Article 2. Since therefore we are unable to make that satisfaction in our own persons, or to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God, he hath been pleased in his infinite mercy to give his only begotten Son, for our surety, who was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our, stead, that he might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf.
The above translation, though in general correct, is a bit wordy and not as accurate as desirable. We would prefer the following translation, which conforms. more closely to the original Latin and agrees with the Dutch rendering: “Since indeed we ourselves are not able to make satisfaction, and to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God, God out of boundless mercy gave his only begotten Son a surety for us, who, in order that he might make satisfaction in our behalf, was made sin and a curse on the cross in our behalf, or in our stead.” A comparison with the accepted translation of our “Psalter” will reveal the variations; but we call attention chiefly to the fact that in the original there is no reference to God’s good pleasure, as the accepted version would seem to indicate by the words, “he hath been pleased . . .” We call attention to this not only in the interest of accuracy, but also because the viewpoint of this article is strictly historical, and not the viewpoint of God’s counsel, or good pleasure. That this last is true is plain from the opening clause, “Since indeed we ourselves are not able to make satisfaction, and to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God . . .” That is the historical and immediate reason why God sent His Son to be our surety, not the reason of His counsel and good pleasure. And therefore this historical viewpoint must be maintained throughout the article.
Having established the basic unity of divine justice and mercy, and thereupon the necessity of satisfaction of divine justice as the only way to escape both the temporal and the eternal visitation of the divine wrath, the fathers now establish in Article 2: 1) Our own inability to make satisfaction and to free ourselves from the wrath of God. 2) God’s boundless mercy, revealed in the sending of His only begotten Son as our surety. 3) The truth that as our surety He atoned vicariously, that is, made satisfaction in our place, as our substitute, by being made sin and a curse for us on the cross. Hence, we may say that the purpose of this second article is to demonstrate and to maintain the perfect harmony of divine justice and mercy as revealed in the death of Christ and the redemption of men by that death.
The general thrust of the article is quite clear without any further elaboration; we may, however, make a few observations concerning the various elements of this paragraph.
In the first place, we may notice that the article simply assumes the inability of men to make satisfaction, without at this point producing any reasons for this assumption. We may explain this undoubtedly from the fact that the Arminian did not directly challenge this inability to make satisfaction, but denied the necessity of satisfaction as such. At the same time, it is not amiss to remind ourselves of the various reasons why we could not possibly make satisfaction. They are as follows: 1) We constantly owe our all to God, and therefore would never be able to pay any back debt to Him, once we have fallen behind in our obligation to love Him. On the contrary, however, we daily increase our guilt. 2) We are dead in trespasses and sin, and therefore, cannot, will not, and cannot will to love God and in the love of Him bring a sacrifice pleasing to Him. But this is exactly the nature of satisfaction. It is an act of loving obedience whereby one is willing to be a sacrifice for sin upon the altar of divine justice. 3) We could never bear the infinite wrath of God and live. But satisfaction requires exactly this, because the justice of God requires that sin which is committed against His infinite majesty should be punished, not only with temporal, but with eternal punishment. With regard to that eternal punishment we would never be able to say, as Christ did: “It is finished.”
In the second place, we may observe that the fathers do not at all deny the supreme mercy of God, no more than they would deny the supreme justice of God. They clearly teach here that the giving of His only begotten Son is the revelation of God’s boundless mercy. That mercy here appears boundless, or immeasurable, especially against the background of our inability. God Himself did what we were totally unable to do: He provided the satisfaction of His own justice. And boundless His mercy appears here too, because He did this though we were not in the least worthy that He should do anything at all in our behalf. But we may note further in this connection that the fathers clearly teach the proper relation of God’s mercy and the gift of His only begotten Son to be our surety, even as they have before. Cf. Canons I, A. 2. That relation is not that God is merciful because Christ Jesus died for us, but that Christ Jesus, His Son in the flesh, died for us because God is merciful. The gift of His only begotten Son is the revelation of God’s mercy, therefore.
In the third place, we may note that the article teaches that the only begotten Son of God was able to make and actually did make satisfaction for our sins, and thus is our “surety.” Even the very idea of a “surety” already implies the notion of substitution. The Latin term here is sponsor, which means “surety, bail, guarantee.” If one goes “bail” for another, then he assumes responsibility for the other to the extent of his own life. Thus God’s only begotten Son was given by Him as our surety, that is, not God’s surety to us, but the surety for us before the bar of God’s justice. God, the only judge of heaven and earth, also provided the surety for us before the bar of His own justice. That surety was His only begotten Son in the flesh, so that God Himself became our surety. As our surety, the only begotten Son stood before the bar of divine justice in our place, became our substitute, to answer for our crimes, for which we could not answer, and to assume all the responsibility for those crimes, even to the extent of His own life. Hence, He indeed was given in our behalf. However, even the Arminian would admit that Christ was given in our behalf, for our advantage. This must be more narrowly defined: He was given in our stead, to take our place, to be our substitute. Atonement is vicarious satisfaction. Such is the character of the “death of Christ, and the redemption of men thereby.” In the expression that Christ “was made sin and curse on the cross in our behalf, or in our stead” we have a reference to two passages of Scripture which plainly prove this doctrine of vicarious atonement, namely, II Cor. 5:21 and Galatians 3:13. In the former passage we read: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” And this stands in connection with the idea of reconciliation in the immediate context: “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hat11 committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” vs. 19. And the text in Galatians reads as follows: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” These are but two of many passages of Holy Writ which speak of the idea of vicarious atonement, the doctrine which the Arminian could not maintain because he would not speak of limited atonement. And to be sure, the expression that Christ was made sin for us must not be understood in an ethical way. Ethically Christ was perfectly righteous and holy; and it was impossible for Him to sin and to fall from righteousness. But judicially He stood at the head of His sinful people. He was responsible for them. And in that position God treated Him as if He were the sinner of sinners, loaded all the guilt of our sins upon Him, so that He “was made a curse for us,” and caused Him to bear our punishment. Thus He was indeed our surety, taking our place in God’s justice, and doing that which we could not, would not, and could not will to do.
Also in this connection the Canons do not enter into the reasons why God’s only begotten Son in the flesh was able to make the satisfaction which we were unable to make. We are all acquainted with those reasons as they are stated or implied in ourHeidelberg Catechism: 1) Being the Son of God, He was able to bear the punishment of sin and endure it to the very end. He could bear it and live. 2) Being the Son of God in the flesh (real man), He could suffer that punishment in His human nature which He could not possibly have suffered in His divine nature, and could take our place. 3) Being as the Son of God wholly without sin and without guilt of His own, He could be perfectly obedient and offer Himself in the love of God for the sins of His people. 4) Being ordained from eternity the Head of His people, HE could represent them before the bar of God’s justice, assume their guilt, and die vicariously.
Such, then, is the Reformed view of the death of Christ. In it the boundless mercy of God is indeed revealed. The charge that the God of the Reformed faith is a terrible tyrant and an unmerciful despot could not be farther from the truth. In fact. in the real sense of the word that charge must be brought against those who maintain the governmental theory of the atonement. For in that view there is neither mercy nor justice in any real sense. But the very fact that the revelation of God’s mercy takes place in the way of strictest divine justice, and not at the expense of justice, establishes that mercy as sure and unchangeable. Because the justice of God with respect to our sins is completely satisfied once and for all, it can never be that the mercy of God fails to reach us and that the Almighty after all holds our sins against us. “O the blessedness of the man unto whom Jehovah doth not impute iniquity!” He has tasted the mercy of the Lord indeed!