The Nature of the Atonement: Limited or General?


The last time we were able to discuss this subject of the nature of the atonement was in the May 1 issue. There were various other matters which demanded immediate editorial attention; besides, due to the fact that our magazine appears only once per month during the summer, there was not sufficient space to deal with everything that required our attention. Now, however, we return to this subject. 

Meanwhile, this discussion and study has not become out-of-date. 

For, in the first place, the entire matter of the Dekker Case and the Report of the Doctrinal Committee was postponed (op de lange baangeschoven) by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. And, in the second place, this very subject of the nature of the atonement continues to have an important place in the Dekker Case. This is evident from the fact that the Doctrinal Committee apparently agrees with Dr. James Daane on the nature of the atonement. For they write: “For, whenever we speak about the nature of the atonement, no reformed person would ever maintain that the atonement is limited.” (Agenda, p. 294) And Dr. Daane rejoices in this, as follows: “And the study committee saw some real daylight when it declared in its Report that no Reformed man would hold that the atonement is limited in its nature.” (Reformed Journal, July-August, 1966, p. 7). Apart from the fact that the Doctrinal Committee also holds, with Daane, that grace is not an attribute of God,—a very crucial error, by the way,—this is about all that Daane can find in the Report that pleases him. And it is indeed a question whether the agreement between Daane and the Committee on this score of the nature of the atonement is more than superficial. For the Committee refers in this connection to the “infinite worth and value” of the atonement. And in this regard, surely, every Reformed man must agree that the atonement of Christ was of infinite worth and value. I do also,—provided that “infinite worth and value” is Scripturally and confessionally understood. But this does not change the fact whatsoever that the nature of the atonement is limited, or particular, not general. 

However, as I have repeatedly stated; it is necessary to define, in the first place, what is meant by the natureof the atonement. This neither Daane nor the Committee has done. And once such definition is made, it is important not to confuse the various elements belonging to that nature of the atonement. Moreover, it is necessary also to remember. constantly that when we speak of the atonement, we are speaking of something very definite and concrete, of one particular wonder of grace that is very plainly set forth in Scripture, one concrete fact of salvation. The subject is not merely atonement in the abstract. And the subject is not any human conception or interpretation of atonement or even of the death of Christ. It is the atonement, the atonement of Christ, revealed by the Holy Scriptures. In that atonement there are, according to Scripture and the confessions, the following elements: 1) The element of satisfaction. 2) The element of substitution, which we are presently discussing. 3) The element that the atonement is what I would denominate as definitely personal. This element we must discuss in the future. 4) The element that the atonement is; qualitatively speaking, of infinite worth and value

To the above elements one might expect, perhaps, in the light of the Dekker Case that the element of efficacy would be added. This, however, is not an additional element in the nature of the atonement, but is simply implied in the four above-mentioned elements and in the very nature of atonement. If atonement is not efficacious, then it simply is not atonement. To speak of an atonement that is not efficacious is a contradiction in terms: an atonement that does not actually atone is no atonement. 


We have already completed our discussion of the element of substitution according to the confessions; and we have begun our discussion of this element in the nature of the atonement in the light of Scripture. 

The latter we now continue. 

The reader will recall that there are especially two prepositions in the Greek which are used to express this idea of substitution, both of which are usually rendered by our English word “for.” The first of these words means literally “instead of” (anti); the second of these words is more literally rendered by “in behalf of, for the benefit of” (huper). The first term, to which we already called attention in the May 1 issue, occurs in connection with Christ’s atonement in Matthew 20:28 andMark 10:45

There is one more passage in connection with that first term to which I would call special attention. It is important because both terms occur in the same text. I refer to the text in I Timothy 2:5, 6: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom (antilutron) for all (huper pantoon), to be testified in due time.” The interesting aspect of this text is that he term “instead of” (anti) occurs here in combination with the term “ransom” (lutron), thereby enforcing it. The term “ransom” in the English rendering of the text, therefore, could very properly be rendered by “substitute-ransom.” This makes is plain that the idea of “for” or “in behalf of” (huper) can only be maintained on the basis of the fact that Christ gave Himself a ransominstead of all. At this point, in our discussion we are not concerned about the “all” in the text though it should be very evident, again, that if this “all” is every individual human being, then the substitutionary-satisfactory-atonemnt must needs imply the justification and salvation of every individual also. We are interested, however, in this connection only in the idea of substitution as taught by Scripture’s use of the terms that are commonly translated “for” in our English Bible. And this idea of substitution is very forcibly set forth in the text just cited. 

(to be continued)