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John Owen on Inclusivism

By Matthew Claridge –


There has been a lot of press in the Blogosphere concerning Rob Bell’s downward spiral toward inclusivism/ universalism. We would be sorely mistaken, however, to think that this issue is only of recent vintage. I was surprised to discover in reading John Owen’s Biblical Theology ( the edition I am working form is: Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994) that this debate was very much alive and well in the 17th century. There’s plenty of great rebuttal out there to Bell’s position, but I thought I would shine the spotlight on Owen’s unique approach to it.  He starts his critique in a place where probably most wouldn’t, namely, with effectual calling:

God’s will concerning the salvation of His elect may be considered in two ways: first, His intention, purpose, or decree; and, second, the means which He has ordained to bring this purpose about which might be termed His revealed will or precept. In just what sense they would have us believe that God truly wills the security of those whom He voluntarily allows to walk in the darkness of their own paths, who are never actually saved, who are never called to new-birth, nor are given the revelation of the only name on which men might call for salvation, is something which I confess myself unable to understand. (50-51)

Such a comment would be more than likely lost on a Rob Bell. After all, Open theism (to which I am sure Bell would identify) has no problem with a God of good intentions who lacks the ability or resolve to follow through. But God’s ability both to will and to do after His good pleasure is only half the story for Owen. The all-important factor of God’s effectual calling would make little sense apart from an understanding that man’s nature is hopelessly in rebellion against God. It’s not coincidental that “total depravity” and “unconditional election” are bound closely together. Contra Rob Bell’s characterization, salvation in “evangelical orthodoxy” is not simply a matter of right belief or practice, but a right heart. The problem is not one of mere ignorance, mis-communication, or confusion but personal, deep-seated hostility to God. Salvation in its deepest sense is having one’s entire being—mind, heart, and body—utterly enraptured and transfixed by God; a total emptying of yourself in order to receive the fullness of God. But this is precisely what the natural man resists; he clutches ever to his own sense of “natural luminosity” and takes offense at the idea that his salvation is entirely dependent on God’s grace. Here’s Owen:

Even the very least step in saving knowledge requires a renewed, saved mind. (53)

Since men have become sinners, they require, but by nature lack, a revelation of sin, of conviction, and of repentance toward God. (75)

Whatever men may learn about God, or they can possibly learn about God, from whatever degree of revelation has been granted to them, they are required to use for one supreme purpose—to worship, love, and glorify God, and to show themselves obedient to Him in all things. No pagan (because of the inborn blindness of our race, and also because they are entrapped on all sides by wicked superstition and idolatries, through the craft of Satan) has even been able to submit to God’s rule or obey and worship Him according to the degree of revelation granted to them. So all remain without excuse. (56-7)

Owen also has a very helpful discussion of Acts 14.14-17 and Acts 17 where Paul appears to suggest that men might be able to “find” God apart from the preaching of Christ. Honestly, I have often found Paul’s comments during his aeropagus speech to trend in that direction. Owen’s exegesis put things in proper perspective:

On Acts 17: Now, if God, the Creator and Ruler of all, displays His works of creation and providence in such a manner that all who contemplate them might, groping with their aids, find out His existence, then (my point is) that those who despite all this would relegate Him to merely ‘the unknown’ have really deliberately abandoned Him. Add to this a superstitious preference for things which are and never have been, and such people stand self-condemned, without excuse and self convicted. (60)

On Acts 14: When Paul continued his discourse with the statement that God ‘in time past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways,’ he can only have intended to declare that God had not chosen to oppose the gathering corruptions of the nations by sending any preacher or prophet or apostle, and had not deemed them worthy of any written or preached witness to Himself, while His will was to reserve these honors to the one chosen nation of the Jews alone. (75)
Now, for the sake of driving our point home, let us for a moment assume something which the Apostle does not say, and which cannot be extracted from his words by any fair exposition—which is that the gentiles might have gathered an idea of some willingness to be reconciled on the part of God from His works of nature. Where does that get us? How could such an assumption lead to repentance? Worse still, it results in a logical impossibility. To be reconciled to God requires repentance. Repentance requires an awareness of sin which, in turn, needs some knowledge of God’s law that ‘the wages of sin is death.’ But a knowledge that they were sinners, plus a knowledge that God’s fixed law requires the sinner’s death, shut up all avenues of ‘appeasability’ of God toward them  (79)

This last block quotation brings up another issue Owen deals with here, namely, the question if God is naturally appeasable. The question is whether God is inclined by nature not only to shower good things on the evil and righteous alike but also mercifully accept and/or forgive individuals who have not known or accepted Christ as Lord. For those within the inclusivist/ universalist camp, God’s essential disposition toward mankind is positive if not downright warm and fuzzy. To put it simply, the idea is that God yearns to forgive anyone who shows the least bit interest in knowing or loving the truth. The ambiguities in this position are significant, and such ambiguities are a recurrent feature of the inclusivist perspective. Particularly ambiguous is the degree or the nature of the “interest” shown by an individual in knowing God. When and where does it become obvious that God should accept and/or forgive an individual who is groping toward Him? The lack of clarity here not only throws into question God’s consistency but paves the way toward full fledged universalism, as Owen comments:

So, can it then be said that forgiveness is a general attribute of God, as is justice or goodness? This is the notion of those who make so much of the concept of innate ‘placability’ in the Godhead, but in fact, this word neither describes any facet of the Divine nature, nor should any regular and predictable results of the will of God. The result is that we see students either unable to grasp how God might forgive a sinner at all, or conversely claiming that all are to be forgiven by a necessity of God’s nature. If that goodness which is innate in God becomes a mere unreasoning and quite indiscriminate leniency, then, surely, either a fault of character, or at least something suspiciously akin to it, is charged upon the God Almighty  (67)

In other words, what’s the threshold at which God is willing to forgive someone? When in doubt, inevitably it is mankind, not God, who attempts to define that threshold. Rob Bell, for instance, is confident he knows exactly when and where God should accept a person into heaven; but how can he possibly be sure he’s right? And who is he to complain if it turns out he was mistaken? At the end of the day, if God himself does not define what and when true forgiveness is offered, mankind will make God’s mind up for him… and create gods in their own image. Owen:

The fact is that the pagans imagined that their idols were appeasable when they were angered. And, indeed, why should they not think that gods of their manufacture ought to be suitably pliable toward them? … As time passed, man made idol gods and goddesses to suit his own corrupt whims and depravities, and so produced deities of like nature to himself. Whatever he now found in his own nature, he writ large into a fancied being as bad as himself and, for that reason, most unlikely to reprove him for his ways. Consequently, the world soon swarmed with idol gods, false, wrathful, cruel, bad tempered, sensual, easy going, easily pleased and easily appeased, some to match each shade of fallen character and intellect (80)

Owen also challenges the assumption among inclusivists and universalists that God’s natural witness in creation is nothing but rosy and coaxing. Yes, as Acts 14 puts it, God has not left himself without witness by showing good things to the good and bad alike; but the same Paul also stated that the “wrath of God is manifested from heaven.” The created order does not provide an unambiguous message that God has good intentions toward mankind… oh, far from it. What does Rob Bell make of the plagues and blights, tsunamis and genocides? Is not the natural man confronted with a world that is at once alluring and terrible? Is not God’s silence and “remoteness” from our lives, leaving as it does a profound sense of angst and uncertainty, a sign that something is terribly wrong with our relationship with the Creator of all things? Owen:

Those hints of the goodness of God which are displayed in his providence and long-suffering has always to be offset by equal hints of justice and impending wrath. (69)

At bottom, however, is this clear fact: for Rob Bell and his ilk, the breach between mankind and God is not all that serious. Indeed, one might say that the estrangement between mankind and God is simply a matter of miscommunication and/or misinformation—kind of like a typical marital squabble. God is just a passive agent, waiting, and  hoping the prodigal gets his act together. Or worse yet, man is left to perform ‘good works’ of various sorts, in order to earn his way back into God’s graces. Either view fails to grasp the seriousness of our moral guilt and corruption.

The Scriptures offer a more radical regiment for treatment—God himself must act to redeem his wayward son. He must pay the price and perform the heart surgery necessary. As Owen puts it, all mercy is special and purposive, not hand’s off or aloof. Owen has the final word:

These all [righteous and unrighteous] feel the benefits of God’s general goodness in His providential upholding of His creation, but it is quite incorrect to argue from the fact of God’s kindness, manifesting and displaying itself in a vast number of earthly and temporal blessings, that the recipients of these benefits might improve them to arrive at a real, true, and saving repentance. All mercy is special and purposive, and is the true source of the remission of sins. (74)

In Christ God is not shown to be ‘appeasable’ but as appeased; that is, as accepting the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ and reconciling its recipients to Himself (2Cor 5.19). (79)


Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has two children.

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