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THE ATONEMENT IS VICARIOUS 

The above statement sets forth the second main element in the Reformed doctrine of the nature of the atonement. 

Let me remind the reader that we are answering this question: is the atonement of Christ in its very naturelimited, particular? We are considering this question, remember, in connection with Dr. James Daane’s lengthy and at times rather ill-defined review and defense of Prof. Harold Dekker’s position on the general love of God and the universal atonement of Christ. Dr. Daane denies that the atonement is in its very nature limited; and he maintains, on the contrary, that the atonement is in its very nature unlimited. Indeed, as far as the atonement is concerned, the entire discussion boils down to this crucial question. Hence, in this series of articles we are examining and, setting forth the Reformed and Scriptural view of the nature of the atonement,—something which Dr. Daane neglected to do in any systematic way, at least in as far as I have been able to discern in his articles in theReformed Journal. Indeed, it seems to me to be of absolute necessity in discussing this question to discuss that nature of the atonement, first of all, and to determine what belongs to that nature.

Thus far I have maintained,—and supported from Scripture and the Reformed Confessions,—that the key element in the nature of the atonement of Christ issatisfaction

Now we are ready to prove and to discuss the second element, namely, that the atonement is vicarious, or substitutionary. This is the element that is better known and may even be said to have been popularized in the expression “vicarious atonement.” Usually thisvicarious aspect is the first to be mentioned and thought of when the doctrine of the atonement is mentioned. Usually one hears the expression “vicarious atonement” more often, say, than the expression “satisfactory atonement.” And to be sure, this is a very precious element in the truth of the atonement. Our Lord Jesus Christ is our Vicar, our Substitute! While, therefore, the element of satisfaction is the key to the whole concept of the atonement, it is also true that the element of substitution is an indispensable link in the chain. Without it, satisfaction would be abstract, would have no real significance. For the truth is that we ourselves, as the confessions repeatedly emphasize, could not make the satisfaction of God’s justice which constitutes the key element of atonement. Substitution, therefore, is absolutely necessary. It belongs to the very essence of the atonement. 

The method of treatment followed will be the same. We shall turn, first, to the confessions as the adopted and established expression of the Reformed faith concerning the atonement, in order to note what they have to say on this element of substitution. Therefore we shall turn to Scripture itself, in order to observe the harmony of our confessions with the inspired Word. This we must do, not because the substitutionary character of the atonement has been directly called in question in the “Dekker Case” or by Dr. Daane, but because it must be demonstrated to be an integral part of the doctrine of the atonement, an element that is inevitably involved as soon as the atonement comes under consideration and as soon as the atonement comes under attack.

From a practical point of view, we should constantly keep that last remark in mind in this entire discussion. The doctrine of the atonement is, ultimately, one and indivisible. Attack it at any one point, and essentially you attack the whole precious doctrine of the atonement. Ultimately the entire truth of the atonement is at stake. Our fathers discerned this clearly in the Arminian controversy, and we should imitate them in this. From that point of view, there has been far too much of a leisurely approach in the case at hand and far too little alarm, both at the official ecclesiastical level and among the people in general. 

It is to be hoped that the committee that has been studying this case for almost two years not only furnishes the Christian Reformed Synod thorough work and sound leadership, but also has the courage to sound the alarm. For the issue is more than academic! And now let us turn to the confessions. 

THE CONFESSIONS ON SUBSTITUTION 

It is not surprising that the same passages of the confessions which speak of satisfaction also speak of the vicarious, or substitutionary, character of the atonement. For these two elements are intimately related, as I have already suggested in my introductory remarks. 

We find this to be the case, first of all, in the Heidelberg Catechism. Already in the lengthy discussion of the necessity of satisfaction and the requirements of the Mediator, beginning with Lord’s Day V, these two elements, satisfaction and substitution, are interwoven. In Question and Answer 12, when the Catechism insists on the divine necessity of the satisfaction of justice, it introduces at least the alternative of a substitute when it says: “and therefore we must make this full satisfaction, either by ourselves,or by another.” (emphasis mine, H.C.H.) Then, after ruling out the possibility of satisfaction by ourselves in Question and Answer 13, the Catechism turns to this possibility of a substitute, not to teach directly the idea of substitution, but in order to bring out what kind of mediator-substitute we need. But for our discussion at present we merely want to note the fact that throughout this discussion the idea of a substitute is current. Thus, in Question 14, the question is whether there can be found any mere creature “able to satisfy for us.” (emphasis mine) Moreover, the answer to this question, though it makes no direct mention of a substitute, must nevertheless be understood as referring to such satisfaction by substitution when it speaks of a mediator being such that he can “sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, so as to deliver others from it.” (emphasis mine) This “to deliver others from it” is by satisfying God’s justice for them, i.e., as a substitute. 

(To be continued)