With this issue we begin a new volume. No major changes will be made in the contents or format of our magazine in Volume 43. However, a couple staff changes must be reported. A change became necessary in the department The Lord Gave The Word. The Rev. C. Hanko asked to be relieved of writing this rubric, — we hope only temporarily, —due to the stresses of illness in his family. Hence, one more contribution will appear from his pen; and thereafter this department will appear less often, with Prof. H. Hanko contributing the contents. The Rev. D. Engelsma also asked to be relieved of his writing duties; the staff granted this request partially. The result is that Rev. Engelsma will finish his current series on Scripture, and then will not write again until next June, D.V. Regrettably, therefore, the departmentHeeding the Doctrine will not appear very often in this volume. As space allows, The Voice of our Fatherswill resume the treatment of the Belgic Confession.
While on the subject of the new volume, let me take the opportunity to thank all my associate editors for their past labors and to encourage them in their task for the new volume.
Let me also once more urge the various correspondents to cooperate with our News Editor. As noted before, he cannot publish news of our churches unless the news is sent to him. Ministers and/or clerks, please send him your weekly bulletins!
If YOU have not already mailed your order, do not put it off any longer, but order your copy of “Reformed Dogmatics” at the pre-publication sale price. Use the order-envelope which was enclosed with your September 15 issue of the Standard Beaver.
My recently published booklet, “In the Beginning God….,” was intended by the Mission Board for as broad a distribution as possible. If you have not yet received a copy, send for one. And if you know of friends who would be interested in reading it, send their names and addresses to: Rev. M. Schipper, 1543 Cambridge Ave., S.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49506. Copies of the booklet are free for the asking.
The Nature of the Atonement
Limited or General?
THE THIRD ELEMENT: DEFINITE AND PERSONAL
In our discussion of the nature of the atonement we have now arrived at the very heart of the entire question, namely: is the atonement in its very nature limited, or is it general? Dr. Daane, Prof. Dekker, and others take the position that the atonement is not limited in its nature. The Study Committee in the “Dekker Case” also takes that position; but the Study Committee is rather vague on this score, as I hope to point out in the future in my critique of their report. It is my intention to point out that the only possible position on the basis of Scripture and the confessions is that the atonement is in its very nature limited, not general.
Some introductory remarks are in order, however, before we enter into the discussion proper.
My first remark is that this is a very important question. This is true, first of all, with respect to the position of Prof. Dekker. His entire position with respect to the preaching of the gospel (whether in mission work, which he emphasized in his writings, or in the established church), –his entire position stands or falls with this question. If the atonement is in its very nature limited, then it stands to reason that no preacher of the gospel has the right to say to every and any man, “Christ died for you.” If he nevertheless does SO, he is surely a liar and a fraud. If, on the other hand, the atonement is in its very nature general (and this is the only conceivable alternative if it is not limited), then it also follows with inexorable logic that this gospel, that Christ died for all men and for every man, not only maybut must be proclaimed to every man personally. It follows, then, that the church is remiss in its duty to preach the gospel if it fails to reach every individual with this message. It follows, too, that the church has frequently been remiss in this duty: for millions upon millions of men since the fall have never heard the gospel proclaimed. It follows, too, that we must join those who take the position that it is the church’s fault that millions go lost: for if these millions never even received the tidings, “Christ died for you,” they must not be their fault, but the church’s. It would also seem to follow that we must re-examine and revise our confessions, which repeatedly teach that it is not God’s will that the gospel should reach every man, but that the gospel is proclaimed wherever and whenever it pleases Him.
Indeed, the implications of this question are far-reaching with respect to the church’s task to preach. In fact, it may safely be said that if Prof. Dekker’s position is the correct one, the entire position of the church and the entire attitude of the church on these matters must be radically revamped. And I sometimes get the distinct impression that this is exactly the intention of Prof. Dekker and those who hold with him. In turn, however, the blame for this must not be placed merely on the professor; he is merely taking the “bit” of the First Point in his mouth and running away with it. And how, then, are those who agree with the First Point going to restrain him? They will find it impossible.
But even apart from the Dekker Case this question is important. We live in an age when the gospel of the atonement is spoken of in very loose and ill-defined terminology. And the tendency is all too often that we ourselves fail to practice discernment and precision in speaking of the death of Christ. True, we probably are able to detect and to expose blatantly Arminian propositions. But what about what I would call covert Arminianism? Are we able to give the proper and distinctively Scriptural and Reformed answer to the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Are we able to discern whether or not someone else is giving that answer? Are we able to discern whether or not someone speaks about the death of Christ in vague generalities, which at best leave it an open question whether those generalities are intended in a Reformed or in an Arminian sense?
There are many such generalities proclaimed in our age, which is largely Arminian and Pelagian. Are we sensitive about them? Do we have a good pair of Reformed antennae, Reformed feelers? Or are we satisfied with them, and do we easily say, “That man believes in the atonement and preaches it?” Let me give some examples. “Christ died for sinners.” Or: “Christ died for sin.’ Or: “Christ died for the ungodly.” Or: “Christ died for the sins of mankind.” Or again: “Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” Or even: “Christ died for our sins.” Someone might say: “What is wrong with these statements. Are they not true? Isn’t it possible to show that these are Scriptural statements? And does not such terminology occur in our confessions also?” My answer is, in the first place, that everyone of the above statements, taken by itself, could be either Reformed or Arminian. They are, taken by themselves, general and vague, not specific. In the second place, they are all characterized by a very peculiar failure to be specific, a failure that lies not in what they say, but in what they fail to say. They fail to say: which sinners? whose sin? which ungodly? They fail to define “mankind” and “our” and “the whole world.” And therefore it makes a world of difference whether an Arminian or a Reformed man makes statements of this kind. We must listen carefully and discern. And the preacher must take care that he speaks specific language, language that is not capable of an Arminian interpretation, and language that does not leave the real meaning up to the choice of the hearer. In the third place, such language, while it may have a Scriptural sound, is not truly Scriptural. It is grossly improper to single out a text or part of a text and then to say of that aphoristic statement that it is the “gospel.” Every statement of Scripture must be understood in the context of the whole of Scripture ultimately, and certainly first of all in its own specific and immediate context. Only thus may it be proclaimed. This is also one of the reasons why all sound preaching is necessarily expository and exegetical. The preacher must not bring a so-called evangelistic message. He must not even merely preach a certain text, He must proclaim the Word of God according to the Scriptures. Failure to do this is disastrous. Insistence upon this fundamental rule will make absolutely impossible the type of pseudo-evangelistic, emotional “preaching” that is so common today and which is aimed at producing “decisions for Christ.” We must not even be fooled by the motto, “The Bible says….” After all, the devil also said, “It is written….” And “The Bible says….” can be reduced to an absurdity too. For the Bible says, “Judas went and hanged himself.” And the Bible also says, “Go thou and do likewise.” But do not forget: “Every heretic has his text.”
Hence, we must be specific in our thinking and in our language concerning the atonement, — specifically Scriptural and specifically Reformed.
My second remark is that we must be careful to distinguish between this question of limited versus general atonement, and the matter of the infinite value of the atonement. The former might be said to look at the nature of the atonement from a quantitative point of view; the latter looks at the atonement from aqualitative point of view. Or, if you will, the question of limited versus general atonement considers the nature of the atonement from the viewpoint of its scope, or its beneficiaries. But when we speak of the infinite value of the atonement, we are considering the nature of the atonement from the viewpoint of itsvalue, its quality, its worth, its ability to blot out sin and to obtain eternal life. Both of these aspects belong to the nature of the atonement. But they must not be confused. The statement that the atonement of Christ is of infinite value does not at all cancel out the truth of the statement that the atonement was limited, and that too, in its very nature. This probably brings to mind the statement of the Canons (II, A, 3) that the death of the Son of God was “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” This we shall discuss in connection with the fourth element in the nature of the atonement. But we must remember, even now, that in our Canons this could not possibly be intended to mean that Christ’s atonement was apotential Redemption for every man, or, in other words, that it was potentially general. And why could not this be the intention of the Canons? For the simple reason that then no Canons would ever have been written about the death of Christ! For it is exactly the Arminian position that the atonement is potentially general. If that were the position of our fathers, there would have been no controversy, and therefore no need for the Canons. But we shall return to this later.
My third remark is repetitious; but this repetition is necessary. It is this. We are discussing the nature (or design, if you will) of THE atonement. We are not discussing atonement in the abstract. We are not discussing what the atonement, abstractly considered,might have been, in view of the infinite value of the death of the Son of God. We are discussing the atoning death of Christ. That was an historical event. What was the nature of that event? What belongs to it? What actually took place when that atonement by His death was made? This, of course, stands closely related to the question: how did God design the atonement, how did He conceive of it, plan it, from before the foundation of the world? For that atonement could never be anything other than what God designed it to be. And this, in turn, stands closely related to this question: what does the Scripture tell us about that event in the economy of salvation? For it is only from Scripture that we can learn the nature of the atonement.
This stands, in turn, closely connected with the entire subject of the efficacy of the death of Christ, the entire doctrine of efficacious atonement, a subject which we shall certainly have to discuss further, particularly in connection with Canons 11, 8. Efficacious atonement is, — let me emphasize once more, — atonement that actually atones. It is, — to put it in terms of the elements already discussed, — atonement which through substitutionary satisfaction of the justice of God with respect to sin actually blots out the sin, actually obtains redemption, actually merits and obtains eternal life for all those for whom such substitution was made.
It is in this connection that I maintain that the third element of the nature of the atonement is that it islimited.
As is well known, there has been considerable discussion of that term “limited.” It is in itself not a confessional term, nor a Scriptural term. However, everyone knows what is meant by the expression “limited atonement” as over against “general atonement.” And in as far as the term has come into common usage, there is no basic objection to it. It is better, however, to speak of particular, or definite, atonement. AI1 three of these terms are intended to express the truth that in His death Christ atoned for all the elect, and for them only, that is, not for the reprobate.
And when, therefore, we use the proposition, “The Atonement is in its very nature limited,” we mean just exactly that: the atonement of Christ in its very nature is for the elect alone.
That a Reformed man cannot see the truth of this proposition and subscribe to it is a conundrum to me. Any other proposition will involve one in insoluble difficulties and contradictions. And I mean this not in a rationalistic sense, but I refer to insoluble difficulties and contradictions in the light of Scripture and the confessions.
One more remark. I believe we should speak in this connection of the atonement as being definite andpersonal. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not die an abstractly particular death. He did not die for a mere number of men, no matter how definite that number may be. He died for His church, His elect, beloved bride. And He died for every individual elect member of that church personally. This is a far warmer presentation than the cold idea of “limited” or “general”. As I hope to point out this is also the presentation of Scripture and the confessions. And it is this fact of a definite and personal atonement that is reflected in the Christian’s confession, “Christ died forme.”
Next time, D.V., we shall turn to our confessions, in order to see how the truth of definite and personal atonement is there taught.
That Bothersome A.C.R.L.!
The A.C.R.L. is the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen.
And it seems to be bothersome, — not to me, but to certain of the Christian Reformed leadership. On my own part, I think there is something commendable about the concern of this organization. But at least one classis of the CRC, Classis Grand Rapids South, has made this organization the object of investigation and published its conclusions in both The Banner and De Wachter. But especially the editor of De Wachter has more than once paid editorial attention to this association. Most recently he was disturbed by a letter which they circulated to Christian Reformed consistories concerning catechism books published by the Christian Reformed Committee on Education.
Now I am completely in accord with the position of Rev. Haverkamp that those who haves objections against these instructional materials should go the orderly ecclesiastical way, i.e., the way of filing these objections in a protest. In fact, in a previous editorial I expressed the same agreement. I now emphasize again in this concrete instance that these concerned Christian Reformed brethren have not only the right, but the duty of going the ecclesiastical way if they have serious objections against this instructional material. I would imagine that the ecclesiastical way would be to file these objections with their local consistories, first of all; and, lest they be accused of working behind the back of the Committee on Education, a copy of such objections should be filed with said committee also. But certainly the local consistory is primarily responsible for supervising and guarding the purity of the catechism instruction in its own congregation. That is their right and also their duty, regardless of what any Committee on Education may have decided about these instructional materials. Hence, I repeat: let these concerned “laymen” have the courage of their convictions and let their voice be heard in the ecclesiastical way.
This, however, was not my chief concern in the present editorial. I am concerned to say, first of all, that the letter which these brethren circulated was not a bad letter. It certainly was far from an evil letter. With a little good will, one could easily read this letter without taking any offense. The letter is certainly not in the nature of a generally circulated protest. It is an urgent request that consistories take the time to scrutinize these catechism materials before they put them into service, and expresses the confidence that the consistories will make their own evaluation and informed decisions.
Now what is wrong with that? Certainly, it is the duty of a consistory, is it not, to examine any catechism materials used in their congregation before they allow them to be used in the instruction of covenant children? Certainly, no consistory has the right before God to accept anyone’s material simply on the say-so of a denominational committee, not even if that committee’s work may have been approved by a synod. And, certainly, it would be the part of wisdom for a consistory to inspect especially new materials. And, surely, these instructional materials are a public matter: for they are available not only to the Christian Reformed constituency, but they can be purchased on the public market at a book store. Why, then, may not a “layman” or a free association of laymen make a respectful and urgent request that consistories do their plain duty?
But I have another concern. Why is the Rev. Haverkamp apparently particularly bothered by the A.C.R.L.? And why does he limit his criticism to them? Is it perhaps only because they happen to send letters to consistories?
For example, I recall that recently in The Bannersomeone made mention of instances of violation of the Formula of Subscription without having himself filed a protest. Then I read no criticism from the pen of De Wachter editor. Not long ago the Formula of Subscription itself came under public attack, and then I read no criticism from the Rev. Haverkamp. Others can spout open heresy, as in the Reformed Journal, or may strongly suggest something that sounds very much like doctrinal freedom; and in such cases the editor does not seem very eager to take up his editorial pen, nor to author an official protest. But is the A.C.R.L. a different story?
Finally, I would suggest to the Rev. Haverkamp, — speaking now of the material aspect of this issue, — that there is a far more important issue at stake. That issue is the catechism materials themselves. Some of these materials I have seen. Let me make a friendly Suggestion. As a Christian Reformed pastor the Rev. Haverkamp would do well to take a long and hard look at the catechism materials referred to. Perhaps he would find material for a few editorials. Perhaps, too, he would thank the A.C.R.L. for their advice.
But to the A.C.R.L. I repeat my friendly advice that, while there is a proper place for propaganda and even for advice or requests to consistories, nevertheless they have a duty to go the ecclesiastical way with any objections based on Scripture and the confessions.