Faith’s Regress

In The Death of Death in the Death of Christ , John Owen argues that the benefits of redemption are purchased by Christ on the cross. They are not simply made possible, but actually acquired. And among these benefits of Christ is the gift of faith: “the effectual and infallible bestowing of faith on those for whom he died” is among the “ends of the death of Christ.” Christ dies and intercedes for the same people, and by His intercession faith and forgiveness and all other benefits are “granted to them for whom he prayed.”

But we receive the benefits of Christ by faith. How then do we receive the initial gift of faith, if it is one of the benefits of Christ offered to believers? It seems that Owen is faced with an unfortunate regress: You need faith to get the faith that gets the benefits, but then you need faith to get the faith to get the faith . . . . You see the difficulty.

Owen’s answer is to distinguish between the instrumental causation of faith and the immediate efficient causation of the Spirit:

Some will say that Christ’s death is not the sole cause of the benefits we receive because these benefits are not actually “wrought in any without the intervention of the Spirit’s working in them, and faith apprehending the death of Christ.” These appear then to be things added to Christ’s death as causes for our salvation.

Owen answer: “Though many total causes of the same kind cannot concur to the producing of the same effect, yet several causes of several kinds may concur to one effect, and be the sole causes in that kind wherein they are causes. The Spirit of God is the cause of sanctification and holiness; but what kind of cause, I pray? Even such an one as is immediately and really efficient of the effect. Faith is the cause of pardon of sin; but what cause? in what kind? Why merely as an instrument, apprehending the righteousness of Christ. Now, do these causes, whereof one is efficient, the other instrumental, both natural and real, hinder that the blood of Christ may not only concur, but also be the sole cause, moral and meritorious, of these things?”

It seems that for Owen the Spirit works directly to awaken faith, and then by that faith believers receive such benefits as justification, forgiveness, pardon.

This is a plausible scenario, and is at the heart of the Reformed ordo salutis : Regeneration or call comes first in the ordo , brings dead sinners to life, awakens dead hearts to believe, and by that Spirit-given faith, the believer embraces Christ and all His benefits. It is consistent with Owen’s overall argument, since the Spirit is one of the gifts purchased by Christ on the cross.

But this does create a point of tension in Owen’s argument. At the beginning of Galatians 3, Paul reminds the Galatians that they received the Spirit not by the works of the law but by hearing with faith ( ex akoues pisteos ). Owen might argue that the Spirit works through the proclamation of the gospel to awaken the faith that, according to Paul, receives the Spirit. But that’s not what Paul says. Rather, he says that the Galatians receive the Spirit by faith. On Owen’s model, the Spirit must be working outside the preaching of the gospel, giving faith directly to the Galatians, so that by that faith they can receive the Spirit. But that is convoluted, and again doesn’t match what Paul actually says, which is that the Spirit is given to the Galatians when they believe the message they hear.

I don’t offer a resolution of these tensions. Nor am I denying that faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Perhaps we simply have to plead ignorance to how this actually happens. But I wonder if Owen’s model of redemption as a collection of benefits purchased by Christ has contributed to the difficulty here. Something along the lines of Richard Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology , which emphasizes (like Calvin) the inseparability of benefits and Benefactor and which highlights union with Christ, avoids some of the problems.

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