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The Nature of the Atonement Limited or General?


One of our confessions of a minor order, The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, also speaks of Christ’s atonement as being both definite and personal. It is true, of course, that this Form does not use any language which expressly, in so many words, excludes some from this death of Christ; and in this sense it does not speak of a limitation of the atonement. Nevertheless, the language is such that it makes the atonement very definite and very personal; and it would be impossible to read this language in any other way than referring to the elect, and to them only. We find the same “we” and “us” and “our” in this Form that is found in the Heidelberg Catechism and in the Belgic Confession. This is simply due to the fact that faith is speaking here. This should warn us already that the language is not general, but definite. For faith proceeds from the fountain of election. The believers are the elect. And when believers give expression to their faith, therefore, they are always speaking in a very exclusive (limited) communion, i.e., the communion of the saints in Christ Jesus. Together they express in that communion that Christ died for them personally. From this point of view, the Form for the Lord’s Supper contains a very beautiful passage emphasizing in detail how Christ very definitely substituted for His people in such a way that what He objectively accomplished through that substitution His people never would have to endure. He did it all for them. And if in this passage the “we” is generalized, then this simply would have to mean that all the benefits spoken of accrue objectively to all men. Take note of the following passage; and as you do so, in order to see the absurdity of general atonement, try substituting “all men” for “we” and “our” and “us.”

. . . ..Now after this manner are we to remember him by it: First. That we are confidently persuaded in our hearts, that our Lord Jesus Christ…..bore for us the wrath of God (under which we should have perished everlastingly) from the beginning of his incarnation, to the end of his life upon earth; and that he hath fulfilled, for us, all obedience to the divine law, and righteousness; especially, when the weight of our sins and the wrath of God pressed out of him the bloody sweat in the garden, where he was bound that we might be freed from our sins; that he afterwards suffered innumerable reproaches, that we might never be confounded; that he was innocently condemned to death, that we might be acquitted at the judgment- seat of God, yea, that he suffered his blessed body to be nailed on the cross — that he might fix thereon the handwriting of our sins; and hath also taken upon himself the curse due to us, that he might fill us with his blessings: and hath humbled himself unto the deepest reproach and pains of hell, both in body and soul, on the tree of the cross, when he cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God! why hast thou forsaken me?” that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken of him……”

In this same Form we find the truth that the atonement is in the most specific sense of the word personal. But again, this assurance of one’s personal part is not general. It is not thus, that the gospel or the preacher of the gospel can say to every individual personally, “Christ died for you.” Nor is the Supper of the Lord designed to give that personal assurance of a personal part in the atoning death of Christ generally. The very opposite is true. This personal assurance of a personal stake in the atoning death of Christ is for those who eat and drink by faith, that is, “in remembrance of me,” that is, for the elect. This follows, of course, from the objective truth of a definite and personal atonement which is specifically taught in the words of Christ quoted in this part of the Form: “. ..Drink ye all of it; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins….” (emphasis mind, H.C.H.) The question is: of what objective fact does he who eats and drinks the supper of the Lord receive a sure remembrance and pledge? The answer is: that Christ died for you personally. Let us understand this clearly. It is not only thus that in the Lord’s Supper the believer receives a personal assurance; but he receives the personal assurance that Christ acted as his personal substitute. He receives the assurance that he was there, personally represented, when Christ laid down His life. Notice:

. . ..that is, as often as ye eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you shall thereby as by a sure remembrance and pledge, be admonished and assured that, whereas you should otherwise have suffered eternal death, I have given my body to the death of the cross, and shed my blood for you; and as certainly feed and nourish your hungry and thirsty souls with my crucified body and shed blood, to everlasting life, as this bread is broken before your eyes, and this cup is given to you, and you eat and drink the same with your mouth, in remembrance of me.

Hence, there is a very strong guarantee in the Lord’s Supper of a personal part in the atonement of Christ and all its benefits. But that guarantee of such a personal stake is a guarantee to faith only, that is, to the elect. The atonement is definite and personal, never general. 

Finally, the same is true of the next paragraph of the Form. It should be perfectly obvious, in the first place, that this paragraph speaks of the redemptive and meritorious work of Christ that was accomplished nineteen hundred years ago at the cross. And, in the second place, it should be perfectly obvious that if that redemptive and meritorious work of Christ accomplished through His atoning death is general, that is, for all men, then this paragraph says far too much, unless one is willing to be a thorough-going universalist, — something which everyone in the Dekker controversy seems to abhor. Take note of this paragraph:

From this institution of the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ, we see that he directs our faith and trust to his perfect sacrifice (once offered on the cross) as to the only ground and foundation of our salvation, wherein he is become to our hungry and thirsty souls, the true meat and drink of life eternal. (And now notice the objective accomplishments of the death of Christ, accomplishments which cannot possibly be general, H.C.H.) For by his death he hath taken away the cause of our eternal death and misery, namely sin, and obtained for us the quickening Spirit, that we by the same (who dwelleth in Christ as in the head, and in us as his members), might have true communion with him, and be made partakers of all his blessings, of life eternal, righteousness and glory.

Especially the last element here, namely, that Christ by His atoning death obtained for us the quickening Spirit, is something which the generalist cannot explain. For it is that quickening Spirit Who applies unto us that which we have in Christ, puts us in living, personal communion with Christ through faith, and thus makes us conscious partakers of all the blessings which accrued to us in that atoning death of Christ, namely, life eternal, righteousness, and glory. Anyone can see, therefore, that if the atoning death of Christ is general, for all men, then all men must needs have the quickening Spirit, and, with that quickening Spirit all the blessings of salvation. Much as Dr. Daane repudiated the reasoning from limited salvation to limited atonement, that reasoning is perfectly valid. And the reason why it is valid is that the, ground, the sure ground, of salvation is in the atonement of Christ. Universal atonement necessarily means universal salvation; and limited salvation can only be grounded in limited atonement.

We are now ready to turn to the Canons of Dordrecht. But a few introductory remarks are in order, first of all. 

My first remark is that the Canons must certainly be viewed in the light of their historical background. As far as the atonement is concerned, the chief concern has, of course, been with the Second Head of Doctrine. And when I consider the historical background of the Second Head of Doctrine, I find it rather strange, to say the least, that anyone should have the audacity to deny that Canons 11 teaches limited, or definite atonement. Yet this is exactly what has taken place in this controversy in the Christian Reformed Church. To me it is conceivable that someone might try to maintain that the Catechism or the Belgic Confession does not teach particular atonement; but it is utterly inconceivable that one should posit this of the Second Head of the Canons. Just exactly what do they think our fathers were fighting about at the Synod of Dordrecht? As far as the atonement is concerned, they were fighting exactly the doctrine which Prof. Dekker defended in his articles in the Reformed Journal. Prof. Dekker wants to say to all men: “Christ died for you.” This is precisely the Arminian doctrine in Article II of the Remonstrance: “That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16. . ..And in the First Epistle of John 2:2…..” 

If our Reformed fathers, therefore, had agreed with this second article of the Remonstrance and with the doctrine of Prof. Dekker, there would have been no Second Head of the Canons written, for the simple reason that there would have been no controversy about the atonement. 

My second remark concerns the complete absence of the term atonement from the Canons. In fact, this term does not occur in any of our confessions. But it is claimed by some that Canons II does not speak of the atonement, but speaks only of redemption. On this basis the attempt is made to establish a disjunction between atonement and redemption, as though, for example, the atonement (not mentioned in the Canons) could be unlimited, while redemption could be limited. In regard to this suggestion, I have the following to say: 

1) It seems to me that this kind of argumentation reveals both desperation and ignorance. It reveals desperation because it is a kind of grasping at straws. Who does not know that in common theological parlance the doctrine set forth in Canons II is called the doctrine of the atonement? In Reformed theology this term atonement has been used for many, many years in the English language to denote the Reformed conception of the death of Christ. The mere fact that this particular term does not occur in our English translation of the Canons does not mean that the Canons do not set forth the doctrine of what we all have become accustomed to call “the atonement.” One may have objections to the term; but there is no doubt in anyone’s mind as to the usage. The same is true of a term like “limited” as applied to the atonement. Many have expressed themselves as preferring the term definite or particular. But we all know what the term limited is meant to express, namely: that Christ died for the elect, and for them only. To base a theological argument on a point like this is a genuine case of reducing theology to semantics. 

But it also betrays ignorance. Our Canons were composed in the Latin language; and they were first translated into the Dutch language. Neither the Latin nor the Dutch has a term that is exactly equivalent to the term atonement, that is, in its root meaning.Atonement is derived from the two English words at one; it is literally at-one-ment. Thus, it originally was used to denote the state of being at one, concord, agreement, friendship; hence, the state of being reconciled. Then it came to denote the idea of satisfaction for an injury or offense; and thus it was applied to the work of Christ whereby He made satisfaction for our sins to the justice of God and achieved our reconciliation. In the Latin there are many related terms, such as the term for satisfaction,redemption, redeem, expiate, etc. But there is no exact equivalent of the word atonement. The same is true of the Dutch. There are terms like verlossen andverlossing and loskoopen and vrijkoopen to denote the idea of redemption, that is, the purchasing free, the ransoming, of the guilty sinner. And there is a term likeverzoening to denote the idea of reconciliation. Moreover, also the Scriptural terms, both in Hebrew and in Greek, do not find their exact equivalent in our English word atonement. In the Old Testament the word atonement is used in our English Bible to denote a term which means “covering,” and in the New Testament the term atonement is once used where the word reconciliation would be the proper translation. 

But all this means nothing, except that those who appeal to this absence of the word atonement in Canons II have failed to do their homework, before coming out with arguments. In dogmatic usage in the English language we all know the meaning of the term, and we all know that the atonement is treated in Canons II. 

2) The attempt to establish separation between atonement and redemption also points up a sore lack in the entire Dekker case, namely, the lack of precise definition of terms. Terms like atonement andefficacious atonement and redemption andefficacious redemption are tossed around without giving precise and Scriptural content to them. But I submit that if the term redemption is given its correct dogmatic content in the light of Scripture, it will become plain that redemption can be no more limited or unlimited than atonement; they are co-extensive. 

Finally, I want to remark that proper attention must be paid to the relation between Canons I and Canons II. After all, the root of the entire Dekker controversy lies in the area of predestination. And one cannot properly consider and understand the Reformed doctrine of the atonement set forth in Canons II except in the light of and upon the basis of the truth of predestination as set forth in Canons I. To this I shall call attention in my next installment. In concluding this article, however, let me point out that the same is true of Arminianism. The Arminian view of the atonement follows logically upon the Arminian view of election, as set forth in Article I of the Remonstrance. Hence, they begin their second article with the words, “That, agreeably thereto…..” Over against this view, the Reformed fathers established the Reformed truth of predestination in Canons I; and agreeably thereto they established the Reformed doctrine of the atonement in Canons II. There is, strictest harmony, never disjunction, between predestination and atonement.

Ecumenical To The Extreme!

The reader of Saturday’s religious page in the Grand Rapids Press learns to expect almost anything of a shocking nature in its columns, and he becomes somewhat immune to shock. But an item on page 6 of the issue Saturday, November 26 — complete with pictures, — certainly was too much for my immunity.

The largest of two pictures in this story carried the caption, “Visitors Pray,” and was accompanied by the following explanation: “Participating in the special Thanksgiving services Thursday at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church were, left to right, Dr. John Kromminga, president of Calvin Theological Seminary; Very Rev. Don Carey, pastor of Grace Episcopal Church; Rev. Doug Evett, assistant at Grace; Rabbi Frederick Eisenberg of Temple Emanuel, offering the prayer at the pulpit; Rev. Eugene Krieger, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, behind Msgr. Powers at the altar; Rev. Duncan Littlefair, pastor of Fountain Street Church; Rt. Rev. Msgr. Ellis Khouri, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, and Rev. John Myette, pastor of St. Paul’s Methodist Church.” 

The news item headed by this picture is entitled, “Interfaith Thanks Given at St. Paul’s,” and the first paragraph reads as follows: “The true spirit of Thanksgiving — Brotherhood — prevailed Thursday morning at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church when eight local clergymen participated in a special service.” 

Needless to say, the shocking part of this story is the fact that the Christian Reformed Church’s seminary president could and did participate in such a service, thereby inevitably involving the name of Calvin Theological Seminary and the Christian Reformed Church in the affair, and bringing ill repute upon that name. This is not being written in a spirit of finger-pointing and gloating, much less of pride and a holier-than-thou attitude. There can only be cause for grief in such a thing as this. But if it be possible to alert the conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church and to stir them to reformatory action, and if there be those serious-minded children of God who love the Reformed faith earnestly, but who are not yet convinced that there is something sorely amiss in the Christian Reformed Church — then let them now take notice and take warning! For there are some dreadfully serious and inescapable questions at stake here. 

This is an instance of ecumenicism in practice. And it is an extreme instance! If Dr. Kromminga can practice ecumenicism in this degree, then he can also use his position of leadership to urge the Christian Reformed Church to join the World Council and any other ecumenical movement. He can also use his influence in the seminary to teach the future ministers of the Christian Reformed Church the principles and the practice of such ecumenicism. 

Imagine! Christian Reformed, Episcopalian, Jew, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Modernist (Fountain Street Church), Orthodox, and Methodist, — all participating in a Thanksgiving service and unitedly offering a prayer of thanksgiving! 

To whose God was this offered? Judging from the fact that one would have to find the lowest common denominator in such a situation, one would conclude that it would have to be the God of the Rev. Duncan Littlefair, who is notorious in our fair city for his outspoken modernism. 

In the name of whose Christ was this prayer offered? Was it perhaps in the name of Rabbi Eisenberg’s Christ? Ah, but he has none! 

The Grand Rapids Press judged correctly that this service has to be expressive of some kind of brotherhood, some kind of communion. But what communion, brotherhood, was this? Was it the communion of saints? That could not possibly be. For the communion of saints is in Christ Jesus exclusively. And outside of that communion of saints, remember, true prayer is impossible and thanksgiving becomes an abomination to the Lord. 

But perhaps the solution lies herein, that each one, — the Christian Reformed, the Episcopalian, the Jew, the Lutheran, the Roman Catholic, the Modernist, the Orthodox, and the Methodist, — each one prayed his own prayer, offering his own thanks, to his own God, in the name of his own Christ (if he had one). Ah, but that has its problems also. Then the prayer should have been silent. Then, in fact, the entire service should have been silent. But then there would be no service! Then they all could have remained home. But then, at least, a Reformed man, if he truly wanted to be Reformed, could offer the only truly ecumenical prayer of thanksgiving, — in the communion of saints, in the unity and the catholicity of the church of all ages, which is characterized by purest holiness! 

Indeed, this thing called ecumenicism involves one in some dreadfully serious and inescapable questions! 

And one of the questions for our Christian Reformed brethren is: how can you allow your seminary president to continue in office in good standing?