To some it may seem rather tedious to pass in review the doctrine of the atonement in our confessions in detail. To me it appears highly necessary.
For in all the discussion, both unofficially in the various religious journals which have dealt with the Dekker Case and officially in the Report of the Doctrinal Committee, there is very little appeal made to the confessional position of our Reformed confessions, and still less real, basic appeal to the current teaching of our confessions. Even a superficial consulting of the confessions would have guarded against many of the errors which have made their appearance both in the position of Dekker and Daane, cum sociis, and in the position of those who have in vain attempted to gainsay them. But the failure to produce a thorough-going exposition of the confessional teaching concerning the atonement has been characteristic of the entire discussion of these current issues; and it has been fatal.
For this reason I have continued to make a careful, step-by-step study of the current teachings of our Three Forms of Unity concerning the nature of the atonement.
We now turn, therefore, to our Belgic Confession and its teachings concerning the definite and personal element of the atonement. What does this creed have to say on this subject?
We must remember that the Belgic Confession, while it does not follow the subjective, experiential order of the Heidelberg Catechism, but rather the dogmatic, objective order, is nevertheless not entirely objective in its method and statements. The Belgic Confession is acreed, a credo, in its form. What does this mean? It means that the form of this confession is such that, while it makes many objective statements of the truth of the Word of God and while it follows the dogmatic order, its form is that of a confession of faith. It presents the objective truth as the object of the faith and belief of the church. For this reason you will find that every article of this confession is stated in personal form. Each article is introduced by “We believe . …” or, “We know . …” or, “We confess…”
Now what might be the importance of this?
It is evident, first of all, that this form is quite different than the form of our Canons of Dordrecht. The Canons are also one of our confessions, and as such they also give expression to our faith, our belief. But the Canons are entirely objective in their form. The Canons of Dordrecht are just what their name implies, namely: canons, rules, norms, standards. And therefore one never finds any personal, subjective statements in the Canons. Article after article our Canons pile up purely objective statements of doctrine about God, about men, about the elect, about Christ, about the cause or blame of this or that, etc. But while their are many objective statements in the Belgic Confession, these are usually, though not exclusively, couched in personal language. That is, even as an article begins with “We believe,” so it frequently continues to refer to that “we” in the contents of the article in the same personal form. And it therefore speaks of “us” without further defining it.
This, in the second place, makes it incumbent to ask the question: who is that “we” speaking in the Belgic Confession?
One might be inclined, at first glance, to answer: that “we” is all the members of a given congregation or denomination which holds to the Belgic Confession as one of its standards. And there would be a certain amount of truth in this, as long as one considers the Belgic Confession merely as a standard, a form of unity, as a doctrinal statement to which the members of that church or denomination formally subscribe and by which they must abide. Thus, for example, if one does not subscribe to the Belgic Confession and promise to abide by it, he cannot be a member of a Protestant Reformed Church.
However, as soon as one begins to view the Belgic Confession as a credo, a statement of belief, it will be evident that the above explanation is at once too inclusive and too exclusive.
First of all, it is too inclusive: for it includes many false, hypocritical, dead members who do not truly believe and confess what the Confession states. For one reason or another they outwardly and formally subscribe to this doctrinal standard; but in their hearts they do not believe it, and their outward confession is actually a lie. That this is true will be evident as soon as in your imagination you put the personal statements of the thirty-seven articles in the mouth of an unbelieving member of a church which holds to this confession. And especially does it come into sharp focus when you look at the opening statement of the Belgic Confession: “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth….” What a horrible lie that is in the mouth of an unbeliever! Hence, the preceding explanation is too inclusive.
On the other hand, however, it is also too exclusive. A congregation or denomination, — viewing the Belgic Confession, now, as a doctrinal standard, — certainly expresses that this confession is a standard and ensign which distinguishes it from every other church-denomination as holding these doctrines to be the expression of the truth of God’s Word. But as surely as this confession is held to be the expression of the truth of God’s Word, the faith once delivered to the saints, so surely those who hold this confession express at the same time their unity with all who hold the same truth, the same faith, and therefore their unity with the church of all ages, the holy catholic church, and with all believers, those who profess a like precious faith.
Hence, in all these personal expressions we have the church speaking, the church organically, as it consists essentially of believers and their spiritual s</ieed, that is, God’s people, that is, the elect. And it is of the utmost importance to remember this, especially in those articles which use this personal language and do not make purely objective statements. With this in mind, let us see what the Belgic Confession has to say about the question whether the atonement is definite and personal.
Let us turn, first of all, to Article 16. Because of its importance I will quote it in its entirety:
We believe that all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin, by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest himself such as he is; that is to say, merciful and just: Merciful, since he delivers and preserves from this perdition all, whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness, hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works: Just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.
The reader will perhaps wonder why I quote this article: for it says nothing directly about the atonement.
But I do so for the following reasons:
1) This article confirms what I wrote above concerning the meaning of the personal “we” and “us” in the Belgic Confession, and it does so very beautifully. Notice that in this particular article we have anobjective statement. The article indeed begins with the usual “We believe….” But when it states what we believe, it uses objective language. It does not say, for example, ” . . .. Merciful, since he delivers and preserves from this perdition us, whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness, hath elected….” But it uses the objective form: ” . . . . .all, whom he . . .. hath elected.” At the same time, however, the article makes plain that the “We” who believe this are those “all” whom God has elected. For notice that in this very article the Confession reverts to the personal form. The “all” are elected “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
2) While this article does not speak directly and precisely of the atonement, it nevertheless includes it; and again, it does so in a very beautiful way. It speaks of the work of God whereby “he delivers and preserves from this perdition” the elect. In that work is included the atonement, for the atonement belongs to this delivering work of God. And the beauty of this statement is that it emphasizes the unity of the work of salvation. All the work of salvation, from election, through atonement, through the application of that atonement whereby we are actually delivered from perdition, through the work of preservation, — all the work of salvation is one. At no point can you make a break in it, as those attempt to do who try to insist that while the atonement is general, the actual salvation which follows from that atonement is particular.
3) And the root of the entire matter lies in that significant phrase, “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There you have the key to the whole issue concerning the atonement, the key to the entire issue at stake in the Dekker Case, the key also to the understanding of the error of those who try to oppose Dekker’s views but nevertheless want to maintain that there are some kind of “common grace” benefits in the atonement. It is absolutely impossible to find anything in Christ’s atonement for any others than the elect, for the very simple reason that only the elect, none others, are in Christ Jesus! I am reminded, in this connection, that Dr. James Daane has on more than one occasion, for some inexplicable reason, tried to make a great point of this being elected in Christ Jesus. Well, I believe and our confessions believe, this doctrine of election in Christ Jesus. And for this very reason I also believe that it must be plain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the atonement of Christ is in its very nature, according to its very divine design, and that too, from all eternity in the divine decree, LIMITED, that is, PARTICULAR, DEFINITE, and PERSONAL. Our Lord Jesus Christ is God’s elect par excellence. God chose Him, chose Him first, chose Him to stand at the head of all the elect. There is no election, except in Him. And for that very reason, there are no men in Him, except the elect.
The matter is very simple, after all.
The question is this: who are in Christ Jesus? Who are in Christ Jesus when He is born in the fullness of time? Who are in Christ Jesus when He suffers all His lifetime on earth? Who are in Christ Jesus when He goes to the cross and sheds His atoning, justice satisfying blood? And who are in Christ Jesus when He is raised from the dead and exalted?
Certainly, there are no benefits for anyone who is not in Him! A little child can understand this. There are benefits, of whatever kind they may be, only for those who are in Him when He accomplishes all His work and obtains those benefits. If a man is not in Christ Jesus, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that pertains to Christ Jesus , — no justification, no righteousness, no forgiveness, no holiness, no sanctification, no preservation, no glory, no life eternal, — nothing in Christ Jesus for him.
And who are in Christ Jesus?
Our confessions have but one ultimate answer to that question: “all whom he, (God), in his eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness, hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works.”
4) Finally, while this is not directly related to the question under consideration, we should not fail to note that this article tells us something about the important question whether grace is an attribute of God. True, it does not mention grace literally; it speaks of God’s mercy. But God’s mercy is closely related to His grace; and you may be sure that if mercy is a divine attribute, so also is grace. And notice what this article says: “…God then did manifest himself such as he is; that is to say, merciful and just….” This is plain language.
But in concluding this installment, I want to emphasize once more the important point that there is absolutely nothing in Christ Jesus and His work, including the atonement, for anyone except those that are in Him, that is, the elect. The atonement is definite and personal in its very nature and design.
And, as we shall see, the rest of the Belgic Confession, when it speaks specifically of that atonement, confirms this fundamental principle of Article 16. (to be continued)