running wild. He is saying that since Christ and believers are really one body, then when one part suffers the other suffers, etc. Okay, but in a body all parts are organically connected and that is why when one part suffers the whole body suffers. For the analogy to hold true and accomplish what Owen wants it to accomplish, then one would have to say that the whole body of Christ (the "mystical person" created by the "mystical union") is corrupted by the guilt of sin and thus one part of the body (i.e., the head, Christ) can somehow suffer the penalty that the whole body deserves. I fail to see how this can keep Jesus from becoming corrupt himself through his attachment with the other corrupt parts of the body. I also fail to see how the undiseased part of a body could be punished (or removed) in order to heal the diseased part. For example, if I have gangrene in my leg, it will do no good to amputate my arm.

Owen states:
This, then, I say, is the foundation of the imputation of the sins of the church unto Christ, namely, that he and it are one person; the grounds whereof we must inquire into.... But hereon sundry discourses do ensue, and various inquiries are made, What a person is? in what sense, and in how many senses, that word may be used? what is the true notion of it? what is a natural person? what a legal, civil, or political person? in the explication whereof some have fallen into mistakes. And if we should enter into this field, we need not fear matter enough of debate and altercation. But I must needs say, that these things belong not unto our present occasion; nor is the union of Christ and the church illustrated, but obscured by them. For Christ and believers are neither one natural person, nor a legal or political person, nor any such person as the laws, customs, or usages of men do know or allow of [emphasis mine]. They are one mystical person; whereof although there may be some imperfect resemblances found in natural or political unions, yet the union from whence that denomination is taken between him and us is of that nature, and ariseth from such reasons and causes, as no personal union among men (or the union of many persons) hath any concernment in. (And therefore, as to the representation of it unto our weak understandings, unable to comprehend the depth of heavenly mysteries, it is compared unto unions of divers kinds and natures. So is it represented by that of man and wife; not as unto those mutual affections which give them only a moral union, but from the extraction of the first woman from the flesh and bone of the first man, and the institution of God for the individual society of life thereon. This the apostle at large declares, Eph. v. 25-32: whence he concludes, that from the union thus represented, "We are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones," verse 30; or have such a relation unto him as Eve had to Adam, when she was made of his flesh and bone, and so was one flesh with him. So, also, it is compared unto the union of the head and members of the same natural body, 1 Cor. xii. 12; and unto a political union also, between a ruling or political head and its political members; but never exclusively unto the union of a natural head and its members comprised in the same expression, Eph. iv. 15; Col. ii. 19. And so also unto sundry things in nature, as a vine and its branches, John xv. 1, 2. And it is declared by the relation that was between Adam and his posterity, by God's institution and the law of creation, Rom. v. 12, etc. And the Holy Ghost, by representing the union that is between Christ and believers by such a variety of resemblances, in things agreeing only in the common or general notion of union, on various grounds, doth sufficiently manifest that it is not of, nor can be reduced unto, any one kind of them. (pp.178-179).

Okay, so according to Owen, there is nothing in human experience or reason that corresponds to the "mystical union" of Christ and believers. It is a unique case. That seems to be the cop-out that theologians give when their doctrines make no sense. We see it with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. How can three be one and one be three? They reply that no human illustration accurately captures the truth of the doctrine. All analogies ultimately fail and thus it is beyond human understanding. However, we know that it contradicts reason for something or someone to be simultaneously three and one. In the same way, it contradicts reason for a "mystical union" to exist in which Jesus shares in the guilt of man's sin and man shares in his righteousness. If something contradicts reason, are we supposed to just sacrifice our intellect, swallow real hard, and believe it anyway (since it is taught in a book which is thought by some to be a divine revelation)? That seems to be what one is required to do.


  1. Yep, we ARE just to swallow hard and believe. God said it, I believe it! (You gotta admit, that keeps life pretty simple. No thinking required.) Of course if you ENJOY analysing and learning and thinking, etc., you've got a problem on your hands. Your brain has not much to do but just accept the revelation. Frustrating!

    It's like two people going to a magic show. One thinks, "Wow! How cool!" and goes home. The other MUST know how he did that! Two different personalities. I think we have the second person to thank for all the progress made in the world.

  2. If something contradicts reason, are we supposed to just sacrifice our intellect, swallow real hard, and believe it anyway (since it is taught in a book which is thought by some to be a divine revelation)?

    It may not contradict reason, it may do so in what you are able to understand. Remember God exists in past present and future. Today we understand String Theory and Einstein Relativity, yesterday they did not. Tomorrow they will have understanding that will dwarf ours. And future generations will dwarf those. And God is already there.

  3. The imputation is extrinsic not intrinsic. It's like wearing a robe. We still sin and mess up but we are covered in the robes of His righteousness. The sins of man were imputed to Christ but it was extrinsic. They were laid on Him. This can happen because of our spiritual union with Christ. We are in mystical union with Him.

  4. If it is mystical where is the critical thinking? Does this really make sense that Jesus as God or as part of the trinity could die? Can one part die? This is all based on faith not reasoning.

  5. Christ died in His human nature not His Divine nature.

  6. Ken,

    That's not to say there's no change at all in us. The change is intrinsic but the imputed righteousness is extrinsic. It covers us like a robe. Just as our sin is imputed to Christ but this is extrinsic not intrinsic. They are laid on Christ. This all can happen because we are in mystical union with Christ. He remains righteous.

  7. If we know that Jesus died on the cross and resurrected, then it doesn't matter the details behind the act. What matters is we have someone who claimed to be God and performed miracles and rose from the dead. As long as that is true, no argument on PST can refute christianity.

  8. So the trinity is not the trinty if one part of god can die. You can't have it both ways. It is okay that god sent his only son to die even though he had not sinned. This wipes out our sins even though it is not right that someone who has not sinned die for something that he did not do.Your only statement can be god didit and we do not understand god's way. I once believed this but my eyes have been open and I now know this is not true. Read all of Ken's pst blogs and you will begin to see for yourself none of this really makes sense. Read your bible and ask yourself is this really the god I want to serve and believe in. A god who thinks it is okay to kill innocent children and women. A god who hardens pharoh's heart, a god who thinks it is okay to kill because a race may be lead to turn away from god. What about the people who have never heard of jesus there okay? Why send missionaries to preach the gospel?

  9. Sorry for all the spelling errors and grammar must be late. Ray search the internet and read all the reasons people who once believed no longer believe in your god.

  10. Cerbaz,

    I have. But right now I'm dealing with the mystical union with Christ. Mystery may go beyond our understanding but it's not a contradiction. Again, the imputation is extrinsic not intrinsic. It's like wearing a robe. We still sin and mess up but we are covered in the robes of His righteousness. The sins of man were imputed to Christ but it was extrinsic. They were laid on Him. He remains righteous. This can happen because of our mystical union with Christ. We are in mystical union with Him. He's in us and we are in Him. When He is punished, we are punished.

  11. Ray,
    So how are we punished when you believe that if you accept jesus you are free from sin and have everlasting life? Do you not believe that the bible teaches that god no longer sees you as a sinner once you have believed? And why is this a mystical union and where does it say this in the bible?

  12. By God's grace I have placed my faith in Christ and have entered into a mystical union with Him. I am covered in His righteousness. I have been united with Him (Rom. 6:5); I am indwelt with Christ (Col. 1:27); and I am in Him (Rom. 8:1,2; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Phil. 1:1)

    Jesus prayed in John 17 that believers would be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe.

    My sin became His and His righteousness became mine by imputation. The imputation is extrinsic. It's like wearing a robe. The change I go through is intrinsic. Christ remains righteous as He takes on the sin of His people.

    For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all, therefore all have died. 1 Cor. 5:14-15

  13. Cerbaz,

    Let me put it to you this way.In our mystical union with Christ our sins are imputed to Him and His righteousness is imputed to us. This imputation is extrinsic. It's like wearing a robe. That's not to say we don't change though but the change is intrinsic. Christ doesn't change intrinsically. He remains righteous as our sins are imputed to Him and punished.

    Do you see what I'm saying?

  14. Ray,

    If it is extrinsic, then it does not really belong to you. A robe is not me, it is something external to me. So I am not really righteous, I am merely wearing a righteous robe. Jesus is not really a sinner on the cross, he is wearing a sinful robe. So all of this is somekind of fiction, not reality, if you are correct.

    BTW, do you know where the whole concept of the robe of righteousness came from? It came from the ancient practice of wearing the skin of the sacrifice. It is found in many pagan cultures. See this post.

  15. Ken,

    The robe does belong to us. It's not a righteousness of our own but a foreign righteousness. But it belongs to us. We are covered in His righteousness. It's not me but a part of me. We are becoming righteous intrinsicaly as we are covered extrinsicaly in the robe.

    Isaiah 61:10

    I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

  16. Ray,

    You can believe that superstition if you want to but don't pretend that it makes rational sense. Something you wear is not you (not even metaphorically). So you are not righteous but as the Reformed theologians put it: "regarded" as if you were righteous. That makes it a "legal fiction" and if the Bible is correct, a God of truth cannot base something on a fiction or falsehood.

  17. Ken,

    It becomes a part of me. It's not me. I agree. It makes perfect sense to me. I don't see the contradiction. It's not a legal fiction it's a real mystical union between Christ and His people. The inputation is extrinisic. There is an intrinsic change in me but not Christ.

  18. With the name of God, Peace be unto those who follow the guidance from their Lord.

    Ray the problem that I have with your arguments above, and it is the same thing when you go deeper into Calvinism as well is that it smacks of Gnostic doctrine.

    Secret doctrines that must be revealed to the individual, no open revelation can that all have access to can reveal it. It must be revealed to you individually and personally.

    It is indeed a mystery when one reflects that the argument is quite strong that Paul and many early Christians did not believe that Christ Jesus ever really 'came in the flesh' at all.

  19. Instead, he emptied himself by taking on the form of a servant, by becoming like other humans, by having a human appearance.

    Just like all the visions of Paul in Acts 9,22 and 26 Jesus 'appears'.

    Colossians 2:9 Having the fullness of the God 'bodily' that word bodily doesn't necessarily mean a body that is physical. See 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul is reported to have talked about natural and spiritual 'bodies'.

    He appeared in a body, (I Timothy 3:16) again that interesting word appeared.

    My view is not that Christians believe that Jesus is God, but that they deny his humanity.

    To say that God didn't die but the human being did, would also warrant some thought based upon these facts.