The Doctrine of Atonement

As stated in our preceding article, the doctrine setting forth the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ constitutes the second head of the Canons of Dordt. The first head treats the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination. And we also stated in our preceding article that the truth of God’s sovereign predestination is vital and of primary importance. The truth that the Lord is sovereign in His decree of election and reprobation demands the truth of limited or particular atonement. They stand or fall together. 

The second head of the Canons treats the death of Christ and the redemption of men thereby. We must notice that the fathers speak of the death of Christ as redemption. This is of the utmost significance. In reality, the Arminians or Remonstrants deny this vital truth. O, it is true that they also speak of the death of Christ as redemption. But this is really only a play on words. Fact is, they do not believe in the work of Christ upon the cross as redemption. The word “redemption” is strictly a reformed term. And, of course, it is thoroughly Scriptural. When discussing these articles of the second head of the Canons, we do not purpose to treat them in detail. This has been done in the Standard Bearer in the past by Prof. H. C. Hoeksema. These are wonderful articles, and our readers do well to study them. They are admirably suited to be used in our various societies. 

Art. I of the second head reads as follows:

God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And His justice requires (as He hath revealed Himself in His Word), that our sins committed against His infinite majesty should be punished, not only with temporal, but with eternal punishment, both of body and soul; which we cannot escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God.

Now it is surely a striking thing that our fathers here say something about God. We read nothing in this article of the death of Christ as such. Before the fathers set forth this truth of the atonement, they first say something about God, what God is in Himself. 

This first article teaches the necessity of atonement through satisfaction alone, Why? Because of what God is in Himself. Notice that we read here of God’s revelation of Himself in His Word. This, we must understand, is fundamental. Our conception of the Lord determines our conception of all things. If we err here we will necessarily err all down the line. This, of course, is a fundamental fault of Arminianism. Arminianism, which is fundamentally modernism and humanism, is not interested in God, but only in man. God cannot save man except in the way of .the complete satisfaction of His justice and righteousness. And this is true because God is just. The Lord is not supremely merciful but also supremely just. The justice of God is the maintaining of His righteousness, is therefore that virtue whereby He rewards the good and punishes the evil. God is just and He can never deny Himself, God always acts in perfect harmony with His own infinite being. As the God of all righteousness, He eternally wills Himself, loves Himself, and always maintains Himself. 

Sin must therefore be punished. Our sins have been committed against the infinite majesty of the Lord. Also this truth is minimized and ignored by the Arminian. He is not fundamentally concerned with sin. This is true of all the philosophy of the world. Sin, however, is as great as God is great. Sin is disobedience against the Lord, is man’s maintaining of himself over against the living God. Sin, therefore, is fundamentally eternal. Sin is that evil whereby man would establish himself forever. The sinner is or expresses his concern because the living God would establish Himself forever. But he has no objection against maintaining himself forever. But God is God. And He is infinite in His majesty. He punishes, therefore, not only temporally but also eternally. Temporally must not be confused with temporarily. The latter means “for a while,” whereas the former means that God punishes in time. That God punishes temporally and eternally means, therefore, that He always punishes. There is never a moment when the Lord does not punish. This truth deals a devastating blow to the theory of Common Grace. God never permits sin to go unpunished. 

Sin, therefore, must be punished in man, in the entire nature of man, in his body and soul. Atonement, therefore, is possible only in the way of the complete satisfaction of this justice of the Lord. All our sins must be paid before there can be any possibility of our return into the favor of God. This truth is also emphasized in Lord’s Day 5 of our Heidelberg Catechism. 

To be sure, God is also supremely merciful, as stated at the beginning of this article. How true this is! Did God not so love the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life? But the Lord is never merciful at the cost of His justice. Such would be impossible. The necessity of punishment is not abandoned by God’s mercy. This is the presentation of many today. It is claimed that the love and mercy of God make it impossible for the Lord to punish the sinner temporally and eternally. This reasoning is wholly fallacious. Fact is, in God all His virtues are one. It is for this reason that God’s justice is a merciful justice and that His mercy is a righteous and just mercy. If, therefore, His mercy is to be revealed, it must be revealed only in the way of God’s justice and the full satisfaction of His righteousness. This truth of Art. I must ever be kept in mind. 

Finally, the fathers do not quote from the Scriptures in this first article. Now it is probably true that they do not quote the Scriptures here because the truth expressed in this article is stated in Lord’s Day 5 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Remonstrants were also bound to that confession. However, throughout the positive part of this second head of the Canons we find very few quotations from the Word of God. This need not alarm us. Fact is, the fathers do quote from the infallible Scriptures in the second part of this second head, dealing with the rejection of errors. 


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 of 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. 

We cannot make this satisfaction for our sins as required by the justice of the alone living God. In the first place, we cannot pay the penalty: eternal death. This means that we must be dead forever. To die this death, pay this penalty would imply that we could never possibly rise again. In the second place, we could never meet the requirement as demanded by the justice of God to make this satisfaction. This justice of the Lord demands, not only that we pay this penalty, but also that we satisfy this justice of the Lord in perfect obedience. We are by nature children of disobedience. Hence, we could never pay even a single penny of our debt to God. And, in the third place, we cannot make this satisfaction because we can never make amends for any sin committed in the past. We must always love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. It is for this reason that we could “never take time out” to pay for any wrong committed in the past. Nothing we could do now, no amount of perfect obedience can right a wrong of the past. Fact is, even if we would be perfectly obedient to the Lord, we only do what we are required to do. Our good works, therefore, could never be meritorious. 

In this second article of Head II the fathers call our attention to how the Lord revealed His mercy to His people. Since we could not make this satisfaction for our sins, it pleased God of His infinite mercy to give His only begotten Son for our surety. The word “surety” surely implies the idea of substitution. The word here means “surety, bail, guarantee.” When I owe someone a sum of money or I am under an obligation to pay a penalty as prescribed by the law, then he who is my surety takes upon himself that responsibility and will pay that penalty should I be remiss in my obligation. This is the meaning of the expression in this article. God gave us His only begotten Son to be our surety. This eternal Son of God, as in our human nature, assumed the responsibility to pay for our sins before the bar of God’s justice. This was an act of God’s infinite mercy. God gave us His Son. The Triune God gave Himself, in His Son, and He gave Himself. In that unfathomable mercy the Lord gave His son for a surety for our guilt. 

The fathers here refer to two passages of Holy Writ: II Cor. 5:21 and Gal. 3:13. In II Cor. 5:21 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 in Gal. 3:13 we read: “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.” That Christ was made to be sin for us does not mean, we understand, that He was made sin in the spiritual, ethical sense of the word. It does not mean that He became a sinner in the sense that He actually became corrupt, sinful. II Cor. 5:21 tells us of Christ that He Himself knew no sin. He was conceived and born without sin and corruption. He was the holy child Jesus. He never knew sin, never could sin. For Christ to sin was an impossibility. This is because He is Immanuel, God with us. But He was made sin in the judicial sense of the word. He was condemned by the Lord as the Chieftain of sinners, not because of any sin He had committed, but because all the sins of all the elect throughout all the ages were upon Him. 

The fathers do not answer the question why only God’s begotten Son could be this surety for us. We need not discuss this at this time. To this question we have the answer in Lord’s Day 5 of our Heidelberg Catechism. There it is explained that our Saviour must be one who is very God and also very and righteous man. Finally, this second article surely emphasizes the wonderful and boundless mercy of our God. How far from the truth is the accusation of wicked men that the reformed view of the Saviour makes of the living God a cruel tyrant! How absurd and wicked is this charge! Fact is, God, of His infinite and boundless mercy, gave His only begotten Son, gave Him for us who are miserable sinners, gave Him to us even into the infinite and eternal death of the cross. Fact is, they who deny this Scriptural truth of the atonement, who teach that Christ died for all men, head for head, they are the ones who really deny the mercy of God. In this universal view of Christ’s death upon the cross there is neither justice nor mercy. There is certainly no justice in it. And neither is there any mercy in it, inasmuch as, according to this view, Christ did not pay for sin, and therefore nothing really happened upon the cross of Calvary.