THE CONFESSIONS ON THE DEFINITE AND PERSONAL ELEMENT OF THE ATONEMENT (Continued)
We concluded our survey of the expression of the Heidelberg Catechism as to this element of the nature of the atonement with a series of questions as to the significance of the language which the Catechism employs in this connection. These questions were all related to this one basic question: does the Catechism teach a definite and personal atonement, or does it teach an atonement which in its very nature is general, or is the Catechism silent on the matter?
In the light of the Arminian controversy, which took place, of course, when the Catechism and the Belgic Confession were already the creeds of the Reformed churches, but when there were as yet no Canons, and in the light of the fact that the Canons are officially called an explanation of some points of the doctrine set forth in the Catechism and the Belgic Confession, we might expect to find essentially the same doctrine of atonement in the Catechism and Confession as in the Canons, — only in less clear and in more unexplained form. As was pointed out last time, the Canons are but an explanation of the doctrines already contained in the other confessions, an explanation which was necessitated by the claim of the Arminians that they, too, held to the Catechism and the Confession.
Hence, the only possible answer to the question posed above is: yes, the Catechism teaches that the atonement in its very nature is definite and personal. This is the only possible explanation of the language employed by the Catechism.
To clarify the above statement, I call your attention to the following:
1) The personal language of the Heidelberg Catechism (the “we, our, us, I, my, me” which occur so frequently) is due to the subjective-experiential approach of the Catechism in all its instruction. This approach and this language do not mean that the truths expressed in the Catechism are general, and that these general truths become in fact true for the individual when he believes them and confesses them. This approach and language do not mean that what is expressed in the Catechism is objectively true or potentially true of the entire congregation, head for head and soul for soul, which holds to the Catechism as its creed and which preaches and hears the preaching of the Catechism. But the Catechism is the expression of the faith of believers and their seed, or, of the church, organically. Who are the believers and their seed? They are the elect, the elect church. What we have, therefore, in the Catechism is the expression of the truths of salvation by the elect church as that church exists and comes to manifestation organically at a given point in history and in a given congregation, and as those truths of salvation are subjectively experienced by that church in its conscious faith. The Heidelberg Catechism, so to speak, puts words in the mouths of believers, teaching them to express and to give content to the faith that lives in their hearts and to give account of the “only comfort” that is their blessed portion.
This may very easily be tested.
Just try to read the personal confessions made throughout the Heidelberg Catechism as though they were generally true of all men, or even as though they were generally true of every individual member of a given congregation. If you do that, it will become evident that, thus interpreted, the Catechism gives expression to some blatant lies. This is the case throughout the Catechism. That “we, our, us, I, my, me” are the same throughout. Take, for example, the thirty-fourth answer, which was quoted in the previous issue: “Because he hath redeemed us, both soul and body, from all our sins, not with gold or silver, but with his precious blood, and hath delivered us from all the power of the devil; and thus hath made us his own property.” Make these statements general, general even with respect to the church as it exists in the midst of the world as a mixture of carnal and spiritual elements, and the result is evident untruth. Change that “us” of this answer to “every man” (or to “every individual member of congregation”), and the result is something which is evidently not true. Has Christ delivered every man (or even every individual member of congregation X) from all the power of the devil? Has Christ made every man (or again, even every individual member of congregation X) His own property? You answer: that is saying too much! That is pure universalism! I agree. But then the same must be applied to the first statement of this answer: “Because he hath redeemed us…with his precious blood from all our sins.” That is the same “us” as in the last clause of this answer. The atonement does not apply, therefore, to every man, nor to every member of a historically existent congregation.
2) In this personal language of faith of the Catechism there is reflected and expressed the objective truth and fact of Christ’s atonement as it was accomplished nineteen hundred years ago and as that objective truth and fact has now become the personal, conscious knowledge and confidence of the child of God. This is very important. What is expressed in the Catechism with respect to Christ’s atoning death does notbecome true objectively at the moment that it is embraced and confessed by the believer. Historically ithas been true ever since Christ died His atoning death; and in the Catechism the believer simply gives expression to this truth from the point of view of the knowledge and the confidence of his personal, conscious faith. If we do not remember this, we will become engulfed in the hopeless morass of Arminianism with all its subjectivism and relativism and with all the personal doubts that it must needs engender. A knowledge and a confidence which are purely subjective, which are not founded upon objective fact and truth, have nothing to recommend them. They are as changeable and unreliable and comfortless as imperfect believers can be. The so-called “well-being” of faith has its “ups and downs” in the process of the battle of faith. And if in that process there is no objective ground and no unchangeable fact of salvation to which faith can always and again return and cling, one must needs end with the “today you’re saved, tomorrow you’re lost” gospel of Arminianism, according to which the matter of salvation to the very last depends on a condition of faith.
Now what does all this mean with respect to the teaching of the Catechism about the atoning death of Christ? What does it mean concretely with respect to what the Catechism says in the statements quoted last time?
It means this, that in the objective, factual sense of the word the atonement of Christ was personal. When the believer says that Christ atoned for him personally, that is based upon and is the expression of the objective truth that nineteen hundred years ago Christ actually died for and redeemed him personally. Christ did not die in the abstract. He did not die for all men generally and abstractly, so that His death and the benefits of His death become the portion of a certain individual only when and if that individual is willing to believe. Nor is faith in the atonement a matter of a logical deduction, as follows: 1) Christ died for all men. 2) I am a man. 3) Christ died for me. Not at all! Faith in the atonement is based upon simple, objective reality. If any man is ever to say in that very personal sense, “Christ died for me,” he can only do so because as a matter of objective fact, nineteen hundred years ago on the cross of Calvary, Christ very really did die for him personally! That man was at the cross! He was very personally there, in Christ, Who represented him — just as really as if he had in his own person atoned for all his sins. Because of that objective fact, when that same man comes to the consciousness of faith’s knowledge and confidence, he is also able to express this and to say, “Christ died for me.” You see, if that man was very really present and represented in Christ at the cross, then all his sins and guilt have been covered in the sight of God and have been removed (not now, when he believes; but at the cross, centuries ago). That is why he is able to confess now, in the twentieth century, “Christ died for me.” But it was true already long before he was born; it was true, after he was born, before he ever believed; it would be true, even if that man died as an infant who never came to conscious faith and who never said or was able to say, “Christ died for me.” To make the point very emphatic, although this is an abstraction and could never take place: if would be true, even though a man would be born, come to maturity, and die without ever confessing, “Christ died for me.” And, on the other hand, if a man was not personally represented in Christ at the cross, and if, therefore, his sins and guilt were never covered in the sight of God and were never removed by Christ’s atoning blood, then that man can never in truth confess, “Christ died for me.”
Again, let us put this to a test with respect to the Catechism. We have already noted that the Catechism employs such pointedly personal language. Now let us note that the above description is exactly expressed by the Catechism when it uses such personal language. Take, for example, the 39th answer: “…for thereby I am assured (this is a matter of the present assurance of faith, H.C.H.) that he took on him the curse which lay upon me (this is the past, objective accomplishment of Christ on the cross for me personally, H.C. H.)” Is it not very plain? Though I was not yet born, I was at the cross! There, at the cross, the curse of God lay upon me personally! And Christ took that curse which lay upon me and bore it away, removed it from me! It is gone! Gone forever, before the sight of God Himself! It can never again be imputed to me. That has been true ever since Christ accomplished it. But now, in the year of our Lord 1966, by the knowledge and confidence of faith I am assured of it.
The same is true of the 44th answer: “That in my greatest temptations, (those are my present temptations, H.C.H.), I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, (this is also a matter of the present, of my present assurance and conscious comfort, H.C.H.), that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell (This, too, is all personal; but it is past, objective fact, accomplished at the cross. H.C.H.)”
And again, the same is true of the 52nd answer: “That in all my sorrows and persecutions (present, H.C.H.), with uplifted head I look for the very same person (this looking with uplifted head is also present, H.C.H.) who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me (personal; but past, objective fact, accomplished at the cross, H.C.H.). …”
Indeed, this is a tremendous truth! It is amazing! Glorious! To think of it, that I could have been personally represented at the cross and that this wonderful Jesus Christ represented and died for me personally!
But this makes the gospel vital, far more vital than that miserable and impotent, “Christ died for all men; and he died also for you…if, if, if, you are willing to accept it and believe it.” Moreover, it is tremendously irresponsible to go around telling men generally, head for head and soul for soul, that Christ died for them, — that is, if you give that atoning death of Christ any real and objective significance and content. That can never produce faith, you see. For if Christ died for all men, and if their guilt has actually been blotted out, then they need not believe. They can just as well say, “Fine! Christ died for me; I don’t have to worry about my sin and guilt. Whether I believe or not, Christ has died, and I can never be condemned for my sins.”
But if, on the other hand, that atonement of Christ is personal and particular, then I can preach. I can call men to faith and repentance. I can do so indiscriminately, and yet, as far as the content of the gospel is concerned, particularly. And I can say: “Whosoever (or: all who) believe in Christ crucified shall surely be saved and have eternal life. All who believe in Christ crucified are assured that their sins have been blotted out forever, that they are righteous before God with an everlasting righteousness.” And I can preach thus because God Himself, through that preaching of the Word, will effectually apply that preaching to those same elect for whom Christ died in such a way that they, and they only, embrace that atoning death of Christ for them personally and confess, “He died for me. He took upon him the curse which lay on me. He before offered himself for my sake to the tribunal of God and has removed all curse from me…”
3) This brings us to the third aspect, namely, that these expressions of the Catechism can be correctly understood only when we understand them to express the truth of limited, definite, particular atonement, atonement for the elect alone, and that too, in the very nature of the case. This can very readily be tested; and perhaps such a test is the clearest way of demonstrating this truth. Go back now to all the expressions of the Catechism about the atoning suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Note that they one and all speak of the objective accomplishments of that death. Note, too, that they all speak the very subjective language of “we, our, us.” But then interpret that subjective “we, our, us” as being general, rather than particular. What is the result? You make the Catechism say far too much! You make the Catechism say things which necessarily land it in complete universalism.
In the second place, the Catechism itself, although it directly mentions election and the elect but very little, nevertheless shows by such mention how the subjective “we, us, I, me” are to be interpreted. You have a clear instance of this in Question and Answer 54, which speaks of “a church chosen to everlasting life,” and then goes on to have the believer say, “and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.” It is very plain here that the implication of this “I” is that he is one of the elect, and that as such he gives expression to the assurance of his abiding membership in the Church, the elect body of our Lord Jesus Christ. But notice that Question and Answer 52, which speaks directly of the atonement in connection with Christ’s return for judgment, also directly connects this personal and subjective “me” with election and with the body of the elect. For it speaks of the fact that Christ shall “translate me with all his chosen ones to himself…” It is very plain to see that this “me” is speaking here as one of those chosen ones, the elect. But mark you well, this is the same “me” that says earlier in this answer: “….who before offered himselffor my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me.… ”
In the third place, I remind you once again that the Catechism’s entire description of the atonement as being in its very nature satisfactory and vicarious is so definite and clear-cut that it cannot possibly be made general. To do so is to make the Catechism say far more about the atonement than even the Arminian can swallow. I repeat: the Arminian, to maintain that the death of Christ is general, must emasculate that death of Christ and remove all the riches of its atoning character; if he does not do so, he is compelled to be a strict universalist. The same is true of Dekker and Daane, though they may not appreciate the drawing of this consequence. To make the atonement general, they must necessarily give that death of Christ a different character first; if they do not do so, they must needs accept the consequence of universalism.
But what then, in the fourth place, of the one expression in the 37th answer which seems to be general? I refer to the expression, “all mankind.” Note, in the first place, that this is not the same as “all men.” Note, in the second place, that in the same answer that same particular “our” occurs. Hence, the term “all mankind” is the objective equivalent of the subjective “our”, which in turn is the subjective expression of election from the viewpoint of conscious faith and experience. And it means not that all men are atoned for, but that when Christ dies for the elect, the race is atoned for and therefore saved, while some individual branches and members of that race are not atoned for and go lost forever. When God redeems His elect church, He does not rescue a few individuals, while the race nevertheless. goes lost; but, on the contrary, He redeems the real human race, while some individuals go lost. The atonement, therefore, according to our Catechism, can only be understood to be in its very nature both personal and definite, or limited.