"At the conclusion of the triple choice argument Owen, to rule out the possibility that there could be any sense in which Christ could be said to have died for all men, asks the general redemptionists why, if Christ did die for all men all are not saved?You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not; if so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins? Let them choose which part they will.Clifford has made a number of criticisms of this argument in relation to its impact on the guilt of unbelief, its depriving “general exhortations to believe of all significance”, and the tension it establishes with Owen’s commitment to common grace which need not be repeated here. What needs to be seen is that Owen’s argument defeats itself by proving too much. If, in Owen’s terms, Christ died for all the sins of some people, the elect, then he must also have died for their unbelief, where ‘died for’ is understood to mean having paid the penalty for all their sins at Calvary. If this is the case, then why are the elect not saved at Calvary? If Owen replies that it is because the benefits of Christ’s death are not yet applied to them, then I would ask what it means for those benefits not to be applied to them? Surely it means that they are unbelieving, and therefore cannot be spoken of as saved. But they cannot be punished for that unbelief, as its penalty has been paid and God, as Owen assures us, will not exact a second penalty for the one offense. If then, even in their unbelief, there is no debt against them, no penalty to be paid, surely they can be described as saved, and saved at Calvary. That being the case, the gospel is reduced to a cipher, a form of informing the saved of their blessed condition.These last two conclusions are positions that Owen would deny, for he is committed to the necessity and integrity of the universal gospel call and the indissoluble bond between faith and salvation. There is then a real tension in Owen’s position brought about by a number of factors. The first is what might be called polemical reductionism in his consideration of ‘unbelief’ here, for unbelief is not just an offense like any other, it is also a state, which must be dealt with not only by forgiveness but by regeneration. Owen recognises this in relating the cross to the causal removal of unbelief as a state, but unbelief regarded as a sin and unbelief as a state bear a different relation to the cross. Sin bears a direct relation to the cross, which is the enduring of the penalty for sin; the change of state an indirect relation, dependent upon preaching and regeneration by the Spirit. To acknowledge that reality Owen would have to say that Christ died for all the sin, including the unbelief, of those who believe, and for none of the sins of those who won’t believe. But for polemical force he ignores the distinction which might seem, in its introduction of belief and unbelief, to place too much weight on human response and exposes his argument to criticism."
Neil Chambers, A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in the Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Th.M. thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998), 235-236. This thesis is available at Tren.