Article 3. The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.
The subject of this brief article is the value of the death of Christ. It is to be noted that already here mention is made of “the death of the Son of God,” by which expression we are pointed to the reason for the value of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, a subject which is further treated in Article 4. And in regard to the value of the death of Christ, the article points: 1) To the fact that it is “the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin.” The superlative “most perfect” (which is a correct translation of the Latin perfectissima—a point which the Dutch misses with its volmaakte) is not to be understood in such a way that among many sacrifices for sin the death of the Son of God is the most perfect, while others are less perfect. That idea is, impossible in the light of the fact that it is the “only,” unique, sacrifice for sin. Rather does it mean “perfect in the highest degree,” so that there is no shortcoming, no flaw, in it, and so that it therefore could be the “only” sacrifice and satisfaction. 2) The infinite worth and value of that only and most perfect sacrifice. This is further defined by the words: “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”
In regard to both these points it is well to remind ourselves once again that the fathers were combating the Arminian error of general atonement, set forth in Article 2 of the Remonstrance. In this article the Remonstrants taught: 1) That Christ, agreeably to the purpose of God, died for “all men and every man.” 2) That He obtained for them all redemption and the forgiveness of sins. 3) That no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer. And they quoted the well-known words of John 3:16 and I John 2:2ostensibly in support of their teaching. Now it is quite evident already from the above three proposition themselves, but especially from the various and devious explanations of their position, that the Arminians wanted to maintain a general atonement, the efficacy or power of which depended not on the atoning death of Christ but on the humanly fulfilled condition of faith. For while it is true that no one actually enjoys the forgiveness of sins except the believer, it is not true that “no one actually enjoys thisforgiveness of sins (that is, a redemption and forgiveness of sins for all men’ and every man) except the believer,” as Article 2 of the Remonstrance has it. And therefore the fathers rightly maintained that the Arminians denied the only and most perfect sacrifice of Christ, and over against the Arminians they taught that the death of the Son of God is indeed the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin. But then the Arminians came back with a sophistic accusation that with their doctrine of limited atonement the fathers proclaimed a limited and stingy God, and with a show of piety they accused the fathers of denying the infinite value and worth of Christ’s sacrificial and atoning death. And it was in answer thereto that the fathers affirmed that the death of the Son of God “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” Such is the background of this third article of Chapter II.
That Christ’s death is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin implies that as an actual fact there is not and never was any other sacrifice for sin, that this most perfect sacrifice completely satisfies the justice of God with respect to sin, and that another sacrifice of any kind is therefore both unnecessary and impossible. This means, on the one hand, that Christ did not suffer any more than was necessary for the salvation of the elect, as though any part of that infinitely valuable sacrifice of the death of the Son of God could be “wasted.” And it means that it was not possible that the profitableness and worth of what Christ merited might have existed and might remain in all its parts complete, perfect, and intact, even if the merited redemption had never in fact been applied to any person. Cf. II, B, 1. For perfection excludes waste, to be sure; and even the abundance of the worth of Christ’s sacrifice does not imply that His sacrifice was in any wise superfluous. On the other hand, it implies that nothing ever need be added or can be added to the sacrifice of Christ: He suffered all that was necessary to suffer to make satisfaction for sin, and His death is the only expiatory sacrifice. In the old dispensation there were no sacrifices for sin except such as were typical, in which the blood of animals pointed forward to the blood of the lamb of God. And when Christ came, He sacrificed Himself and thus fulfilled and put an end to all typical sacrifice. And in the new dispensation His sacrifice is perfect and therefore unique, because all the value and worth that is necessary for our redemption, and therefore for our deliverance, is in that sacrifice alone. Nothing at all can ever be added to that sacrifice, or need ever be added to it. He did not merely “acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as he might please, whether of grace or of works,” but He “confirmed the new covenant of grace with his blood”; and when He confirmed it, it was indeed confirmed. He did not simply merit for the Father “the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as he might desire”; but He merited salvation and the faith whereby this satisfaction unto salvation is effectually appropriated. Cf. II, B, 2, 3. In other words, all the blessings of salvation are included, as far as their value, their worth, their purchase, is concerned, in that one and perfect sacrifice and satisfaction of the death of the Son of God.
In this connection it is interesting to note how our fathers very carefully analyzed the second point of the Remonstrance and pointed out its fundamental defects. The various provincial- delegations and the professors of theology and the different foreign delegations studied the Arminian position and arrived at their conclusion independently, and all their reports are preserved for us in the Acts of the National Synod of Dordrecht. A study of these reports, or opinions, some of which are very detailed and lengthy, reveals that the first fundamental flaw to which many of them called attention was the mechanical way in which the Arminians presented the work of Christ and made separation in that work. The fathers frequently emphasize the organic wholeness of that work, and point out that you cannot make separation between redemption and deliverance, between the redemptive value of Christ’s sacrifice and its power and effectual application, between the blessings which He merited by His death and the application and appropriation of those blessings. The latter necessarily follows the former. And while distinction can be made between various aspects of the work of Christ, that work is nevertheless one whole, the parts of which are inseparable. On this basis, of course, if Christ’s atonement is general, so that He actually has obtained for all men and for every man redemption and the forgiveness of sins, then all are redeemed and have their sins forgiven, whether they know it and believe it, or whether they have never heard of the work of Christ and never have the gospel preached unto them. This the Arminians could not and would not admit, since they would then be, forced to maintain the actual salvation of all men. And the second fundamental element emphasized in these opinions is that of thepurpose and intent both of God triune and of Christ, who came to do the Father’s will, in that atoning death. It is here, of course, that the connection between the first and second chapters of the Canons comes to the foreground. This is developed further in Article 8. But even here we may note that it is only on the basis of the truth that it was the purpose and intent of God the Father and of our Lord Jesus Christ to atone and to obtain redemption and the forgiveness of sins for all the elect and for them alone, that this truth of the unique and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction of the death of the Son of God can be maintained.
Now we come to the rather striking statement as to the infinite worth and value of Christ’s death, namely, that it was “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” Taken at face value, of course, this statement is entirely correct and Scriptural. For Scripture teaches literally that Christ is the propitiation “for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” I John 2:2. And a proper exegesis of this passage indeed reveals that “the whole world” is not the same as “all men and, every man.” In fact, many of the opinions of the delegates to the National Synod rather detailedly exegete such terms as “world” and “all,” as they appear in. various Scriptures, and they point out that never do the Scriptures teach an atonement for every individual. Viewed in this light, of course, the statement could stand without further comment. However, that would be only a very superficial explanation of this statement. The truth is that the fathers intended to say something general about the death of Christ without teaching the lie of general atonement. And the reason for this we have pointed out in our opening remarks on this article: the Arminians charged that the doctrine of limited atonement was a denial of the infinite value and worth of Christ’s death, and over against this the Synod maintains that His sacrifice was indeed of infinite value.
That by this statement they do not intend to teach general atonement, and that it is not entirely accurate to say that Christ’s death is “sufficient for the sins of all men, but efficient only for the believers,” is plain from: 1) The fact that in this chapter they combat the Arminian error of general atonement. The fathers certainly do not cast out this error from the front door and bring it back in through the back door. 2) The fact that they very literally maintain the doctrine of limited atonement, especially in Article 8, and therefore could not possibly have meant to say that Christ actually expiated the sins of the entire human race, head for head. 3) The fact that in many of the official opinions of the delegates this very subject is discussed in detail, and that in the same opinions the truth of limited atonement is strictly maintained, both as to the intention of God in Christ and as to its actuality. The only exceptions to this are the opinions of the British theologians and of Martinus, one of the theologians from Bremen. These, to put it very mildly, might be called in question. Cff. “Acta der Nationale Synode van Dordrecht, 1618 en 1619,” pp. 420, ff., and 694, ff.
A study of the above opinions of the delegates is also very revealing as to the meaning of the statement under discussion. It means that the sacrifice and satisfaction of Christ when considered by itself, that is, apart from God’s elective decree and apart from the intent and purpose of Christ’s death and apart from the fact that Christ represented in His death only the elect,would have been sufficient to expiate the sins of the entire human race, yea, of several more worlds. There is nothing defective in that death itself, nothing lacking in the value of the sacrifice, that limits its atoning efficiency to the elect alone; the latter limitation is not due to a limited value of Christ’s death,—for His death was abundantly sufficient, yea, infinite in value;—but it is due to the sovereign limitation of God’s elective will, with which will Christ was in perfect harmony when He gave Himself to the death of the cross. Such is the idea of this statement.
In evaluating the statement we may remark: 1) That it is actually a bit of speculation, and, in a way, a bit of philosophizing about the value of Christ’s death. 2) That the thought is not a Scriptural presentation, even though it does not militate against the Scriptures, and may therefore stand. 3) That also in the light of theCanons themselves the infinite value and abundant expiatory worth of the death of Christ may be viewed more correctly from the point of view of: a) the fact that it was an) atonement for sin against the infinite majesty of God (cf. Art. 1): b) the fact that it was the “only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit,” Who atoned; and, c) the fact that His death was attended with a sense of the infinite wrath and curse of God due to us for sin. (cf. Art. 4).