THE CONFESSIONS ON THE DEFINITE AND PERSONAL ELEMENT OF THE ATONMENT (continued)
We are now ready to turn to that part of the Canons of Dordrecht which speaks directly of the atonement, and, particularly of the definite (commonly called “limited”) nature of the atonement. It is nothing short of amazing that those addicted to Professor Dekker’s ideas on the atonement could appeal exactly to that article of Canons II which sets forth the Reformed doctrine of definite atonement. I refer, of course, to Article 8, which reads as follows:
For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.
I characterized it as amazing that anyone addicted to the Dekker view of the atonement should appeal to this article. Yet in a sense it is not so very amazing. For the fact of the matter is that in this article we have the very heart of Canons II and the very heart of the Reformed view of the atonement. Without this article, it is safe to say, it is impossible to maintain any real distinction between the Reformed and the Arminian doctrines concerning “The Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby,” — the subject in Canons II. This is not to say that the other articles of this chapter are not Reformed. But it is to say that they either cannot be maintained, or they make no sense, or they cannot be distinguished from the Arminian presentation, apart from Article 8. Anyone in a Reformed church, therefore, who wants to deny what is commonly called “limited atonement” must do away with the thrust and plain meaning of Article 8. From this point of view it is no wonder that the Dekker forces made a frontal attack on Article 8 at various times: if they could somehow change the meaning of Article 8 or give it an “interpretation” that would fit their ideas, they would win the battle.
However, the language of Article 8 is so very clear that the attempt to maintain general atonement and to swear allegiance to Article 8 is self-contradictory. It would be extremely difficult to imagine an article which more clearly and unmistakably sets forth this truth that Christ’s atonement is IN ITS VERY NATURE both definite (particular, limited) and personal.
Remember, too, that neither Professor Dekker nor the Doctrinal Committee want this doctrine.
People are being fooled on this score. They seem to imagine that the Doctrinal Report upholds the doctrine of limited atonement, and that the report is even rather strong in its emphasis on the teaching of Article 8. More than appearance, however, this is not. For: 1) The Doctrinal Report nevertheless upholds the general offer and by implication, therefore, denies limited atonement. 2) The Doctrinal Report nevertheless wants to find room in Christ’s atonement for some general and non-saving benefits for all men. 3) The Doctrinal Report makes the fundamental error of agreeing that the atonement is not limited in its nature. This last error is more serious than appears at first glance. At any rate, it must be remembered that one does not truly subscribe to the Reformed doctrine of the atonement or to Article 8 of Canons II if he does not maintain that the atonement is definite (limited) in its very nature.
In order to understand the significance of this article of the Canons and its implications for the Dekker Case, we should note the following:
1) This article very definitely speaks of the atonement. True, it does not use the term atonement. But it speaks of the atonement when it uses the following expressions: the most precious death of his Son; the blood of the cross; effectually redeem; purchased for them by his death. Right here we may also dispose of the attempt to make a disjunction between atonement and redemption, as though it were possible that the atonement is general and redemption particular and efficacious. The two terms simply look at the same reality from different viewpoints. Atonement refers to the payment, the satisfaction of God’s justice, made by Christ’s laying down of His life. Redemption refers to the purchase that was transacted by that payment, or satisfaction. Atonement is the paying of the ransom whereby the ransoming (redemption) of the redeemed is accomplished.
2) In the second place, it should be carefully noted that this article speaks of efficacious atonement. It does not do this because there is also a non-efficacious atonement, but exactly because it opposes every idea of a non-efficacious atonement. It was the Arminians who taught, and who still teach, the latter. They spoke only of a non-efficacious atonement: Christ died for all and every man; but the limitation comes because we must separate between meriting (wrought by the atonement) and appropriating (wrought by man when the conditions of faith and repentance are met). Prof. Dekker originally wanted to distinguish three aspects of the atonement, (design, availability, desire) in which the atonement was general and non-efficacious and one aspect of the atonement which was limited, namely, its efficacy. Later (as I noted in my first article about the Doctrinal Report, Feb. 1 issue) he did away with these distinctions. He now denies any limitation in the atonement: it is general. And he now denies any efficacy in the atonement. Prof. Dekker wants to restrict any limitation in salvation to the realm of what is called in dogmatics “soteriology,” that is, to the realm not of the atonement and the work of Christ for us, but to the realm of the actual application of the benefits of salvation and to the work of Christ in us.
Now it might seem to some as though the article is speaking about this soteriological aspect of Christ’s work, His work in us. And, in fact, the article certainly does mention this. It speaks of the fact that it was the will of God “. . . .that he should confer upon them faith.. . . should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing.” Moreover, it even speaks of preservation and final glorification: “and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.” All of this certainly belongs to theapplication of the blessings of salvation to the elect, to the work of Christ in us, not to the work of Christ for us. About this there can be no argument. But this is not the main thrust of the article!
The question is: what is the main thrust of the article? And why, in connection with that main thrust, does it say something about soteriology, about the actual application of the benefits of salvation to the elect?
The answer is: the main thrust of the article is that Christ efficaciously atoned for and redeemed His elect people only when He died. That is: Christ actually and in the objective sense of the word satisfied for their sins and thereby actually and in the objective sense of the word purchased, merited, obtained for His elect people, and for them only, all the blessings of salvation, so that before God all those blessings of salvation accrued to the account of all who were represented by Christ in His atoning death, namely, the elect.
And when, then, does the article also speak of the actual application of the benefits of salvation to the elect? The answer is: exactly to show and to emphasize the unbreakable connection between the atonement and that application of the benefits of salvation, between the work of Christ for us and the work of Christ in us, between the extent of the atonement and the extent of actual salvation, between the objective work of Christ in His death and the subjective work of Christ as the quickening Spirit. The two are absolutely co-extensive! And this co-extensiveness is absolutely necessary! On the one hand, if the blessings of salvation are to be applied to any man, they must be purchased, merited, for him. On the other hand, if the blessings of salvation are purchased, merited, for any man, they must and they will be applied to him.
This, of course, is what Dekker, Daane, and others have repeatedly denied. For the same reason they want nothing of the argument that particular salvation also means particular, limited, atonement.
But this is the teaching that permeates Article 8. And anyone who does not want this doctrine should be honest enough to inform the churches of his disagreement with the Canons forthrightly.
Here is the proof from the article itself that this is meaning:
In the first place, the article speaks of the “saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son.” Notice: it is the efficacy of Christ’s death. There is efficacy, power, in that death. That death accomplished something. Mark you well, this term “efficacy of Christ’s death,” is not the same as a term like “efficacious calling” or “efficacy of grace.” The latter terms belong in the realm of soteriology; they express doctrines which are treated in Canons III and IV. But Article 8 of Canons II speaks of the fact that in that death of Christ, in the atonement, there was quickening, enlivening, and saving power. As the hymn has it, “There is power in the blood!”
In the second place, notice that the article very plainly distinguishes between that efficacy of Christ’s death and the actual bestowing upon the elect of faith and all the other blessings of salvation. That bestowing of justifying faith (and the other blessings of salvation) was exactly the purpose which God had in view when He purposed that the saving efficacy of Christ’s death should extend to all the elect.
In the third place, notice that this is all connected withinfallible salvation, certain, unfailing salvation. This is what Arminianism does not have. As Canons II, B, 1 puts it, the Arminians had a doctrine according to which it was possible that no one would actually be saved, and therefore a doctrine according to which there was no certain, or infallible, salvation. But the Reformed faith has a salvation that is absolutely certain. And that certainty lies in the first instance in the unbreakable connection between efficacious atonement and efficacious salvation for the elect alone: “….that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation.”
In the fourth place, notice the emphasis upon the gift of faith in this connection. Reformed, as well as Arminians, emphasize the absolute necessity of faith for salvation. That faith is the connecting link between a man and salvation: without it there can be no reception of all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Arminians made faith a condition of salvation; they said the connecting link was forged by man. The Reformed said (and say) that faith is not a condition and a link forged by man, but it is a gift of God. But the question is: how can God justly bestow that gift of faith (as well as all the other gifts of salvation), —that gift of faith which is the crucial thing, the connecting link that is indispensable for salvation, — how can God bestow saving faith as a gift upon a man who in himself deserves no gift, but only damnation? The answer is: it must be purchased, and it was purchased for him. By whom and how was it purchased? By Christ through His atoning death. That is why salvation is infallible. Christ purchased all the blessings of salvation: righteousness and justification, holiness and sanctification, and everlasting life and glory. But He did more than that. He purchased for us that gift, faith, which was the absolutely necessary means whereby all the other blessings of salvation come into our actual possession. This is the reason why this article speaks of effectual redemption: “. ..it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross . ..should effectually redeem.. ..” And this is doubly emphasized in the article. For notice that when in the last part of the article mention is made of the actual conferring of faith and the other saving gifts (the work of Christ in us), the article is very careful to mention the fact that these gifts were purchased: “. . ..that he should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death…..” Before faith and all the gifts of salvation could be conferred on the elect, they had to be purchased for the elect. If the latter did not take place, then there could be nothing to confer upon the elect.
3) Returning now to the main thread of our discussion, we note, in the third place, that this efficacious atonement is both definite (or: limited) and personal. This is so evident from the article that it need hardly be pointed out. The saving efficacy of Christ’s death is forall the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation. It was the will of God that Christ should effectually redeem all those, and those only, (restricted, limited, definite), who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father. Notice also how very really personal this is. The idea is not a mere number of men, regardless of identity. They are mentioned throughout as persons. They are mentioned as individuals “out of every people, tribe nation, and language.” And they are mentioned not only as being chosen from eternity unto salvation, but as having been given to Christ by the Father. They were given to Christ, of course, from eternity. But this means, mind you, that when Christ went to the cross and died His atoning death, He possessed this great multitude of elect people, His sheep. They belonged to Him. They were a sacred charge given to Him by the Father. Some of them had been born four thousand years before, and were long dead. Some of them were living on earth at the time when Christ died and atoned. Some of them were yet to be born. But all of them Christ possessed and knew and personally represented when He died His atoning death; and for all of them He consciously atoned, so that He might effectually redeem them.
4) Finally, notice that all this is a matter of the nature, the design, of the atonement. This is, in the first place, simply an historic fact. We are not speaking of abstract atonement. Nor are we speaking of what might have been. But we are speaking of theatonement, the only atonement there ever was or shall be. And the nature of the atonement was that its extent was definite, limited, particular. This is simply a fact. There was nothing accomplished for anyone else in that death of Christ. There were no others included in Christ’s substitutionary death. There are no benefits in that death for anyone. When all the elect shall have been born and saved, there will be, so to speak, no left-overs in that atoning death. To be sure, the benefits of that death are infinite: to all eternity the elect shall continue to reap its benefits, and the end of them shall never be reached. But all the infinite fulness of those benefits, though never exhausted, shall be fully applied to all the elect, and to them only, to endless ages.
But the article also explains this particular nature of the atonement. This was its divine design from eternity. This truth, in fact, receives strong emphasis in the article. For it explains this definite, or limited, character of the atonement from God’s sovereign counsel, His gracious will and purpose. And again, the article speaks of its being the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross . ..should effectually redeem… And what, pray, could be of amore fixed nature, design, than that which is fixed from eternity by God’s sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose? Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the word rendered “purpose” in our English version of the Canons is actually the Latin word intention. This means, therefore, that the atonement was limited according to God’s intention. God intended that the atonement should have a certain design, a certain effect, a certain extent; and that atonement was exactly as God intended.
How beautiful is the conception of salvation presented in this article of the Canons! Salvation is absolutely a closed system! From its design and conception in God’s eternal counsel, through its objective realization in Christ’s death, to its actual bestowal by the Spirit of Christ, and all the way to its final realization in everlasting glory, it is a closed system: it is for ‘the elect alone. Because it is, it is absolutely certain. For it is from beginning to end of the Lord, and of the Lord alone!
This is the truth which is under attach in the propositions of Prof. Dekker and others.
But this truth the Christian Reformed Church and its committee cannot consistently defend on account of the First Poin, — the Achilles heel at which Dekker and Daane can aim in order to shoot down the Doctrinal Report.
But this is the truth of our Reformed Confessions. If we could be truly and Scripturally Reformed, to this truth we must hold wholeheartedly and consistently!