Introductory Essay to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by J. I. Packer“…we speak of God’s love as if it were no more than a general willingness to receive any who will turn and trust; and we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in…this set of twisted half-truths is something other than the biblical gospel.” – Packer
I haven’t yet read anything by the Puritan writer and theologian John Owen, but I understand he’s not easy reading. (I’ve heard it said he needs to be read aloud or standing up in order to avoid falling asleep!) It’s not so much that the material is boring per se, but that Owen’s writing style is difficult to wade through and the effort, while worth it, can be mentally taxing. Owen’s classic work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, published in 1648, biblically explores the subject of the atonement — that is, the purpose and effect of Christ’s death in carrying out God’s plan of redemption. Owen’s purpose was to show “that the doctrine of universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive to the gospel.” He discusses in depth the question, “For whom did Christ suffer and die?” with three possible answers: 1) All of the sins of all men; 2) Some of the sins of all men; or 3) All of the sin of some men. Of course, only one of these can be the true answer, and the answer must come from Scripture, not from one’s preconceived notions, opinions, or feelings.
But I’m not here to talk about Owen’s book, exactly. In 1959, The Death of Death was reprinted and published with an introductory essay by J. I. Packer. This introduction was so well received and valued that it was said it was worth getting Owen’s book just to read the introduction. In his essay, Packer begins by saying that he believes that the biblical gospel has been replaced by an inferior substitute which diminishes the work of Christ:
The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts…The difference between it and the old gospel is that it is too exclusively concerned to be helpful to man – to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction – and too little concerned to glorify God…The chief aim of the old was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and His ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference.
Owen’s work refutes the idea of a universal atonement by biblically defending the doctrine known as limited atonement (or particular redemption), the third and most controversial of the Five Points of Calvinism. Packer starts out by giving an overview of the history and doctrines associated with Calvinism, about which he observes there is “a great deal of prejudice and ignorance” within Christianity. He explains that the famous “five points” were written in 1618 as a response to the doctrines promoted by Arminius and his followers. The five points, commonly known by the acronym “TULIP”, were not new doctrines, but points that refuted specific doctrines of Arminianism. For any who don’t know what TULIP stands for — each letter stands for a key doctrine of the reformed faith: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance (or Preservation) of the Saints. But Calvinism is more than just a trite little five point formula related to man’s salvation; it is a whole worldview that sees God as sovereign Ruler over all things, including but not limited to, the salvation of sinners. Packer proceeds to show how tightly linked the five points are and that Calvinist doctrine is simply the Biblical Gospel. He states that Owen’s book,
…is a biblical and theological inquiry; its purpose is simply to make clear what Scripture actually teaches about the central subject of the gospel – the achievement of the Savior…The question which Owen is really concerned to answer is just this: what is the gospel?..The doctrine which Owen sets out is both biblical and God-honoring. It exalts Christ, for it teaches Christians to glory in His Cross alone, and to draw their hope and assurance only from the death and intercession of their Savior.
Much of Packer’s essay focuses on comparing the plan of salvation as seen in the old (Biblical) gospel and that of the new gospel. The old gospel gives all credit, power and glory to God for securing the salvation of every person He intends to save by the completed work of Christ on the cross. The new gospel weakens the power Christ’s death and His atoning work by turning it into a mere possibility or an opportunity and making Christ’s work on the cross essentially ineffective, as its effect is hypothetical but didn’t actually accomplished anything.
Packer’s essay isn’t meant to be a full sermon; he only references a couple of scriptures, leaving it to Owen to show more thoroughly what the Bible says about Christ’s atonement. Packer proposes that the reader who delves into Owen’s treatise willingly set aside his preconceived ideas and prejudices, for Owen’s thorough biblical analysis deserves serious consideration. And Packer challenges the Arminian to disprove Owen’s masterful arguments.
If you are unfamiliar with the term Calvinism, or you’ve heard it but don’t really know what it is, then Packer’s essay will give you a little taste of where the Calvinist camp is coming from. Depending on your church affiliation and background, the term may carry with it some negative connotations or be thought to contain heretical teachings. If such is the case, then I strongly recommend that you read Packer’s introduction, and that you try to do so with an open mind. If you think you know about the doctrines associated with Calvinism, I recommend the essay because you just may have a twisted or extreme idea (ie. hyper-Calvinism, which isn’t biblical) of which it will help give clarification. And if you are a lover of the doctrines of grace, I recommend it as well because it will reaffirm and solidify these truths in your mind and heart, not to mention remind you of how glorious God’s grace is and give you occasion once again to praise the Lord Jesus Christ for all that HE accomplished to bring salvation to you!
- Packer’s Introductory Essay (www.all-of-grace.org)
- The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (www.monergism.com)
- Packer on Owen on Mortification (banneroftruth.org)
- Bio and Works of J. I. Packer (www.monergism.com)
- The Puritans: John Owen (challies.com)
- Particular Redemption by Spurgeon (www.spurgeon.org)
- Limited Atonement (www.apuritansmind.com)
- Talking TULIP: Limited Atonement [Part 1] (bloggingcalvinism.wordpress.com)
- “Jesus Doesn’t Love You Like That” (www.desiringgod.org)