Article 4. This death derives its infinite value and dignity from these considerations, because the person who submitted to it was not only really man, and perfectly holy, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute him a Savior for us; and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.
The contents of this fourth article of the Second Head of Doctrine is surely not strange to anyone who is in the least acquainted with our Reformed confessions. There is really in this article, when considered by itself, no elaboration upon, nor any advance over the expression of the Reformed doctrine concerning the death of Christ as it is found in the Confessio Belgica, or in our Heidelberg Catechism. Especially the latter dwells on this subject at great length. Cf. Lord’s Days V, VI, XIV, XV, XVI. This does not mean, however, that the article is useless and could just as well have been omitted from the Canons. But it does raise the question as, to why it was inserted.
In answer to the foregoing question we may call attention to more than one reason.
First of all, as we intimated in connection with Article 3, the fathers in this fourth paragraph hit upon the real reason for the infinite value and worth of the death of Christ. That value cannot be stated in terms of a mathematical equation; for as long as the worth of the death of Christ is equated to the number of sinners for whom His death was sufficient, then the value of His death is measureable and finite, not infinite. And no matter, then, whether you say that His death was abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of several worlds, you still measure in the realm of the finite. In this article, however, the fathers emphasize the truth that Christ’s death was, the death of the Son of God, and therefore of so great value and worth.
In the second place, we must surely view this article in the light of the history of the Arminian controversy as it came to a climax at the Synod of Dordrecht. One of the most important issues at the Synod was that of the Reformed confessions as they were already existent at the time of the Synod, namely, the Catechism and theNetherland Confession. The Arminians were on trial not merely on the basis of Scripture, but on the basis of those confessions. It was in that very situation that the Arminians sought to revise the confessions also. But the fathers simply applied the already accepted confessions to the Arminian heresies, and in the process made plain what the Reformed position was in distinction from the Arminian departure. Here, therefore, as in all the Canons, there is nothing essentially new, but simply the reaffirmation of the confessionally Reformed position.
And in the third place, in close connection with the foregoing, we must not forget that there actually was a doctrinal issue at stake as to the truth concerning the death of Christ. In the so-called “governmental theory” of the atonement credited to Grotius, the Arminians made themselves guilty of denying the infinite worth and value of the death of Christ, and they taught that God merely reckoned the death of Christ to be sufficient punishment for the sins of mankind. They denied the element of the satisfaction of divine justice against sin; and placing divine mercy over against divine justice, they taught that though there was no actual payment of the guilt of sin in the death of Christ, God was nevertheless satisfied to “let the matter go at that,” provided that men came to repentance when they viewed the demonstration of the justice and wrath of God in the cross of Christ. And therefore in this fourth article the fathers maintain over against the Arminians that the value and worth of the death of Christ is not merely a matter of divine reckoning without regard to fact, as though God can ever overlook sin and forget justice, but that Christ’s death derives its infinite value and dignity from several real considerations, considerations which actually gave it infinite worth and value before God Himself, Whose divine wrath against sin is infinite.
These considerations are as follows:
1) Christ was really man, and perfectly holy. According to His human nature, He was born of us, in the likeness of sinful flesh, and possessed a human body and a human soul, a completely human nature, with all the human faculties and powers. At the same time, though He was born in the likeness of sinful flesh, He was perfectly holy, sinless. He had no original guilt, because He was a divine, not a human, person. And He was without original pollution because He was without guilt: the pollution of sin could not come upon Him because of His guiltlessness. And His actual appearance as the Sinless One was wrought not by the supposed fact that He was born from a sinless mother, but through the wonder of His conception by the Holy Ghost.
It is to be noted that according to the language of this article this is denoted one of the considerations in the infinite value and worth of the death of Christ. This is plain from the use of the coordinate conjunctions “not only . . . . but also,” (non tantum . . . . sed eiam). The question is: how can this fact be an element in the infinite value of the Savior’s death? And the answer is that this is not the primary consideration, but a secondary one. After all, this truth all by itself has nothing to do with the truth that Christ’s death is ofinfinite value. If Christ were only man, even though without sin, His death would not be of infinite value at all. But the fact is that if He was to die, and that too, for our sins, He must be such a real and perfectly holy man. And it is in this connection that His real humanity and perfect holiness is a consideration in the infinite value and worth of Christ’s death.
2) Christ is the only begotten Son of God. All the emphasis in this article falls upon this truth. The Mediator was according to His divine nature “of the same eternal and infinite essence with the, Father and the Holy Ghost.” And He was a divine, not a human, person, the person of the Son of God in divine and in human nature. It was this person of the Son of God who suffered and died for us, not in the divine nature, but in the human. And because it was the infinite and eternal person of the Son, therefore His death is of infinite value and dignity.
3) His death was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin. This third consideration again stands in connection with the preceding. It is only because of His perfect holiness, and only because of the perfect union of the two natures in the one divine person, that He could and did sense the wrath and curse of God, due, not to His own personal guilt and sin,—for He had none,—but due to us for sin. In a measure, of course, it is true of any man that in death he senses the wrath and curse of God. But how deeply a perfectly holy man, in whom there is no reason for death, and who, on the contrary, stands in perfect harmony with the living God, can sense, consciously taste, that wrath and curse of God in death,—and more specifically, the accursed death of the cross,—we can never imagine. But Christ tasted it! And because of the perfect union between the divine and the human natures in Christ, He was able perfectly to apprehend all the terror, all the fury, all the infinite depth, of the fierce wrath of God against the sins of all His own. What we could never do in an eternity in hell, that He did, when as the Son of God in human nature He tasted absolutely all that is expressed in the words “to be forsaken of God” in a moment of time. And therefore He could and did say in truth: “It is finished!” Such is the wonder of atonement through satisfaction. From these considerations the death of Christ derives its infinite value and worth.
Article 5. Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel.
This is undoubtedly one of the better known articles of the Canons in Reformed circles in this country. This fame of Cartons II, 5 in the past arose from the fact that it was cited by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 1924, as confessional support for the First Point of Common Grace, which teaches that the gospel is a general offer of salvation, and that this general offer is grace on the part of God. And in a more limited sense this fame of Canons II, 5 arises, in our Protestant Reformed circles at least, from the fact that it was frequently used by the opponents of the Declaration of Principles. From this viewpoint, the article is of special interest to the Protestant Reformed reader.
That this is one of the better known articles of theCanons does not by any means imply, however, that it is as well understood as it is known. In fact, on the very surface already the contrary would seem to be true. It would indeed be strange if those who are so well-known,—almost I would say “notorious,”—for their maintenance of the truth of sovereign election and reprobation and of irresistible grace would find opposition in the Canons of Dordrecht, And it would be amazing if so thoroughly, Reformed a document as the Declaration of Principles would in this one respect be a departure from the confessionally Reformed line of the Canons. And it would be stranger still to find the doctrine of general grace maintained in any form, shape, or manner in that confession of the Reformed churches that is preeminently particularistic, and that concerned itself with the refutation of Arminianism. But strange things happen. And so let us make a thorough examination of this article with these matters in mind; and let us try at the same time to understand just what is the positive teaching of Canons II, 5. Arid let us not to be unmindful of the historical background of the article when we make this investigation. Is there something general about the gospel? And if so, what?