Owen on John 3:16 – Part 1a: God’s Love, the Arminian Perspective

As discussed in the previous post, the first point of consideration and contention in the interpretation of John 3:16 can be posed, and is stated by John Owen, as such:

“What is that love which was the cause of the sending or giving of Christ; which they [the Arminians, who embrace universal atonement] make to be a natural propensity to the good of all.

In this post, we are simply offering Owen’s primary issues with this popular interpretation; not yet showing his proofs for the Reformed viewpoint he embraced.  Again, he summarizes the differences as follows:

“By ‘love’ in this place, all our adversaries [the universalists] agree that a natural affection and propensity in God to the good of the creature, lost under sin, in general, which moved him to take some way whereby it might possibly be remedied, is intended.  We, on the contrary, say that by ‘love’ here is not meant an inclination or propensity of his nature, but an act of his will (where we conceive his love to be seated), and eternal purpose to do good to man, being the most transcendent and eminent act of God’s love to the creature.”

Owen also identifies the love of God as understood by the Arminians to be a velleity, which is defined as the lowest level of volition [will], or a mere wish unaccompanied by action or effort to obtain it.  Considering this and the above quote, Owen and many others (myself included) contend that the Arminians embrace a much more severely limited atonement than do we - that is, they limit what Christ’s work accomplishes for anyone.

According to Owen, it should be evident that no natural affection is to be found in God, whereby He should by necessity be carried to anything outside of Himself.  His reasons are as follows:

1)  “ Nothing that includes any imperfection is to be assigned to Almighty God: he is God all-sufficient; he is our rock, and his work is perfect.  But a natural affection in God to the good and salvation of all, being never completed nor perfected, carrieth along with it a great deal of imperfection and weakness; and not only so, but it must also needs be exceedingly prejudicial to the absolute blessedness and happiness of Almighty God.  [Owen notes that the degree to which any being lacks the fulfilling of the desires to which end it strives, is also the degree  to which it lacks of blessedness and happiness.]  So that, without impairing of the infinite blessedness of the ever-blessed God, no natural affection unto any thing never to be accomplished can be ascribed unto him, such as this general love to all is supposed to be.

2)  “If the Lord hath such a natural affection to all, as to love them so far as to send his Son to die for them, whence is it that this affection of his doth not receive accomplishment?  Whence is it that it is hindered, and doth not produce its effects?  Why doth not the Lord engage his power for the fulfilling of his desire?  “It doth not seem good to his infinite wisdom,” say they, “so to do.”  Then is there an affection in God to that which, in his wisdom, he cannot prosecute.  This [sort of love], among the sons of men, the worms of the earth, would be called a brutish affection.

3)  “No affection or natural propensity to good is to be ascribed to God which the Scripture nowhere assigns to him, and is contrary to what the Scripture doth assign unto him.  Now, the Scripture doth nowhere assign unto God any natural affection whereby he should be naturally inclined to the good of the creature; the place to prove it clearly is yet to be produced.  And that it is contrary to what the Scripture assigns him is apparent; for it describes him to be free in showing mercy, every act of it being by him performed freely, even as he pleaseth, for “he hath mercy on whom he will have mercy.”  Now, if every act of mercy showed unto any do proceed from the free distinguishing will of God (as is apparent), certainly there can be in him no such natural affection.  And the truth is, if the Lord should not show mercy, and be carried out towards the creature, merely upon his own distinguishing will, but should naturally be moved to show mercy to the miserable, he should, first, be no more merciful to men than to devils, nor, secondly, to those that are saved than to those that are damned: for that which is natural must be equal in all its operations; and that which is natural to God must be eternal.  Many more effectual reasons are produced by our divines for the denial of this natural affection in God, in the resolution of the Arminian distinction (I call it so, as now by them abused) of God’s antecedent and consequent will, to whom the learned reader may repair for satisfaction.  So that the love mentioned in this place is not that natural affection to all in general, which is not.”

This topic will be discussed in more detail in the next post, “God’s Love, the Calvinist [or, perhaps for greater clarity, the Reformed] Perspective”.

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