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We are now ready to enter into the discussion proper of the question: what is the nature of the atonement?

It has been a fundamental fallacy in the entire discussion of the so-called Dekker Case by Dr. Daane that he failed utterly to furnish his readers with a definition of the atonement and to state in clear-cut language what elements belong to the nature of the atonement. The narrower question whether the atonement is in its very nature limited or general can be answered only in the light of the broader question as to the entire nature of the atonement. This, therefore, is a very important question. What is the atonement? It has always been a fundamental question in Reformed theology,—so fundamental that it was exactly at this point that the Reformed and the Arminians came to the parting of the ways as far as the death of Christ was concerned. The narrower question for whom Christ died had very deep roots in this broader question concerning the very idea, the essence, the structure of Christ’s atoning death. And it soon became clear that when Reformed and Arminians spoke of the death of Christ and even both used the term atonement, they were speaking fundamentally different language. In fact, it became clear that the Arminians had no real right to speak ofatonement at all. They denied the atoning character of the death of Christ; and they had to do so in order to maintain their second article, namely, that Christ died for all men and every man

Hence, it must be emphasized in the strongest possible terms that we must have the entire picture and must take note of all the elements in that picture when we discuss the nature of the atonement. 

My method in this discussion will be two-fold. 

First of all, we shall turn to our Reformed confessions in order to discover what is the current teaching of all our confessions concerning the nature of Christ’s atonement. Dr. Daane has not done this. True, he made an occasional reference to the confessions; but he never presented the line, the current teaching, of our confessions concerning Christ’s atonement. But this is the tried and true Reformed method. Those who avow loyalty to the Reformed faith and who do so without any reservation, expressed or mental, should always turn first of all to the creeds. These creeds are the test. This test must be applied in order to determine whether any doctrine is Reformed or not. 

Secondly, we shall turn to Scripture in order to show that the teaching of our Reformed confessions is authoritative and binding just exactly because it is indeed the teaching of Scripture itself. This also is the tried and true Reformed method. Reformed theologians do not bypass the confessions in order to make a direct appeal to Scripture; but as those who have, according to the Formula of Subscription, a fundamental commitment to the confessions, they appeal to Scripture in support of those confessions. We must always “theologize” within the confines of that commitment. The only exception to this is the case of one who comes to the conviction that the confessions are in conflict with Scripture. Even then, however, one does not follow the course of either privately or publicly militating against the confessions; and he certainly does not follow the course of tongue-in-cheek signing of the Formula of Subscription; but he follows the course of filing a gravamen against the confession on the matter in question. This every Reformed officebearer must vow under the penalty of de factosuspension from office. 

This, therefore, shall be the method followed in this discussion. 

And now let us turn to the question: what is the nature of the atonement? 

The Atonement Is Satisfaction of Divine Justice According to the Catechism 

If there is a single term that is crucial in our understanding of the nature of the atonement, it is this term satisfaction. The fact that it is a dogmatical rather than a literally Scriptural term does not make it less crucial. All theologians speak of Christ’s death. Many theologians will even speak of the atonement, the atoning character of Christ’s death, whether rightly or wrongly. That term atonement has come to be used rather loosely. Some there are who lay great stress upon the term vicariousVicarious atonement is supposed to be one of the fundamentals of fundamentalism. And I would be the last to deny that this vicariousness of the death of Christ belongs to the very nature of the atonement. But the term satisfactionis even more crucial. It is the first and most fundamental element of the nature of the atonement. It is possible to speak of vicarious atonement very loosely. One must even ask of those who speak of vicarious atonement what they mean by that. And the Shibboleth at which all deniers of genuine vicarious atonement stammer is that element of satisfaction.

Permit me, first of all, to demonstrate at length how both the term and the idea of satisfaction permeate our Reformed creeds. 

In the first place, we turn to the Heidelberg Catechism, which, I dare say, is famous for its emphasis on this idea. The Catechism almost becomes tedious on this subject, except that the subject is so crucial that it is well-nigh impossible to overemphasize it. 

The Catechism, without introducing the term as such, begins to lead up to the subject of satisfaction in Lord’s Day IV. It makes plain that satisfaction is a matter of strictest divine justice, thereby emphasizing from the outset that atonement and redemption are matters of strict justice. The approach in this Lord’s Day is that of God’s justice in relation to man’s sin. I have reference especially to Questions 10 and 11, which are as follows:

Q. 10. Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished? 

A. By no means; but he is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins; and will punish them in his just judgment temporally and eternally, as he hath declared, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” 

Q. 11. Is not God then also merciful? 

A. God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore his justice requires, that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.

Notice the view of the Catechism here. Sin is guilt. Guilt is liability to punishment. Punishment is necessary because of God’s justice. This requirement of God’s justice is so strict, so inexorable, that there is no other channel for divine mercy than the channel of perfect justice. God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s grace (all closely related concepts in Scripture) can never be in conflict with His justice. God’s mercy is always a just mercy; and His justice is a merciful justice. But for that very reason the divine mercy that reaches us in the channel of divine justice is also a sure mercy! It effects a sure atonement and a sure redemption. Once the demand of God’s justice is completely met, that demand, i.e., the punishment of sin, can never be imposed again: such would be in conflict with the divine justice. Bear this in mind with a view to our future discussion, please. This is a fundamental principle. 

The Heidelberg Catechism next proceeds to introduce the term satisfaction. In Lord’s Day V it emphasizes the necessity of that satisfaction, first of all. In this connection it again emphasizes that this necessity lies in God’s justice with respect to sin. Then, after this necessity is established, the Catechism sets forth the creaturely impossibility of such satisfaction, in order, finally, to set forth the pattern of the mediator that we need in Question 15. I will quote only Questions 12 to 14 in this connection.

Q. 12. Since then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favor? 

A. God will have his justice satisfied: and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another. 

Q. 13. Can we ourselves then make this satisfaction? 

A. By no means; but on the contrary we daily increase our debt. 

Q. 14. Can there be found anywhere, one, who is a mere creature, able to satisfy for us. 

A. None; for, first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man hath committed; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.

Notice, by the way, that especially Q. 14 of this Lord’s Day and also Q. 11 of the preceding Lord’s Day shed light on another element in the nature of Christ’s atonement, namely, the element of the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice. We will return to this later. 

Lord’s Day VI continues in the same vein, elaborating on the requirements of the Mediator and on the reason for these requirements, in order to lead us to the identity of that Mediator according to the holy gospel. Pertinent are Questions 16 and 17. The former continues to speak literally of satisfaction. It emphasizes the requirement of God’s justice that satisfaction be made by the same human nature that has sinned; and at the same time it teaches that satisfaction can only be made by one who is perfectly righteous; that is, without guilt and without corruption. Notice that we have already been led in this and in the previous Lord’s Day to another element in the nature of the atonement, namely, its vicariousness. The Catechism speaks of one satisfying for others: hence, of a substitute. Question 17 does not speak literally of satisfaction; but in emphasizing the need of a Mediator who is very God, it points to the nature of such satisfaction: it is a sustaining, an active enduring, a bearing up under, (in the human nature), the burden of God’s wrath, so that by it righteousness and life are obtained for and restored to others. Read these two questions and answers, and see for yourself that these elements are taught:

Q. 16. Why must he be very man, and also perfectly righteous? 

A. Because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which hath sinned, should likewise make satisfaction for sin; and one, who is himself a sinner, cannot satisfy for others. 

Q. 17. Why must he in one person be also very God? 

A. That he might, by the power of his Godhead—sustain in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath; and might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life.

It is this key element of the satisfaction of the justice of God with respect to our sin that occurs again and again throughout the Heidelberg Catechism. It is this element of satisfaction which makes the atonement and the redemption accomplished thereby an objectively real thing, something that was historically accomplished nineteen hundred years ago, something that is a real, objective accomplishment before the bar of God’s own justice, a fact that can never be undone by anything that you or I or any man may do or fail to do, a fact which, reverently speaking, God Himself could not possibly ignore or deny. If the atonement is satisfaction, then it can never be undone. Then such satisfaction can never be demanded anew. If it was demanded and furnished by Christ, then it can never be required of anyone for whom Christ died. Satisfaction for sin cannot be twice required; such would be the height of injustice. It is this key element of satisfaction for sin in the nature of Christ’s atonement that accounts for the language of the Heidelberg Catechism at many other points in its exposition of the only comfort, even when the atonement is not under discussion and even when the term satisfaction is not used. Let us run through the Catechism with this in mind. 

Question and Answer 21 speaks of the elements of true faith, including the confidence “that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” (italics mine) Those “merits” of Christ are the same as Christ’s satisfaction. 

Question and Answer 30, in speaking of Jesus as a complete Savior, speaks of the fact that such as by a true faith receive this Savior “must find all things in him necessary to their salvation.” Why? Because all things necessary to their salvation are actually, objectively in Him. He has obtained all things necessary to their salvation by His perfect satisfaction. These things are an objective reality in Christ. 

Question and Answer 31, in speaking of the Christ as our only High Priest, speaks of the “one sacrifice of his body” by which He “has redeemed us.” Notice: that redemption is an accomplished fact1 He has redeemed us! How? By the one sacrifice of His body, that is, by His perfect satisfaction. The same language is found in Question and Answer 34:

Q. 34. Wherefore callest thou him our Lord? 

A. 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. (italics mine)

Question and Answer 36 speaks of the profit of Christ’s holy conception and birth. This profit simply consists in the fact that He was able to make satisfaction for our sins: “and with His innocence and perfect holiness, covers in the sight of God, my sins, wherein I was conceived and brought forth.” This satisfaction of atonement, or this atonement by way of satisfaction, means that my sins are covered, so that I do not have to cover them or so that I am not exposed to God’s wrath. 

As might be expected, Lord’s Days XV and XVI speak more directly of this idea of satisfaction. 

Notice, first of all, how the 37th Question and Answer lays the entire idea of satisfaction in Christ’s suffering. It is very plain, by the way, that “all mankind” cannot mean every man in this connection: for this would simply mean that every man is freed from the wrath of God by Christ’s suffering. But if the suffering of Christ has the meaning ascribed to it by the Catechism here, and it has, then it simply means that all those for whom He suffered are, as an accomplished fact according to God’s justice, forever freed from that suffering ever since Christ suffered. Christ actually bore what those for whom He suffered were obligated to bear; and therefore they cannot be held responsible to bear it any more. This is the plain teaching of Lord’s Day XV in its entirety:

Q. 37. What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered”? 

A. 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. 

Q. 38. Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate, as judge? 

A. That he, being innocent, and yet condemned by a temporal judge, might thereby free us from the severe judgment of God to which we were exposed.

Q. 39. Is there anything more in his being crucified, than if he had died some other death? 

A. Yes (there is); for thereby I am assured, that he took on him the curse which lay upon me; for the death of the cross was accursed of God.

This same solid emphasis is found in Lord’s Day XVI. Question and Answer 40, in speaking of the death of Christ, states: “Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise, than by the death of the Son of God.” Moreover, in the light of the fact that Christ by His death made satisfaction, the 40th Answer can state: “Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage unto eternal life.” Notice that the plain implication of this answer is that once Christ has died for a man and made satisfaction, there is no more satisfaction for sins to be made! Question and Answer 43 speaks of the further benefit of Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross. Notice its factual and objective language: “That by virtue thereof, our old man is crucified, dead and buried with him . . . . . .” Finally, take note of the beautiful 44th Answer. It also speaks of an objective accomplishment, something that therefore never need be and never can be repeated and which God cannot justly require of anyone for whom Christ died:

That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, 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. (italics mine)

Even when it speaks of the profit of Christ’s resurrection, the Catechism does not miss the opportunity to inject this idea of an accomplished purchase. But remember that once a purchase is accomplished, it need never be accomplished again; nor can it be undone. And this purchase was accomplished for all for whom Christ died nineteen hundred years ago. I say again: God Himself must and does recognize this as a valid purchase. He cannot and He does not require the price of everlasting punishment of anyone for whom Christ died and paid that price. Notice this idea in the first part of the 45th Answer: “First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, that he might make us partakers of that righteousness which he had purchased for us by his death . . . .” 

In Question and Answer 52 a connection is .established between our looking for Christ’s coming as Judge and His death for us on the cross. Wherein lies that connection? Again, in Christ’s accomplished satisfaction: “That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven. . .” And here is a good question: if Christ died for all men, and therefore made satisfaction for all, how is the distinction made, and attributed to Christ as Judge, (Note well: the same person who supposedly died for them!)—how is that distinction in the last part of this answer possible: “who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation (even though He died for them, H.C.H.), but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.” 

The note of Christ’s satisfaction as an accomplished fact forms the very basis of our faith concerning the forgiveness of sins in Question and Answer 56:

Q. 56. What believest thou concerning “the forgiveness of sins”? 

A. That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.

The very foundation of the beautiful description of justification by faith, as distinct from all work-righteousness, is that objective accomplishment of the death of Christ. Notice that in this description the Catechism does not refer to Christ’s death as a possibility of righteousness, but as a fact. And, according to Question and Answer 60, this fact that was accomplished by Christ is just as though I myself had accomplished it. It was accomplished long ago on the cross; but I become assured of this accomplishment in my own consciousness through faith. Consider this language of Lord’s Day XXIII:

Q. 60. How art thou righteous before God? 

A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart. 

Q. 61. Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only? 

A. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.

It is well known that the Catechism emphasizes this same objective accomplishment of Christ’s death in connection with the sacraments. The sacraments more fully declare and seal to us “that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.” (Q. and A. 66) And through the sacraments the Holy Ghost assures us “that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.” (Q. and A. 67) And this same note is sounded throughout the Catechism’s treatment of the sacraments. 

This same element occurs again in Question and Answer 86, which speaks of “Christ having redeemed and delivered us by his blood,”—an objective accomplishment. It is hinted at in Question and Answer 115, which speaks of becoming more earnest in “seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” It is briefly referred to in connection with the Fifth Petition in Lord’s Day LI: “. . .be pleased for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute. . . . .” 

From all of the above evidence it is abundantly clear that the key to the understanding of the nature of the atonement, according to our Heidelberg Catechism, is this element of satisfaction.