John Owen and the Double Payment Dilemma

John Owen and the Double Payment Dilemma

by Michael J. Penfold

Authoring more than 80 books in his lifetime, John Owen the Puritan (1616-83) was arguably the mightiest Reformed theologian the world has ever seen. He applied his brilliant mind to the question “For whom did Christ die?” and concluded “the elect only”.

He saw in scripture no provision made at the cross for the sins of the ‘non-elect’. Any who disagreed with him met with the following argument: “God imposed His wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last…then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved. If the second…Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of the elect in the world. If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, ‘Because of their unbelief’…But this unbelief, is it a sin or not?…If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it…then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died…”1

Augustus M. Toplady (1740-78), who shared Owen’s views, taught that the non-elect were predestined to hell before the world began. He penned a hymn in which he described the atonement Christ made for the elect only, two verses of which read as follows:

Complete atonement Thou hast made
And to the utmost farthing paid whate’er Thy people owed;
How, then, can wrath on me take place,
Now standing in God’s righteousness and sprinkled by Thy blood?

If Thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my place endured the whole of wrath divine,
Payment God will not twice demand,
First at my bleeding surety’s hand and then again at mine.” (emphasis added)

The power and seemingly invincible logic of this ‘double payment’ argument still holds sway today, even among many who would strongly disavow the label ‘Calvinist’ and fervently proclaim their belief in ‘unlimited atonement’. They rightly hold that the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ has answered the claims of God’s throne on behalf of all men without exception. Indeed, they say, there’s enough in the death of Christ to save a million worlds. However, because they see no escape from the ‘double payment’ argument, when it comes to individual sins, they claim that the sins (plural) of the elect only were actually borne by Christ. They are unable to see any provision in the work of Christ for the individual sins of those who will be in hell because, if Christ has already borne the punishment for those sins, a second payment in hell would be unjust. They therefore understand the work of Christ as having two aspects. By design – and here they part company with traditional 5-point Calvinists – He accomplished different ends for different groups. On the cross Christ made propitiation for all, but was the substitute and sin-bearer for the elect only. In other words, they hold to universal propitiation but limited sin-bearing. That is, limited, by God’s design, not in essence but in scope (i.e. for the elect only).

Fatal Flaw

A simple analysis reveals that the entire ‘double payment’ argument is holed below the water-line. Indeed, it collapses under the weight of its own logic. Consider: did the wrath of God abide on the apostle Paul before he believed (John 3:36)? Was he an enemy of God prior to salvation (Rom 5:10)? Was he seen as guilty before God (Rom 3:19)? How so, if Christ had already made payment for his sins to the utmost farthing? Clearly Owen’s logic cuts both ways and winds up teaching that the elect are never lost, even before they are saved! This neutralises the force of his entire argument, rendering it unsound.

In what sense then has Christ borne sins? Is there an alternative to the faulty logic of the double payment argument? The key is to realise that scripture neither views the ‘propitiation made’ nor the ‘ransom paid’ as an exact like-for-like payment by Christ of an individual sinner’s ‘sin-debt’. Note what is outlined in Exod 21:30. A sum of money was taken as a satisfaction instead of a life. In other words, ‘atonement money’ was a legal penalty demanded and accepted by the law, which enabled the righteous suspension of the literal penalty (capital punishment). When a sinner is saved, his individual debt is forgiven and cancelled, on the basis of Christ’s infinite sacrificial payment on the cross. But if a sinner refuses to accept the legal penalty Christ paid on the cross, he will suffer the literal penalty himself in hell. It must be recognized that a sinner’s suffering in hell is different both in nature and value to Christ’s atoning suffering on the cross. Christ’s infinite sacrificial payment cannot be understood as a commercially equivalent ‘eye for an eye’ transaction (so many stripes for so many sins). Charles Smith explains: “We are not to view this [Christ’s cross-work] as involving an individual and separable penalty for each sin of each individual. Due to the infinite value of His person, He bore a penalty which was more than equal to the penalty that could be paid by all humans throughout all eternity. Exact equivalence of punishment was unnecessary and impossible. The infinite God paid a greater price in those moments on the cross than all men could ever pay. He did not pay the payment which we would otherwise be required to pay, He made a greater payment which may be applied to our account instead of the penalty that we would have to pay.”2 (emphasis added)

Many vs. All

The Bible says Christ bore believers’ sins (1 Pet 2:24), but does it anywhere affirm that He bore the sins of all ? What about Heb 9:28 where it says Christ “bear the sins of many”? (By ‘bearing sins’ the scripture means Christ bore the responsibility and punishment for sins). Acknowledging the difference between the Greek words for ‘many’ and ‘all’, scholars point out that based on a distinctive Semitic usage3, the Greek word for ‘many’ in the New Testament can bear an inclusive meaning. In other words, in some cases, “Many is the qualitative designation of all: all men are many in number” (F. Delitzsch). For example, in Rom 5:12 ‘all’ are said to have sinned in Adam. However, in v19 Paul says, “By one man’s disobedience ‘many’ were made sinners.” Clearly here, many does not contrast with all; many actually represents all. The same is true in Heb 9:28. The ‘many’ in question are the ‘men’ appointed to die in v27. The wording of the passage contrasts ‘many sacrifices for one man’ with ‘one sacrifice for many men’. Even John Calvin says of this verse: “he says ‘many’ meaning ‘all’…the apostle is not discussing how few or how many benefit from the death of Christ, but means simply that He died for others, not for Himself. He therefore contrasts the many to the one.”4 Thus the universal gospel call to repent and receive salvation is genuine; which it would not be, were millions of sinners’ sins (plural) not provided for in the cross.

Comparing Matt 20:28 “a ransom for many” with 1 Tim 2:6 “a ransom for all” it has often been pointed out that two different Greek prepositions are used. ‘For’ in Matt 20:28 is anti (Greek) meaning ‘instead of ‘. ‘For’ in 1 Tim 2:6 is huper (Greek) which, it is claimed, means ‘on behalf of’. True, Greek linguists agree that ‘anti’ always means ‘instead of ‘; but anyone claiming that ‘huper’ only ever means ‘on behalf of’ is very wide of the mark. The use of huper for “In thy stead” in Philemon v13 is enough to disprove this faulty generalisation. Greek expert M.J. Harris comments; “To act on behalf of a person often involves acting in his place. Hence huper not infrequently has the sense of anti…’You do not understand that it is expedient that one man should die for the people’ (John 11:50). It is clear that huper here denotes substitution, not simply benefit or representation, since Caiaphas remarks that such a death ‘for the people’ would ensure that ‘the whole nation’ did not perish…the death of the one would be a substitute for the death of the many…But why does Paul never say that Christ died anti hemon [instead of us] (1 Tim 2:6 is the nearest he comes – antilutron huper panton)? Probably because the preposition huper, unlike anti, could simultaneously express representation and substitution…There is an impressive assembling of evidence from classical and Hellenistic Greek to show that huper not uncommonly denotes proxyship, ‘in lieu of ‘.”5 He further comments:  “…in 1 Tim 2:6 the notions of exchange and substitution are both present.”6 Clearly, if the Lord Jesus gave Himself a substitutionary ransom for all, substitution cannot be for the elect only.

The Day of Atonement

Those who limit substitution to the elect frequently make reference to Leviticus 16 to support their view. They claim the first goat died to deal with ‘the principle of sin’ without reference to any persons in particular (it was Godward); whereas the live goat bore ‘specific acts of sin’ committed by specific individuals (it was manward). After all, does not the passage actually say of the first goat, “one lot for the LORD” (v8)? If all of this were true, one would have expected the Bible to say “One lot for the Lord and the other lot for the people,” whereas it actually says, “One lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.”7

Again, the Bible specifically states concerning the first goat: “Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil” (Lev 16:15). With this agrees Heb 9:7, “the High Priest alone once every year…offered for himself and for the errors of the people.” There can be no dispute here—the first goat was for the people. In what sense then was it also a “lot for the LORD”? In that its blood cleansed the Tent of meeting from the uncleanness caused by all the transgressions and sins of the people since the last day of atonement (Lev 16:16).

It is essential to note that despite the use of two goats on the day of atonement, it was considered one offering; “Two goats for a sin offering” (Lev 16:5). Both goats, as we have seen, were for the people (v15/v21), but both goats were also for atonement (v16-17/v10). But, it is claimed, no hands were laid on the head of the first goat for the transfer of guilt; it was not identified with any individual sins. This supposition is flawed. A sin offering dying in limbo would have been contrary to the entire sacrificial order. It would have been the only sin offering so treated. Why then is the procedure not mentioned? Because in Lev 16, what is not mentioned is assumed from the earlier instructions for sin offerings given in chapter 4, whereas what is unique is supplied.8 Unless otherwise stated, the normal procedure for a sin offering always applied.

If both goats dealt with the same sins, why then were two goats needed? As with the two birds for the cleansing of the leper (Lev 14), the reason for making use of two animals was simply the physical impossibility of combining all the features of the sacrificial picture in one single animal. The death of the first goat set forth cleansing from the defilement of sin. The second goat set forth the removal of the burden of sin. However, the same sins that had produced the defilement, requiring the death of the first goat, were seen as borne by the second goat (v16/v21). Both goats acted for exactly the same defined group of people (to a man) and exactly the same sins. Furthermore, the defilement dealt with by the first goat was not merely that of the Tent of meeting, but the actual the defilement of the people themselves (Lev 16:16-17).

Substitution & Propitiation

It is unwise therefore to divide up the one sin offering into two compartments, one representing propitiation only and the other substitution only. “The living goat…is not to be regarded merely as the bearer of sin to be taken away, but as quite as truly a sin-offering as the one that was slaughtered. It was appointed to make atonement with it (v10).”9 Together the goats provided atonement and propitiated God with regard to the sins of the people. The propitiation was substitutionary in character (did not the first goat die instead of the people?). True, it was Godward, but the blessings it made possible flow manward. Nothing different was done on the cross for those who will be in heaven as opposed to those who will be in hell.

The procedures of the day of atonement provided no guarantee of salvation for any Israelite. The fact of the atonement cleansed no one. Until the individual Israelite afflicted his soul he was not clear before God (Lev 23:26-32). Despite the defilement and burden of ‘all the sins’ of ‘all the congregation’ being fully answered in the two goats (in picture form annually), the threat of being cut off was still a reality for each individual until they personally repented and were justified by faith. It was not the second goat that made good the work of the first goat to the people; rather, repentance and faith made good the work of both goats. So it is with the work of Christ. In the words of Scottish scholar James Morison (1816-1893): “The atonement has completely removed every obstacle arising out of His character, as a holy and just Governor, that could possibly stand between us and salvation. It has not pardoned any, it has not justified any, it has not redeemed any, it has not reconciled any, it has not glorified any; but it has removed all obstacles of government standing between us and the enjoyment of those blessings…It is in this sense that Jesus is the ‘mediator between God and men’; it is in this sense that He is a ‘propitiation’ for our sins…’and put them away’ (He 9:26). They no longer exist as a legal barrier between us and salvation.10

Salvation is not propitiation—it is the blessing that flows from it. Similarly, Christ has not ransomed all men by His death, but He has given Himself a ransom for all men, which ransom will redeem any who come to Him. The Bible is clear: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). While the words ‘the sins of’ are not in the original, commentator Henry Alford in his Greek Text explains, “in the latter clause there is an ellipsis very common in ordinary speech in every language: ‘for the whole world’ = ‘for the sins of the whole world’.”11 Appeased by the atonement of Christ, God has been rendered merciful (propitious—Luke 18:13) to sinners. Every reason God had for banishing sinners has been overcome.

God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and desires all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). By His infinite sacrifice, Christ has eternally satisfied God concerning the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). He has given Himself as a substitutionary ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6) and has borne the punishment for the sins of all (Heb 9:28); that is, on behalf of and instead of all. If a sinner refuses to repent, he will be justly condemned for his sins at the great white throne and will be cast into the lake of fire to bear his own unique eternal punishment. No double payment problem remains.

Summary of Leviticus 16


Details about the 2 Goats 1st 2nd
1. Both goats are said to be ‘for atonement’ v17 v10
2. Together they are designated one single sin offering v5 v15
3. Both acted on behalf of the exact same group of people v15 v21
4. Both were substitutionary in nature v15 v21-22
5. Both had hands laid on them for the transfer of guilt (4:15) v21
6. Both dealt with exactly the same sins and transgressions v16-17 v21
7. Neither accomplished automatic individual salvation (23:29) v29-30 v29-30


Goat 1 Goat 2
The Lord’s Lot The Scapegoat
The blood taken in The burden taken out
The foundation of propitiation The fruit of propitiation
Defilement of sin answered Burden of sin removed


References and notes:

  1. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Banner of Truth, Carlisle, 1959, p. 173-4.
  2. Did Christ Die Only for the Elect? BMH Books, Winona Lake, IN, USA, 1975, p. 13.
  3. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 6, p. 536-545.
  4. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol 12, Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 1963, p. 131.
  5. Prepositions & Theology in the Greek NT, M. Harris, NIDNTT, p. 1196-7.
  6. Ibid, p. 1180.
  7. Azazel means ‘complete removal’. See C.L. Feinberg, Bibliotheca Sacra, 115:460, Oct 1958, pp. 321-333.
  8. Commentary on the Old Testament, Keil & Delitzsch, Vol 1, p. 589.
  9. Ibid, p. 589.
  10. The Nature of the Atonement, Scripture Teaching Library, 2015, p. 82-82.
  11. The Greek New Testament, Alford, Vol 4, Moody Press, Chicago, 1958, p. 433.