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Question

The final question from my Canadian questioner is as follows:

“On the other hand, is it not so that the atoning work of our Lord and Savior is ‘sufficient’ for all men? See Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 15, Answer 37; Canons of Dordt, II, 3; and I Tim 2:6, where we read, ‘Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.’

“These things are deep, and we seem to be on theverge of going beyond the Lord’s revealed will, and our finite minds will not be able to grasp and reconcile as a rational whole (what is for us rational) the Lord’s absolute sovereignty in electing sinners to salvation, and our responsibility on the other hand; and therefore we must tread very carefully here, and with the greatest reverence, or so it seems to me.” 

Reply 

Let me begin by emphasizing my agreement with my questioner: we must always tread carefully and with the greatest reverence when we deal with God’s Word. And to me, this means that one of the fundamental principles which we must remember is that Scripture (God’s revealed will) is one, that it does not contradict itself but is perfectly harmonious, and that Scripture interprets Scripture. Hence, we must always seek to understand one part of Scripture in the light of the whole of Holy Writ. We must also bear in mind that Scripture is “rational,” that is understandable. In Holy Scripture God reveals Himself to us exactly in such a way that our “finite minds” may be able to grasp that revelation as one, harmonious whole. 

In the second place, therefore, I wish to emphasize that if my questioner intends to set God’s absolute sovereignty in electing sinners to salvation and our responsibility over against one another, as opposing or even as apparently contradictory truths, this is a mistake. There is indeed an area in the relation between these two which it is difficult for us to fathom; I have reference to the manner in which the sovereign will of God embraces and controls and directs the rational, moral creature. As to the fact of this relationship, there is no doubt whatsoever. God’s sovereign counsel and, will embraces and controls and determines the every action of both the wicked and the righteous. Of the children of God Scripture says: “For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Phil. 2:12, 13. But also of the wicked it is said: “For a truth against the holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” Acts 4:27, 28. Hence, whatever problems there may be as to this matter, the truth itself is very plain: God’s sovereign counsel and will embraces, determines, controls, and directs the responsible (rational, moral; thinking and willing) creature. And whatever may be said about the responsibility of men in general, or of the Christian in particular, we must always remember that that responsibility is completely circumscribed by the sovereign counsel and will of God. 

In the third place, of the references given there is only one which speaks of the sufficiency of the death of Christ. That is the celebrated—and often misused—statement of Canons II, A, 3, which reads: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” In my commentary on the Canons which appeared some years ago in the Standard Bearer, I pointed out that the subject in this article is not for whom Christ died, but the perfection and infinite worth and value of Christ’s sacrifice. In the second place, I pointed out that this article is an answer to an Arminian argument against limited, or particular, atonement. When the fathers of Dordrecht maintained particular atonement, the Arminians countered with the sophistic accusation that with their doctrine of limited atonement the fathers proclaimed a limited and stingy God and an impoverished Christ, as though the fact that some men went lost was to be blamed on the poverty of Christ’s sacrifice. Now what did the fathers say over against that? Did they say: Christ died for all men? Did they say: Christ’s death is sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect? Then they would have conceded to the Arminians. But they did say: Christ’s death “is of infinite value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” But it is important to note that they emphatically did NOT say that Christ in any sense died for the whole world in the sense of all men. Further, I wrote at that time: 

“A study of the above opinions of the delegates (Acts of the Synod of Dordrecht, pp. 420, ff.) is also very revealing as to the meaning of the statement under discussion. It means that the sacrifice and satisfaction of Christ when considered by itself, that is, apart from God’s elective decree and apart from the intent and purpose of Christ’s death and apart from the fact that Christ represented in His death only the elect, would have been sufficient to expiate the sins of the entire human race, yea, of several more worlds. There is nothing defective in that death itself, nothing lacking in the value of the sacrifice, that limits its atoning efficiency to the elect alone; the latter limitation is not due to a limited value of Christ’s death,—for His death was abundantly sufficient, yea, infinite in value;—but it is due to the sovereign limitation of God’s elective will, with which will Christ was in perfect harmony when He gave Himself to the death of the cross. Such is the idea of this statement.” [Note: I also treated this question in detail—and with quotations from the fathers of Dordt—in a pamphlet available from the RFPA: The Atonement of Christ According To Dordrecht.] 

The remaining two references, however, do not speak of this value and “sufficiency” of the death of Christ. They speak of that which Christ actually accomplished in His atoning death. In the Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 37, we read: “That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind: that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the favor of God, righteousness and eternal life.” It is evident that here the Catechism is speaking of the actual atoning work of Christ, of His propitiatory sacrifice, and of the righteousness and eternal life which Christ merited by His atoning suffering. And this cannot be understood generally. Permit me to quote the commentary found in Rev. Herman Hoeksema’sThe Triple Knowledge, Volume I, pp. 641-642:

A word must be said about the statement of the Catechism that Christ sustained the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind, of the whole human race. This dare not be understood in the sense that He suffered and died and brought the sacrifice of atonement for every man individually, nor even that it was His intention to do so. Nor may the expression that occurs elsewhere in our Confessions (Canons II, 3) that the sacrifice of Christ is “of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,” be understood in the sense of general atonement. Christ suffered for His elect. Them and them alone He represented according to the counsel of God. For His own, for the sheep His Father had given Him, He laid down His life. He did not suffer more than was necessary to redeem them. Not one drop of blood that was shed by the Saviour was shed in vain. Those for whom He suffered are surely redeemed and saved. However, also the Scriptures employ similar expressions as occur in our Confessions. John the Baptist points Him out as “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” And the apostle John writes: “And he is the propitiation for our sin: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” But these expressions, as well as similar terms, must be understood organically, rather than individualistically. They refer to the whole organism of the race, to the elect from every nation, and tongue, and tribe, and not to every individual man. After all, mankind, and not a few individuals, is saved; but it is saved in the elect. The world is redeemed, but it is the world of God’s love, not every individual man. And it is in that same sense that the words of the Catechism must be understood that Christ sustained the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind. For those, in whose stead and in whose behalf, He bore the wrath of God, are surely redeemed by His blood. Everlasting righteousness and eternal life He obtained for them. And what He obtained for them by His suffering, He surely bestows upon them by His sovereign grace.

Finally, there is the reference to I Timothy 2:6, where we read: “Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” The question is: can the “all” in this verse possibly mean “every individual man?” My answer is that if this is the case, then the text proves too much even for the Arminian. For then the text means that Christ paid the ransom, the price of redemption, and thus removed the sin and guilt of every individual man by His substitutionary death. Then it means that before God every individual man is debt-free, righteous, and therefore worthy of eternal life. And then it must necessarily mean, too, that every individual man is actually saved and will inherit everlasting life and glory—unless it is conceivable that God will cast some who are debt-free and righteous, covered by the death of Christ, into hell-fire. For, mark well, the text does not say that Christ gave Himself a possible ransom for all, nor that Christ’s ransom was of such worth as to be sufficient for all. No, Christ actually gave Himself a ransom for all. Hence, if “all” here means “every human. being,” one is bound to be a full-blown universalist. 

But “all” does not mean this, as is very plain from the context. This is the same “all” as in verse 4: “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” And the “all” in verse 4 is, in turn, the same as the “all” in verse 1. And if you study this context, it will be plain that the meaning is not every individual man, but all kinds, or classes, of men—including “kings and all that are in authority,” vs. 2. There is no class of men—not even kings and those in authority, who at that time frequently persecuted the church—who must be excluded from the prayers and supplications of the saints. For there is no class of men which is excluded (as a class) from God’s will to save. For there is no class of men which is excluded (as a class) from Christ’s ransom. 

And lest anyone imagine that this is merely a pet explanation of Protestant Reformed theology, let me point out that none other than John Calvin offers this same explanation, 

Institutes, Book III, Chapter XXIV, 16:

I reply that, in the first place, it becomes evident from the sequel of the words in what sense He wills this. For, Paul connects these matters, viz. that He wills that they be saved, and that they come to the knowledge of the truth. If they contend that it is firmly determined in God’s eternal counsel that all receive the doctrine of salvation, what does it mean, then, what Moses says: “For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them?” How did it come that. God deprived so many people of the light of the gospel, which others enjoy? What is the cause that the pure knowledge of the doctrine of salvation never came to some nations, and that others hardly tasted some dark beginnings of the same? From this one may readily discern what Paul means. He had commanded Timothy to make public prayers for kings and magistrates, and while it appeared somewhat absurd that prayers to God should be made for those whose condition seemed well-nigh hopeless—seeing that they were not only strangers to the body of Christ, but also exerted themselves and all their powers to oppress His kingdom—therefore, he adds immediately that such prayers are well pleasing to God, Who will that all men shall be saved. By which he means to say nothing else, indeed, than that He did not. close the way of salvation to any kind of people, but much rather effused His mercy in such wise, that He does not will that there be any class of people that should not partake of this salvation. The other expressions declare, not what God determined in His secret counsel concerning all, but proclaim that remission of sin is prepared for all that apply themselves to seek it. For if they urge the objection that He is said to be willing to show mercy unto all, I will bring against this what is written in another place: that our God is in the heavens and doeth whatsoever He will.

Ps. 115:3

Hence, this passage will have to be interpreted in such wise that it agrees with the other, viz. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy.

Ex. 33:19

And before Calvin, the great Augustine already maintained the same non-general interpretation. 

The conclusion of the whole matter is, therefore, that God’s grace is always particular, never general. This is the teaching of Scripture and our Reformed creeds.

I have taken pains to answer this series of questions carefully and in great detail. My prayer is that these answers will benefit not only my questioner, but all our readers. As I indicated in the title above this series of answers, these were “Some Pertinent Questions About Our Reformed Position.” They go to the very heart of that Reformed position—the Reformed position which, sad to say, is so little known and so widely forsaken in our day. If these lines at all serve to call us back to and to remind us of that tried and true position, I will consider them successful.