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THE CONFESSION OF FAITH AND THE ATONEMENT AS SATISFACTION 

Also according to our (Belgic) Confession of Faith, the very nature of Christ’s atonement consists in satisfaction, that is, the satisfaction of divine justice with respect to sin and the sinner. As might be expected, since the Confession of Faith follows a different order than that of our Heidelberg Catechism, there is not an elaborate treatment of this idea in theConfessio Belgica. Nevertheless, there are two key articles which mention the idea of satisfaction literally. 

The first of these is Article XX,—”That God hath manifested his justice and mercy in Christ.” There we read:

We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested his justice against his Son, when he laid our iniquities upon him; and poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving his Son unto death for us, and raising him for our justification, that through him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.

We may take note of the following elements in the above article: 1) That all the emphasis in this article is upon this key concept of satisfaction of God’s justice, and that too, in connection with the manifestation of divine mercy. The way of the manifestation of God’s mercy was the way of His justice; and the way of His justice was the way of satisfaction. 2) That in this article satisfaction is presented as the work of God Himself. God sent His Son to make satisfaction in our nature; and God “manifested his justice against his Son, when he laid our iniquities upon him.” God, therefore, satisfied His own justice with respect to our sins. 3) That this article gives content to the conceptsatisfaction, in fact, virtually defines satisfaction, when it states that God sent His Son to make satisfaction in our nature, “and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death.” Further, this satisfaction involved God’s laying of our iniquities upon Christ. 4) That all this is presented as an accomplished fact: it was all accomplished nineteen hundred years ago. Then Christ bore the punishment of sin. Then God laid our iniquities upon Him. Then He “poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation.” Hence, this satisfaction means, if it means anything whatsoever, that if Christ bore the punishment of sin, those for whom He died have no punishment to bear. It means that if our iniquities were laid upon Him, we are free, so that they can nevermore be laid upon us. All those for whom Christ died were very really justified in His death and resurrection. Why? Because His death was the satisfaction for sin!

Such is the very nature of the atonement, according to this article. 

The same note is sounded in Article XXI,—”Of the satisfaction of Christ, our only High Priest, for us.” Read this article, and you will discover the same basic elements as in Article XX.

We believe that Jesus Christ is ordained with an oath to be an everlasting High Priest, after the order of Melchisedec; and that he hath presented himself in our behalf before the Father, to appease his wrath by his full satisfaction, by offering himself on the tree of the cross, and pouring out his precious blood to purge away our sins; as the prophets had foretold. For it is written: He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and numbered with the transgressors, and condemned by Pontius Pilate as a malefactor, though he had first declared him innocent. Therefore: he restored that which he took not away, and suffered, the just for the unjust, as well in his body as in his soul, feeling the terrible punishment which our sins had merited: insomuch that his sweat became like unto drops of blood falling on the ground. He called out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? and hath suffered all this for the remission of our sins. Wherefore we justly say with the apostle Paul: that we know nothing, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified; we count all things but loss and dung for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord, in whose wounds we find all manner of consolation. Neither is it necessary to seek or invent any other means of being reconciled to God, than this only sacrifice, once offered, by which believers are made perfect forever. This is also the reason why he was called by the angel of God, Jesus, that is to say, Savior, because he should save his people from their sins.

The language of this article is so very clear that further comment would be superfluous. Nevertheless, I cannot refrain from expressing wonderment that any Reformed man could even dream of making the atoning death of Christ general, that is, for all men. And my wonderment is due to this very idea of satisfaction, If it is true that Christ’s death means that satisfaction for sin is an accomplished fact, and it is true; and if it is true that Christ died for all and every man, and let us suppose this for the moment; then does it not follow before God and men that there is no punishment for sin left for any man? If this does not follow, then you must needs remove this element of satisfaction from the death of Christ. But then the death of Christ means absolutely nothing as far as atonement is concerned. 

Indeed, satisfaction is the key to the whole nature of the atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ! 

SATISFACTION THE KEY ACCORDING TO THE CANONS 

When we turn to the Second Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dordrecht, it is clear from the outset that this concept of satisfaction was considered as crucial by our fathers. The Canons proceed from this key idea of satisfaction throughout. They do not literally make mention of other terms and ideas connected with the nature of the atonement, as we might perhaps expect them to do. Such terms as vicarious, substitution, andlimited do not occur. Even a term like atonement is absent. But satisfaction,—that is the key! This may, at first glance, be rather unexpected and may seem quite out of place. But first impressions are in this case incorrect. Why did the fathers place all the emphasis upon this idea of satisfaction? Why did they not rather emphasize literally such notions as the vicarious, or the limited nature of the atonement? Was it because they did not believe in vicarious atonement? Was it because they did not believe that the atonement is in its very nature limited? 

The very contrary is true. 

It was just exactly because they believed that the atonement was in its very nature limited, and it was just exactly because they believed that this limited atonement was truly vicarious that they went to the very heart of the whole concept of Christ’s atoning death:satisfaction. Remember, our fathers were fighting the very heresy that Christ died for all men and every man. It was the Arminians who claimed that it was possible and necessary in the preaching of the gospel to say to every man, “Christ died for you.” This heresy our fathers opposed in Canons II. But they saw clearly that the only basis on which their opposition could be successful was on the basis of the satisfaction-concept. They saw clearly that if only men understood that the atonement and death of Christ were actually and objectively the satisfaction of God’s justice, they could and would never maintain that the atonement was general, i.e., for all men. They saw clearly that if the Arminians wanted to maintain this satisfactory nature of the atonement, and, at the same time, wanted to maintain the general nature of the atonement, they would be inevitably driven to rank universalism, i.e., the doctrine that all men are actually saved. For once you grant that the atonement is satisfaction in its very nature, you must needs take the position that one for whom satisfaction is made, one for whom Christ died, is surely saved. 

This accounts for the solid emphasis upon the idea of satisfaction in our Canons. The whole Reformed, Scriptural concept of the atoning death of Christ stands or falls with that satisfaction idea. 

Let me add, in parentheses, that the Arminians saw this very clearly also. When they saw this, they tried to pour a different content into such concepts as the death of Christ and the atonement. Of course, they had to retain Scriptural terminology. They necessarily continued to speak of Christ’s death and of the atonement. If they did not do this, they would immediately be recognized as heretics. But they had to rid the death of Christ and the atonement of this all-important satisfaction-idea. Some of these Arminian attempts are described and rejected in the Rejection of Errors of the Second Head of Doctrine. The famous Hugo De Groot invented the so-called governmental theory of the death of Christ. He emptied the death of Christ of this key element of satisfaction of justice and made of Christ’s death a divine demonstration of what God could justly do to all men on account of their sins, a demonstration designed to make men acknowledge God’s righteousness and to bring them to repentance. According to this theory, if only men will acknowledge the righteousness of God and repent, they will be saved. Actual removal of guilt and satisfaction of divine justice are not necessary. But no matter by what devious theories, the Arminians saw clearly that in order to maintain their view of a death of Christ for all men which did not actually result in the salvation of all, they were compelled to get rid of satisfaction. Today, perhaps, most Arminian preachers and evangelists are not very doctrinally and exegetically inclined. They speak rather generally of the death of Christ and of the atonement, and they probably never expound the nature of that death of Christ and of the atonement. Possibly they never make explicit any “theory” of the death of Christ. Nevertheless, they can never explain the atonement as meaning that Christ actually made satisfaction for the guilt of all men and every man and at the same time admit that all men are not saved. Hence, either explicitly or implicitly they deny the element of satisfaction in the nature of the atonement. 

After this little digression into the history of the doctrine, let us return to the Canons. 

In the very first article of Canons II this principle of atonement through satisfaction is laid down. It is presented as the only possible way of escape from temporal and eternal punishment in body and soul. It is grounded in the attribute of God’s justice. And, as in the Heidelberg Catechism, it is anchored in the truth of God’s simplicity, the truth that God’s mercy and God’s justice can never be in conflict, but are always in perfect harmony. Let the article speak for itself:

Article 1. God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And his justice requires (as he hath revealed himself in his Word), that our sins committed against his infinite majesty should be punished, not only with temporal, but with eternal punishment, both in body and soul; which we cannot escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God.

Sin, therefore, is guilt. It is debt. It is liability to divine punishment. And the punishment demanded by God’s justice is temporal and eternal punishment in body and soul. Unless the satisfaction of divine justice is made, that is, unless this debt is paid, there is no possible escape from that punishment. By the same token, if once satisfaction is made, that is, if once the debt to divine justice is paid, then such satisfaction and payment of the debt can never again be demanded. If satisfaction is made, then that debt is no more! 

Let us stop right here for a moment, and apply this truth. 

The very nature of the atonement is satisfaction. Remember, it is this nature of the atonement which Dr. Daane is very concerned about. To say, therefore, that Christ died for all men is to say that He satisfied for all men. To say that He satisfied for all men is to say that there is no more debt for all men. And to say that there is no more debt for all men is to say that there is no more punishment for all men. They are all saved! General atonement . . . . universal salvation; these two are inseparably connected. By the same token there can be but one basis, ground, for limited salvation, namely, limited atonement. UNLESS, God forbid, you want to deny that the atonement is in its very nature satisfaction! 

(to be continued)