Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is largely a defense of definite atonement against the hypothetical universalists of his day (see Jonathan Moore’s English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology ).

Owen argues that there is an inseparable connection between Christ’s death and His intercessory mediation. By His intercession, He prays that the benefits He purchased will be applied and given to those for whom He purchased them. The Father always hears His Son, and if Jesus intercedes for someone He must receive what He asks. If He interceded for everyone, everyone would be saved. Jesus died and intercedes for the same people. Christ as suffering savior cannot be divided from Christ the intercessor.

Universalists, he claims, end up with a divided Christ. They argue that Christ exercises a general and a special priesthood; God is the savior of all men, but especially of those who believe. Owen vigorously refutes these dualities, arguing that Christ is a single priest, performing the inseparable priestly tasks of sacrifice and intercession.

Yet Owen ends up with some dualities of his own.

He writes, “We may, nay we must, grant a twofold praying in our Saviour; — one, by virtue of his office as he was mediator; the other, in answer of his duty, as he was subject to the law. It is true, he who was mediator was made subject to the law; but yet those things which be did in obedience to the law as a private person were not acts of mediation, nor works of him as mediator, though of him who was mediator. Now, as he, was subject to the law, our Saviour was bound to forgive offences and wrongs done unto him, and to pray for his enemies; as also he had taught us to do . . . . as a private person, to whom revenge was forbidden, pardon enjoined, prayer commanded, prays for his very enemies and crucifers; which doth not at all concern his interceding for us as mediator, wherein he was always heard, and so is nothing to the purpose in hand.” This sits rather oddly with Owen’s claim elsewhere that Jesus’ entire life was an oblation offered to the Father in the Spirit. If that’s true, how is His “private” obedience not integral to His public role as mediator?

Similarly, Owen acknowledges that Jesus is exalted and installed as judge, but denies that Jesus procured this exaltation by His death: “His own exaltation, indeed, and power over all flesh, and his appointment to be Judge of the quick and the dead, was a consequent of his deep humiliation and suffering; but that it was the effect and product of it, procured meritoriously by it, that it was the end aimed at by him in his making satisfaction for sin, that we deny.” Even if he granted that Christ procured the power to judge by His death, this doesn’t prove that Jesus died to pay a ransom for all.

For Owen, Jesus’ death has the end of glorifying the Father by bringing sons to glory. The obedience and suffering of Jesus is the means to achieve that end. It is in that respect that Jesus is mediator. He is also king and judge, but those roles are distinguished from His mediation, and not dependent on His obedience to death.

Owen (and his opponents) are led into these difficulties because they both conceive of the work of Christ in too narrow a fashion. Jesus died and rose again not merely to procure salvation for His people (He did that) but because the cross and resurrection is How God Became King . Or, to put it otherwise: The cross is not only ransom for the elect, but also breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2) and delivers from the elementary principles of the world (Galatians 4). These are public, social consequences of the cross, as much the purpose and end of the atonement as is the eternal salvation of the elect.

In fact, the redemptive-historical (or ecclesial) and “soteriological” aims of the atonement are ultimately one. Jesus goes to the cross to glorify the Father and to share in the glory He had with the Father from the beginning; He does that by reordering the socio-religious world of antiquity; He does that so that all nations may be blessed, so that all the Father’s sons might be brought to glory.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart